In this paper, I will argue that Martin Luther King’s claim concerning civil disobedience as expressed in Letter from Birmingham Jail is more persuasive than that of Plato’s claim concerning obedience to the law in Crito. Specifically, I will argue that King’s claims are more persuasive because they take a more realistic and practical approach compared to Plato’s claims, which contain inconsistencies and rely on assumptions that may not always be true. To accomplish this, I will first provide an exposition of Plato’s claims in Crito as conveyed through Socrates, followed by an exposition of King’s claims in Letter from Birmingham Jail. I will then evaluate how King’s arguments are more realistic in instances where Plato’s arguments are inconsistent and rely on idealistic assumptions. Finally, I will evaluate the hard case of lawbreaking and a gay wedding marriage consider to further strengthen my claim.
In Plato’s Crito, a dialogue between Socrates and his old friend Crito reveals Socrates’ belief that all laws, whether just or unjust, should never be broken. Days from execution after being convicted of impiety and corrupting the youth by the people of Athens, Socrates is visited in his jail cell by Crito, who attempts to convince Socrates to escape the city and certain death. The resulting conversation enabled Socrates to develop an argument for his refusal to escape prison, despite his belief that the jury’s decision was unjust. Specifically, Socrates argued that ‘one should never do a wrong,’ suggesting that despite being wronged by the law, he did not have the authority to wrong the law in return (Plato 49b). Socrates proposed that escaping would ‘destroy’ the rule of law and the state itself through nullification of the court’s decision (Plato 50b). Through his personification of the laws, Socrates submitted that the laws played a role in his life similar to that of a parent, for they had birthed, nurtured, educated, and molded him into the person he became (Plato 51d). Since it would be unjust to disobey one’s parents, Socrates argued, it would, therefore, be unjust to wrong the law. Furthermore, Socrates argued that one should always fulfill a just agreement. In this regard, Socrates believed he entered into a voluntary and just agreement with the city to respect its laws and decisions. By staying in the city and thereby submitting to the agreement, Socrates agreed to either obey the law or persuade it (Plato 51b). Therefore, escaping would violate a voluntary agreement and thus would be unjust. Ultimately, despite Socrates and Crito’s agreement that Socrates had been wronged in his conviction, they still concluded that it would be unjust to escape (and break the law in doing so) for it would wrong one’s parents and violate a just agreement.
In ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) argued that unjust laws should be broken. Imprisoned at a Birmingham jail for his leadership in non-violent protests against racial segregation, MLK wrote the letter as a justification for his involvement in civil disobedience. To King, civil disobedience was the non-violent refusal to obey unjust laws, while still being able to accept and ‘endure the ordeals of jail’ and other potential penalties (King 2). King proposed that in practicing civil disobedience, one could ‘create such a crisis and establish such a creative tension’ that establishments were forced to examine and confront the injustices dramatized in doing so (King 2). While King recognized that breaking the law could lead to anarchy, he suggested that doing so through civil disobedience could promote true justice. The difference between simply breaking the law and practicing civil disobedience King argued, was the type of law being broke; namely, whether the broken law was just or not. Accordingly, MLK claimed unjust laws, those that were ‘out of harmony with the moral law,’ were the target of civil disobedience (King 3). Thus, since King was able to claim segregation as ‘morally wrong and sinful,’ he suggested breaking the law of segregation through civil disobedience was the morally responsible action to take (King 3).
I found King’s arguments more persuasive because instead of presuming idealistically that all laws were perfect, he took a more realistic approach in contending that there are, in fact, unjust laws and not simply unjust applications of laws. Socrates argued that one should always follow obedience to the law because the laws are similar to parents in that they are responsible for one’s upbringing. Prior to this conclusion, Socrates asserted that ‘one should never do a wrong,’ even in return for being wronged oneself (Plato 49b). While both of these assertions seem practical on the surface, careful evaluation yields potential problems. For example, if a particular law promoted the wronging of another, an inconsistency would arise. For this line of reasoning to hold, it would need to presume that no law would instruct one to wrong another or that while laws could be applied unjustly, they were themselves just. I found this presumption to be idealistic because, in reality, laws are not always perfect and just. Segregation, for example, demonstrates the idealistic nature of this assumption. Since ‘segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality,’ the very nature of a law enacting segregation wrongs another (King 3). Thus, if one was to follow the reasoning laid out by Socrates, one would need to obey the law of segregation while still refusing to wrong another. Herein laws the inconsistency and moral dilemma in Socrates’ reasoning; it would be impossible to avoid the wronging of the oppressed people while still obeying the law of segregation. In this sense, one would have to choose whether it was more wrong to disobey an unjust law or to follow a law that morally wronged another. King was more persuasive in his argument because he understood that realistically there are laws that ‘square with the moral law’ and laws that do not (King 3).
I found King’s argument more persuasive because it demonstrated that some unjust laws cannot be changed legally and that civil disobedience offers a realistic method for changing an unjust law. In Crito, Socrates claimed that since he ‘never left the city’ throughout his life and took advantage of the city’s benefits in doing so, he entered into a just agreement to either obey the law or attempt to change it (Plato 52b). In this argument, Socrates made an assumption; that it is possible to ‘persuade’ unjust laws legally (Plato 52a). I found this presumption to be idealistic. In some cases, it may be not possible to change unjust laws without breaking the law. The Jim Crow south exemplified this aspect. For example, King asserted that African Americans in Birmingham ‘did not have the unhampered right to vote,’ suggesting rigged elections prevented them from operating through legal channels in order to change the law (King 3). Therefore, Socrates’ claim that one must either obey or persuade a law is idealistic as it assumes there is always a possibility to change a law without breaking it. On the other hand, the argument for civil disobedience presented by MLK is realistic for it shows that in some cases, the legal opportunity to change an unjust law is unavailable. Due to this, I found King’s argument more persuasive because it demonstrates how creating tension through civil disobedience may be ‘the only alternative’ to change an unjust law (King 1).
Through his argument, King persuaded me that civil disobedience can benefit the rule of the law instead of degrading it, as proposed by Socrates. As mentioned previously, Socrates proposed that escaping and breaking the law in doing so would undoubtedly harm justice. I found this to be a slippery slope argument in assuming that disobedience to any law(s) would subvert the rule of law and eventually result in a form of anarchy. For such a state of disorder to occur, there would need to be a continuous pattern of lawlessness and lack of enforcement. While I agree that breaking most laws can lead to a lack of respect for the law, I believe it is unreasonable to suggest that breaking any law would lead to the destruction of the law. In fact, I believe MLK successfully shows that in some cases, breaking the law can lead to greater justice. Specifically, King’s argument is persuasive in that it explains that breaking an unjust law through civil disobedience is ‘necessary for growth’ of the moral law (King 2). As King proclaimed, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ implying that obeying an immoral law brings more harm to justice than breaking it (King 1). In this sense, I agree with King that obeying an unjust law would promote immorality and allow injustice to flourish, which would harm the law more than breaking it.
Some may argue that my claim concerning King’s argument as more persuasive is simplistic. They would suggest that my reasoning is flawed because I only considered civil disobedience due to segregation: an easy case to be persuaded about. Therefore, I will briefly consider the hard case of a gay marriage wedding consider in order to further straighten my claim. In this case, we will imagine that a gay couple has attempted to eat a meal at a local restaurant but were denied from doing so because the owner, a highly religious person, believed gay relationships were immoral. Skeptics to my claim would ask, ‘Would you support even this type of civil disobedience?’
- Plato ‘Crito’ The Trial and Death of Socrates. Third Edition. Trans. GMA Grube and John M. Cooper. Hackett Publishing. 2000.
- King, Martin Luther ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’. PHIL 100 Course Reader. 2020.