Free «Letter from Birmingham Jail» Essay Sample

Moral values necessary for the existence of society have been widely discussed on different levels throughout social history, and the debates of this kind are of the utmost importance in politically trying times. Martin Luther King, Jr. is known as one of the most famous and honored advocates for the application of moral principles to public life. His Letter from Birmingham Jail calls the audience to remember about ethics and justice when thinking about the faith of the black. Stephen L. Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, notes the yearning of society for integrity and devotes his work to the definition of integrity and its differentiation from honesty. The two works are separated by thirty three years of social change, but the problems that the authors are concerned with are quite similar in essence. The difference between honesty and integrity as interpreted by Carter is in essence the difference between conformism and activism as implied by King, since a person may be an honest conformist but cannot be called a man of integrity in this case.

King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and Carter’s The Insufficiency of Honesty have little in common as literary works. They were written for different purposes, in different circumstances, for different audiences, on different subjects. At the same time, both provoked much attention and debates. For example, in response to Carter’s The Insufficiency of Honesty Professor of Sociology Dennis W. Hiebert wrote his article The Insufficiency of Integrity where he criticizes Carter’s position examining the limitations of integrity. The influence of King’s writings is so comprehensive and widely known that there is no need to dwell upon it. Though more than thirty years have passed since his Letter was written, King’s message has become neither outdated nor obsolete. Carter’s work better grabs the attention of contemporary reader since it uses examples relevant to modern reality and the terms widely used now. King talks about the issue that no longer exists in the USA – racial segregation and discrimination, so his Letter is mainly of historical importance. Nevertheless, the rationale of both works lies in underlining the ethical principles of conduct and the importance of such virtues as honesty and justice for building a sound society, which is why both works are closely related to the current state of affairs.

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If both works are read consequently, a conclusion going far beyond the immediate subjects of the readings necessarily arises, and it lies in the idea that integrity is the necessary component of democracy. Indeed, a democratic society is inconceivable without justice which honesty is a necessary prerequisite for, and, as Carter argues, honesty is nothing without integrity. Carter stresses the importance of discernment for integrity; according to him, this is the basic difference between honesty and integrity. A person may be completely honest believing in ideas that are morally wrong and propagating these ideas openly, but a man of integrity would first seriously reflect on moral validity of his beliefs. This is what King actually calls for in his Letter without mentioning the word “integrity”. It is symbolic that both authors refer to Socrates to support their points: “Socrates thought the unexamined life not worth living”, writes Carter about the importance of discerning; “Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal”, notes King stressing the need for “nonviolent tension” (“Letter”). Both assertions are strikingly similar though expressed through the use of different words.

In addition, both authors stress “a willingness to accept the penalty” (King, “Letter”) as an integral part of the moral portrait of a man of integrity. Carter lists readiness to act “on what you have discerned even at personal cost” as one of the three traits that distinguish integrity from honesty. Later in his article, Carter returns to this issue saying that “honesty is most laudable when we risk harm to ourselves”. Similarly, King points at early Christians as an example of self-sacrificing people who “deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed”, and praises those who joined the struggle for freedom for “their willingness to suffer”. King also says that these people “have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity” (“Letter”), from which it becomes evident that conformity in King’s understanding is very similar to the lack of integrity in Carter’s understanding. Thus, justice, and therefore democracy, is impossible if there is much conformity and little integrity. “Integrity is the lifeblood of democracy”, says Edward M. Kennedy proving the vitality of this idea.

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 Indeed, non-conformism and integrity have much in common, and Carter could identify conformism of King’s contemporaries as the lack of integrity since they seem to have not discerned what is right and what is wrong which resulted “in the expression of an incorrect moral judgment” (Carter). Indeed, King testifies that many of them didn’t bother to reflect seriously on the issue. “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern”, cites King some ministers proving that the act of discernment did not take place. As a result, “the white moderate” were “the Negro’s great stumbling block”, according to King, and the lack of integrity appeared to be a serious obstacle for democratic development.

In his Letter, like in his other writings, Martin Luther King calls for justice distinguishing between just and unjust laws and reminding about numerous promises made to the black and finally broken. In this respect, King’s call for justice again reminds Carter’s concept of integrity, since the latter also devotes much attention to the relation of promises to moral obligations. Carter indicates that promising is not the only source of moral obligations and points out that leaving other sources of obligation aside leads to the attempts to avoid obligations – “and all to often honesty is their excuse” (Carter). In his Letter, King calls “to make real the promise of democracy” and bitterly admits that the black “were the victims of a broken promise”. Thus, King’s contemporaries demonstrated not only the lack of integrity but also the lack of honesty. In his speech Rediscovering Lost Values King identifies this phenomenon as “a sort of a relativistic ethic”, and calls for the attitude that Carter could identify as integrity: “The thing that we need in the world today is a group of men and women who will stand up for right and to be opposed to wrong, wherever it is” (King, “Rediscovering Lost Values”). Indeed, such people would conform to all three steps of integrity identified by Carter: they would discern what is right and what is wrong, they would act on what they have discerned, “even at personal cost”, and they would openly proclaim their principles.

Thus, King’s call for justice can be identified as the call for integrity if Carter’s terminology is applied. Martin Luther King calls to take an effort of reflection differentiating between just and unjust laws, which corresponds to the first step of integrity identified by Carter, or “discerning what is right and what is wrong”; then he calls for action based on the understanding of right and wrong, which corresponds to the second step of integrity – “acting on what you have discerned” (Carter); finally, he calls to “say openly that you are acting on your understanding of right and wrong”, which corresponds to the third step of integrity. Therefore, the core essence of both writings has much in common despite the seeming difference. King could rightfully apply the term “integrity” defined by Carter to express his ideas, and Carter could take examples from King’s writings to illustrate his concept. Both works lead the readers to the conclusion that integrity is one of the basic democratic values without which true democracy is hardly possible.

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