Should we disobey unjust laws? This is one of the main interrogative of ethics and philosophy of right.
When in 399 BC Socrates was unjustly sentenced to death, he decided to accept his execution, although his closest friends had a plan to help him to escape from prison. Why didn’t he save himself? Because he thought that humans have the moral obligation to obey the laws, even if they are unfair. The philosophical position that holds moral conduct as a matter of rule following is called ‘legalism’.
According to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), citizens are subject to coercive laws of the state where they live, and have the duty to respect them. However, he believes that every person has an ‘inner’ moral law (Kategorischer Imperativ), i.e. a sense of moral obligation that leads us to decide what is morally right. It might happen that moral and civil laws are in conflicts. The essential heteronomy of moral and positive law creates the conditions of civil disobedience.
Today we often hear about civil disobedience. In a famous essay, the contemporary philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) defines it as “a public, non-violent and conscientious break of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies”.
There are many example in the history of civil disobedience: Sophie and Hans Scholl, who between the 1940 and 1941 distributed leaflets in the University of Munich, calling on people to resist the Nazi regime; Rosa Parks, a black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus, during the years of racial segregation in the US; Ghandi, who marched to produce salt and transport it without paying the tax that the British had imposed to India.
Sophia and Hans Scholl were executed, Rosa Park was arrested, Gandhi’s non-violent march brutally suppressed by the British.
Recently, a case of unjustly punished civil disobedience happened in Riace, a small town in Southern Italy. Riace is in Calabria, “the heart of the ‘Ndragheta criminal clan which infiltrates all levels of government there, particularly ‘influencing’ the right wing parties like Forza Italia (Berlusconi), Fratelli d’Italia (Meloni) and La Lega (Salvini)”, as the online magazine International Viewpoint reports. Furthermore, the south of Italy is an area that has been affected by depopulation. Since the rate of unemployed there is around 30%, young people prefer to move to the north or to go abroad to study or look for a job.
In 1998, when the first boat with 200 Kurdish migrants fleeing political persecution arrived near the coast of Riace, Mimmo Lucano was only an activist for the association “Città Futura”. In 2004, he became mayor of Riace, and he was re-elected other two times. During his mandate, he welcomed more than 6 thousands migrants, using the several empty buildings of his town to provide them a decent accommodation. Moreover, he committed himself to help them to find a job. He opened schools, created laboratories, bars, bakeries, and has also set up door-to-door separate waste collection, employing refugees and asylum seekers. Today, approximately 500 of them are currently citizens fully integrated into the social texture of the town. The “Riace system” became a famous model for integrating migrants, and to revive depopulated villages. In 2010 Lucano was classified the third best mayor in the world by the City Mayors Foundation and in 2016 he was included in the list of the fifty most influential people in the world by Fortune magazine. In the meanwhile, all over Italy xenophobic, populist, and sovranist (i.e. nationalist, euro-sceptical) right wing parties (Fratelli d’Italia, La Lega) were increasing their popularity and their leaders’ political program was based on anti-immigration and closed-borders propaganda. When Salvini (La Lega) became minister of Interior in 2018, a new law on national security and immigration policies was approved. Well, already with Minniti (PD, centre-left party) as Interior Minister, the situation of immigrants was not optimal, but with Salvini it became even more difficult, as the bureaucracy to obtain the Italian citizenship became more complicated, and less funds were given to refugee centres.
Despite the new rules, Mimmo Lucano kept pursuing his goal of helping immigrants to integrate, and repopulating Riace. The 2nd of October 2018 he was put under house arrest and suspended as mayor. Lucano was charged with abuse of office, extortion and aggravated fraud. He was also accused of arranging false marriages to allow migrants to stay in the country after their application for asylum was refused.
On the 30th of September 2021, the court sentenced Lucano to 13 years and 2 months of prison, when even the prosecutor was asking for 7 years and 11 months. Many people expressed him their solidarity through social media and protests on the streets. The ONG Mediterranea Saving Humans launched the campaign “Guilt of the crime of Solidarity” to support him. Sinistra Anticapitalista (‘Anticapitalist Left’) released a statement to encourage social mobilization: “We are living in an upside-down world. Those who practise solidarity and support for the weakest become dangerous criminals. […]We express our full solidarity with him, hoping that a strong movement will be created in his support, a real rebellion in the face of such a grossly unjust sentence”.
Lucano claimed that he does not regret anything of what he have done. If laws are inhuman, we have the moral duty of breaking them.