Thursday, 27 October 2011

Letter from birmingham Jail and on Morality

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In Search of Morality

Daniel Webster’s dictionary defines morality as the quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct. Yet the definitions of the words right and good remain ambiguous. From childhood and throughout a lifetime, we are told what we can and cannot do. But why can we not do some things? Often times, the answer is, Because its wrong. But what is wrong? How does one determine the difference between right and wrong? What it usually comes down to is what morals are directing the decision morality has been questioned by people, honored by people and revered since the beginning of time. Yet even today not one person can say what is morally right. It is a matter of opinion. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and Joan Didion’s essay, On Morality, both prose at the concept of morality. Through the juxtaposition of both authors’ essays, the reader is asked to come up with his own understanding of the purpose of morality.

Didion and King use their current settings to set the tone of the entire essay. Didion first informs the reader that she is in a motel located in Death Valley where it is 11 ยบ. The sensory language used by Didion transports the reader to the intense conditions of the unyielding desert. The desert usually relates to isolation, leaving one without the rules of society to govern one’s actions. Didion writes that the night in the country is so ominous and terrible that to live in it is to live with antimatter, it is difficult to believe that ‘the good’ is a knowable quantity (180). King’s isolation effects him physically and ideally. King’s confinement in Birmingham Jail leaves him secluded from those who support his cause; and alienated from the clergymen who refused to assist him. King starts off his letter explaining the injustices faced upon his people then goes slightly into detail about the cold conditions of his jail cell. These unbearable living conditions that each author is subject to sets the mood of each essay. Insufferable conditions are intensified by the forlorn struggle for the cognition of each person’s being.

Events that involve one’s struggle for survival leads to desperate measures that creates conflicts that goes against one’s values. For example, Didion cites the travelers of the Donner and Reed Party, who were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada, forced themselves to eat the flesh of their dead families. To our modern society, this act is considered to be some sort of appalling, demented act. Even today, any form of cannibalism is a taboo in our civilized society. Members of the Donner- Reed party reluctantly consumed deceased party members, but refused to eat their own kin. The ethics, which were imposed upon us from childhood, act as unwritten laws that can only be broken when the threat of our own extinction confronts us. The injustices and prejudices that the colored people faced resulted from the actions of the non-colored people. The white people tried to repress the colored people because the white people saw the colored people as a threat for their survival; there were more competition for jobs and resources. According to the 160’s standards, it was moral for some overzealous white supremacy people to abuse and mistreat the colored people because these acts were practiced within their own society for their survival. Didion spats at the whole concept of morality that is so primitive that it scarcely deserves the name, a code that has as its point only survival, not the attainment, of the idea good (180). Genocide, the purification for the survival of the superior race, are reference in both Didion’s and King’s works.

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The moral code acts to protect the purity, or flawlessness, of a society. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Joan Didion criticize the foundation that led to the development of the moral code. The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society. It is mere arrogance for one to try to judge the conduct of other peoples. One should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures. Yet, the unsteady foundation of which the moral code was built upon developed some people’s insecurities. Sinister hysteria in the air accompanied by some hint of the monstrous perversion to which any human idea can come introduces the ideas of those who cannot accept the social norms according to the moral code (Didion 181).

One fault of moral absolutes is that of a closed mind. These are people who are unable to accept any action that they do not believe to be moral. These are people who are arrogant with closed minds. King addresses his awareness in the compiling number of criticisms that he has no time to answer, If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk… I would have not time for constructive work(14). King’s letter was written during a time where white people only saw themselves superior to the colored people. With opening our minds, people find that our feelings are not necessarily the truth. Our emotions turn into understanding. With the knowledge of cultural rituals or societies customs, we will be able to accept the peculiar things they do in comparison to one’s own society; yet gory nature of any culture may appear rather unseemly to others.

King merely just brings to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive (145). He then compares the unsightliness his people are perceived as to a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension in exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion, before it can be cured (148). Instead of confronting a conflict, people tend to ignore it, in hopes that the conflict will either resolve itself or will spontaneously disappear. The fact is that ignoring the problem tends to make the effects of it worst. King’s direct-action program includes to crate a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation (145). Its not uncommon for people to perceive morality as something that must indeed be imposed upon an individual from the outside, something that serves to repress and restrict innate selfish tendencies.

Discrimination and prejudice have been proven by many to be the principle foundation of all morality. Moral is that action which is acceptable to others, and mainly the majority. Many have said morality is our prejudices learned by age eighteen. Power often controls our morality. Yet, morality is a requirement of civilization, the modern state is fast forgetting. Proper action and morality can be deduced from state survival reasoning.

Laws and justice express societal morality. Society should not force people to be criminals or beggars but traders, people who are free to think, survive and flourish. This means that society should not govern by unearned guilt and force for the common good, or to make moral actions unlawful. According to King, sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application (147). Every person has the ability to be morally good, all people, that is, with a reasonable faculty of reason. All people also have free will, which is the ability to choose the good. Society, with laws, also has the choice to corrupt or reinforce morality. King came to Birmingham Jail with the intent to clear up any misconception of those who have been influenced by the view which argues against ‘outsiders coming in’ (14). Society has the power to shape people to be either morally good or immoral. A good society shapes its people to be morally good, for that is the role of societal ethics. A bad society denies the freedom to be morally good. Indeed that is necessary to force people away from thinking, which brings about a better understanding of morality. In a good society, thinking and responsibility is encouraged, for the same reason then it must be repressed in an evil environment.

Society uses morality as a tool to assuage one’s guilty conscience. Didion’s On Morality uses the example of the man who refused to leave the corpse of a tragic accident victim alone in the desert while he waited for the coroner could come to claim the body. The man could have easily left the treacherous desert where savage coyotes lurked, but his conscience would not allow him to leave the body to be mutilated by the hungry pact. The man who stayed with the body of the drunk driver would not break his promise that he would not abandon his casualties to prevent having bad dreams. To an outsider, like Didion, the gesture of the man not leaving the corpse to be mangled by the pact may seem like a noble gesture, but the gesture is also selfish because the man didn’t want to be bothered by a guilty conscious. The notion of having a person, who is bestowed upon certain liberties, is generally expected to give back to demonstrate his humility. King argues that some privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. However individuals who may see the moral light and willingly give up their unjust posture, but groups tend to be more immoral than individuals (145).

Societal morality cannot be enforced by those who assert that universal moral standards can exist even if some moral practices and beliefs vary among cultures. We can acknowledge cultural differences in moral practices and beliefs and still hold that some of these practices and beliefs are morally wrong. Those who try to enforce such moral practices do so because they followed [his] own conscience (Didion 181). The treatment of the Jews in Nazi society is morally reprehensible regardless of the moral beliefs of Nazi society. Ethics is an inquiry into right and wrong through a critical examination of the reasons underlying practices and beliefs. It also encourages us to explore the reasons underlying beliefs that differ from our own, while challenging us to examine our reasons for the beliefs and values we hold.

Morality is what identifies the principles in which man exists, to separate good from bad, and right from wrong, and every society should strive to discover and achieve these principals. Morals clearly plan an intricate role in our lives. While many times moral values can, in fact, conflict with that of others, violence often makes things worse. However as time passes we build upon our knowledge of truth in search for other truths that strengthen and further establish our already growing understanding of what is right and wrong and by doing this we can discover certain values and beliefs from cultures that are indeed just and right.

Didion, Joan. On Morality. The Presence of Others Voices and Images that Call for Response. Third Edition. Lunsford, Andrea A. and John J. Ruszkiewicz, eds. Boston and New York Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 000.

King, Martin Luther Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail The Presence of Others Voices and Images that Call for Response. Third Edition. Lunsford, Andrea A. and John J. Ruszkiewicz, eds. Boston and New York Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 000.

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