Greg Moses
Recovering King
c 2000
Delivered at APA Eastern
Dec. 2001
Back to Misplaced Essays for Dr. Greg Moses

Recovering King's Golden Thesis: Justice is Love

Novelist Charles Johnson was correct when he mused-in the voice of Matthew Bishop-that, by 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr., had become an obsolete thinker. Against the dawn of a Rawlsian era in political thought, King had nerve enough to declare that we go to hell if we, "maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum." Against white liberals, drifting toward neo-conservatism, King said we cannot treat everyone equally. And against the hard-fisted demands of black power, King explained that a Nietzschean theory of power was deceptive because it was bereft of love. Beneath the tripled rising tides of Rawlsianism, Liberalism (with its neoconservative form), and Postmodern pursuits of Nietzsche, King's philosophy was drowned under.

Of course, intellectual historians will always have a King to recover who had interesting things to say for his time. He exemplified so many features of a civil rights paradigm, exhorting civil disobedience, integration, and a new civil religion. These were momentous ideas in their decade, and they do belong partly to King. But to revive such ideas as period pieces is another way of confirming Bishop's judgment-that by 1966, King's ideas had become obsolete.

If we take another look through the archive of King's ideas, however, I think there is one elegant thesis of world historical importance that is neither Rawlsian, Liberal, nor Nietzschean. As we look carefully through King's version of the civil rights paradigm, we may discover that his philosophy of civil rights is organized around one metaphysical thesis. It is King's golden thesis that justice is the power of love. A world-historical idea was born with King which, being more than a period piece in civil rights history, stands as a counter-claim to contending philosophies of justice that are very much with us today.

In feminist ethics, it is true, justice has been revisioned in terms of care. And care is very close to love. So, in this development we would find King's ideal nourished, not abandoned. But frankly, it's not going to be easy to suggest that another movement so diligently worked by women should give abundant credit to King. In the long run, however, I think attention to white feminist emphasis on care will draw us backward through King into the thinking of black women whom we do not yet know. But the longer version of history will have to be the subject of further study.

As we approach King's golden thesis, the main problems can be summed up. If we argue that King has a world historical thesis, then we must contend with the more likely candidates of contemporary philosophy, and where feminist ethics of care is found to be most sympathetic, we are not likely to have an easy time claiming priority for the patriarchal and charismatic creature that we have come to know as King.

And yet there is one problem more. King's complete philosophy requires serious attention to his concept of God.
But it be worth arguing nevertheless that King issued an epochal invitation to philosophy when he claimed that justice can only be fulfilled through the work of love.

One promise of King's thesis is that the conceptual connection between love and justice promises to expand the scope of justice. In King, moral philosophy is likely to find resources for moving in a direction suggested by the recent work of Ferguson and Bar On, who seek to integrate feminist ethics with feminist politics. Or, as Aristotle claimed, justice in its expansive sense indicates virtue entire. Of course, Aristotle acknowledges that justice has a more delimited usage applicable to such specialized concerns that would satisfy the writings of John Stuart Mill or John Rawls. King's theory of justice beckons us to not neglect the expansive usage of justice, and this is why I think he complained so bitterly about justice reduced to the distributive maximin of Rawls.

In the second place, another expansion takes place in the theory of justice when the connection to love vitalizes noncognitive dimensionality-affective, intuitive, emotional, subjective, somatic, psychic features of well being. A loving justice takes care with these qualities of experience.

In the third place, a Kingian turn toward justice as love helps to reclaim a space for philosophy as love of wisdom rather than love of theory. This is another expansion where philosophy cannot be reduced to theory but also includes pursuit of a total relationship to life.

To introduce King's philosophy of justice, we may turn to a 1954 sermon recently brought out by Carson and Holloran. The sermon, "Rediscovering Lost Values," is delivered by King prior to his civil rights leadership. The title confesses that King will be backtracking away from contemporary trends. In the sermon King will argue two theses that will still be shockingly obsolete today: first that reality hinges upon moral foundations such as the law of love and second, that reality is under spiritual control of God.

King begins the sermon talking about science and technology. He does not want to discourage any further advancements in science and technology, but he does want to argue that belong to a moral universe. Science and technology can be good only if the purposes they serve are good, and good purposes for King are ultimately spiritual. This is the way King begins to speak in Detroit in the winter of '54:

So we find ourselves caught in a messed-up world. (Well) The problem is with man himself and man's soul. We haven't learned how to be just and honest and kind and true and loving. And that is the basis of our problem. The real problem is that through our scientific genius we've made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we've failed to make it a brotherhood" (6).

When King begins speaking, the atom bomb is not yet ten years old, and the threat of nuclear annihilation is still young. In confrontation with this new world order, King insists that the greater danger on the planet is not in the technology of the new atom bomb, but in "the atomic bomb which lies within the hearts and souls of men" (7). The greater dangers are not in the hardwares of war, but in the softwares of aggression.

The new threat of bomb technology restates for King the age-old problem of human brotherhood. In a time of forward momentum in science and technology, King says it will be important for some backward movement in moral development. What King indicates without quite saying directly is that certain new features of moral life are not progressive. Under such conditions of moral life, Kings says backward is sometimes better.

Of course we will remember that King had completed his seminary studies and his graduate course work by Feb. of 1954. He knew very well what was the intellectual fashion in Boston and Cambridge. He understood the issues at hand. So he is a provocative philosopher who in 1954 openly declares that it is time to go backward in our moral development so that we may reclaim the value of believing that "This is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as physical laws" (10). His first example will be the law of love.

When King posits the law of love, he does it in a way that confirms his awareness of the provocation. "I'm not so sure if we really believe that there is a law of love in the universe, and that if you disobey it you'll suffer the consequences" (11). In fact, King notes that the modern world prefers a "relativistic ethic" that is dependent upon social norms with a "pragmatic test for right and wrong-whatever works is right" (12).

As King complains of an ethic that has been relativized and pragmatized, he warns of a cultural milieu in which specialized knowledge has crowded out attention to general moral truths. Materialism, for King, has produced a distracted array of effort and expertise that has gotten used to a world where spirit gets no attention and has unconsciously been left behind. He recalls the biblical story of Mary and Joseph who get so caught up in the logistics of their travels that they sort of forget about their son. And what do you do when you unconsciously forget to attend to your most valuable responsibility? You go backward, before you go forward again.

We can see from this early sermon-call it a pre-civil rights sermon-that King wants to be a realist about the law of love. A 1956 sermon catches King in a darker hour-eleven months into the Montgomery bus boycott-when he continues to insist that "Love is the most durable power in the world":.

Over the centuries men have sought to discover the highest good. This has been the chief quest of ethical philosophy. This was one of the big questions of Greek philosophy. The Epicureans and the Stoics sought to answer it; Plato and Aristotle sought to answer it. What is the summum bonum of life? I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. (TOH 11)

King's nonviolence was a discipline that followed from his cosmic conviction that love is a value we have to retrieve first before anything can go forward. For this reason:

Nonviolent resistance is also an internal matter. It not only avoids external violence or external physical violence by also internal violence of spirit. And so at the center of our movement stood the philosophy of love. The attitude that the only way to ultimately change humanity and make for the society that we all long for is to keep love at the center of our lives. (TOH 13)

When King preached the law of love as a cosmic principle in 1954, he retrieved the principle that would organize the spiritual discipline of interiority that would more and more radically confront exteriorities of injustice. And in this regard, King's philosophy of nonviolence became more militant as it turned from racism to poverty to war.

In the closing days of his life, King's affirmations of love did not seem to eclipse his deepening perceptions of structural evil. "America is deeply racist," wrote King in his final days, "and America's democracy is flawed both economically and socially" (TOH 314). If we look at King's late writings we find an intensified emphasis on the radical challenge of justice. "All too many Americans believe justice will unfold painlessly or that its absence for black people will be tolerated tranquilly" (TOH 314). But, "justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society" (TOH 314). And radical changes require radical deployments of power.

In late writings, King was philosophical about the general requirements of power, speaking of three levers: political, economic, and ideological-and addressing six challenges: somebodyness, group identity, making the most of existing freedoms, engaging powerful action programs, constantly re-organizing, and revolutionizing values as we find them (see Acorn). Let me just note in passing that this re-casting of strategic power accumulation is a feature of King's philosophy that nobody seems to notice. But returning to the point of this essay, even as King was radicalizing his philosophy of struggle, he was deepening his commitment to the centrality of love:

Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions an concerns, and so often have problems with power. There is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites-polar opposites-so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. (TOH 247)

Preachers and philosophers become unwitting collaborators as preacherly wariness of power is exacerbated in philosophical eschewals of love. It's a situation that Nietzsche intensifies, but this is not to Nietzsche's credit:

It was this misinterpretation that caused Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. Now, we've got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. (TOH 247)

Here King prepares to gather his philosophy of justice into an elegant thesis:

Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on. (TOH 247)

Or to paraphrase a much younger King, this is what we must recover before we can move forward again. Justice at its best centers upon the power of love.

Let me now return to my earlier claims. King's theory of justice is neither Rawlsian, Liberal, nor Nietzschean. It seems to have filiations with feminist ethics of care, except that King seems to strike the pose more boldly. And if King is on to something here, it seems to me that his thesis is world historical, since I don't know of anyone else who centers justice in the power of love.

Furthermore, if we dare to explore this way of doing a philosophy of justice it seems to me that we regain a sense of justice in the scope presented by Aristotle and Plato, if also by Karenga's reconstruction of Maat, for which the power of justice is no more restricted than the rays of the sun.

We also I think suggest a corrective trajectory for philosophy as love of technical theory, recollecting some value ot the kind of creativity and beauty that also counts as love of wisdom.

As for the third payoff that I introduced earlier, let me linger over this one. The centrality of love expands the philosophy of justice in the direction of noncognitive dimensionality-the affective, intuitive, emotional, subjective, somatic, and psychic features of well being.

Now it is true that King's emphasis on the discipline of agape love does not require that we work up affections for wrongdoers, but the centrality of love does insist that our concern for justice cannot bracket away the full-bodied demands of a fully actualized spirit. To be brief on this point, the beloved community is much more than a distributive, contractual, calculus of arrangements between rational agents. A beloved community fulfills much more exemplified by models of motherhood, fatherhood, brotherhood, sisterhood, friendship, and creative collaboration.

But I want to indulge just a few minutes in consideration of two recent works of social and psychological science. In A General Theory of Love, psychiatrists Lewis, Amini, and Lannon argue that love attachment patterns form early in life according to a neural net logic that is neither rationally constructed nor reconstructed. Healthy patterns of attachment therefore require very early attention or require costly long-term therapy.

A love-centered theory of justice will not insist that we learn to develop attachments to wrongdoers. Instead, I think a love-centered theory of justice would explore ways to insure that all children get the kind of attention that promises healthy patterns of attachment, and this would mean a social support system for parents that is equalized against patterns of deprivation.

The second book is the well-known Bowling Alone which undertakes a systematic rating of social and cultural networks. Both books suggest problems that a love-centered philosophy of justice could easily take seriously as challenges to justice itself, where the full-bodied and spiritual well being of a people is the full commitment required. It is because a Rawlsian conception of justice gets so tied up in it game theoretical calculations that simple lessons of love are presupposed not to be included-for such reasons I think King sensed the difference between his own love-centered justice and the game-theoretical model. And this is why King said Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Because Dives had not a love-centered philosophy of justice, he failed to see or care for the whole person that passed before him.

If we take seriously these recent researches into attachment and social networks, then we can see a way to understand King's claim that there is a law of love that we can either obey or disobey with predictable consequences. As Lewis, Amini, and Lannon suggest:

The urge to embed oneself in a family-to hold an endeavor in common with others, to be part of a team, a band, a group that struggles together toward a common victory-is an indomitable aspect of the human mind and brain. In a culture whose members are ravenous for love and ignorant of its workings, too many will invest their love in a barren corporate lot, and will reap a harvest of dust. (GTL 217)

King's philosophy suggests what the social scientists argue in other ways, when he insists that reality is under spiritual control. The psychiatrists of the General Theory of Love also find spiritual metaphors helpful when they quote Charles Baudelaire to the effect that, "the devil's finest trick is convincing the world he doesn't exist" (GTL 115). For the psychiatric scientists, the spiritual devil they warn against is the form of implicit memory which serves as a kind of transcendental a priori, but with lessons actually learned at a very young age about the sorts of attachments that our world would have us nurture, or not nurture. It does not seem me necessary to belabor the ways that this science suggests new reasons why we might want to go back and recover King's lost law of love.

For King, poverty and discrimination are always more than material conditions-they are spiritual conditions too. When a struggling spirit organizes ways to power down the clutches of inequality, a spiritual payoff is also waiting. To say that these challenges and payoffs are connected is a way of saying that reality hinges on moral foundations. Yet so long as King's philosophy of justice remains obsolete, we leave further and further behind values that would be well worth the effort to retrieve.


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