What are Unjust Laws?

Tara Barnett

Unjust laws are laws that go against a type of higher law or ethical system. Generally, unjust laws are understood to be laws that violate natural law or another system higher than the law of a particular society. When laymen speak of unjust laws, the term is sometimes used to mean laws that the speaker disagrees with. Determining which laws are unjust is a process that involves philosophy, ethics, and human considerations, but in a practical sense, unjust laws are situational and relate primarily to the era in which the designation is being made.

A law relating to the keeping of slaves is an example of an unjust law.
A law relating to the keeping of slaves is an example of an unjust law.

Laws are intended to fairly regulate the activities of a society, typically by treating each person fairly under the law. In some areas, this does not imply that each innocent person is treated in the exact same way, but in many cultures this has become the definition of fairness. Unjust laws in these systems are those laws that treat some people unfairly, often due to prejudices that were rampant when the law was made. Examples of laws considered unjust in many areas might include those relating to keeping slaves or those that treat women differently than men.

Unjust laws are laws that go against a type of higher law or ethical system.
Unjust laws are laws that go against a type of higher law or ethical system.

Colloquially, when a person refers to unjust laws, he or she typically means any law that he or she disagrees with. The law may or may not violate an aspect of natural law, but it usually violates the person's personal ethical system. In a society, people must often adhere to a legal system created with an ethos that is not their own. If each person were to violate all laws he or she saw as unjust, then there might be many more criminals in the world.

One question many citizens ask themselves is whether an unjust law is a real law that must be obeyed. People who find themselves called to what they see as a higher law, such as a religious law, may not feel obligated to follow the laws of society. On the other hand, people who believe in the value of democratic society typically understand that the way to change an unjust law is not always to break the law, but to change public opinion about the law. Even so, actions that violate a very unjust law that has severe moral consequences for an individual must be personally evaluated so that a person can act ethically according to his or her beliefs.

Determining which laws are unjust is not a perfect science, because evaluating past laws also occurs through a cultural lens. What one group of people might feel is unjust will seem entirely just to another group. A culture can attempt to create laws that are maximally just, but because ethics evolves with societies, there is no way to ensure that all laws will always reflect the morality of the society they regulate. Reflection on current laws, citizen involvement, and willingness to change laws that are deemed unjust can be a good way to keep a legal system current and healthy.

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