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In the United States of America, the legal battle regarding civil rights has been ongoing and resulted in violent, impactful movements that have and continue to greatly impact our country. From the days of slavery, to the Jim Crow South, to current widespread mass incarceration, many laws have both enhanced and reduced civil rights for America’s most vulnerable people. While a very contentious topic with widespread views, there are many different legal perspectives that can apply to this topic, including natural law, legal positivism, and utilitarianism. When it comes to natural law, which views “law as a set of universal principles applicable to all societies in all historical epochs”, one could interpret civil rights as these universal principles that all societies should enjoy.
In his “Letters from Birmingham Jail”, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes St. Thomas Aquinas stating that “an unjust law is a law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law”. Dr. King goes on to express that the segregation statutes in place at the time are unjust because they “distort the soul and damage the personality” and are “morally wrong and sinful”. At the time of these letters, August 1963, the American civil rights movement was in full swing and states like Alabama had enacted segregation laws that denoted African American citizens to second class citizens. Dr. King argues that this is unjust or unnatural because in this case, the Alabama legislature, the majority, enacted these laws without giving African Americans, the minority, any say in it, since there were several tactics in place to prevent them from voting.
Additionally, St. Thomas Aquinas stated that laws that conform to natural law are “just because it serves the good of humanity”, so by denying African Americans basic civil rights to vote, attend the same schools as white Americans, own a home, sit where they want on a bus/restaurant, they are not serving the good of humanity by denying a portion of the human race these rights. Also pertaining to natural law, Aquinas describes unjust laws as those that “unfairly burden certain members of society”, which directly applies to the civil rights movement because the segregation laws in place put major burdens on African Americans by not providing them a say in their government, the right to accumulate wealth, or the right to fair treatment at establishments. The challenge regarding natural law pertaining to civil rights is that one could argue that civil rights don’t constitute “universal principles applicable to all societies” as a way to justify segregation laws or laws that treat any group of people as second class citizens. With the varying cultures, religions, and morals across our world, the idea of basic human rights and civil rights has always been a conflicting issue, resulting in varying levels of freedom across the globe.
The civil rights movement can be tied into the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights as legal documents to support their cause. Applying the natural law theory, one could argue that in the United States, the U.S. Constitution reflects the natural law principles that are applicable to American society. Throughout the Civil Rights Movements, protesters participated in marches, sit-ins, and various non-violent practices to protest discriminatory laws, actions which many believe that the First Amendment protects since it protects Americans against freedom of speech, the right to peacefully protest, and the right to petition the government to address grievances. By inflicting violence on these protesters throughout history and denying them their first amendment rights, one could argue that this is in direct violation of natural law.
One vivid event in particular that comes into my mind regarding this violation of the First Amendment is the Selma March where African Americans were met with brutal force when peacefully marching for their right to vote from Selma to Montgomery. Relating to this event, in the text Cicero references natural law principles like avoiding harm to others, the right to self-defenses, and to protect others from harm”. By enforcing and allowing this brutal violence on African Americans, the police and lawmakers are violating this principle of natural law by harming and endangering the African American community and denying them any right to defend themselves. Unfortunately, this kind of violation of natural rights still happens in modern society today. When it comes to Standing Rock, peaceful protesters of the Dakota Access pipeline were met with bullets, guns, chemicals, and arrests.
This is another direct violation of the First Amendment of our Constitution and can be considered unjust or unnatural because once again, the protesters, were the minority being forced to accept this pipeline by the powerful majority, despite the potential for the pipeline to harm their protected land, particularly their water source. Melissa Helmann, the author of “What Standing Rock Tells Us About Civil Disobedience”, highlighted some powerful quotes that summarize this issue, “It’s very hard to determine sometimes where First Amendment protections lie and where they have been diminished” and “civil disobedience has also been integral for the fight for indigenous rights”.
These quotes are very powerful because proponents of natural law could argue that if you have freedoms like we do in the United States, essentially universal principles, the government cannot determine which scenario these freedoms are appropriate. By denying protesters their First Amendment rights, they are creating a double standard by allowing a violation of laws when it helps their cause or argument. In the Standing Rock case, those in power wanted the pipeline to be built and chose to deny protesters the First Amendment to help push the establishment of the pipeline. Helmann also notes in her article the challenge regarding this principle by stating that there is not enough scrutiny regarding law enforcement’s actions in this case; however, when you have a disadvantaged minority group of people like the Sioux, who have very little to no power in our legal system, how will any positive change every happen regarding these unjust principles?
The Civil Rights movement directly relates to the idea of legal positivism as well. Legal positivism means “law as set forth or posited”, essentially that laws should always be obeyed if it is enacted appropriately with set procedures, despite any immoral consequences of the law. According to this principle, the protesting of segregation laws in the south directly violates the idea of legal positivism because at the time, these segregation laws were passed according to established procedures, despite those procedures being unfair and undemocratic. The biggest challenge regarding legal positivism in the case of civil rights is that no major change or social movement has ever happened in the United States because people sat back and obeyed the laws. Major change has happened by protesting and marching to form a powerful movement that accomplishes that change.
Regarding obeying the laws, John Austin argued that stating that certain laws should not be tolerated can lead to anarchy in society, which obviously has some validity in certain contexts. For example, if everyone decided to not obey rules of the road, then car accidents, injury, and death would be widespread and could lead to massive political disorder and anarchy. I think that one of the biggest challenges with legal positivism is that obviously many laws in our society, like the laws of the road I mentioned, can greatly benefit society and increase safety across the country, so declaring that those laws should not be tolerated is very dangerous; however, this same mentality cannot be applied across the board. I would argue that there is a gap in Austin’s philosophy because the legal system is supposed to be objective and protect all citizens of a society, so when laws are in place that endanger and harm the lives of citizens, why should society accept those laws?
Another issue I have regarding legal positivism relating to civil rights is the statement regarding following laws that are “enacted in accordance with established procedures should be obeyed” because often those enacted procedures are not democratic in their essence, they are often established by the powerful majority. Regarding the segregation laws of the South, at that time the established procedures gave African Americans virtually no say in the law since they could not vote, so how is it fair to force them to accept a law when they had no say in it whatsoever? Similarly relating to this argument, another issue regarding legal positivism and civil rights is the idea that laws “should be obeyed until it is changed or modified”.
Like I mentioned above, African Americans in the South had virtually no voting power, so unless they disobeyed these laws with civil disobedience, then those laws might have never changed. Once again, I understand where this legal positivism argument is coming from in the sense that to avoid massive political disorder in society, society should establish enforceable laws; however, I think that one of the biggest challenges of legal studies is that there are often extreme cases involving the law, like civil rights, that require societies to consider morality in the law and alternative perspectives regarding that law. I understand that defining these “extreme cases” can be subjective, but i think that is why we have different branches of the law and different legal experts to help establish clear-cut, fair procedures to objectively define and evaluate this kind of situations and determine the appropriate procedures around them. Overall, I would argue that adopting the theory of legal positivism is one of the most dangerous approaches to civil rights because with laws that are so impactful and crucial to the safety and fairness of society, society has a duty to consider multiple perspectives.
The final approach I want to discuss regarding civil rights is the idea of utilitarianism, or according to Jeremy Bentham, the idea that “law should maximize the “greatest good for the greatest number”. Lippman elaborates on Bentham’s perspective by stating that utilitarianism is based on the idea that individuals in their personal lives act to maximize their pleasure and to minimize their pain” and that social policy should operate the same way. I think that applying this logic to civil rights can be very complicated, conflicting, and dangerous because what some people view as producing the “greatest good for the greatest number” can be very subjective and can lead to widespread discrimination, particularly for minorities or those who make up the “smallest number in society”. With the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the segregation laws in the South, many could argue that the white lawmakers of Alabama where putting those laws in place to produce the most benefit for themselves, the majority, while harming the minority, African Americans.
By denying African Americans equal rights, particularly equal representation in government, the white dominated lawmakers were allowing themselves to have immense power and control over everything in the government, and as a result, setting up a system of oppression for African Americans. If people only focus on utilitarianism, then minorities could face extreme discrimination in all societies. Due to the subjectivity of determining what constitutes the “greatest good for the greatest number of people”, depending on one’s views, the utilitarianism view could be beneficial to the civil rights movement. One could argue that by granting all citizens equal rights under the law is in itself producing the greatest good for the greatest number of people because by granting everyone in society equality, it allows society as a whole to prosper and move forward. They could back this up by stating that a lack of civil rights perpetuates inequalities in society, which as a result, prevents people from reaching their potential and hold them back from opportunities that could benefit society as a whole.
For example, denying civil rights could prevent someone from achieving an education, which could then prevent them from having the knowledge to discover or invent something or start a small business, both of which could maximize the “greatest good for the greatest number”. In our modern society, we continue to see the results of the system of oppression created by a lack of civil rights when looking at the wealth, health, and educational status of African Americans compared to White Americans. If we could eliminate those inequalities, many would argue that it would maximize the greatest good for the greatest number in society by increasing utility in society overall. Additionally, not only does the lack of civil rights in societies hold people back physically and financially, but it also has the potential to enhance stereotypes and negative attitudes that endanger those minorities. For example, I personally don’t believe that racism is something a person is born with, I think they develop it over time, so due to a lack of basic civil rights, these negative attitudes can perpetuate violence and negativity toward minorities, which in my opinion, does not maximize the greatest good for the greatest number.
Overall, I believe that despite the progress the United States has made, there is still a lot of work left regarding civil rights. I think that there is great harm in applying certain theoretical perspectives to this idea, particularly legal positivism and even utilitarianism, which create a lot of tension and disagreement when viewing civil rights thru the natural law perspective. Despite these varying perspectives on the issue, I think that it is important for lawmakers to take different approaches to laws that involve extreme cases like civil rights. While I believe that each of the above-mentioned perspectives have varying degrees of legitimacy in a society, it can be very dangerous to solely adhere to one perspective over another. Therefore, since the law is intended to protect all members of society, I think it is important to ensure that no matter what the law is, it protects the civil rights of all members of society.
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