104. Natural Law Theory and Social Justice, Part 3

In the last two posts I explored the basics of natural law theory and some examples of it in action in relation to social justice. Now let’s take a closer look Martin Luther King, Jr.’s use of the theory which, once clarified, is quite powerful and can be generalized to show how all forms of social injustice are immoral.

King’s Argument Against Segregation

We can begin by exploring King’s reference to the prominent twentieth century philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator Martin Buber (1878-1965). Buber argued, in his work work I and Thou (1923), that an “I-It” relation is very different from an “I-Thou” one. When we relate to others as “its” we relate to them in a detached manner as objects we can label, control, and predict. In doing so, our interactions with them leave us relatively unchanged. But when we relate to others as “thous” we relate to them through dialogue in a transactional manner as free subjects whose uniqueness defies labels and manipulation. In doing so, we are changed in the process of encountering them. Now King thinks any I-It relationship the racist establishes is immoral since, in “relegating persons to the status of things”, it violates a natural moral law. But what exactly is this law? Well, he says “any law that uplifts human personality is just” and “any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Given these comments, I think we can articulate King’s natural moral law as follows:

MLK’s NML: The human personality should be uplifted.

I think this emphasis on persons and the flourishing of the human personality is a very promising approach when approaching issues in social justice. But what exactly is meant by “human personality” here? Philosopher Roger Scruton’s analysis of personhood in his book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy (pp. 67-68) helps us approach an answer:

“The concept of the person…denotes potential members of a free community—a community in which the individual members can lead a life of their own. Persons live by negotiation, and create through personal dialogue the space which their projects require. Such dialogue can proceed only on certain assumptions, and these assumptions show us what persons really are [my emphasis]:

1) Both parties to the dialogue must be rational—that is, able to give and accept reasons for action, and to recognizes the distinction between good and bad reasons, between valid and invalid arguments, between justifications and mere excuses.

2) Both parties must be free—that is, able to make choices, to act intentionally in pursuit of their goals, and to take responsibility for the outcome.

3) Each party must desire the other’s consent and be prepared to make concessions in order to obtain it.

4) Each party must be accepted as sovereign over matters which concern his very existence as a freely choosing agent. His life, safety and freedom must therefore be treated as inviolable, and to threaten them is to change from dialogue to war.

5) Each party must understand and accept obligations—for example, the obligation to honour an agreement.”

This brief sketch helps us see that

Persons are essentially rational and free beings who respect the freedom and rationality of others. To uplift the human personality would be, then, to support the flourishing of our reason and freedom through dialogue, negotiation, and the acceptance of obligations.

What is nice about this formulation is that it includes that aspect of human nature we saw earlier with reference to Aristotle and Aquinas, namely, reason. But it also adds the notion of freedom and the dimensions of social justice we saw in the introduction, namely, other-directedness, duty, and equality. With these ideas in hand we can propose another natural law that improves on my first formulation of King’s natural law:

MLK’s NML (Revised): Humans should develop their potentials to be rational and free by participating in I-Thou/personhood relations.

Clearly segregation violates this natural moral law. On the one hand, it entails false beliefs on the part of the oppressor and oppressed alike (“false sense of superiority” and “false sense of inferiority” respectively) which means segregation thwarts the development of our essential rational nature since rational dialogue pursues truth rather than falsehood. And segregation, in perpetuating I-It relations rather than I-Thou relations, thwarts people’s ability to live as persons who respect one another’s freedom. If this is the case then I think King’s claims that segregation “damages the personality” and “distorts the soul” can be understood as follows:

Segregation damages the personality and distorts the soul by preventing the soul from actualizing its natural potentials to be rational and free—two interrelated aspects that must flourish if we are to be fulfilled and grow as persons individually and collectively.

From Segregation to Social Injustice in General

My natural law formulation of King’s Buber-influenced insights about the unnaturalness and falseness of relating to each other as its or objects, rather than thous or free subjects, has universal scope. Indeed, it can serve as a rational foundation—objective, intelligible, and universal—to ground various rights and make a case against any belief, act, practice, or institution that would undermine human reason and/or objectify free subjects and treat them as things whether it be segregation or other forms of objectification. We can easily see how, when it comes to the social injustice of racism, sexism, abuse of power, human trafficking, health inequality, the exploitation of workers, and so on, that the free and rational potentials of the human personality are not uplifted or actualized; rather, force and deception are used to undermine freedom, disrespect obligations and rights, and, in general, treat subjects as objects.


Martin Luther King Jr.’s life was exemplary in the ways in which he stood up, through action and argument, for the natural moral law. And his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, by giving us intellectual, emotional, and historical resources to do the same, is a priceless natural law theory document. It gives us the resources to piece together powerful arguments against segregation, racism, and all practices that thwart the natural abilities of persons to grow together freely and rationally through dialogue. These arguments, as we have seen, flow from articulating natural moral laws grounded in facts about human nature such as its free, rational, and social dimensions. As such, they exist independent of opinions and provide an objective, universal, and intelligible ground for the ethical evaluation of immoral actions and civil laws. In doing so, they serve as powerful tools to rationally combat social injustice anywhere at anytime.

For my application of natural law theory to some issues involved in George Floyd’s murder, go here.

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