Reclaiming the Dream

402px-Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Lyndon_JohnsonWhat follows is a guest post by a good friend of mine. In anticipation of President Obama’s speech today, this piece strives to summarize an accurate picture of Dr. King’s moral beliefs and reveal an important contrast with United States foreign policy.

Today, America commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King’s words boomed across America, piercing the soul of a torn nation. Racial tensions simmered under the surface of American society for centuries, and in 1963 these wounds tore open. Alabama Governor George Wallace started his term by defiantly declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!”; thousands of African-Americans – including Dr. King – were arrested during protests organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashed dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators; Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered. Week after week Americans witnessed the horrors of segregation and discrimination play out on their televisions, broadcasting to the world that our professed values of freedom and justice were being systematically denied to the African-American community.

Central to Dr. King’s philosophy was the powerful tool of non-violent resistance. Inspired by Christ and Gandhi, Dr. King believed lasting equality could only be achieved through non-violent means and that the power of love and dignity would always outweigh hate and bitterness. Most importantly, Dr. King’s living and writing highlighted the fallacy of using violence to overcome violence because he believed that when people imitate the immoral actions of their oppressors, even if in self-defense, all moral standing is lost, and a vicious cycle of injustice is perpetuated. After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King reflects on the successful power of non-violent resistance:

True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power…Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart…Non-violence resistance [is] one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice.

Dr. King eventually extended this moral vision even further and joined the anti-war movement. While Dr. King’s struggle against oppression and social injustice began here in America, his moral vision extended beyond our borders and he became an outspoken critic of American aggression in the Vietnam War. He saw no moral difference between police brutality on the streets of Montgomery and the massacre in My Lai—between the torture of African-Americans imprisoned in Mississippi and the torture of Vietnamese civilians in the Mekong Delta.

On April 4, 1967, Dr. King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City entitled “A Time to Break Silence,” in which he decried the indiscriminate violence against the people of Vietnam perpetrated by the United States and called for a radical revolution of values in the hearts of the American citizens and policy makers:

The Nobel Prize for Peace was a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances… Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood… A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death…We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

When Dr. King was criticized for joining the antiwar movement, particularly because critics saw him solely as a civil rights leader, he replied:

I have worked too long now, and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And wherever I see injustice, I’m going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or in Vietnam.

In this speech we see Dr. King not as an African-American, but as a citizen of the world; his universal moral vision not reserved for a particular political party, race, religion, or country, but for all humanity; his firm convictions transcending the African-American community and embracing the oppressed around the globe.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life…We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.

As we pause to commemorate Dr. King’s dream, it raises the question: What would he say about our current wars and the state of American foreign policy? Would he support the means we’re using to pursue peace, justice, and democracy at home and abroad?

While many of the realities of The War on Terror have been known for years, the extent to which we have lost our humanity was not fully understood until U.S. Army Pfc. Manning released classified material to the website WikiLeaks in 2010—vivid specifics of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter in Iraq firing on a group of civilian journalists, descriptions of torture and imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay, as well as the grueling details of the large number of Iraqi and Afghani civilian casualties. Before commencing a 35-year prison sentence, Manning wrote a letter to President Obama:

In our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability. In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture. We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government. And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.

Last month, Dr. Cornel West, an African-American professor at Union Theological Seminary, author, and civil rights advocate was asked to speculate what Dr. King would say on the 50th Anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. Dr. West said:

The irony is…Brother Martin would not be invited to the very march in his name, because he would talk about drones…Do you think anybody at that march will talk about drones and the drone president?… Bush was the capture-and-torture president. Now we’ve got the targeted killing president, the drone president. That’s not progress. That’s not part of the legacy of Martin King… Will the connection between drones, new Jim Crow, prison-industrial complex, attacks on the working class, escalating profits at the top, be talked about and brought together during that march? I don’t hold my breath. But Brother Martin’s spirit would want somebody to push it.

Dr. King frequently criticized US Presidents in his lifetime, even those championing the cause of civil rights. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was an ally for the African-American community, yet Dr. King opposed Johnson’s support of the Vietnam War. Similarly, while I believe Dr. King would be proud of our nation for electing an African-American to the highest office in the land, he would not hesitate to condemn the massive violence the administration has perpetuated. His moral principle of non-violent resistance would compel him to once again join hands with those condemning the War on Terror.

I believe Dr. King would speak out against the force feeding of inmates in Guantanamo Bay; the drones buzzing over Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, dropping bombs on teachers and children; the thousands of American service members who have died in Afghanistan; the thousands more American and NATO soldiers returning without limbs; the American-made tear gas and weapons used against democratic demonstrators in the Middle East. I believe Dr. King’s words would once again boom across our National Mall and echo through our Capitol dome, calling on our leaders to invest not in weapons of violence but in the wellbeing of humanity. I believe Dr. King’s voice would fill the Oval Office, reminding our President that pursuing peace through war will never, in the end, accomplish what he and others hope. It will only breed hate and bitterness.

Above all, I believe Dr. King would call on us to not let divisions of race, religion, creed or nation force us to abandon our humanity; to not let the seeds of hate grow into jungles of violence. I believe he would unwaveringly declare that injustice anywhere is truly a threat to justice everywhere. I believe he would ask us to see that the bullets killing our children in Newtown and Sanford are the same bullets killing children in Kabul and Baghdad; to see that the tears of the widowed military-wife in Yonkers are the same tears of the widows in Yemen; to see that the hopelessness that races through the mind of the young Afghani in Kandahar who straps a bomb to his chest is the same hopelessness in the mind of the returned soldier in Kansas who puts a gun to his head; to see that the citizens stopped and frisked on the streets of New York are the same citizens frisked at checkpoints in Kunduz.

Fifty years ago today, a dream was planted into the collective conscience of our nation, a dream that spoke to the very core of our social ills and global injustices, a dream founded on the idea of rejecting aggression and courageously confronting evil with the power of love. Once this moral philosophy is applied consistently at home and abroad, we can build a world Dr. King would be proud of.

President Barack Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The Morality of Moral Judgment II: Principle

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my first post in this series, I attempted to provide a framework for thinking about how moral judgements work. I noted in the end that morality is something that we should try to be scientific about. In defense of this, I would attest that all prescriptive statements are factual claims by definition. They are claims about what people should do given certain circumstances and goals. If there is no attempt to seek a “correct” answer, then it is incoherent to make a moral claim.

If there are such things as right and wrong, and we want to argue that things are such, we should try to develop a set of general principles that can guide us. Granted, the kinds of principles found in a moral discussion should probably not be held to the same standard of certainty as scientific laws. Yet, this doesn’t make them unimportant, for if there are no moral principles to speak of, then there is no morality.

There are two chief types of principles in the study of ethics. They are descriptive and normative. (There is also a third category called metaethics, within which one could categorize the content of my discussion in the previous installment.)

Descriptive principles are rules of observation, denoting how people look at morality or act according to morality. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work serves as an example that includes these kinds of conclusions. For instance, he theorizes that there are five main moral values that shape our political views: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. I analyzed some of this in Moral Sentamentalism and Moral Rationalism.

Normative principles are claims about moral truths. These are the kinds of principles that will be the target of my discussion and are the kinds of principles that must exist in order for morality to exist. (If this sounds confusing, one helpful analogy might be the notion that mathematics cannot “exist” without the “existence” of its parts—addition, subtraction, and so on.) Because there are a great many competing normative principles, I will address a few of the most prevalent.

One of the most timeless principles is known by and large as the Golden Rule. There are a number of variants, but in the United States at least, people are usually referencing the Christian Bible: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them…” (Matthew 7.12). This original version is often criticized for its lack of universality. It is easy to see how it fails when imagining how sadomasochists would attempt to apply this principle. As a result, some attempt to follow the Platinum Rule, which urges individuals to treat others as they would like to be treated. Again this runs into a problem when how people like to be treated is not the same as how they should be treated.

One might observe the difficulties in studying moral principles and conclude either that there is no right answer, or that we are not capable of discovering one if there is. It is true that the history of ethical studies is rife with disagreement and complication. This is reason enough to be extremely careful about adopting moral principles, but it is no reason to throw away universality as the goal. For instance, I follow the Silver Rule based on Confucian teachings: “‘Zi Gong asked: ‘Is there a single concept that we can take as a guide for the actions of our whole life?’ Confucius said, ‘What about fairness? What you don’t like done to yourself, don’t do to others'” (15:24).

This inverse version of the Golden Rule is the less risky version. It defines moral duty by what is wrong to do and suggests inaction, whereas the “original” suggests that moral duty comprises actions. Upon analysis, I would argue that it is worse in the aggregate to take action and harm someone than to fail to act and not help someone, and as the scale of faulty action increases, the damage grows. There is more on this, but I will leave it there for now.

The Silver Rule, put into practice, may yet serve as a universal rule. Moreover, the Silver Rule is implicative of the Harm Principle. Often attributed to John Stuart Mill in his work, On Liberty, it is as follows: “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent [physical] harm to others. [All else is permitted].” It would follow logically from the harm principle that morally impermissible actions comprise those that would cause undo physical harm to others, including the use of force absent proper justification.

Such principles may not provide answers for all questions, and they may not be the same principles to which all adhere. But they serve to limit the boundaries of our moral understanding and give a clearer view of what is within the realm of moral discussion. As an end in itself, we can gather that the act of undo harm or force is a moral evil. There is an obligation to abstain from heinous deeds. What remains is to examine when people commit such deeds and when it is permissible to judge so.

The Morality of Moral Judgement I: The Metaphysical Junk

Making judgements can sometimes be a tricky thing, especially when making them about people. As human beings, we ascribe moral value judgements to actions (sometimes actions to which they shouldn’t be ascribed). Based on those actions, we compile them into broad judgements about an individual’s character. Because people fear mistakes in judgement, there has been a common theme in recent years that tells us, “Don’t judge.” This is wrongheaded. Judgements about people are critical to living the kinds of lives that we want. They allow us to befriend the people who will likely be a positive influence, while avoiding the people who would be detrimental. The key is to figure out how we make judgments and when to make judgements. The goal of this post is to provide an initial metaphysical framework that I will use in my discussion of the morality of moral judgement.

What the heck does this mean, this “morality of moral judgment” thing? I am referring to the general rules that explain when and how we should make moral judgements about one or more individuals. Although I use the word “morality,” my intention is not to say that making this or that judgement is good or evil. My intention is for it to be understood as morality-lite, in which the stakes are not that high, and right and wrong is determined by what is effective in helping one to reach a wiser life. The second usage describing a type of judgement, includes both the normal usage of morality involving good and evil and morality-lite. By “metaphysical framework,” I am referring to (or attempting to refer to) what exactly is going on when we make moral judgements. The following is what I will be assuming in this series.

There is a difference, as I hinted at earlier, between a judgement about an action and a judgement about a person. The second kind of judgement is derived from one or more of the first kind. If Jimbob throws a pipe-bomb into a circus resulting in a number of deaths and injuries, then I can judge that action on its own terms. All things considered, I would judge that action to be pretty darn immoral because it involves harming and/or extinguishing human life.

creepy clown

creepy clown (Photo credit: greenkozi)

From this, many would conclude that, therefore, Jimbob is an evil person. But what if Jimbob also volunteers as a firefighter? What if he protests the clubbing of baby seals? What if he is a wonderful husband and father that would never be expected to do something as erratic as chucking a pipe-bomb into a host of clowns?  Maybe he just had a really, really good reason to throw it. Suddenly, it isn’t so easy to label Jimbob as “evil” because there are actions he has done in his life that are good as well as bad.

The reason this can be so tricky is because our goal is to ascribe static traits to dynamic situations and somewhat indistinct personalities. There are a number of different ways in which people would ascribe to Jimbob a moral judgement (that may even stretch beyond those here). (A) They might call him evil, justifying it by saying that killing people overrules any possibility of labeling him as a good person; (B) they might call him good, arguing that his character shows that he wouldn’t do something so outlandish without a good reason; (C) they may call him neither good nor evil, with the explanation that (A) and (B) are inaccurate; or (D) they could call him both good and evil, emphasizing that he has proven that he is capable of both.

I believe that (D) is probably the most accurate of these options. (A) and (B) characterize Jimbob by a limited set of data, while (C) is a refusal to make any moral judgement. Although moral answers can sometimes be ambiguous, (C) simply does not provide an answer. The implication behind (C) is either that there is no such thing as morality, or Jimbob is among those who cannot be classified in this particular case. The first possible implication could be plausible if it is decided that the framework of morality is no longer a useful one (but we are assuming that it still is useful). The second, I suspect, would make it difficult to justify any punishment or praise for Jimbob’s actions because there would no longer be a connection between the moral action and the moral agent.

There is still another aspect that I haven’t yet included that is quite important. This is time. Until now, the judgements I have considered stretch across an undefined range of time. There is a problem in attempting to ascribe unchanging labels to ever-changing individuals. Answer (D) allows more flexibility when taking this into account. If individuals are both good and evil, the way we measure morality can now be measured in the form of a scale. Instead of a mere binary understanding of good or evil, we can ask how good and how evil individuals are. Thinking about it in this framework, I hope, should lead to more accurate moral judgements.

Let’s apply this to Jimbob. We can look at all of the things he has done over the course of his life, his “moral history,” if you will. We can take the good things: saving a grandmother from a burning house last week, spending quality time with his daughter making sure she studies and stays healthy, etc. Then we can take the bad things: the exploding clown incident, the inexplicable drunken brawl this weekend, and so on.

There are at least two key considerations that follow from analyzing things this way: 1) How do you measure the degree to which actions are right or wrong? 2) How do you compare the good and the bad with one another?

In response to (1), there is a clear difficulty here in attempting to think quantitatively about something so qualitative. However, I would contend that if we want to have a moral discussion, then there isn’t really a choice. We already attempt to discover the degrees to which something is good or bad. We may as well try to be as scientific as we can (which includes retaining a healthy dose of skepticism). As for (2), I think this is the kind of question we would need to ask if, for example, we were to decide whether or not to continue dealing with someone. Although this is an important question, providing an answer goes beyond my scope here, but we may be able to zero-in on something resembling the truth in later posts.

Moral Sentimentalism and Moral Rationalism

Moral Sentimentalism and Moral Rationalism are two epistemological theories of morality—how we know what is right and wrong. Sentimentalists like Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith have argued that a knowledge of morality arises from our senses. This has been described as an emotional basis and similar to the way we understand beauty. Rationalists like Immanuel Kant and Samuel Clarke have argued that we gain knowledge of morality from rational thought. In this view, the way we understand morality would be similar to the way we understand mathematics. Although this is a massive subject, I will do my best to reduce it to the essentials in order to explain why this is a false dichotomy and how we can better understand what happens when we make moral judgements.

Math is beautiful

Math is beautiful (Photo credit: quinn.anya)

Prof. Michael B. Gill from the University of Arizona tells us that the two positions, taken as a whole, are incompatible. The standard rationalist view holds that moral truths are necessary truths. They must be true in all possible worlds (alternate realities) in which they exist like “2+2=4.” If so, then judgements of morality are nothing like aesthetic judgements because we can imagine possible worlds in which one thing is beautiful and other possible worlds in which it is not. Conversely, sentimentalists hold that believing something to be beautiful and having a favorable feeling towards it are identical (or at least necessarily connected). In the same way, holding a moral belief toward a given action would be identical to having some feeling regarding that action. If this is the case, then there can be no analogy between morality and mathematics because math doesn’t address how we feel.

Gill rejects the idea that Sentimentalism and Rationalism are mutually-exclusive. I agree. I think it is primarily because of a failure in the discussion to connect on an epistemological level. There should be a number of premises that must be examined about how we know things in-general before we talk about morality. A theory that says we can know nothing through sentiment would eliminate sentimentalism completely, while a theory that says we do not use rational thought in obtaining knowledge would eliminate moral rationalism. Instead of “knowledge,” which serves to confuse the discussion, I think it is more useful to use “judgement.” It is much more intricate than this, but for my purposes, I will have to couch most of the epistemological discourse.

I think that both camps attempt to address different aspects of morality that are explained more clearly in a psychological context. Jonathan Haidt talks about this in the first part of his book, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. His belief is that moral “intuitions” come first and “strategic reasoning” comes second. It is usually the case that people have an initial unconscious reaction to a moral situation first, and then they rationalize it.

Does this mean that emotion serves as the basis for moral judgement? Prof. Jesse Prinz from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill thinks so. In fact, he argues, as Hume did, that a judgement that something is wrong is the same thing as having a negative sentiment towards it. He goes on to explain how emotion is both necessary and sufficient in order to make a moral judgement. There are studies that show certain areas of the brain which indicate emotion light up when people make moral judgements. These studies reveal that different emotions external to the moral dilemma affect the way we make judgements. The data also suggests that there is a correlation between a lack of emotion and an inability to draw a distinction between morality and mere convention in psychopathic subjects.

A joint study involving scholars from Harvard, Tufts, and UMBC remarks that the data is simply not enough to conclude that emotion is necessary and sufficient in order to make a moral judgement. More specifically, it does not provide a precise enough understanding of the role that emotion plays in judgement. Neuroimaging data only shows correlation between emotion and moral judgement but not causation. The effect of unrelated emotional inputs is not just limited to moral judgement. The research on psychopathic behavior shows in actuality that many still make the morality/conventionality distinction, only less often than normal subjects, but certainly not enough to confirm Prinz’s conclusion.

If one goal of moral judgement is to determine what is true, shouldn’t there be a key role for reason? The scholars from the joint study point towards an unconscious process that includes “causal-intentional representations,” which I take to be a form of reasoning. After all, a moral judgement is not meant to be a subjective statement. It is a statement that judges how things ought to be, suggesting that there should be a correct and objective answer. So looking at reason as opposed to “emotion” might not be the best way to describe what is happening.

Haidt says that there is a divide between two main types of cognition regarding morality: intuition (in place of emotion) and reasoning. He believes that intuitions come first and reasoning second, so he draws from this that Hume was right that passions (intuitions) “trump” reason. Emotions to him are just another form of cognition—information processing, and they should be categorized in a somewhat different way than they have been before. He also retains the idea that conscious reasoning is still an important aspect of moral judgment. Ultimately, I think we would both agree that the standard sentimentalist/rationalist dichotomy is faulty.

If Hume and Haidt are merely pointing out what happens—that people usually intuit first—then the claim is unsurprising and uncontroversial. If the claim is about what is most important, however, his conclusion about Hume is a bit odd. The problem, among other things, would be that it wouldn’t follow that Hume is correct. Just because people intuit first and reason consciously afterward does not mean that intuitions are necessarily more important—it only means that they happen first. From this interpretation, the two don’t appear to give any credence to the idea that perhaps what is most important is what is most effective. It also leads me to believe that Haidt would have to assume intuition and judgment are the same thing (what Hume argues) and disregard the notion that intuition could be connected to reason.

If this is not Haidt’s intention, we nevertheless can dig into the same discussion about how to address and think about morality. We may not immediately be thinking deeply in response to moral stimuli, but individuals can certainly change their habits in how they react over time by thinking consciously about them. I am convinced that if we can change what we think is moral, then we have some degree of choice that affects our “intuitions.” We are now faced, ironically, with a somewhat moral question about morality: “Should we try to rationalize morality as much as possible or just go with whatever we feel like?” Beginning with the next post, I will address questions like this in a series called The Morality of Moral Judgement.