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A Critique of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Version of Natural Law Theory
Paradoxically, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” initially uses classical natural law theory to defend his actions, but immediately thereafter contradicts a fundamental tenet of this theory and relies on a “weaker” version of natural law. In doing so, King must attempt to formulate a theory which justifies his illegal actions in view of his moral obligation to obey the law. King’s failure to distinguish between legal obligations and moral obligations yields a logical paradox in his final formulation of natural law theory. However, King’s theory need not be completely rejected if his argument is slightly modified to reject the moral obligation to obey laws.
King initially uses classical natural law theory as his rational basis to defend his actions. This theory has two main component claims according to Murphy and Coleman (Sourcebook, I-35), thefirst being, “Moral validity is a logically necessary condition for legal validity- an unjust or immoral law being no law at all” followed by, “The moral order is a part of the natural order- moral duties being in some sense “read off” from essences or purposes fixed (perhaps by God) in nature.” According to this theory, morality ; law, but law = morality by definition. Thus for King to use this theory, two requirements are implicit. He must assert that an unjust law is not really a law, and he must provide a moral theory to distinguish just and unjust laws. Kingfirst quotes St. Augustine, “an unjust law is no law at all,” to emphasize his agreement with thefirst claim. He then includes the “law of God” as his moral theory to provide the framework upon which to judge the law.
His argument using classical natural law theory atfirst seems to be a valid and necessary defense for breaking the la…