How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

– From “Letter from Birmingham Jail“, by Martin Luther King, Jr.




  • Phil Spadola

    Thank you Andrew

    Dr. King' letter from Birmingham Jail is almost always overlooked in favor of the "I have a dream" speech on these rememberances. The passage you have posted is part of an answer by King to criticism of King's presence in Birmingham by the local white clergy in an editorial in a Birmingham newspaper.

  • Warrington Faust

    Everything Dr.King has to say seems so obvious to us now. One wonders how it could have ever been obscure. Perhaps the obscurity results from a bit of “Natural Law”, “Birds of a feather flock together”.

  • helen

    We have all sorts of segregation today. Racial segregation still exists(South Providence neighborhoods for example(,yeah yeah,I know some people will argue with this. Get real) ,political segregation(some of the elected don't have to live according to the rules they make for us and people tend to cluster in groups that have like political beliefs),economic segregation,( I can't attend events or political fundraisers that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars which puts me at a disadvantage with our elected officials ( which also falls under political segregation.) Nor can I live in a more expensive neighborhood. And so on.

    Colleges segregate students according to gender,race and ethnicity in their clubs.
    We have linguistic and cultural segregation.

    I don't know what else to say.