Throughout history, select people in positions of power or privilege have attempted to use their power to divide, control, or harm others, in the service of their own gain or from a misguided idealogical base. A moral people don’t easily accede to unjust laws, and we know that to avoid a repeat of past horrors, that we need to push back when laws and orders aren’t right. Yet at the same time, one of our values is also cooperation. People tend to be conflict avoidant, to go along to get along. And sometimes it can be hard to decide when to act and when not to. There are many who say, “who are you to decide what laws are just and which ones aren’t? Can I decide, then, also, as I see fit?”
I personally, don’t want my protests, lobbying or civil disobediences to be arbitrary. What guidelines might I follow? From Augustine to Tolstoy, Gandhi to King… there is agreement that a manmade law which is “out of alignment with natural law” is unjust. But that isn’t much of a concrete guideline- what is a natural law, anyway?
Here are 4 questions you can ask to determine if something is an unjust law:
1. Does the law discriminate, and apply to one group over another? Any law that doesn’t pass the “random birth” test is unjust. Ask yourself, “If I was born in any body (gender, religion, origin) would this be a fair law?”
2. Does the law respect the sovereignty of my adult personhood, or does it degrade my freedom and choice? Any law that forbids transparency, and thereby attempts to compel, coerce or manipulate a responsible adults by withholding facts, OR any law that allows one person to control the actions of another (when those actions do no direct harm) is an unjust law.
3. Does the law preserve special protections or encode an advantage for a certain group? Any law that harms the whole to benefit a few falls into this category.
4. Does the law create an obligation or disadvantage for those that have no franchise and no voice (eg, future generations, or for the living organism of earth)? My friend Emery Lauten Meadows says “any law that puts human financial profit and greed above the ecosystems which support life” is an unjust law. This rule of thumb may be extended to any law that unduly burdens the future.
Some people in power are public servants, or are just really suited to the job of policy or organizing things. Others, however, want to preserve personal advantage, or control others. When these people attempt to impose injustice, opposition and civil disobedience is an obligation.
Is a law unjust? If it’s not equally applicable to all human persons, if it doesn’t respect personal liberty, if it doesn’t encode a fair playing field, if it can’t be paid for or cleaned up by the people enacting it (not their descendents), or if it causes harm to the commons, I think the answer is YES. These are the things worth fighting for.
Most unjust laws are anchored in a worldview of separation, of pathological individualism and competition, which I talk about in my book #Indivisible. Many of the religions got it right: Love your neighbor as yourself (which means of course you have to love yourself first), or do unto others as you would have done to you, or first do no harm. We are a deeply interconnected organism. Let us live from that principle.