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Martin Luther King Jr. on Meta-Ethics & Normative Ethics

Martin Luther King Jr.’s View of Metaethics and Normative Ethics

It’s January 18, 2021. The 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump, has just been impeached for a second time in just over one year on the grounds that he incited a violent mob which attacked the US Capital when the 2020 election votes were to be officially tallied. Folks on the left claim those on the right wish to use the physical power of violence to get their way and override the law; folks on the right claim those on the left are using political power to oppose a President they disdain. Whether its physical or political, it might appear that power will have the final say about who gets to be on the winning side of history, writing the laws and establishing what’s right and wrong—once this sea of incessant change stops swirling and things get back to “normal.”

After a tumultuous 2020 summer of lockdowns related to the pandemic and civil unrest following the unjust killing of George Floyd, I began teaching philosophy at Yakima Valley College in my hometown, one mile from where I was born in Washington State. Part of my professorial responsibilities include teaching ethics to undergraduate nursing and business students. In honor of MLK Day, I wrote this article for my students with the aim of briefly highlighting three elements in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s understanding of ethics evidenced in a single quote, albeit a long one. The quote comes from MLK’s classic ‘Letter from a Birmingham City Jail’ in which MLK responds to his fellow clergyman (i.e., his colleagues who are likewise Christian pastors) who criticized his unlawful civil disobedience: You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.” Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for the “I-thou” relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1986), 293.

This is first rate philosophy done from a jail cell. There are several elements relevant to my ethics courses expressed in MLK’s words that I wish to highlight.

To begin with, when many people think about morality they think about legal laws, assuming that morality is identical to legal policy (the law of the land). While MLK thought that policy needed to be consistent with the moral law and informed by it, he clearly did not think that legality and morality are one and the same. Given this he could point out that when a legal law is inconsistent with the moral law the legal law is unjust, whereas a legal law that is in step with the moral law is just.

Secondly, given the prevalent embrace (or at least unaware adoption) of moral relativism, it is often thought that popular opinion, or perhaps the opinion of those in power, is what the moral law is rooted in. But Martin Luther King, Jr.—who is sitting in a jail cell precisely because he disagrees with those in power with popular sway—sees things differently. As a moral realist he suggests that the moral law is an objective feature of the world that expresses itself in nature. He hints at the idea that this law is “the law of God,” ultimately grounded in the the divine. Those familiar with the intersection of philosophy of religion and metaethics at this point might worry that MLK’s ethical framework is in danger of succumbing to the dreaded Euthyphro dilemma, as it rests on a theistic foundation. Yet those who have grasped William Alston’s reply to this dilemma in ‘What Euthyphro Should Have Said’ need not fret.

In any event, I wish to focus our attention on a third element in MLK’s rationale that pertains to normative theories of ethics. In a pragmatic American culture in which philosophy is often seen as utterly impractical, notice that in the second paragraph of the quote the greatest activist in American history appeals to a stream of thought in historical philosophy that flowed from Aquinas. Simply but technically put, he appeals to natural law ethics. MLK’s appeal to natural law ethics include highlighting the nature of the entities that segregation laws involve—namely, human persons. The problem with the segregation laws is that they entail that the entities in question have the wrong nature by implying that they are things when they are human persons, who stand in I-thou (or I-you) interpersonal relationships with other persons. Because the laws treat human beings as though they are things rather than persons, this negatively affects everyone involved, prohibiting the flourishing of the segregated but also the segregator. Segregation turns eudaimonia (i.e., happiness/flourishing) upside down, and everyone loses. In light of the observable fact that segregation runs contrary to the nature of the persons it involves, degrading human nature and well-being, we can know that it is not only bad for society and all that it includes, but unjust and immoral.

This was the ideological—philosophical—foundation for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s action, for which we honor him this MLK Day, and for years to come. By Matthew Owen Matthew Owen is a philosopher who teaches at Yakima Valley College in Washington State. He is also an affiliate faculty member of the Center for Consciousness Science at the University of Michigan Medical School. After earning a PhD at the University of Birmingham, England, he served as the Elizabeth R. Koch Research Fellow for Tiny Blue Dot Consciousness Studies at Gonzaga University, under the supervision of Dr. Christof Koch (Allen Institute for Brain Science) and Dr. Brian Clayton (Gonzaga University). Matthew has published research articles in various international journals and his first book Measuring the Immeasurable Mind: Where Contemporary Neuroscience Meets the Aristotelian Tradition is forthcoming from Lexington Books (Rowman & Littlefield) in 2021.

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