Aquinas on the Importance of Breaking Unjust Laws

By Jason MacLeod on March 22, 2012 — 2 mins read

Aquinas’ treatment on law shaped by reason and for the benefit of the common good reveals analogous contemporary principles and problems.  He notes that “the chief and main concern of law properly so called is the plan of the common good” and that interests of the individual are subordinate to this common good of the community.  Yet, the individual, through emergence, comprises its own subordinated group – a smaller community inside the larger community.  The common good is the good common to the most people.  This results in majority rule.  A common good would be the right to food and drinkable water, but we know this isn’t an enforced or recognized law.

Law is shaped by reason and reason is shaped by self-interest.  Ideally, the ruler, community, or lawmaker would produce laws in the interest of the community, but that is a far cry in today’s practice.  In other words, self-interest, shared by a community, promulgates laws to benefit them, while the individuals marginalized by the community is subordinate to this majority rule of law.  This marginalization manifests in unequal protection, unfair discrimination, and the myriad deprivation of benefits shared amongst the majority.  The role of justice, then, is to regulate actions between social relationships.

The social relationships are mirrors of the moral virtue of each individual, so society reflects the integrity of individual actions.  Aquinas notes –

A man’s actions with regard to himself are sufficiently straightened out when his emotions are ruled aright by the other moral virtues. His actions with regard to another, however, call for a special rightfulness in relation to the other on which they bear, not only to his acting self. And so for such actions there is a special virtue, and this is justice.

But, as often the case, justice is dispensed from judges whose self-interest accords with the majority.  The judge then rules in favor of propagating and reproducing the common good of the majority.  The cyclical nature of this process continuously marginalizes the “out group” the “subordinated group” all while dispensing justice.  So how is this inequity equalized?

Aquinas argues that laws contrary to natural rights are unjust and do not have binding force.  Therefore, judgments in accordance with these laws should not be passed.  He notes, “if a case crops up where its observance would be damaging to the common interest, then it is not to be observed.”    However, the majority’s legal justice marginalizes the “out group”, so we must turn to natural rights to enforce equity.  To realize equity, then, one must disregard the unjust laws and act in accordance with natural rights.  Actively breaking the law – produced by the majority, enforced by the judges – is necessary to publicly reveal injustice and to embrace equity and experience justice.  Therefore, marginalized groups must break and/or disregard unjust laws to fulfill natural laws enforcement and protect the rights of the individual marginalized by the majority.

Aquinas’ teachings can be interpreted as promoting the importance of disregarding and breaking unjust laws.  This important practice will continue its ascendance in contemporary society as the majority invasively and unjustly regulates and legally legitimizes the lives of marginalized groups in harmful ways.