Civil Disobedience Concept in Martin Luther King's and Plato's Works

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In this paper I will argue that Martin Luther King Jr’s (MLK) views about disobeying the law in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” are more credible than Socrates’s views about disobeying the law in “the Crito,” by Plato. MLK believes that civil disobedience is necessary to bring about justice, by creating constructive nonviolent tension, when there is injustice present within a society and lawmakers are unwilling to negotiate (King 3). Socrates, on the other hand, believes that disobeying the law of the state sets a bad precedent for others within the society and deteriorates the moral good of an individual’s soul (Plato 45). A commonality between MLK and Socrates is that they both negatively view the effect injustice has on society; generally speaking, widespread corruption. While both men provide valid and persuasive opinions about what it means to disobey the law, MLK’s views work better to rid injustice and inspire positive change within a society.

​Furthermore, MLK believes that “in ANY nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action” (King 3). This serves an elaborate way to assess whether civil disobedience is the necessary course of action. In his first step, determining whether injustices are alive, he believes that justice is equivalent to utilitarianism: “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (King 4). After determining which law is unjust, MLK argues that subsequent action to negotiate for change is necessary. This means talking with local economic and political leaders about the particular injustice present within the society that is hindering the overall efficiency of the community and ultimately, and collectively, moving towards a solution. However, if the resolution is not as simple, and leaders are unwilling to negotiate for change because they are unlikely to benefit from it, an individual or group must thoroughly prepare for direct action. MLK calls this preparation for direct action the act of self-purification (King 3-4).

Self-purification is the intermediate step between realizing the government is not going to bring resolve to the particular injustice within society and an individual taking direct action, in civil disobedience, against such law. MLK states that in self-purification, people should ask themselves, and confidently be able to answer yes to difficult questions such as, “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” and “Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?” (King 4). Self-purification is all about an individual understanding and accepting the responsibility and consequences of his actions both before and after nonviolent, direct action. Once an individual has met all the prior conditions, MLK believes that the next step in responsible civil disobedience is direct action (King 4). Nonviolent, direct action is when an individual or group disobeys a law, without having malicious intent, with the plan to expose and rid the injustice that is degenerating the society.

​Unlike MLK, Socrates believes in civil obedience— the idea that the law should never be broken. Socrates argues that when citizens break the law, as a response to an injustice within society, they are demeaning the state and destroying the authenticity of its laws. When Socrates is unjustly indicted and on trial for his life, he has the option to practice civil disobedience and escape Athens, but he does not. Socrates believes that “one must obey the commands of one’s city, and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice” (Plato 51). His plan, regarding his trial in Athens, was to either convince the jury of their own injustice or accept the punishment of his execution. Anything other than that, to Socrates, would have been disrespecting the state and its authority over its own people. However, Socrates’s loyalty and civil obedience to the state of Athens is excessive and ineffective.

Athens badly deprives Socrates of the reciprocal obligations he deserves for living a long and loyal life as a citizen of the state; moreover, the state unjustly accuses him of corrupting the minds of the youth and not believing in their gods. Therefore, the social contract between Socrates and Athens is no longer applicable and the subsequent act of civil obedience is not wise nor effective. The idea of allowing an unjust sentence to be carried out risks setting a much worse precedent for Athens than fleeing the country, which contradicts Socrates’s initial concerns about how his actions will affect Athens. By not exercising civil disobedience, it can be argued that Socrates causes more harm to Athens. After Socrates’s prosecution, the prosecutor and the jury realize their ability to unjustly indict people and have them executed. This is dangerous because many others in Athens may follow in their footsteps to remove people from society that they dislike.

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It can also be argued that Socrates, a father, brought injustice into the lives of his children because allowing his execution to occur left them fatherless. Thus, the children had to grow up without a father figure to look up to and learn from. They were forced to live a life of always remembering and grieving the fact that their father’s life was stripped away from him because of injustice present within the state. Civil obedience allows the state of Athens to march right over Socrates’s life, at its convenience, spreading injustice where it steps.

When analyzing Socrates’s views on the disobedience of the law, they seem strangely convenient for his own current position in life: “It would not be fitting at my age to resent the fact that I must die now” (Plato 43). This raises the question if Socrates’s view of civil obedience would be the most effective answer, as opposed to MLK’s view of civil disobedience, for younger individuals. Since MLK’s views about disobeying the law are more applicable to the general population, and do not include any age restrictions, the overall effectiveness of civil disobedience is more convincing than civil obedience.

During the time of America when racial segregation and prejudice were prolific, Socrates’s argument for civil obedience would not have resulted in racial equality. By trusting that the US government, along with economic and political leaders, would stay true in their efforts to foster racial equality in society, even at the expense of their personal convenience, leaves individuals practicing civil obedience at a standstill. This has been proven in history:

“Then came the opportunity last September to talk with some of the leaders of the economic community. In these negotiating sessions certain promises were made by the merchants, such as the promise to remove the humiliating racial signs from the stores […] As the weeks and months unfolded, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. The signs remained. As in so many experiences of the past, we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us. So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action” (King 3).

​Without self-purification and direct action, MLK and his followers would have made little impact on ridding injustice in Birmingham and across America. By and large, the constructive nonviolent tension acts as a catalyst, per MLK’s views, to help society better understand where injustice exists and how it affects specific groups within the general population. More specifically, it motivates individuals and groups in positions of power to act with justice, when they may not of before. Constructive nonviolent tension forces individuals and groups causing injustice to diverge from positions of convenience and disregard to positions of understanding and cooperation; moreover, it accomplishes this goal by causing discomfort and unfamiliarity in the lives of the perpetrators of injustice. This discomfort and unfamiliarity quickly allow influential members of society to empathize with the pathos of those experiencing the injustice within the same society. This transformation in the perspective of thinking, from disregard for societal injustice to cooperation, would not be possible without the act of civil disobedience.

​A contemporary, yet hypothetical, and intellectually invoking case to consider is a male cashier, working at a convenient store, practicing civil disobedience with a young female customer. The young female had unprotected sexual relations the night prior and is now seeking contraceptive— the morning after pill (Plan B). However, the concept of contraceptives conflict with the cashier’s religious values; therefore, he reacts in nonviolent civil disobedience and states to the young female customer that he refuses to sell the contraceptive. (Lecture, 9/24) In this case, the cashier is reacting in nonviolent civil disobedience towards the injustice of his job description, which requires him to perform a task that is inconsiderate of his religious values. Consequently, the young female faces the injustice of being denied the right to buy contraceptive, while at the same time furious due to her, now, much greater risk of becoming pregnant. While it may be hard to determine whose injustice is more severe without consulting a personal bias, that is not the discussion at hand. The important part to realize and understand is that the cashier is exercising nonviolent civil disobedience to bring about a positive change to an injustice that would not have been so blatantly noticed otherwise. The cashier believes that by refusing to sell contraceptives to this young girl, the owner and customers of the store, will realize what he is must endure, and may individually take steps to collectively rid the injustice that glooms in his workplace. By practicing nonviolent civil disobedience effectively, the cashier must understand beforehand that his boss may not be pleased with his actions, and quite possibly may be upset. Therefore, the cashier must be willing to accept any punishments that he may receive from acting in civil disobedience for the method to be an effective means of inspiring positive change.

Overall, MLK’s views about nonviolent civil disobedience is a more efficient way to expose injustice within a society and transition influential individuals to a more cooperative and compassionate state of mind.

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