“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Those words are the cornerstone of American democracy. The Declaration of Independence was the philosophical justification for the American colonies declaring themselves free of British rule. Our Founders believed that because the British Empire was unjustly burdening the colonies without respect of the rights due to the colonists as men — and let’s be 100% accurate; they meant white men — the colonies were morally justified in declaring British rule illegitimate.
I don’t think we appreciate enough today how radical of a position that was. We were legal subjects of the British Empire. We had no legal justification for revolution. All that our framers had was a deep-seated moral conviction that the current state of affairs was unjust and unsufferable.
I believe that too many of us accept the law as indistinguishable from morality. We haven’t been taught to develop a vocabulary that speaks to what happens when the laws themselves become unjust. In the decades since the 1960s and the height of public unrest over civil rights, the American people have begun to once again apathetically accept that because things are the way they are, those things are inherently good or, at least, something that any good American must bear.
That is horseshit.
Do you know what else was legal? The Holocaust. Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party rose to power in Germany through Democratic means. Hitler didn’t usurp dictatorial power for himself until his legislature democratically gave it to him. At which point, fascism became the legal system of Germany. And every horror that fascism committed was legal because the fascists decided what the law is.
Laws are societal norms that the state, theoretically, has the sole power to punish with violence. They do not equate with moral reasoning or what is morally right. Just societies may tend to produce laws that are more just but there is no inherent relationship between something being a law and it being justified.
If that is the case, every person must ask themselves what is the point at which they begin to disobey an unjust law? And if they ask themselves this question, they must then ask at what point must they declare the system that produced the unjust laws unworthy of their consent? And if they decide that the government is unworthy of their consent, what are they then tasked to do? That is the most difficult question of all.
Every citizen must be able to answer for themselves the question “is an action just?” And in order for that to happen every citizen must be tasked with the capacity for moral reasoning.
It’s absurd that the average American isn’t given a formal education in moral reasoning until college if they ever have one… that we aren’t equipping our youth with the capacity to use their rational and ethical problem solving skills to make the world a more just place. This is one of the reasons that we blindly accept the law and morality as being interchangeable. We are taught from our youth that we need think no deeper on any law other than recognizing its legality and the potential the state has to punish us if we violate said.
But what is moral reasoning? That is a complicated question that I do not have the time or energy to give the total consideration it deserves. I can only tell you how I engage in moral reasoning and hope that you find something rational and familiar in this description. Much like our Founding Fathers — but with a more modern, intersectional perspective — I believe that all people are created equal in the rights to which they are due as people living inside a society. And if that is true, then no law is just that makes one segment of society unequal to another in the eyes of the law.
These unjust laws have existed at every point in American history, including now. From racial discrimination to gender discrimination to discrimination against the queer/trans communities, society finds groups of people that they don’t like and they create laws that oppress them. This oppression involves physical violence and economic violence and often results in deep, life-long psychological trauma. It is all perfectly legal.
It is quite possible to feel that a law is unjust even if it does not directly effect you. I am a white person from rural America. I will never be banned from entering the United States because of my religious beliefs or the color of my skin. I might get in trouble for my political beliefs some day, but we haven’t reached that point yet. But I know Trump’s executive order banning Muslim immigrants and refugees to be unjust. And thousands of people across America know it to be true as well, and they brought airports to a standstill to show their solidarity with Muslims and others from the Middle East who are being denied entry to America because of their religion and because of the color of their skin and who face the consequence of death in their war torn home countries if they aren’t given refuge here. Most of the violence they face is directly the result of American actions in the Middle East. And we sentence them to death. That is unjust.
The fact that it doesn’t affect you directly doesn’t diminish your personal responsibility to abolish laws that you feel are unjust and oppressive. It is, in fact, directly upon you to combat those laws because you are the person who has the most privileges in society to combat them. You aren’t the one being oppressed by this particular law.
You may also gain the ability to extend this moral reasoning past just explicit negative laws that actively punish a group to the ways that actions which have no legal bearing whatsoever do harm as well. And you will understand that it is your duty to abolish that which is unjust in your personal and social spheres as well, not simply the realm of the law.
But what is involved in abolishing unjust laws? As flawed as America is, we theoretically have systems in place that handle this issue. Our Supreme Court, theoretically, is tasked with an interpretation of the Constitution, a document designed with the Enlightenment principles of liberty and self-governance explicitly in mind. We have checks & balances so that one branch of our government can not act without constraint of the other branches. We have the capacity to organize en masse as the people and make our physical and economic presence visible to the powers that be. We can go on strike as a people if unjust laws remain despite the vocal mobilization of the people.
But, there remains always the possibility that there is nothing that can be done within the legal system to abolish that which is unjust. And the logical conclusion that follows from this premise is that the legal system itself becomes unjust and then it is your duty to abolish it.
But when have you reached that point? What are the visible symptoms of a legal system that is now unjust? Criticism of that legal system becomes stifled. The criticism is painted as a danger to society itself. Free public expression of disappointment with one’s government is quashed. The systems that are put in place to check unjust applications of power are ignored or otherwise subverted. It takes vigilance to know when these events are occurring, but it is the duty of citizens in any democracy to have the tools to spot them.
And what do you do when decide that legality itself has ceased to be just and there are no legal remedies left to you? Do you submit to tyranny? Or do you declare the tyrant illegitimate and recognize that nothing they say has any moral power over you? The answer feels apparent to me, but it’s a question that you can only decide for yourself.
And if you declare tyranny illegitimate, what follows? How much violence must you bear and witness before you are allowed to defend yourself and your fellow man? There is little doubt, as Thomas Jefferson said, that it takes quite a bit of suffering before a person is able to reach this point. But you must define for yourself what that point is or you will always voluntarily submit to tyranny. Because there will never be a point where you think revolt is required.
Voter suppression laws, laws that restrict free assembly, laws that deny the essential humanity of all Americans will be tools exercised by oppressors to defeat democratic rebellion against their policies. Those things exist in America now and have existed since our founding. If that is true, then is the entire system of American governance unjust? If it is true that the current administration is gleefully ignoring the legal construction of our government, then is the current administration unjust? What happens when the current administration decides that you don’t have the right to protest its laws? Or that the law as it exists now — which was designed to protect against this sort of moral overreach — isn’t its concern? What is to be done then?
I am not at this particular moment arguing for violent insurrection. But it is becoming rapidly clear that an intellectual insurrection is not only required but has become a life and death matter for marginalized people across the country and world. And whether or not you’re one of those marginalized people such as myself (a queer and genderqueer person) or those with privilege (also myself as a white person who can easily pass as a cis man in public), you have to think about these things. The potential for the government itself and everything you understand to be legal has to be up for review and abolition. And, too often, we set the bar far too high for when that border that requires radical redesign of government is crossed.
This isn’t an anti-American screed. This philosophy is why we have America today. And if you want to have a country that is just and fair and respects human rights and human liberty and human prosperity, it’s a philosophy that you must be willing to defend by any means necessary.