Father Dominic Legge, OP, commemorates King’s legacy with a talk on the nature of law

On Monday, January 18—the day on which the nation celebrates the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.—Father Dominic Legge, OP, Professor of Systematic Theology at the Dominican House of Studies, reflected on the relationship between law and morality in a talk sponsored by the Constitutional Studies minor and the Tocqueville Program. This talk, entitled “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Question of ‘Illegal Laws’: Civil Law, Justice, and Morality,” was part of the university’s Walk the Walk Week initiative.

The ideas considered in this presentation revolved around the concept of law. What is law?

“If you accept the assumption that legal positivism would put forward—that the positive law determines what is legal and what is illegal—then you would have to say that everything the positive law says is legal, and everything that it forbids is illegal,” Fr. Legge began. Positive law includes local laws, such as those for particular cities, and the Constitution can even be treated as positive law, as it trumps local laws in some cases.

He continued, “On this view, any kind of claim about a higher law, or an unwritten law, or moral law, or natural law, is too vague, too vacuous, to consider—and it certainly is not properly called a law.”

King, in speaking out against the rampant racial discrimination of his time, however, was not arguing from positive law but rather from a more robust understanding of law that comes from his Christian heritage. He drew on the Christian tradition, but, Fr. Legge emphasized, King was not making a religious or faith based argument.

“He’s claiming that when a statute makes legal what should be illegal, it is unjust, and even if it has the backing of a popular majority, even if it is duly enacted by all the legitimate authorities, even if it is fully consistent with state and federal law, even if it is upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, it is wrong,” Legge said.

Quoting from King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Fr. Legge commented, “Listen again to what he says: ‘everything Hitler did in Germany was legal and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was illegal.’

“King’s letter calls us to remember that, if we take the decrees of the duly enacted positive law as the final arbiter of what should and should not be done, we might find ourselves collaborating with a legal system that perpetuates serious injustices,” Fr. Legge emphasized. “That we are following the positive law is not ultimately a guarantee that we will be acting rightly.”

One only has to reflect back on the decision in Dred Scott or the cas Korematsu v. United States, in which the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional for Americans of Japanese ancestry to be detained without trial, to realize that the U.S. Constitution is not always “synonymous with basic principles of justice and fairness.”

Speaking still as a lawyer but grounded in his theological and philosophical training in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Legge introduced a different conception of law that establishes a harmony between a higher moral law and positive law. This is the idea of law for which King argues in his letter by quoting Aquinas.

Father Legge began by giving a simple explanation of the natural law according to Aquinas. “A friend of mine was raised on an apple farm in rural Illinois. Suppose you were to wake up one day in his place, and your task becomes running an apple farm. What is your goal? You want to raise good apples. You want them to taste good, to look good, to be sufficiently durable, and you want your trees to yield a good crop every year, and so forth. You begin to pay attention to what makes your trees flourish. … Over years of experience, years of carefully observing the apple trees, you will learn how apple trees flourish—what they need to produce good apples.

“You’ll end up drawing from your experience of this natural reality, developing a body of wisdom, of dos and don’ts, for raising good apples,” he said.

Likewise, a human being is encouraged to flourish according to a set of rules, although, unlike in the case of apples, these rules or guidelines are much more complex and not as easily discernible.

For Aquinas, law is “an ordination of reason for the common good, made by one who has care of the community, and promulgated.”

Law aims at the good of the human community. Father Legge explained, “As in the other cases, when you get to know what is a flourishing human community, you can begin to judge what is good for the human community. … [Law] is not about commanding other people to do things. Rather, it is about ordering people to the good that is proper to the human community, and it is something that we can reason about.”

Positive law, then, pertains to a particular community. It orders that community to its good in a way that is consonant with the natural law but that takes into account particular circumstances.

Returning to King’s argument, Fr. Legge concluded, “King argues that it belongs to the natural law of human communities that the dignity of each person must be respected, and that racial discrimination is unreasonable and violates that principle of human dignity. Insofar as the positive laws of Birmingham, Alabama, conflict with this principle, Dr. King holds that they are unjust laws, and therefore abuses of law.

“We cannot simply appeal to legal positivism to answer some of the difficult questions about justice and morality. It is not the case that something is just simply because a duly constituted authority says that it is legal. Sometimes proper authorities make laws that are unjust. And even the U.S. Supreme Court has in fact done this.”

John VanBerkum is a senior studying philosophy and theology. John often swings sweet tea and nibbles goat cheese at sundown. But what happens next is off the record. You can contact him at jvanberk@nd.edu.