Category Archives: philosophy

why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics

Most applied ethicists are skeptical that we can resolve significant problems by applying ambitious moral philosophies or theories of justice.

I report this skepticism anecdotally, but it comes from 15 years working in an applied ethics center and my peripheral involvement with educational ethics, media ethics, political campaign ethics, and related fields. People who teach ethics in college sometimes require students to apply the big moral theories to practical problems. (“What would Kant say about blockchain?” “What does utilitarianism imply about health reform?”) But these assignments are meant to convey the theories, not to resolve the problems. Professional ethicists rarely write their own “What would Kant say about …?” papers.

Why not? I think the following explanations are plausible. Some are mutually compatible, but they push in different directions:

  1. Stalemate: There are several academically respectable moral theories: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue-ethics, and maybe others. Some individuals are drawn to one theory over the rest, but that is a matter of intuition or sheer preference. Arguments have not resolved the disputes among them. To invoke one theory in relation to a concrete ethical problem just neglects the other theories. Invoking more than one often yields a dilemma.
  2. Pluralism (in Isaiah Berlin’s sense): Maybe the truth about the human world is that it involves many different kinds of good thing: various negative and positive rights, welfare outcomes, equity and other relations among people, procedural fairness, etc. These good things conflict, and one must choose among them. Each moral theory tends to illuminate and justify one kind of a good, yet practical wisdom is about balancing them.
  3. Particularism: The appropriate focus for moral assessment is not an abstraction, such as freedom, but a concrete particular, like the school in my neighborhood. In a parallel way, the most important focus for aesthetic evaluation is a whole painting, not all the instances of yellow ochre that appear in different paintings. You can believe that yellow ochre is a nice color, but that doesn’t tell you much about whether or why Vermeer’s “View of Delft” is beautiful, even though that painting does incorporate some yellow ochre. Likewise, you can’t tell much about a given situation in which there is some freedom just from knowing that freedom is generally good. If the appropriate focus of ethical evaluation is a concrete, particular, whole thing, then theorizing about abstractions doesn’t help much. (See Schwind on Jonathan Dancy, p. 36 or Blackburn, “Securing the Nots,” p. 97.)
  4. Complexity: Ethical problems often involve many people who have divergent interests, beliefs, rights, goals, etc., and who continuously affect each other. Their choices and responses are unpredictable. Given the resulting complexity, it is usually hard to model the situation empirically–regardless of whether one is more interested in consequences, rights, procedures, comparisons among people, or all of the above. Once you’ve modeled the situation reasonably well and you think you know what would happen if A did B to C, then a Pareto-optimal choice may become clear. For instance, reducing imprisonment in the USA would (I think) enhance individual rights, equity, utility, non-domination, rule of law, and practically every other value I can think of. However, agreement about Pareto-optimal choices is fairly rare, and the most common reason is persistent debate about the empirics. Moral theory really doesn’t help much.
  5. Narrowness of philosophy: To “apply moral philosophy” often means to apply Kantianism, utilitarianism, 20th-century virtue ethics, social contract theory, or perhaps one or two other idea systems. (Maybe some Levinas; maybe some Marx.) These systems have great value, but also limitations. They usually focus either on individual choices at given moment (Is it OK to lie?), or else on what Rawls called the “basic structure of society,” but not on the overall shape of a single human life, practices for enhancing virtues, deeply ingrained forms of oppression, institutions other than governments, or group processes other than lawmaking. Some of these matters are better explored in Hellenistic and classical Indian and Chinese philosophy or in applied social science fields; some have never received adequate attention. It’s not that abstract theory is irrelevant to concrete choices, but that the most widely respected philosophical theories are too narrow.
Lady Philosophy in Boethius: “On the lower fringe of her robe was woven the Greek letter ? [for practical reason]; on the top, the letter ? [for theory]; and between the two was a staircase from the lower to the upper letter.”

I think that large concepts or themes can help us think about what to do. Among the useful concepts for practical reason are the major concerns of modern Anglophone philosophy, such as rights and forms of equity. These concepts or themes do arise in concrete cases. But many other concepts are also useful. Depending on the circumstances, you might get as much value out of Albert Hirschman’s scheme of exit, voice, and loyalty as from Rawls’ account of justice, even though Hirschman’s theory is not explicitly normative. And examples, narratives, and concrete proposals also provide insights.

A reporter supposedly asked Earl Long, “Governor, should you use ethics in politics?” Long said, “Hell yes, use anything you can get your hands on!” I am inclined to agree with the governor–use whatever ideas help you to reason about what to do.

In turn, studying and discussing concrete problems can generate questions and insights that enrich abstract philosophy and social theory. If we must call pure philosophy the “top,” and practical reasoning the “bottom,” then influence should flow from bottom-up as well as from top-down.

(I am inspired here by a fine conference paper by Julian Müller, but I think these are my own established views rather than his. See also: structured moral pluralism (a proposal); Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); the importance of the inner life to moral philosophy; modus vivendi theory; consequences of particularism; etc.

what must we believe?

A study by Roland G. Fryer, Jr. provoked controversy because of its conclusion that Black and Hispanic people are not more likely than whites to be shot to death by police, although they are more likely to experience non-lethal force at the hands of police. In “Race, Policing, and The Limits of Social Science,” Lily Hu uses this study and the resulting controversy to explore important questions about the persuasiveness of social science. Her questions are not merely academic–they have existential significance as we each decide how to interpret and improve the world.

Speaking for myself (but in a similar vein to Hu), I would draw attention to the results in the tables near the end of Fryer’s piece (pp. 39ff). You’ll see familiar-looking columns of numbers, many of which are means or coefficients. They are labeled with text, including such words or phrases as “High-crime Area,” “Carrying Suspicious Obj,” “Incident type: Street Stop,” “Officer Unit Majority White,” “Pinellas County,” and “Hispanic.”

Why are we reading these tables? For one thing, Roland Fryer has captured our attention and a baseline level of trust. This is not a given. I crunched some numbers on police discrimination last year and drew modest traffic. I am not complaining: Fryer genuinely deserves much more attention because of the ambitiousness and originality of his paper (even if one criticizes it). Yet it is worth noting that we read his paper as a consequence of many causal factors, including Fryer’s talent and hard work but also his status and position.

In short, knowledge results–like everything else–from causes. The factors that cause us to know and to trust any given claim include power and social status.

Fryer’s specific findings are the result of methods that social scientists have developed and that he chose to use. Methods are always contestable, and, in this case, they have been challenged. I do not have anything valuable to add about his methods, but their contestability is important.

As for the data that Fryer uses, they result from social processes. He analyzed five million records from New York City’s Stop, Question, and Frisk program, which mandated a great deal of data-collection as part of its approach to enforcement/social control. He also used the Police-Public Contact Survey, which is a federally funded survey conducted by the US Census Bureau for the Justice Dept. Finally, he and a team coded reports from the files of the police in LA County, Houston, Austin, Dallas, Houston and six large Florida counties.

Thousands of people generate these data: randomly selected residents who complete surveys and police officers who file required reports. Many hundreds of people design these instruments and make sure that they are completed. A police officer files a report about an incident with a civilian because of other required reports: a personnel file on the officer, an evaluation of the unit commander, etc. Deeper in the background are previous efforts to measure our social world. For instance, racial categories come from thousands of previous surveys designed and fielded for other purposes. We code and analyze stored bodies of text (such as police files) thanks to techniques previously developed for other research.

Different phenomena could be measured, and different measures could be used. The government of France does not record race and literally does not know how many French residents are people of color. In contrast, the US has always categorized our population by race, albeit with changing categories and purposes. Already in the Census of 1800, Americans were categorized as free whites, other free persons, or slaves.

One way to think about such differences is in terms of choices. We could choose not to measure race, to measure it in a different way, or to measure things that we do not measure now. But this “we” is misleading. We citizens are not convened like a committee to review discrete choices. Instead, the practice of measuring any given thing often results from concerted efforts by specific people or groups. Some people develop and revise concepts and organize and advocate; other people then spend money or apply power to cause data to be collected. I have been involved in such efforts–for instance, helping to write the federal assessment of civics, and playing a role in generating voter turnout data for most US colleges and universities. These are purposive efforts, undertaken to change the world for specific reasons. They reflect people’s values and strategies.

People also undertake concerted efforts to build up social institutions. It is not natural or inevitable that we have police at all–meaning uniformed, armed, bureaucratically organized public-sector employees with unique rights and responsibilities. Having police is a choice, but again, it is not an item on a menu that was set before the public. Instead, policing is an institution with its own inertia, constituencies, and political influence. The choice that each of us faces is whether to support policing, assent to it, subvert it, or help to build up an alternative.

The same is true of the political jurisdictions listed in Roland Fryer’s tables. It is not inevitable that Houston and Pinellas County, FL are organized as entities with police forces and other state powers. Indeed, Elinor Ostrom showed that much smaller jurisdictions produced better policing, and she found especially good results in small Black-majority communities that had their own police forces. So it is a choice to have a Houston police force–but again, this choice reflects many decades of concerted efforts by many people with many agendas.

Particular facts are the results of power deployed through social institutions. Power is not necessarily bad: it is nearly synonymous with “capacity,” and we want capacity. Nor is power necessarily zero-sum: we can measure and value more than one thing at a time. Therefore, to say that knowledge emerges from power is not cynical. Whether knowledge is good or bad depends on the motives, the means, and the consequences that relate to it.

This implies that to assess knowledge is always partly a matter of values–it is a normative as well as an empirical matter. You can’t assess the crime rate unless you know which activities are deemed illegal and how the law is enforced. You can’t assess the employment rate until you know what counts as employment, which jobs are consistent with a good life, and what happens to the people who are labeled unemployed. The crime rate or the employment rate is not a simple fact: it is a result of social institutions that cause people to behave in various ways and that cause their behaviors to be measured and classified in various ways.

The next question (for me) is: What should we evaluate? I resist evaluating very broad and vague phenomena, such as capitalism or modernity or even the USA. That is a path to ideology, in the bad sense of that word: broad assessments prevent careful thought and nuance.

On the other hand, each social phenomenon is linked tightly with many others. A claim cannot be assessed all by itself. For instance, to accept that a city block is a “high crime area” (as in one of the datasets in Fryer’s paper) is to accept a whole system of social monitoring and control that gives some places that label.

We assess one thing at a time, yet each assessment is related to many previous ones. In this way, we gradually build up a worldview that combines normative judgments, empirical generalizations, causal inferences, and many other components. Hu cites “what philosopher W. V. O. Quine so charmingly called our ‘web of belief.'”

As she points out, a particular piece of information may come along that conflicts with some existing components of our web. For instance, Fryer’s specific statistics about police-involved shootings contradict what I had believed. In such cases, we must consider “what must be sacrificed so that other beliefs might be saved. And since our webs are not all identical, what rational belief revision demands of us will also vary. One man’s happily drawn conclusion (p, therefore q!) is another’s proof by contradiction (surely not q, therefore not p!). Or as the saying goes, one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.

Her rather startling conclusion: “Rejecting a study’s methods or its starting assumptions on the basis of disagreement with its results is a completely legitimate inferential move.”

Confronted by Fryer’s original paper, someone who is very concerned about police shootings of unarmed Black civilians might:

  • Doubt the sources of the statistics (although the paper uses several different kinds of sources);
  • Doubt the mathematics, either because of specific methodological concerns or because of a low threshold of trust in the author (who could, in theory, have made basic errors);
  • Doubt the conclusions because they conflict with other sources of information;
  • Acknowledge the specific conclusions but accentuate the part of the study that reinforces prior views: police use non-lethal force in a racially discriminatory way;
  • Modify strategies for police reform to focus more on the non-lethal uses of force; or
  • Revise basic beliefs, including beliefs about other sources of knowledge, such as news coverage of police homicides.

Hu implies that any of these responses might be rational, depending on one’s overall web of belief. For instance, it would be irrational for me to distrust Fryer’s basic mathematics, because I have accumulated trust in institutions like Harvard and the NBER. They have served me well on many prior occasions. However, other people might have no such basis for trust and might have very well-grounded reasons to doubt a result that contradicts their vivid accumulated experiences. Hu writes:

For those whose beliefs, empirical and ethical, are forged in participation in radical sociopolitical movements from below, to be ill-inclined to accept certain findings about race and policing is to remain steadfast in a commitment to a certain thick set of empirical and ethical propositions in their webs of beliefs: that systems of policing and prisons are instruments of racial terror and that any theory of causation, theory of race, and statistical methods worth their salt will see race to be a significant causal factor affecting disparate policing and prison outcomes. This just is the first test of “fitting the data.” It is not a flight from rationality but an exercise of it.

Bertrand Russell summarized a significant tradition when he wrote his Liberal Decalogue (ten commandments) for educators. He included these points:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

 5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

 6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
 
 7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

 8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

 9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

This list is “liberal” in the sense that it prizes autonomy, freedom of conscience and speech for all, a marketplace of ideas, and the individual’s exercise of reason. It is a version of Kant’s “enlightenment.” It has merit–perhaps slightly underplayed in Hu’s excellent article. We suffer from motivated reasoning, intellectual conformity, and polarization, and it takes work to keep our minds open. Russell’s advice is valuable for that reason. In this spirit, we might do well to wrestle with the specific claims in an article like Fryer’s–to see what insights we can get from them.

But Russell’s list is incomplete, for the reasons that Hu presents. Basically, he treats each “truth” and each observer as independent, when they actually belong to Quinian webs of belief and social institutions. Therefore, we should also remember to:

  1. Recognize the consequences or what we choose to say, including arguments and findings that we choose to repeat from other people’s work. In making these choices, strive to do no harm.
  2. When encountering new and troubling findings, don’t forget what we already know or neglect our debt to our existing sources.
  3. When encountering a new argument or study, be open to all of it, not just the headlines. (For instance, don’t forget Fryer’s finding that police discriminate in using non-lethal force.)
  4. Cultivate our whole webs of belief, which ought to be internally diverse and complex but also reasonably coherent.
  5. Value a range of sources of knowledge, including personal experience and testimony as well as statistics and models.
  6. Ask whether it is beneficial–or not–for each of us to speak publicly on any given topic.
  7. Critically assess the institutions that generate knowledge.
  8. Critically assess our own roles in such institutions.
  9. Never neglect the normative aspect of knowledge.
  10. Don’t take the questions for granted, but ask what we could be asking about.

See also: police discrimination, race, and community poverty; more data on police interactions by race; on the phrase: Abolish the police!; some remarks on Elinor Ostrom and police reform; what gives some research methods legitimacy?; six types of claim: descriptive, causal, conceptual, classificatory, interpretive, and normative; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; teaching about institutions, in a prison; a template for analyzing an institution; what does a Balinese cockfight have to do with public policy analysis?, etc.

the ethical meanings of indigeneity

Quentin Gausset, Justin Kenrick, and Robert Gibb note that there are two separate conversations within their own discipline (anthropology) that involve different scholars and different families of examples.

In one conversation, the keyword is “indigenous,” and it applies either to “hunter-gatherers and nomads whose livelihood and culture is threatened by encroachment from their neighbours and state … or to groups who occupied a territory before it was forcibly settled by colonising powers and have struggled ever since to maintain some control over what was left of their resources.”

For instance, I am sitting on land where the Wampanoag are indigenous, a few miles from the offices of a federally recognized Wampanoag tribe.

In the other conversation, the keyword is “autochthonous” (born in the place) and it refers to large populations–often the majority in a given country–who “believe that their resources, culture or power are threatened by ‘migrants’.”

Anthropologists have had opposite reactions to these two families of cases:

[They] have tended to display sympathy and support for indigenous peoples (such as marginalised nomads) while often being highly critical of those advancing autochthonous claims (for example, extreme right-wing parties in European countries…). While indigenous movements are often idealised as innocent victims, or even as globally concerned and ecologically sound, autochthonous movements are, on the contrary, demonised and their agenda is reduced to ‘the exclusion of supposed “strangers” and the unmasking of “fake” autochthonous, who are often citizens of the same nation-state.’

As these authors note, a dictionary treats the two words as synonyms. Thus the existence of parallel discourses is noteworthy. We could add a third conversation about “irredentism,” a belief that a given nation should regain control over all of its former territory. Irredentist claims are usually seen as bellicose and nationalistic. Fascism is often autochthonous and irredentist. We don’t typically describe fascists as the “indigenous” populations of their countries–although they may see themselves that way.

Given the availability of these three terms–with overlapping meanings but different ethical valences–all kinds of intriguing uses emerge.

Erich Fox Tree observes that migrants to the USA from Central America increasingly identify as indigenous within the United States. Their claim is “somewhat irredentist, by asserting a super-territorial homeland” that spans the continent. However, in my view, they are expressing an understandable Latino/Native solidarity and opening possibilities for powerful coalitions within the USA.

According to Cheryl L. Daytec-Yañgot, “Tribal Peoples in Africa, such as the San or Maasai, self identify as indigenous to participate in indigenous discourses in the UN, even though their occupation of the region they inhabit does not predate those of other groups.” Meanwhile, “white Afrikaners from South Africa claimed indigeneity and attempted to forward their agenda to the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations.”

Daytec-Yañgot notes that the discourse of indigeneity is “Eurocentric.” To put it a slightly different way, I would say that concerns about the oppression of indigenous minorities arise in settler countries–places, like the USA, Australia, or Argentina, where European conquerors came in very large numbers and numerically overwhelmed the original inhabitants. This model does not fit well in much of Asia and Africa, where imperialism was also devastating but the imperialists were limited in number and have mostly gone back home. It also doesn’t fit contexts like the Caribbean, where the majority population was transported against their will to replace the older inhabitants. In at least some important cases, the most threatened groups are minorities who migrated in and are accused of being interlopers. For instance, Hindu Nationalism often presents adherents of the dharmic religions as indigenous, and Muslims (as well as Christians) as the legacy of imperialism. But Muslims are now the threatened group in India.

There is nothing wrong with the mixed affective responses of anthropologists and others. It seems right to sympathize with indigenous groups in places like Massachusetts and to criticize autochthonous majorities who want migrants to “go home” (even though the words indigenous and autochthonous are synonyms). These judgments can be consistent with appropriate theories of justice, ones that take account of past injustices, current patterns of inequality and domination, the intrinsic value of cultures, the equal rights of all human beings, and ecological considerations.

It is a curiosity that we have two sets of vocabulary for different categories, but the ethical variation is not surprising. As always, the empirical study of human beings is inseparable from value-judgments, and the objective is to get our judgments (as well as our facts) right. Being explicit about the basis of our judgments helps: it allows us to test them in dialogue with other people. But explicitness is not sufficient: the point is to improve our judgments.

See also these posts about ethical judgments embedded in social science: when is cultural appropriation good or bad? and what is cultural appropriation?; social justice should not be a cliché; science, law, and microagressions; morality in psychotherapy; insanity and evil: two paradigmsprotecting authentic human interaction;  is all truth scientific truth?; and don’t confuse bias and judgment.

what secular people can get out of theology

I’m teaching a course on the thought of Martin Luther King, who obtained two graduate degrees in theology and contributed substantially to that discipline. I happen not to be a Christian, and I am teaching in a predominantly secular context with students who have diverse faith commitments that they rarely bring explicitly into the conversation.

It’s easy to say why we should read theology if we want to understand the thought of MLK, which is a historian’s task. But why should we want to understand the theological aspects of his thought if we are in a secular context and our interests are politics and justice?

Of course, I welcome all responses to these questions from my students, including opposition to religion (although I have not actually heard that lately). These are my own, personal thoughts.

First, it is not self-evident how to distinguish religious beliefs from other beliefs. MLK believed that all human beings are created by God in God’s image. I believe that all human beings have infinite intrinsic moral worth. What is the basis for saying that he is religious and I am not?

Second, we all think with the materials we find at hand. We cannot view the world completely anew. But we can make better or worse selections and enhance (or spoil) the things we select. Christian thinkers will start with Christian materials. We can learn from how they use those ideas and add to them. It’s as if you don’t want to be a biologist but you can improve your thinking by learning some biology. (Or change the analogy to ceramics if a craft seems more apt than a science.)

Third, it is illuminating to think in a hypothetical vein. Two Christian thinkers are on my mind this week. One is Howard Washington Thurman (1899 – 1981), whom I assigned. The other is Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham, who shows up in my social media feed denouncing homosexuality on biblical grounds.

Thurman notes that God could have expressed the divine in any form–for instance, as a Roman. “But the fact is he did not.” God chose instead that the only-begotten Son would be a poor Jew “in a sad and desolate time for the people”; “a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group”; and a non-citizen, someone lacking “that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into the ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in the ditch.” The Son of God was then tortured to death for nonviolently resisting the state.

I happen not to be able to think, “So it was,” but I can think: “If there is/were a God, this is how that God would act and feel.” And I can gain ethical insight–as well as inspiration–from this reasoning. At the same time, I am sure that if there is/were a God, God would not command and act the way that Laura Ingraham assumes.

I happen not to agree with the whole story that either Thurman or Ingraham believes. However, when I move into a hypothetical mode, I am confident that Thurman is right and that Ingraham is badly wrong. And making this distinction feels like a valid way to explore ethical and political issues.

Moving further away from specific authors, I can find specific value (and pitfalls) in each of the great world religions without happening to agree with some of the core metaphysics of any of them. For instance, I can compare Christianity to Judaism or Islam, or to Buddhism and Hinduism, without ever leaving the hypothetical level.

Source: Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), pp. 17, 18, 33. See also: Martin Luther King’s philosophy of time; Martin Luther King as a philosopher; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; and Jesus was a person of color.

Martin Luther King’s philosophy of time

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. set himself against two false conceptions of time and offered a profoundly original alternative.

One false idea was what he called in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail the “tragic misconception” that time flows inevitably toward justice. This is a linear, progressive theory. It has always been popular in the United States, where the white majority has tilted toward optimism and self-satisfaction. We tell ourselves that although we have faults, “the current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms” (John Dewey). This kind of optimism has also been influential in liberal Protestantism and can even have a metaphysical underpinning: since God is omnipotent and good, things will work out, both in this life and the next.

It can imply that people should calm down and wait for justice. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is King’s response to messages like this one, which he says he received “from a white brother in Texas”: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”

Rev. King answers, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never. We must come to see … that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”

King was equally opposed to the idea that time is static, that a society cannot fundamentally change. One version of this idea says that White supremacy is evil but also foundational and highly unlikely ever to yield. A different version is held by white supremacists. George Wallace, for instance, emphasized that history was, and must remain, static. When he cried, “Segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever,” Wallace was denying the passage of time. And he presented this stance as nothing new: “we sound the drum … as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history.”

King’s alternative view had three features.

First, the flow of time is up to us. History is neither a tragedy–with a foreordained evil conclusion–nor a comedy, inevitably moving toward a happen end. Nor are we stuck in a changeless present. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Second, the past is always present. It infuses our own time. In the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King says, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. . … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check.”

The founding of the republic was almost two centuries in the past, yet the promissory note was still on the books. (And still is today.) That was not quite a metaphor, because King was quite literal about the need for repayment, for reparations. But the idea that the debts of the past are still carried on the nation’s books was one of many tropes he used to convey the continued existence of the past.

Third, we can make the future present. We can envision a better conclusion and pull that vision into our own time. For instance, we can imagine a future when the government founded by Jefferson and Madison pays its debts to the descendants of the people they had enslaved, thus changing the relationship between the past and the present. Once we imagine that moment, we can work to accomplish it.

King’s “Dream” that Black and white Georgians will “sit down together at the table of brotherhood”–while Mississippi is “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice”–is not a prediction or a forecast. It is an invention whose purpose is to motivate the quarter of a million people who gathered on the National Mall on August 28, 1963.

And it was remarkable that they had gathered there. Popular movements–and especially nonviolent popular movements with idealistic causes–defy realistic predictions. Individuals usually calculate the costs and risks for themselves against the benefits for themselves. To join a social movement, especially in the face of vicious opposition, is costly and dangerous. Any benefits are speculative. It is rational to stand aside and see if other people struggle for justice. If they do, the problem may be solved without an individual’s having to take the risk. And if they don’t, the individual’s sacrifice would have been pointless anyway.

Yet people occasionally defy this logic and rise up together in large numbers in the same time and place. Montgomery in 1955, Birmingham in 1963, the Washington Mall later in 1963, and Selma in 1965 were moments when the future suddenly broke into the present. To delay them would have destroyed them.

In his last speech, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” King diagnoses the challenge (oppressed people calculate their individual interests and fail to congeal as a movement) and reminds his audience of the power of acting in concert:

Now what does all this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. (Yeah) We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. [Applause] But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [Applause] Now let us maintain unity.

Note again the analysis of time. Pharoah wants to keep things static, to “prolong the period of slavery.” As soon as the slaves “get together,” the future comes into view.

People sometimes quote King’s line that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” to suggest that progress is inevitable–perhaps because of divine providence. He said those words at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, which had been fraught, controversial even within the movement, and very nearly a failure. That day, a tragic conclusion was all too easy to imagine. After envisioning a future when “society [is] at peace with itself” and “can live with its conscience,” King says, “I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?'” He gives a series of calls and responses, each beginning “How long? Not long, because …” This is the context in which he mentions the arc of the universe. He does not mean that it will surely carry us to justice and that we can confidently wait for that day. No one who had marched with him to Montgomery would have imagined that. He is telling his audience that they can bend the arc, that they can move the future closer.

In short, the past is always still present, the future can break into today, we can move our vision across time, and we can determine how things end.

Wallace had imagined waves of white supremacists standing in the way of justice, one generation after another. King instead invoked a series of prophets, “extremists for justice,” who were able to envision history’s conclusion and thus speak to us from their own times. In the “Letter,” King names five religious prophets–Amos, Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther, and John Bunyan–and two secular democratic ones, Jefferson and Lincoln. He also credits six contemporary white men and women (most of whose names I do not recognize) for writing “about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.”

Prophesy means transcending the present to affect the future. In Stride to Freedom, King had written, “Any discussion of the Christian minister today must ultimately emphasize the need for prophecy. … May the problem of race in America soon make hearts burn so that prophets will rise up, saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ and cry out as Amos did, ‘. . . let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.'” As his career progressed, he constantly returned to the nineteen biblical books traditionally called Nevi’im, prophecies. For instance, in the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King again quoted Amos 5:24 along with Isaiah 40:4 (“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain”).

This genre of prophecy typically begins with a moral condemnation of the present, often directed explicitly at the most powerful people: the kings, priests, and rich men:

Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them.

For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right.

(Amos 5:11-12)

The prophecy may forecast the punishment and fall of these wicked men. “Woe unto you,” says the Lord, through Amos, six verses later. The prophet then envisions a better time, a time of justice. This is not a forecast based on continuing the current trends into the future. Rather, it is moral and hortatory. If the people begin to act righteously, then God will help them make the world better. “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:15).

King’s last–and arguably greatest–speech was also his most explicitly prophetic. He had come to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. A mass march had gone badly from his perspective. It had turned violent, at least around the edges. Film of the event strongly suggests that police instigated the violence. King blamed the press for focusing on some “window breaking” instead of the structural violence against Black workers. Yet he was shaken by his own inability to preserve nonviolent discipline. This was the first time he had joined or led a march in which the protesters had failed to turn the other cheek. He was also exhausted and ill, unwilling to speak or even to travel to the venue in the midst of a thunderstorm. He forced himself to go anyway.

We know that he had one less than day left to live, and we must read the speech with that hindsight.

He starts with the now. He says, “something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world.” From there, he moves immediately out of the linear flow of time. He asks us to imagine him “standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now” and conversing with the immortal Almighty. He traverses history, mentioning some of the high points, and concludes that the time when he would most like to live is the present. Things certainly seem bad, “but I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

Once again, he sees the future in the present, taking the form of a voluntary popular movement. “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up.” At the beginning of his career, he would have emphasized the protesters in his immediate surroundings, but now he sees that the uprising is global. People are “assembled today” in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Accra, New York City, Atlanta, Jackson, and where he stands, Memphis. “The cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.'”

He rehearses the glorious moments of the movement so far, emphasizing the mightiness of a unified nonviolent struggle. He commends the preachers in attendance for their prophetic voices and quotes Amos as the exemplary prophet. He makes the case for economic pressure. He acknowledges people’s fear and exhorts them not to stop when the time is so critical. He recalls when he was nearly assassinated and gives thanks that he survived, because then he could witness the moments when unified people overcame oppression: sit-ins, freedom rides, Albany, Birmingham, Selma. Interestingly, he includes tactical failures, like Albany, and moments when he was not personally involved.

And then he turns to the future, which we know and which he seems uncannily to foresee with less than 24 hours left to live:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead) And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [Applause]

I am influenced here by David Luban, “Difference Made Legal: The Court and Dr. King.” Michigan Law Review 87, no. 8 (1989): 2152-2224. Luban insightfully compares King to Walter Benjamin. See also:  the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theologynotes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; no justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts); Martin Luther King as a philosopher; learning from Memphis, 1968; against inevitability; “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era,” etc.