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Martin Luther King Jr.’s Social and Political Philosophy Essay


An analysis of the required passage from “A Letter from a Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.” proposes two distinct arguments: that segregation is lawfully unjust and that segregation is morally unjust. He presents his argument against following the concept of segregation on the basis that it both lawfully and morally unjust and thus does not possess the needed justification to actually be followed.

The argument and the evidence supporting them thus follow the following format:

1st argument:

P: “Segregation lawfully wrong and unjust” (King Jr., 1).

C: “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God” (King Jr., 1).

C: “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law” (King Jr., 1).

C: “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law” (King Jr., 1).

C: “Segregation is an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness” (King Jr., 1).

C: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just” (King Jr., 1).

C: “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (King Jr., 1).

C: “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality” (King Jr., 1).

P: “Segregation is morally wrong and unjust “(King Jr., 1).

C: “It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority” (King Jr., 1).

C: “Segregation ends up relegating persons to the status of things “(King Jr., 1).

C: “Segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful” (King Jr., 1).

Examining the Arguments presented by Martin Luther King Jr.

It must first be noted that the arguments and their basis are actually a form of ethos; the concept of ethos can be described as a form of guiding beliefs that are an inherent part of a community or nation’s character. It is used as a guide that influences a person’s behavior to such an extent that by examining the ethos behind a culture you can determine how they will react based on a given situation. In this particular case, the ethos behind the actions of Martin Luther King Jr. is that advocated by the African American civil rights movement whose ethos is the end of racial segregation, equal treatment in society as well as equality in all other forms of business, education, other forms of benefits accorded to Caucasians.

It is on the basis of this particular ethos that Martin Luther King Jr. presents the argument against segregation due to its unlawful nature and immoral effects on the African American population. As can be seen in the contents of the passage such an argument is clearly embedded in the advocated ethos of the African American civil rights movement and as such follows the same pattern in demanding the freedoms believed in to be a God-given right as indicated by the ethos he stands by.

What must first be understood is that laws were created to maintain the structure of society yet not all social structures are inherently good. For example, the society of Sparta had a law that required Spartan men to be trained in the art of combat from an early age and be part of the Spartan army. It also had an inherent social law that dictated that marriages between Spartans had to be arranged before birth and that Spartan women on the night of their “wedding” have to wait in their home bald and wrestle the Spartan male who came to claim her, after which she was forcefully taken from her home and summarily raped in accordance with ancient customs. While in the modern era such laws are considered morally unjust and irreprehensible they were in fact a necessity at the time in order to help maintain the Spartan state and considered morally and legally just.

The basis of King’s argument is one that advocates moral code, natural law, eternal law, and the sinfulness of segregation; in no part does he actually mention the previous need to maintain segregation in order to ensure the continued existence of American society. Racial segregation, epitomized by the “Jimmy Crow laws, was actually put into practice under the assumption of ensuring the continued survival of the state. The fact remains that all laws created by the state are in one way or another created to ensure its continued existence. Without inherent laws in places, any country would rapidly descend into anarchy.

Basing an argument against a particular law on its “wrongness” or being unjust is slightly fallacious since all laws created by the state can one way or another be interpreted as being unjust yet are there in order to ensure that the state’s current existence. Thus it can even be said that no set of laws created by a state can be considered completely free from certain aspects considered to be morally wrong or unjust however it can be stated as a fact that they were created in order to ensure stability and thus are accomplishing their purpose despite objections regarding their unjustness.

In the second argument, it can clearly be seen that King is basing the moral unjustness represented by segregation on the ethos of the African American Civil rights movement. It must be noted that ethos can also refer to the way in which a person portrays themselves in an argument, in a sense that it is a method in which persuaders present an “image” to people that they are attempting to persuade. This particular “image” refers to a persuader’s “character” in the sense that a person is attempting to persuade another person of the righteousness of their statements based on their inherent character.

In these particular cases King presents the argument that on the basis of the African American people being human, the same as the Caucasian, they are entitled to the same rights that the whites do. Thus the image being presented is one of humanity wherein it can be seen that the “character” being referred to here is a person’s inherent humanity and the right to be treated equally on basis of being human.

What must be understood though is that through the examination of the historical nature of ethos it can be seen that in one way or another despite the apparent ethical appearance of a certain type of ethos there is always an underlying reason behind its creation which does in fact create a beneficial effect for the individuals that created it. Ethos is not something that is inherent but rather something that has been created and manufactured with a surface image in order to fulfill a particular purpose. It is often utilized as a method of convincing people or justifying a particular set of actions and as such, it is crafted in such a way so as to be convincing, believable, and thus adaptable.

While in the second argument King justifies his actions on the basis of ethics and immorality the fact remains that the ethos he abides by was in fact created for a specific purpose that is not inherently ethical but rather beneficial. As seen by the evidence presented by history, the ethos of the African American civil rights movement did, in fact, benefit the black population within the U.S. Thus it can be seen that the basis of Martin Luther King Jr’s arguments is not one coming from a place of pure ethical consideration but rather one aimed at benefitting a specific segment of the population.

Works Cited

King Jr, Martin Luther. ” .” AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER. UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA, 1963. Web.

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1. IvyPanda. "Martin Luther King Jr.'s Social and Political Philosophy." February 10, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/martin-luther-king-jrs-social-and-political-philosophy/.


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IvyPanda. "Martin Luther King Jr.'s Social and Political Philosophy." February 10, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/martin-luther-king-jrs-social-and-political-philosophy/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Martin Luther King Jr.'s Social and Political Philosophy." February 10, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/martin-luther-king-jrs-social-and-political-philosophy/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Martin Luther King Jr.'s Social and Political Philosophy'. 10 February.

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