Ethical Civil Disobedience: Martin Luther King’s Perspective on Resisting State Authority

Martin Luther King, Jr. (NA)

Today is Martin Luther King Day. One of King’s most important legacies was his advocacy of civil disobedience as a strategy for resisting injustice. In 2022, I wrote a Martin Luther King Day post addressing some common misperceptions about King’s views on this topic. I built, in part, on a piece on King by Georgetown Prof. Jason Brennan, author of an important book on the morality of resistance to government power.

Contrary to popular perception, King did not categorically oppose all violent resistance to injustice. His views also don’t imply that practitioners of civil disobedience have a categorical obligation to accept punishment. In the case of the US civil rights movement, he advocated both nonviolence and acceptance of punishment for primarily tactical reasons. But the reasons for doing so don’t always hold true in other cases. On the other hand, King did strongly oppose rioting, on both moral and pragmatic grounds. And his reasoning does imply a strong presumption against violence, even if not a categorical bar.

A few excerpts from the 2022 post:

King’s pragmatic arguments for nonviolence and acceptance of punishment apply largely in the context of swaying public opinion in democratic societies. In such cases, peaceful moral suasion is often more likely to be effective than violence, and less likely to cause harm to innocent people.

This reasoning applies with much lesser force in authoritarian states. Dissidents living under brutal dictatorships, like those of China, Russia, or Iran, surely have no moral duty to accept punishment. And, if they have a good opportunity to overthrow the regime by force and replace it with a significantly better government, they may well be justified in seizing it.

As noted in my 2022 post, King’s views don’t definitively resolve these issues. He wasn’t infallible, and even a great hero can sometimes go wrong. Some might also argue that King’s views were sound in his time, but for some reason don’t translate well to our own. But I think King’s positions on these questions were in fact largely right. At the very least, they are more than worthy of our careful attention and consideration.