Lecture explores relationship between laws and justice
Rachel O'Grady | Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Although laws are created to form a more just society, Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated that laws themselves can be unjust, according to Fr. Dominic Legge, an instructor in systematic theology at the Dominican House of Studies.
“Sometimes it is possible that the positive law makes something legal that should be illegal. It certainly happened in totalitarian states like Nazi Germany, but it also has happened in the United States in the 1960s. Even a democratic society can create an ‘illegal’ law,” Legge said. “It was actually illegal to help fellow Jews in Nazi Germany, but would we not have helped these oppressed?”
Legge spoke Monday afternoon on “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Question of ‘Illegal Laws’: Civil Law Justice, and Morality,” an event sponsored by the Constitutional Studies Department and the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion and Public Life.
“Part of Dr. King’s argument concerns … the relationship between justice and the dignity of the human person. Because of the people we are, we have dignity and claims to this dignity that other people should respect,” Legge said.
According to Legge, Dr. King argued individuals cannot appeal to the opinion of the masses to determine if a law is just.
“His argument is that discrimination goes against this dignity, and this is his basis for arguing that racial segregation is unjust,” he said. “He appeals to the basic truth of what human beings are, and no law can go against that basic human dignity.”
Legge focused on the fact that racial segregation was never actually illegal, according to the Constitution or even local law.
For examples of this reality, Legge said one can look at some Supreme Court decisions in which even the highest court has gotten it wrong.
“Think, for example, of the Dred Scott decision, or the 1944 case in which the Supreme Court upheld the internment of Japanese citizens without a trial. In King’s own day, this is a very poignant question,” he said.
Supplementally, Legge contended that King argued for the natural moral law, without the bounds of a higher lawgiver.
“He does not appeal to a higher law-giver like God, which is a really important point. It’s not because God gave us Ten Commandments, it’s because there’s a sort of moral ordering to this world,” he said. “Both law and justice are concerned with the basic good of the human person.”
Legge said the more important argument was about not violating basic moral law.
“Moral theology is about what’s good for the human person, and that means that our laws should be framed with what the human person is. No positive law ever has the right to make those things illegal,” Legge said. “There is no law that can be abstracted from moral understanding.”
Fundamentally, Legge said, we need to seek what is good for the entirety of society.
“There are some things about the kinds of beings we are that lead us to flourish, and some things that really hurt who we are, so we need to find what is good to help us to flourish,” he said. “There are also some things that are fundamental to who we are, and they belong to a higher level.”
Legge also spoke on the justification of civil disobedience, particularly in King’s case.
“When you have this kind of systematic injustice … civil disobedience is a way to address this issue, and if you do this, then you’re appealing to this sort of higher justice,” he said. “And when is that justified, I mean, we could go on and disagree, but I think that we can agree that this was grave injustice and civil disobedience was in fact justified.”
Legge emphasized the importance of celebrating this holiday.
“It’s right for us to celebrate MLK on this day, and we are right to be proud of his legacy. … It’s a shining episode in our history,” Legge said.