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Letter from Birmingham Jail was written by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 as a response to the criticism of his non-violent protesting. Among a number of remarkable, eloquent themes, Dr. King discussed the racism and injustice infused within the legal, economic, and social system, the ethics involved in civil disobedience, and the problems of both the white church and the white moderate.
Dr. King began by examining the morality of civil disobedience. He stated, “There are laws and unjust laws.” He explained that though following the law is generally deemed what is moral, there are exceptions to this rule. He illustrates three occurrences in which laws are unjust.
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The first is when the law’s intention is discriminatory and is not universalized and applied to all citizens. Segregation laws were discriminatory, demeaning, and only specific to people of color. By this nature, Dr. King declared them unjust.
His second depiction of an unjust law was a law that has been drafted and enacted by a majority and imposed on a minority without the minority’s ability to partake in the democratic system. Dr. King reflected on the hypocrisy of the democratic system in that whilst laws were being created and applied to minorities, minorities were denied the ability to vote and, consequently, had no power within the democratic system to be heard.
His final case of an unjust law was when a just law was applied in an unjust way. Dr. King exemplified this with the exact reason he was writing his letter from jail. Though the First Amendment protects our ability to peacefully protest, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for “parading without a permit.” This obvious violation of the First Amendment rooted in racism and intolerance affirmed his belief that while using immoral means to achieve a moral result is still immoral, using moral means to achieve an immoral result is equally or more immoral.
Dr. King continued in his letter specifically addressing a letter written to him by a fellow Christian and “supporter” who asked him, “’All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry?” At the time, this mindset was representative of many white moderates who adhered to the belief that Dr. King’s peaceful protest was “untimely” and “extremist.” Many declared their alliance with Dr. King’s objective but did not condone his method of direct action. Dr. King responded by drawing light on the understanding that time can either be used efficiently to elicit positive change or negatively to cause further destruction and that complacency and dormancy only allow for the perpetuation of injustices. He elaborates that no direct-action movement ever has a proper time and that “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Dr. King then shines a light on the inadequate behavior of the church. He reflects upon the fact that the church is an authoritative, influential entity powerful enough to elicit monumental social change, yet most churches and religious leaders refuse to draw outside the lines of social normalities. Dr. King warned that if the church did not return to its foundation and the “sacrificial spirit” it was originally based on, it would be discredited by millions and diminish into nothing greater than a “social club.” Dr. King closes with the assertion that justice will prevail and the heritage of America will confirm that his actions were not only just but essential to justice.
Through the lens of deontology, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s actions were unequivocally just. The first formulation of the categorical imperative is “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” The segregation laws directly conflicted with this idea because they were only inflicted upon a minority group. The second formulation of the categorical imperative is to treat others as an end in themselves rather than a means to another end. A significant reason why discrimination is so popularized and perpetuated is that the systematic oppression of a minority community enables the majority community to benefit and dominate economically and socially. This is adverse to the second categorical imperative and would be deemed immoral in the eyes of a deontologist.
Viewing from the perspective of a utilitarian, Dr. King’s actions were also just. Utilitarianism stresses the principle that we must always maximize the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of sentient beings. Arguably, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful protests inflicted harm upon no one outside of allied protestors who fell victim to police/civilian brutality. Additionally, Dr. King’s objective was to maximize the greatest amount of good for a large community that had been suffering massive injustice, and he succeeded in doing such.
Though virtue ethics can be complicated and relative due to the fact that it is based on a state of being rather than concrete rules, virtue ethicists would still agree that Dr. King was just in his actions. In Aristotle’s interpretation of virtue ethics, he illustrates the golden mean. This is the idea that for every virtue, there are two vices: deficiency and excess. In Aristotle’s eyes, one must embody the meaning of deficiency and excess to reach virtuousness. Dr. King exemplified the meaning of all applicable virtues in his letter, including courage, generosity, ambition, modesty, honesty, temperance, composure, and self-control, which is consistent with virtue ethics.
Social contract theorists would endorse Martin Luther King, Jr.’s actions because the fundamental of social contract theory is an agreement to not do harm nor suffer harm. As detailed in Dr. King’s letter, the minority community was suffering social and economic injustices and harm, as well as violence and hostility bred from the perpetuation and normalization of the injustices inflicted upon them and their connotations. Therefore, social contract theorists would find Dr. King’s actions ethical.
Martin Luther King, Jr. displayed true altruism in his demonstration of civil disobedience. Altruism is exemplified when an individual performs an action that is at a cost to themselves but benefits another third-party individual without expectation of reciprocity. Dr. King, knowing he would likely go to jail and potentially suffer further, exacerbated injustice there and performed civil disobedience to elicit positive change for millions of people without expectation of reciprocity.
Egoists believe that one should only act for and care for one’s own self-interest. Definitively defining whether or not Dr. King’s actions were parallel to that is fairly relative. On the one hand, because Dr. King was a member of the community he fought for, it could be argued that he was acting in his own long-term self-interest. On the other hand, it could be argued that it was in his best short-term self-interest not to practice civil disobedience. Based on what Dr. King depicts in his letter, he was not acting in his own self-interest and, therefore, his actions were not parallel to egoistic ideals.
Positive law theorists would adamantly disagree with Dr. King’s practice of civil disobedience. Positive law theorists believe that there is no necessary connection between morality and the law. In contrast, Dr. King believes that if a law is unjust, it should not be practiced. Therefore, positive law theorists would not condone Dr. King’s actions.
Dr. King’s actions were completely parallel to the ideals of natural law. Natural law theorists believe that an unjust law is no law at all. Dr. King’s entire demonstration of civil disobedience was based on this notion. Dr. King wanted to display the idea that there are moral laws inherent in the natural universe, and a law that contradicts or violates them should not be followed nor tolerated.
Relativists would support Dr. King’s actions solely because relativism is based on the notion that all positions are equally true. A pillar of relativism is the idea that each person decides right and wrong for themselves. Dr. King was acting upon what he decided to be right within himself.
Nihilists would feel apathetic toward Dr. King and his actions. Nihilism is based on the theory that all positions are equally false and all moral claims are void of any truth value. Therefore, Nihilists would feel nothing towards any moral dilemma.
In Plato’s book The Republic, Plato dissects what he believes justice to be. In the book, Thrasymachus asserts his belief that justice is the advantage of the stronger. He explains that the most powerful component of a city-state is its ruler(s) and that rulers are likely to form laws to satisfy their own benefit. Because following laws is just in Thrasymachus’ eyes, rulers define what is just and use that privilege to benefit themselves. Socrates counters him with the idea that justice is the advantage of the weaker. He proves that “each craft brings its own particular benefit,” and any ruler or craft actually aims to benefit the weaker. When Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his Letter From Birmingham Jail, it seemed as though the government was adhering to Thrasymachus’ definition of justice. Scientists have not been able to find a significant biological difference between people of different races, and, therefore, race has been found to be merely a social construct perpetuated by the majority to control and take advantage of minorities. The lawmaking that was normalized at that time was used to fulfill this idea, similar to Thrasymachus’ belief in justice. Dr. King would agree with Socrates’ position on justice, as he believes it is just to benefit the minority/weaker.
Personally, I agree most assiduously with the perspective of the virtue ethicist. Through extensive research in psychology, I have come to believe that humans, anomalistically, abuse power when given it. Though this reality is unfortunate, the cultivation of virtues can assist us in both rationalizing and retraining our animalistic behavior. Because humans innately only want to survive and benefit themselves, a lacking of ethical cultivation and virtuousness leads to injustice, chaos, inequality, and primitively-driven behavior. I believe that many people, both then and in today’s society, perpetuate hateful and problematic beliefs because they either are miseducated about the repercussions of their ideals or lack the empathy to emotionally relate to them due to the American culture of desensitization and distraction via the media and entertainment industry. In my eyes, much of society strays from the development of virtues because it is far easier to sedate yourself and your mind with substances, entertainment, religions, etc., and absolve yourself of personal responsibility than to immerse yourself in philosophy and existential concepts that often elicit depression, angst, and feelings of isolation.
However, similar to what Plato depicts in the allegory of the cave, making your way out of the cave (exploring philosophical and existential thoughts) is treacherous and sometimes painful, but it is necessary to become your highest and most just self. In regards to the four cardinal virtues, I believe that the development of wisdom, especially philosophical and anthropological ideas, allows you to not only understand multiple facets of an issue but additionally allows you the room to empathize with those you may not have understood or been able to relate to before. I believe that the development of temperance allows one to avoid being ruled by their own emotions, which are often fueled by illogical instincts, and instead perceive and act with rationalism and logic. Courage allows us to stray from social normalities and practice our own beliefs rather than fall victim to becoming reflections of our society and peers. The practice of justice, along with courage, temperance, and wisdom, allows us to set aside primitive behavior and experience life through the lens of our highest and most just self. Dr. King displayed each of these virtues in both his understanding of ethics and his application of them. His ideas and teachings, like Plato’s, will be valued for centuries to come.
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