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The Sophist

Justifying Nonviolence: A Comparison of King’s Moral and Practical Critiques of Violence

In any political movement, the decision to pursue violent or nonviolent forms of action is pivotal. Over the last century, influential leaders, grassroots activists, and scholars around the world have grappled with this difficult question. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence is as relevant today as it was between the late 1950s and mid-1960s, when he articulated it in writings and in speeches to an anxious nation and a skeptical world. Following the principles of nonviolence set forth by Mahatma Gandhi in his fight for India’s independence, King brought an international spotlight to the repressive tactics employed against nonviolent resisters of segregation.

While King’s moral critiques of violence have received a great deal of attention in academic circles and popular debate, there has been a lack of discussion of his practical critiques of violence. I contend that King’s practical arguments against violence are more compelling than his moral arguments because they more effectively demonstrate the weaknesses of violence in the context of the civil rights movement. For the purpose of clarity, I will use Bernard Gert’s definition of morality in Morality: Its Nature and Justification as “an informal public system applying to all rational persons” that has “the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.”

King’s moral argument that blacks should not commit violence because it is an iniquitous, historically white technique can be compared to his practical argument that black violence would incite white retaliation. Addressing the former, King claims in Where Do We Go from Here that the Black Power movement is paradoxical, as it urges black Americans not to imitate the values of white society, while also “advocating violence…the worst, the most brutal and the most uncivilized value of American life.” Furthermore, King expresses concern for “moral uprightness” and challenges “any attempt to gain our freedom by the methods of malice, hate and violence that have characterized our oppressors.” King’s claim is that violence is immoral because it is white civilization’s most evil method of domination and that it should not be mimicked by blacks.

From a practical standpoint, King argues that the outcome of a violent black revolt must be evaluated against the likelihood of reprisal by the white majority’s murderous right-wing faction. By calling attention to fanatical right-wing groups like the Ku Klux Klan that would “delight in exterminating thousands of black men, women and children,” King reminds advocates of violence that white radicals pose a practical threat to a minority-led revolution.

To many of King’s black followers, the practical risk of losing black lives most likely felt a great deal more pressing than the risk of emulating white tactics and descending to the moral level of white society.

On the other hand, the moral and practical arguments may be impossible to separate. The practical critique of violence could be understood as an implication of the moral critique, since the practical critique assumes that violence is a familiar technique used historically by whites to repress blacks and one that they would likely use in response to black violence. Relevant examples of white suppression of black violence include Nat Turner’s Rebellion and other slave rebellions that were crushed by white governments and militias.

Nevertheless, King’s moral and practical critiques of violence diverge when one analyzes their more precise implications and justifications. Specifically, whereas the moral argument implies that blacks will lose their moral advantage if they resort to violence, the practical argument implies that blacks will be killed due to violent white backlash. Furthermore, whereas the moral argument is justified by violence committed historically by whites against blacks over several centuries, the practical argument is justified by the extreme racial tensions that characterized the political climate of the 1960s. Thus, the practical critique is not an implication of the moral critique, but instead an independent claim that is based on a pragmatic assessment of contemporary political conditions of American society.

King’s moral reasoning that violence is incapable of appealing to conscience can be juxtaposed with his practical argument that violence cannot gain the support of whites and, as a result, the armed forces. King asserts, “Beyond the pragmatic invalidity of violence is its inability to appeal to conscience…Power and morality must go together, implementing, fulfilling and ennobling each other.” He maintains that morality is the essential partner of power. In a violent revolution, the moral end of achieving racial equality would be corrupted by the immoral means of violence. King implies that violence cannot appeal to conscience because it necessarily harms others and is, according to Gerts’ definition, intrinsically immoral.

Although one may object that harm is not always immoral—as, for example, harm can be used to prevent a greater evil—King’s first practical argument provides a justification for this claim. Since black violence would provoke white backlash, an endless cycle of violence could result, which would block achievement of racial equality. This suggests that the means of physical harm can compromise the moral ends tied to it. Even if a prolonged conflict could be averted, it is clear that interracial violence would still lead to the death of innocent people on both sides and such irreversible damage cannot fairly be justified by the moral end of racial equality.

In addition, King argues practically that black violence cannot win the endorsement of the military, as the military is beholden to the white structures of power. He writes, “No internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces.” This would not happen to the U.S. government, King argues, because the armed forces were “predominantly white” and those in power could rely on the military to protect whites in a “violent racial situation.” The decision of the military to assist or repress a violent black revolution would be a political choice rather than a moral one. As I will explore further, perceived threats to the white power structure of American society would underlie the military’s loyalty to the white majority. Such allegiance would be a major pragmatic barrier to the success of a black revolution and thus outweigh the importance of appealing to the conscience of the general population.

One may demur, as before, that the moral and practical arguments are too intertwined to dichotomize. After all, the assertion that black violence cannot gain the backing of the military seems to be an implication of the inability of violence to appeal to conscience. This raises the following question: Can the military support an action without moral justification? One may argue that humans are generally uncomfortable with pursuing violence unless they can morally justify it. For example, many white plantation owners attempted to justify the enslavement of blacks on the basis that they were property and therefore were not entitled to the same basic rights as were whites. It may seem logical to conclude that some members of the armed forces might oppose a violent black revolution on moral grounds, as such violence would only lead to more death and destruction.

However, the moral and practical arguments come apart when one considers the overriding influence of the white power structure on the military. As exemplified by King’s experiences in Birmingham, Alabama, the local police (with very few exceptions) obediently followed the orders of the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connorwho, in turn, was controlled by the white economic and political elites of Birmingham. As the white power structure extended from local to national government, it is clear that, had King chosen to pursue a violent revolution, the “local police, state troopers, the national guard and finally the army” would not be responding to the moral claims of the revolution but rather the practical threat that it posed to the maintenance of the status quo. In sum, the moral and practical arguments are unrelated because the military was part of a white power structure that insulated it from moral appeals.

King’s moral case that violence augments hatred can be analyzed alongside his practical argument that violence cannot be used since whites and blacks live together. In his moral argument against violence, King argues that violence does not destroy hate—it does just the opposite, intensifying animosity between the races: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy…In fact, violence merely increases hate.”

From a practical viewpoint, King argues that the necessary cohabitation of white and black Americans precludes violent action. He states, “The [African American] will be living tomorrow with the very people against whom he is struggling today.” From this perspective, the avoidance of violence for the continuation of racial coexistence in America is a more fundamentally important goal than preventing the aggravation of racial hatred, as it would be nearly impossible for blacks to stop living with their white counterparts unless all blacks left the country en masse (as promoted by Marcus Garvey during the 1920s).

But are the moral and practical arguments entangled and indivisible? One could interpret King’s practical argument that whites and blacks must live together as a critique of violence threatening racial cohabitation, which is therefore an implication of the tendency of violence to amplify hatred between groups. In other words, since violence could cause whites to feel even more hostility toward blacks, this might also interfere in their ability to live together in relative harmony. It seems obvious that feelings of enmity toward another race would jeopardize one’s capacity to live in peace with people of that race.

In the final analysis, though, the moral and practical arguments are mutually exclusive critiques of violence insofar as they are based on different epistemological assumptions and have disparate implications. While the moral argument assumes that violence will increase hatred between the races and implies that blacks will be particularly harmed by such hate, the practical argument assumes that whites and blacks will continue to live together in the U.S. and implies that avoiding violence will help ensure that whites and blacks continue to coexist.

The practical argument should not be interpreted as an assertion that violence will cause whites and blacks to be unable to live with one another due to increased racial hatred. After all, despite over a century of KKK-perpetrated terrorism, including thousands of lynchings, many blacks stayed in the American South for social and economic reasons. King’s argument is simply that the necessary coexistence of whites and blacks in interracial communities makes violence impractical, as it could lead to any number of practical consequences: What if, for instance, blacks kill the only three white doctors in a community lacking black doctors? What if whites respond by killing all the black firemen in a community lacking white firemen? Who will prescribe life-saving medications to sick members of the community or put out building fires if, for the sake of argument, doctors and firemen cannot come from other communities? Such practical concerns cannot be ignored or eclipsed by the moral concern of increased racial hatred as a result of violence. The practical argument is not an implication of the moral argument but an epistemological claim unconnected to the preexistence of racial hatred.

King’s practical arguments against violence are more persuasive than his moral arguments because they more effectively reveal the flaws of violence in the context of the civil rights movement. Moreover, his moral and practical critiques of violence are distinct, together offering a crucial comparison of justifications for political action that can inform current and future social movements in the U.S. and abroad.