Thomas Hobbes and Martin Luther King
– Compare Thomas Hobbes and Martin Luther King on the topics of justice and civil disobedience. Why does Hobbes reject civil disobedience?
ARGUMENTS ABOUT JUSTICE AND CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE: THOMAS HOBBES VS MARTIN LUTHER KING JR
While some people hold the view that complete freedom is a recipe for chaos since people need some kind of leadership, others believe that freedom has the effect of bringing only opportunities for showing how some individuals are truly. These two contending viewpoints regarding freedom are explicated through the philosophical views and texts of Thomas Hobbes and Martin Luther King Jr. On the one hand, Martun Luther King Jr educated the world with his viewpoints in his “Love, Law and Civil Disobedience” work. Hobbes, on the other hand, showed the whole world a new and different aspect of political philosophy in his “Leviathan” work. In the two works, one can note conflicting views regarding freedom and can judge the factors that influenced the conflicting views based upon the era during which the two philosophers lived. Between 1800 and 1900s, slavery and racism were great issues that required to be stopped. Racial discrimination, particularly against the American-Americans, was so serious that there were slavery and segregation. Intrigued by what he saw happening in America, King Jr desired to bring to an end the racism. He eventually arose to be a monumental person in civil rights movements in America and to date. In his “Leviathan” masterpiece, Hobbes argues that obedience is crucial to human beings salvation, and that violence and war are simply the cause of people’s nature and rejecting civil disobedience, an idea that I find unpalatable. Evidently, the question on whether freedom will benefit people or not depends on whether one believes that masses require some kind of direction. It is against this backdrop that, in an attempt to compare Martin Luther King and Thomas Hobbes on topics of civil disobedience and justice, this paper argues for King Jr’s arguments about justice and civil obedience. The paper begins by giving definitions to civil disobedience and justice terms, then compares the views by Hobbes and King Jr about the terms, shares my insights about the philosophers’ views, and eventually concludes.
Justice is among the most crucial political and moral concepts. Coming from Latin Jus (meaning law or right), the Oxford English Dictionary defines a just individual as one who characteristically does what is ethically right and is disposed to giving everyone their due. Civil disobedience, conversely, refers to the process or act of public defiance of a policy or law enforced by established governmental powers/authorities, insofar as the process or action is calculated, comprehended by the player(s) to be lawful or of disputed legality.
Borrowing from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King contends that a just society is one wherein people, both those that have historically been oppressed and the privileged, have their individuality and personhood acknowledged under some common political structures or systems. Put differently, King holds the view that a just society does not imply an ideal society wherein all individuals live in perfect harmony, not once oppressed or slighted by common laws. Instead, his understanding of a just society as one wherein political structures and systems that are in place do not enforce or create laws that persecute or degenerate its populace’s humanity. King believes that a just society is one that uplifts the character and humanity of its people. Nevertheless, the creation of a just society, according to King, is not solely the duty of the state, but is in the hands of the people to determine their ethical obligation and consequently struggle, wrestle, and eventually disobey unjust laws as a way of shedding light and garnering the attention of their state. 
Going by the above views, King’s argument is that the state is not often just, and thus is not often able to create a just society, an idea that Hobbes disagree with. Hobbes argues that Human beings’ “state of nature” would be one that has no social order in the absence of the state. According to Hobbes, people create and sign social agreement that make them lose their entitlements to discern what makes up what are just or unjust. Instead, policies, creeds, or laws proposed by the state are innately just since the state often caters for the protection and preservation of its population. Hobbes’ argument is about an absolute state while that of King is about collective political dissent.
The April 12, 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” work by King, was aimed at repudiating the legality and lawfulness of segregation in the United States (U.S.). The content of the letter, however, has become a spring of comprehending justice not merely with regard to segregation in the U.S. only, but across the world. According to King, a just law is any code made by people that squares with God’s law and moral laws. In my view, King holds the belief that justice, regardless of whether it is through God’s moral law or made by people, uplifts human personhood and personality. If a just law uplifts people’s humanity, then King’s argument is that unjust law is that which degrades the personality of human beings in oppressive and disharmonious manners towards people. The difference between jus and unjust laws, according to King, is that just laws recognize human life’s salience and aim at uplifting people’s personhood, while an injustice law is that which degrades human life’s salience as expendable and inconsequential. It is for this reason King advocates for nonviolent actions in the face of injustice, since unjust laws from states ought not to be followed and revered if they destroy human spirit. Nevertheless, King holds the belief that every person has both a moral and legal obligation to contravene unjust laws as they would have to follow just laws.
Further, King Jr. perceives civil disobedience, in its varied forms of protests, demonstrations, and sit-ins, is, as the strategy for pursuing justice. King calls upon people to rage against discrimination via nonviolent actions since according to him, the sight of civil obedience is the one and only recourse that hotly opposes state actions, which both denies and infringes on their being via discrimination. The act of disobedience within the face of state oppression shows people’s dissatisfaction for injustice. Nonetheless, the approach by King in involving people in determining unjust or just laws is in direct contradiction to the key philosophy of Hobbes that the state, notwithstanding the laws that that it enforces, is often deviated towards the good of its people. According to Hobbes, the justice notion is unimportant under the state. Hobbes holds the view that the goal of the state is to protect and preserve its populace, and that the view of the masses is insignificant. When populace forfeits their authority and power to have stake in their individual protection, they innately give their state the absolute power via governmental agencies and forces to develop justice in any manner it deems fit. Hobbes argues that there are neither principles nor grounds of reason to sustain those crucial rights that make absolute sovereignty. There are no grounds for people to think about the concept of justice owing to the fact that laws are created, reinforced, and enforced by the state are naturally just. Nevertheless, Hobbes does not create a nuanced assessment of society under the absolute power rule by failing to properly address how public dissent may cause political discourses around the justice concept. Contrary to Hobbes, King opines that the population will never acquiesce as well as give up consensually its rights solely to their state jurisdiction. While Hobbes holds the belief that the threat of violence can quell civil disobedience and change the course of a population towards consent and order under law, King posits that people are not easily silenced or quelled by the threat of violence, regardless of whether it is enforced by the state. King expounds that unjust laws function to penalize not merely the discriminated, because they victims of continuous persecution and discrimination, but also the discriminators, because they enjoy a false sense/understanding of superiority. Contrarily, Hobbes argues for civil disobedience since it functions to create civic unrest so that people can spring from the murky pits of racism, segregation, and prejudice to the great and majestic heights of brotherhood and understanding. According to King, if the state denies all black people the capacity of being equal to their white peers under the law, then there are reasons for protests and demonstrations, particularly when the state refuses to take part in good-faith bargains with leaders of black civil rights. Hobbes, conversely, argues that the masses actually lack the entitlement to determine laws since it is not up to people’s jurisdiction to determine laws’ moral nature. Similarly, Hobbes argues for rule and power since a state’s prosperity originates from its population’s concord and obedience, adding that people do not thrive in a monarchy owing to the fact that an individual has the entitlement to lead the rest because they obey the individual.
Dissent under state is usually perceived as anarchy under the state. However, King reveals a higher level of respect to the state power and authority by openly, willingly, and lovingly accepting the penalty that was levied upon him. The fact that King eventually accepted to suffer for his viewpoints shows how he deeply believed that discrimination was unjust. King believes that a society must face the bad parts of itself, yet not with the aim of harming itself. King’s viewpoint often presupposes that people are innately good and often desire and aim for improvement and not downfall of their societies. However, the fact that crisis and tension are fundamentals of change signifies that people cannot naturally better themselves. It becomes hard to live under the state when every member of the state is not perceived as equal to others. Nevertheless, King holds the view that people must be directed to better and new techniques that constitute their goodness through tension, direction, and recourse. Whereas King notes that there is no certainty that a state will make just laws, people have a moral obligation to reject unfair legislation. Therefore, for people to live lives that are ethically just, they must engage in civil disobedience to refute and deprecate unjust laws.
To conclude, views by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Thomas Hobbes give a powerful debate against and for state authorized racism, along with other practices that undermine the natural capabilities of people to socially grow together through collective action and political discourse. Hobbes argues that fundamental natural entitlement is the base of obedience to state/government, distinguishing right from law as well as asserting that laws ought to safeguard rights. However, while King agrees that people should obey state laws, he contends that disobedience to such laws can sometimes be necessary and legitimate under some despotic administration. He reasons that dramatic disobedience to state laws by a minority may be the one and only effective method to capture the attention or win the backing of the majority. Therefore, I agree with King that the existence of a just society purely relies upon the universal right that people, regardless of their race, have the obligation of assessing the moral implications of laws and refute the same if need be.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” In Why We Can’t Wait, ed. Martin Luther King, Jr., (1963), 78.
- King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” 79.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Power of Non-violence.”(1957), 1.
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill (London: 1651), 21.
- King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” 86.
- King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” 91.
- King, “The Power of Non-violence.”(1957), 2.
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill (London: 1651), 37.
- King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” 92.
- Hobbes, Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill (London: 1651), 101.
- King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” 87.
- Hobbes, Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill (London: 1651), 101.
- Hobbes, Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill (London: 1651), 132.
Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan: Or, the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill (London: 1651), 1-445.
King, Martin Luther Jr. “The Power of Non-violence.”(1957), 1-3.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” In Why We Can’t Wait, ed. Martin Luther King, Jr., (1963), 77-100.