From Aquinas to King: Violence, Civil Rights, and Natural Law

In the wake of news of horrible violence of the last few weeks, such as the shootings in Arizona, the bombing in Egypt, political violence in Tunisia and Sudan, and threats to the rule of law in Mexico, it is striking to recall the stakes behind the kind of nonviolence preached by Martin Luther King.

It is fairly easy to diagnose the reasons people turn to violence, at least retrospectively. The human heart is capable of goodness, but it is also capable of becoming twisted-in upon itself: greed, anger, lust, and pride throw off-kilter the usual proportion of self-love and other-love. But the key question is why there exists in human societies a "normal" proportion of self-love and other-love: why, in other words, do we care about each other in the first place? Why do we perceive violence to be wrong?

There are two basic answers. One is broadly described as a social contract, and borrows heavily from Enlightenment-era thinkers such as Rousseau, Locke, and Hobbes. More recently, philosophers like John Rawls argue for this view. In this theory, members of a society agree on basic principles in order to safeguard order and promote shared goods. The social contract answer to the question of violence is that we refrain because we discern a collective good in safeguarding civil rights. The theory is certainly influential, giving a foundation for the U.S. Constitution as well as much national and international law.

Looking over the past century, though, we can perceive the very serious flaws in the social contract model. Who is part of the contract? Its "golden age" allowed a flourishing slave trade, and women had little or no social and economic power. Moreover, the social contract model offers little room for arguing on behalf of those excluded from the contract: unborn children, immigrants, the poor, and those near the end of lifethat is, those who seem to offer no discernible use to the society, or who seem to take up already scarce resources.

A more ancient and compelling, if paradoxical, model of social "glue" exists in natural law. Natural law is the argument that human beings discern in the world a transcendent order, an order not determined by any society or group, whose laws are always going to reflect prejudices. This transcendent order entails "laws" or basic truths that human beings can perceive using their reason, in a manner parallel to the way they discern physical laws such as gravity or electromagnetism. These laws are not created by human beings, but societies can enact laws that reflect the truths of the natural law.

The paradox of natural law is that some of the most compelling arguments in its support have arisen from violent situations: I am thinking of the judgments of the Nuremburg Courts that punished Nazis; the International Criminal Court; and the arguments for Civil Rights by Martin Luther King. For the sake of brevity I'll focus on this last example.

King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is, in my mind, perhaps the finest example of moral reasoning in the last century. I will quote a segment of that letter at some length to illustrate King's reliance on the natural law tradition.

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?

King realized that social contract theory is a dangerously weak basis for civil rights, because it inevitably will reflect the prejudices of the majority. Natural law is far from a perfect alternative, as critics will point out: people still suffer from sin and therefore have a distorted vision of the good. But it is our best hope (a bit like Churchill's comment that "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried"). It begins with the acknowledgement that good laws do not have their origin in common opinions, but rather in the authentic process of discernment of reality. In Christian language, we call that listening to God.