Sample Essay on what is the Nature of “Rights”?


  1. Introduction
  2. This section will present an overview of the study
  3. Thesis: Civil disobedience by King may have been practical in repealing the laws on segregation but it did not impede the United States government from exercising its right to punish
  4. Argument
  1. John Locke on the right to punish: This section will provide details on the assumptions presented by John Locke on the roles that civil rights play in the development of a society. This will be understood in relation to Locke’s understanding of the state of nature. The role of the state in acting in accordance with the law while dispensing justice is a definitive aspect in understanding the right of the civil government to punish.
  2. Martin Luther King on the essence of breaking unjust laws: This section will provide an overview and an in-depth understanding of the assumptions presented by Martin Luther Jr. While advocating for equal rights for the African American population. The role of civil disobedience in the advocating for the rights of the African Americans will also form an essential part of this section.
  3. Comparison between the ideals of John Locke and Martin Luther King: This section will present points of agreement and disagreement on the ideas of Martin Luther King and John Locke. This will be in relation to the understanding of these philosophers on the role of the state, the judiciary and the legislature. In addition, this section will also focus on the role of members of the society in advocating for the introduction of laws that ensure democracy, equality and justices in relation to the right of the state to punish.
  • Conclusion

The conclusion will provide an overview of the structure of the argument in relation to the thesis statement. The conclusion will also focus on how Locke’s understanding of the right to punish is related to King’s argument on breaking unjust laws



What is the Nature of “Rights”?


The question of civil rights is based on the ability of the government to punish those who break civil laws and the desire by citizens to break laws that they consider unjust. John Locke, while basing his arguments on different aspects of the state of nature asserts that the state, as the central governing authority possesses the right to punish those who violate agreed upon aspects of the law. This assumption by John Lock is however in contradiction with the sentiments of Martin Luther King concerning the rights of citizens rot ensure that a country is governed in accordance with just laws. This makes it possible for citizens to violate those laws they morally consider unjust as a way of ensuring that the society introduces some form of change to these laws. Civil disobedience by King may have been practical in repealing the laws on segregation but it did not impede the United States government from exercising its right to punish

John Locke on the right to punish

According to john Locke, the question on whether the government should punish those perceived as law breakers can be used in an attempt to provide the most appropriate justification for the need to ensure that the rule of law prevails in the society (Locke 8). John Locke bases his arguments on the assumption that while in the state of nature man personal liberties considering that there was no common authority such as the state (Locke 8). Men were authorities in themselves as each man had the right to control his own matter related to his own life. In this society where self-government prevailed, every individual passed the natural right to punish those in violation of personal liberties. Locke identifies the natural condition, which defines the state of live before the civil society was developed.  This was the state of nature governed by the laws of nature. In such a society man operated on the understanding that he was in possession of certain rights and obligations. Every man had the right to be in control of his own life without any form of interference. This was based on the understanding that freedom and liberty belonged equally to every rational member of the society. The existence of liberty in the society did not imply that man had the right to act in accordance with his will (Locke 8). Instead, this liberty provided man with two natural duties which included that of self-preservation and the duty to ensure the preservation of mankind. Through these obligations, it was possible to argue that the law of nature defined freedom as that which ought not to harm another member of the society in his possessions, health, life and liberty. As it is a tenet of all laws, there is need for the most effective enforcement mechanism as a way of ensuring that all men are incompliance with the requirements of the law (Locke 9). In the state of nature therefore all men of reason were endowed by God a natural executive right to ensure that the law of nature was enforced. This would be made possible by appropriately punishing those presumed as violators of the law. This was only to be made possible in accordance with the dictates of conscience and calm reason (Locke 10).

The essence of law in the state of nature was a mechanism of ensuring that all the rational persons were executing their responsibility of protection and preserving individual natural rights while at the same time protecting the natural rights of every member of the society.  This means that rational men possess the natural executive right to punish those they consider as criminals who violate the tenets of the law of nature (Locke 10). Locke provides an understanding that in some situations especially if those perceived as rational fail to engage in just activities while passing judgments there may arise a state of war in the stat of nature. These inconveniences may also arise in situations where man judges others too harshly or in a manner perceived as discriminatory. These complications led the rational men to come together and form a civil society. In this society power is bestowed on one central authority who can serve the role of a fair and impartial judge. Through such a procedure it will be easier for the society to ensure justified punishment for those in violation of the law considering that they protect their own survival and that of mankind (Locke 12). In addition, through the establishment of a civil society, Locke believes that man consents and wholly relinquishes his authority to pass judgment. Furthermore, he also gives away a portion of his self-governing rights for the common good. It is through the transfer of right for the common good that a civil society in the view of Locke is formed. The civil government therefore operates in accordance with the authority provided by the rational members. This includes the right to punish those in violation of the law though in accordance with the agreed upon terms. Through this approach, the civil government ensures protection of every member (Locke 13).

Martin Luther King on the essence of breaking unjust laws

Civil disobedience through non-violent means of advocating for the rights of those discriminated in the society was considered by Martin Luther King as the only approach that could serve the need of ensuring that unjust laws were repealed and replaced with just ones. Through civil disobedience, Martin Luther King believed that American citizens would engage in conscientious breach of the law as a way of necessitating change (Birt, 18). King believed that American citizens had the right to break laws that were in conflict with their moral desires. This could be used as an indication that such a law was inappropriate and did not serve the purpose intended for a law. King and his supporters made civil disobedience as the only alternative to ensuring total emancipation of the discriminated African American population. This explains why King and his supporters were in defiance of Jim Crow laws (Birt, 22). Their disobedience was demonstrated through violation of court orders, sit-in, highlighting racial injustices, boycotts and accepting jail sentencing. The moral argument for any form of civil disobedience in the view of King was to help the American governments and the society to distinguish between just and unjust laws.

During the events that were characterized by civil disobedience among the African Americans and their supporters, questions were asked regarding the willingness by king to advocate for the breaking of laws. This was because of this decision to rally the African- American population to obey the Supreme Court’s ruling of 1954 which outlawed segregation in public schools. This at fist glace in the view of King may be considered as relatively paradoxical. This is because of questions regarding the possibility of advocating for support of particular laws and urging members of the African American population to break other laws (Birt, 25). The answer to such questions in the view of King are based on the understanding that there are just and unjust laws. While it is always important to demonstrate high levels of respect to just laws, due to the legal and moral responsibility therein, every citizen has a moral responsibility to disrespect unjust laws. This in the view of king is based on St. Augustine’s supposition that an unjust law must never be considered as law (Segrest 36).

While operating on this assumption, king argues that the difference between unjust laws and just laws is that the former comprises codes that a majority group compels a minority group to obey but is not binding on itself. The latter comprises codes that a majority group compels ta minority group to abide by and is willing to follow the codes itself (Segrest 39). Furthermore, king develops the argument that a law in unjust if it is inflicted on a minority and it connotes the denial of the right to vote and the right to participate in a process of making and amending laws. It is also possible according to king for a law to be just on its face but highly unjust when applied to the society. For example if an individual is arrested and charged with parading without permit, it is possible to argue that it is rational for such an individual to obtain permission for parading and that makes it illegal if he engages in such as activity while disrespecting the law. However, such a law may be presumed as unjust when its application is based on the desire to enforce and maintain segregation. From this perspective the law would be in violation of the privileges of the First Amendment which dictates that all citizens have a right to assembly and peaceful demonstration (Segrest 44).

Comparison between the ideals of John Locke and Martin Luther King

The role of the civil society is to ensure that the process of passing judgment is made in accordance with the nature of the mistake and the need to ensure that every members of the society is protected from unjust and harsh judgments. The decision by rational men to form a state was based on the need to ensure that there was high level transparency in passing of laws. Since it is the rights of citizens to develop laws they consider are essential for self-preservation and the preservation of mankind, man also has the ability to ensure that every aspect of law that is inconsistent with the objectives of forming the state is repealed(Locke 8-10).

To this extent it is possible to argue that the decision by King to engage in civil disobedience was based on the understanding that the law was failing in its role of proving laws that were not in any way discriminatory or propagating inequality (King 29). King was motivated by his commitment to democracy, justice, equality and religious conviction considering that they were the pillars defining governance in the United States.  Just like in the state of nature where any activity that an individual engaged in was to be accompanied by consequences, King and his followers were to accept the consequences of civil disobedience which included jail sentencing and the interventions by local security forces (King 33).

The right to punish that is accorded to the states is founded on the understanding that when an individual break a law that exists, the civil government must operate within the tenets of the law and provide the most appropriate punishments for such level of disobedience to the law according to Locke. Whether just or unjust, a law that exists can only fail to be operational once it has been repealed (Locke 13). Martin Luther king and his followers can be said to have been involved in illegal practices since their actions were in violation of existing laws. Inasmuch as their different levels of civil disobedience may have generated some form of change in American laws, their punishment were justified since they were in accordance with existing laws that were yet to be repealed.


The right accorded to the civil society to punish law breaker in the view of Locke was because of the decision by rational men to have a common authority that would ensure justice and fairness. Through civil disobedience, Martin Luther king and his supporters environed to change laws that they considered discriminatory, unjust and largely unequal. The punishments that the protestors received were based on the requirements of the existing laws hence the American government could not be held responsible for its actions against the demonstrators so long as they were in accordance with the existing laws.

Works Cited

Birt, Robert E. The Liberatory Thought of Martin Luther King Jr: Critical Essays on the

Philosopher King. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2012. Print.

King, Richard H. Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom. Athens: University of Georgia Press,

  1. Print.

Locke, John. Of the State of Nature. pp. 8-14

Segrest, Mab. Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers

University Press, 2002. Print.