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Kant vs. King: An application of Kant's ideas to King's nonviolent direct action.

By Ben Martin, January 24, 1998

Martin Luther King. Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham City Jail" presents some interesting problems when considered along with the ideas presented by Immanuel Kant in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. For, while Kant and King often agree, there are some interesting incongruities, despite the fact that both are approaching from the standpoint of what is morally right. King justifies his his actions by using Kant's ideas, but then takes actions that do not fit those same concepts, which is at first confusing. At first, I believed that King was in opposition to Kant, but, eventually, I concluded that King did in fact agree with Kant, but that he "crossed the line" at a specific point, that is, once he chose to use nonviolent direct action. Essentially, by Kant King was justified to act, but he was not justified to take the action that he did, which was actually in direct opposition to what Kant advocates.

Indeed, King makes a convincing argument for action, by attempting to show that the segregation laws are immoral, and so, therefore, they should not be followed, i.e. it is his moral duty to oppose them. He states, "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" (paragraph 14). So far, King has said nothing to disagree with Kant, and in fact, has reinforced Kant's ideas with mostly tolerable definitions (we will probably have to forgive his use of God's laws, something which Kant all but ignores) of what is and is not moral. After arguing that segregation is wrong because, in violation of moral law, it makes humans things (something we will return to later), he continues, "So segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful" (ibid.). Now he has taken the idea of what is morally wrong and applied it to their situation. Now he justifies action on the matter by saying, "So I can urge men to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong" (ibid.). To this point, King has not really said much that would contradict Kant, and, truthfully, he does not so often say anything which specifically contradicts Kant, so much as his actions demonstrate a disregard for his ideas. But this is not yet entirely relevant, as we have yet to deal with any of King's actions. What we have discovered is that King is indeed justified by Kant's phiolosophy to take action. But is the action he chooses tolerable under Kantian standards?

King is both justified and condemned by Kant's words on the intrinsic value of rational beings. Kant says that man "... exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will" (428). Hence, Kant continues, he must always accordingly treat humans as an end, whether his action is directed at others or himself. Furthermore, Kant says that beings that are not rational, being means, are called things, but rational beings, being ends, are called persons, and are objects of respect. Now King seeks to justify himself by saying that injustice against this is precisely what he is combatting. Paraphrasing Martin Buber, King argues that because segregation laws create an "I-it" relationship where there should be an "I-thou" relationship, and relegates persons to things (paragraph 14). This is of course exactly what Kant is condemning so it seems as if King is completely justified so far. Moreover, King argues that this is against moral law, and thus should so be opposed. Still King has said nothing to contradict Kant, but then it is not his words that the clergy have complained about. In supposedly trying to uphold the moral law (one which both Kant and King agree with in words), King was using humans as ends. Was he not effectively sacrificing his own welfare and freedom and that of his fellow activists so that it might result in a better state in the future? He knew very well the hardships they could suffer at the hands of the Birmingham police, and yet he plunged himself and others into to this danger. This could perhaps still be justified because it was after all in line with moral duty, but King is also treating the merchants of Birmingham as things, as means of obtaining justice, which, while it may not be objectionable to us, is definitely in opposition to Kant's philosophy. Therefore, nonviolent direct action, as King calls it, is in opposition to Kant's metaphysics in that it relegates humans to means and things. Though King's motivation toward some action was proper, his motivation toward this one was improper.

A point where King and Kant disagree more directly is on action towards an end. Kant clearly objects to performing one action with the intent of bringing about some specific result: "An action done from moral duty has its moral worth, not in the purpose that is to be attained by it, but in the maxim according to which the action is determined" (399-400). King at first seems to agree, saying, "So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to obtain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just wrong, or even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends," and, citing T. S. Eliot, "...there is no greater treason than to do the right thing for the right reason" (paragraph 39). Of course, Kant would agree partially with these assertions, in that moral means cannot be used toward an immoral end, or that immoral means cannot be used towards immoral ends (it is this latter he specifically condemns), but then he would condemn any action toward any end. It becomes clear that King does not agree with this, as he also says , "...nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek" (paragraph 39). King tells us to use moral means to obtain moral ends, but Kant condemns even this. King goes even further, to say specifically that their action in Birmingham was toward a certain end, namely, bringing about negotiation with their opposition: "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistantly refused refuesd to negotiate is forced to confront the issue" (paragraph 10). Therefore, while King's actions may have been originally motivated properly by moral duty, now they are driven by hopes of obtaining an end (which is by no means guaranteed), in opposition to Kant. I think that we can say using Kant that King had the proper motivation to an action, but as far as this specififc action and others of its kind were concerned, he had improper motivation. Hence, nonviolent direct action is immoral according to Kant's interpretation of moral law in that it is directed towards obtaining some end.

There are other points of disagreement between King and Kant than these, (some even contradiciting my thesis, as it could be argued, for example, that King was acting out of inclination and not moral duty, and so on), but these representative examples will serve given the size and scope of this paper. If one closely analyzed King's letters he would undoubtedly find passages demonstrating further proper motivation and further incorrect actions, but I think these two will do as representative examples. King clearly did have a solid ground for taking action under Kant, but he distinctly did not have any for using nonviolent direct action. Of course, most people would probably side with King's course of actions over Kant (I myself am not completely decided), but that was not what I sought to argue. I wonder in what manner King should have acted to be in compliance with Kant's metaphysics of morals. Should he have merely waited, as the cleargy he is responding to, advocated? Or is there some action no one has yet thought of that would have resolved the situation more satisfactorily? At any rate, it is an interesting practical look at Kant's ideas as applied to the "real world."



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