Ethics Discussion: King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail


King connects to Kant, because each shares a commitment to universal moral principles. Like Kant, King’s universalism rested in natural law and its belief in a higher law of justice that went beyond the laws of worldly nations. But this was not his only universalism. He also believed in the universal connectedness of humanity, he might call this brotherhood or simply beloved community grounded in love. Unlike Kant, this love did not have to be justified by reason and ignore emotion. Instead, universal love was worthy in and of itself as a moral ideal and a moral feeling. For King, you didn’t have to prove universal love, it was a gift available to all of humanity, despite our failures and despite hate. We just had to embrace it. This was glorious and joyful. It is the case that King was very motivated by his Christianity, but it is also the case that much of his philosophy of nonviolence arose from Gandhian principles and he believed in unity regardless of religion. Love and justice were his two guiding universal principles.

Like Kant, King is very preoccupied with the status of the law. In the reading for this week, he is responding to those who tell him that nonviolent civil disobedience is not moral, because 1) it involves breaking the law, and 2) it incites social unrest. As you read through King, mark out each point in which he responds to a criticism telling him that he is immoral. It is in those responses, he sketches a contrasting universal morality that is just, democratic, and committed to the love of humanity.


1. First, watch . This video should familiarize you with a more complex picture of King than is presented in the popular media. Watch twice if needed.

2. Read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.] ( Even if you have read this classic text before, be sure to read it again slowly as a model for deontological or universality ethics.

3. Read Handout on Kingian Nonviolence. (linked below)

4. Respond to the prompt below.


One of King’s famous injunctions from the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.” This might sound like an appealing idea, but it has some huge implications. It is absolutely universalist in its commitment to justice globally.

The six principles of non-violence from our handout also are formulated in universalist terms. For this assignment, choose one of these principles and connect it to a quote from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Then reflect on whether you believe that the principle explained is actually universalist and whether this is a moral principle you would support.

Please use simple language to answer the question. The answer shouldn’t be more than a page long.

Please be sure to go over the video and readings provided before answering the question.

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