A Philosopher's Blog

Dr. King & Guns

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 21, 2013


One rather odd aspect of the recent debate regarding gun laws is the claim that Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior would support the NRA position on guns. Given that Dr. King was assassinated with a firearm and preached against violence, this sort of claim seems both ironic and somewhat distasteful. However, it does seem worthwhile to consider Dr. King’s views regarding guns and gun rights.


Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipediws regarding guns in the context of his moral and philosophical views.


On the one hand, there are not unreasonable grounds for claiming that Dr. King supported and accepted gun rights.


In his “I have a Dream” speech, Dr. King made it clear that he respected and accepted the constitution: “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. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Given that the second amendment is part of the constitution, it is not unreasonable to accept that Dr. King respected that amendment. However, this inference would obviously be somewhat weak—after all, he might value certain aspects of the constitution while also taking issue with certain parts (such as counting African-Americans as 3/5 of a person).


As far as more practical evidence, Dr. King owned guns in the 1950s for the purpose of self-protection in the face of death threats from racists—in face, his house was described as an arsenal and was guarded by armed supporters. He even applied for (and was denied) a concealed weapons permit.


Given Dr. King’s use of armed protection and his ownership of guns, it is not unreasonable to infer that he accepted the right of self-protection and took this right to include the possession and presumably the use of firearms. As such, it would not seem to be a stretch to claim that there would be some overlap between the views generally presented by the NRA and Dr. King’s own views regarding guns.


Of course, it is well worth noting that Dr. King was clearly in danger of assassination (and he was ultimately assassinated) and hence his views at the time must be taken within this context—a context that also included the fact that Dr. King had good reason to believe that the police might not be inclined to act in his defense. As such, the sort of principle at work here would seem to be that the possession of guns would be acceptable when a person is in clear danger from wrongly harm and there is a very reasonable expectation that the state will not offer protection against that danger. As such, to infer what Dr. King would think about guns in more “normal” contexts would be a matter of speculation.


While the above does provide some reasons to believe that Dr. King accepted gun rights in the 1950s, the story would not be complete without considering what occurred and was said latter.


In the “I have a Dream” speech that made his respect for the constitution clear, Dr. King also made it clear that he opposed the use of violence—at least in the context of the struggle for civil rights. He said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” This view is, of course, supported by his use of the methods of civil disobedience and his well-known opposition to the use of violence.


It might, of course, be pointed out that his rejection of violence would seem to be in a very specific context—namely that of the struggle for civil rights. It could also be argued that this approach was motivated primarily by practical reasons, such as the realization that the use of violence would not achieve his goals. As such, it could be contended that he did not reject his 1950s view of guns as a means of defense but rather had adopted non-violence as a specific tactic for a political struggle. After all, the fact that a person supports non-violence in politics does not entail a rejection of gun rights or the use of force in other contexts.


However, Dr. King directly addressed the matter of guns and gun violence. In response to the assassination of John Kennedy, King said “…by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”


This would seem to clearly indicate that Dr. King’s later view of guns included a rejection of the idea that guns should be available for purchase “at will.” While this is open to interpretation, this does seem to suggest a support for limiting the ability of people to purchase guns.


It is interesting to note that the current NRA spokesmen and Dr. King clearly agree on one point, namely the influence of movies and television on creating a culture of violence. However, this obviously does not entail that Dr. King and the NRA share the same general views. After all, Dr. King made his views on the ready availability of firearms for sale clear and this obviously does not match the position of the NRA.




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Authentically Black: Brother or Cornball Brother?

Posted in Politics, Race, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on December 17, 2012
President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Marti...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, race has been forged into a matter of great concern—at least for some people. One of the not uncommonly expressed concerns is whether or not someone is black. In the past, this was often a concern that a black person might be attempting to pass as white. As might be imagined, this was mostly a matter of concern to certain white people. In more recent years a twist has been added to the matter of discerning a person’s blackness. To be specific, one matter that concerns some people is whether or not a person is authentically black as opposed, presumably, to being inauthentically black. In such cases, the racial classification of the person is generally not in dispute. That is, s/he is identified as being black. The concern is, rather, over whether or not the person is properly black. As such, this adds another normative level to the judgment being made.

One recent incident that raised this matter occurred on the ESPN program “First Take.” While this is a sports program, the conversation turned to race when Rob Parker asked if Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is “a brother or is he a cornball brother?” This, on the face of it, seems to be in inquiry into whether or not Griffin is “properly black” or not. When asked what he meant, Parker replied “well, he’s black, he kind of does his thing. But he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us. He’s kind of black. But he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with because he’s off to do something else.”

While Parker does not clearly lay out detailed standards for being authentically black, he did expand on his remarks in a way that suggested what he meant by “being down with the cause.” Parker noted that Griffin has a white fiancée and that there are rumors that he is a Republican.

Parker’s concern over Griffin having a white fiancée is not uncommon. While whites have often been dismayed by attempts to “mix the races” (and it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled against laws restricting marriage based on race), blacks sometimes criticize other blacks for having relationships with non-blacks. Interestingly and disturbingly, the reasons advanced against “race mixing” often mirror those advanced by racist whites (such as preserving the race). As such, this sort of criticism of Griffin seems to be racist. Naturally, there have been attempts to defend opposition to “race mixing” as being non-racist, but that seems to be a rather challenging (but perhaps not impossible) goal.

Of course, even if being suspicious of “race mixing” is at least a bit racist, it could still be argued that being authentically black requires that a person only have relationships with other black people. That is, that being involved with a non-black would somehow make a person less properly black. Presumably this could apply to other races, so that a white person who dates outside of her race is not properly white and so on for the other races. That is, to be a proper member of the race, one must only be involved with one’s own race. This, of course, requires working out an account of race so that people can date properly if they wish to be authentic. After all, if having a relationship with a person of another race causes one to be inauthentic, then presumably it would follow that dating someone of mixed race could lead to a partial inauthenticity. There is also the obvious problem that “race mixing” has already occurred on a rather large scale and hence those concerned with racial authenticity will need to sort out the matter of mixed-race people, such as President Obama and myself (I’m a colonial blend of English, French, Mohawk and “other”).

Parker’s second main point seems to be in regards to the rumor that Griffin is a Republican. While the Republicans were once popular with African-Americans, that certainly changed (and did so well before Obama ran for president in 2008). The modern Republican Party is often regarded as being tainted with racism and, at the very least, is regarded primarily as a white male party. Not surprisingly, known black Republicans, such as Colin Powell and Herman Cain, are sometimes accused of selling out or even of being “Uncle Toms.” The underlying assumption seems to be that the Republican Party is simply not the place for an authentic black American, presumably because of the values endorsed (or attributed to) the Republican Party.

This does, of course, raise the obvious question as to whether or not being properly black entails that one is obligated to hold to a specific set of political views (namely those not held by the Republican Party). This would seem to suggest that part of the definition of being authentically black involves not merely appearance (having black skin) but also ideology. This would indicate that authentic blackness is not merely a matter of race but also of mind. On the face of it, it does seem odd that being an authentic black would be incompatible with being Republican. After all, while the Republican Party is often presented as the white party, a white person who is a Democrat (or independent) is not regarded as being an inauthentic white. But perhaps things are different for whites.

As a final point, Parker does seem to regard physical appearance as an important part of being an authentic black. When speaking of Griffin’s braids he said, “To me, that’s very urban…. You’re a brother if you have braids on.”

While Parker might be presenting a sufficient condition for being “a brother” (presumably being authentically black), it seems reasonable to assume that it is not a necessary condition. It is not, however, clear to what degree the braids offset the other suspicious qualities of Griffin or others. However, combining this remark with the other claims made by Parker, it would seem that racial authenticity involves behavior (specifically relationships), ideology (specifically politics) and appearance (specifically hairstyle). This would seem to provide the basis for a theorist to work out an account of authenticity.

Given what Parker has said, one might wonder what Griffin thinks about the matter of color. Interestingly, Griffin echoes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “For me, you don’t ever want to be defined by the color of your skin. You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That’s what I’ve tried to go out and do.” Griffin, then, seems more concerned with being authentically himself than with meeting a Parker style standard of being authentically black. Not surprisingly, I agree with Griffin in this matter.

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Beck: Bringing Honor Back

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2010
Arguing with Idiots was published by Simon and...
Image via Wikipedia

Glenn Beck is holding a rally today to restore honor. Today is also the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, a fact regarding which Beck had made a claim of ignorance.

While I am all for true honor (not the vanity and false pride that masquerades as honor), Beck’s “Restoring Honor” title clearly implies that honor has been lost. Otherwise it would not need to be restored.

I do agree that America has suffered a loss of honor in recent years. Our invasion of Iraq damaged our honor. The way we conducted the war on terror also damaged our honor. Pretty much everything about the economic collapse damaged our honor. As such, Beck is right to claim that we are in need of an honor restoration. I am not sure that Beck is the man for the job, however.

Will he lead people to right the wrongs that have been committed in our name and by us? Will he guide people on the honorable path of truth, virtue and righteousness? Assuming, of course, that honor in this case is taken as being a measure of goodness. Does he have the knowledge of virtue that it takes (as per Aristotle) to serve as the moral educator of America?

Somehow, I think not. But, I do not like to judge in haste. Let us see if Beck fulfills his promise and restores honor. After all, it is easy to talk about what is right. It is a simple thing to draw things on a blackboard. It is no trouble at all to tape up images. But, it is a hard thing to guide oneself and others to an honorable life.

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Posted in Race by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2010

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Junior day.  This day, of course, honors Dr. King and his contributions to America and the world.

Obviously enough, this is a good day to reflect on race, equality and Dr. King’s dream of a better America.

In his classic speech “I Have A Dream“, Dr. King assessed the progress that America had made since the Emancipation Proclamation. In his speech, he notes that segregation, discrimination, and poverty were still problems in America. Now, here we are in 2010.

On the positive side, America has improved since 1963. The most obvious sign of this is that an African American is president.  Of course, there are still matters of concern. While discrimination and involuntary segregation are illegal, discrimination and segregation do still exist. Poverty is still a serious problem, especially due to the economic mess.

Overall, most Americans live in a better America now than they did back in 1963 and far more so then in 1863. This is, of course, a good thing. After all, what we should most hope to leave to those who come after us is a better world in which to live.

Despite this century of progress it should not be assumed that such improvements shall always continue. Nor should it be assumed that what has been gained must always remain. As such, a day of reflection should also be a day for looking ahead so as to help ensure that the dream shall not die.

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Michael Jackson: Weighing Good & Evil

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on July 7, 2009

Today is, of course, the date of the memorial service for Michael Jackson. While vast throngs of people are weeping at their perceived loss and praising Jackson’s perceived greatness, some folks have some harsh things to say.

New York Representative Peter King has pulled no punches in his remarks. He called Jackson a pervert and has been highly critical of the hoopla surrounding his death. The gist of his view is that Jackson’s past (alleged) misdeeds outweigh the fact that he was a good singer and dancer-hence, to praise and honor him so lavishly is a mistake. King also added that the people who have died doing real good, such as soldiers, should be honored.

In general, King does make two good points.  First, people should be publicly honored for doing good rather than merely entertaining people. In an interesting coincidence, I am teaching Plato’s Apology in my Intro class today. This dialogue contains the following relevant passage:

There is not any thing more adapted, O Athenians, than that such a man should be supported at the public expense in the Prytaneum; and this much more than if some one of you had been victorious in the Olympic games with horses, or in the two or four-yoked car. For such a one makes you appear to be happy, but I cause you to be so: and he is not in want of support, but I am. If, therefore, it is necessary that I should be honoured according to what is justly my desert, I should be honoured with this support in the Prytaneum.

Socrates‘ general point can be taken as this: while people are inclined to heap great honors and love on those who entertain and amuse them, our real debt is owed to those who provide the reality of happiness. That is, to the people who do more than just create illusions to amuse but change the world in better ways. While Jackson did donate some money and time to charity, his main function was as an entertainer. While he should be praised for this, the praise should be suitable to what he actually did.

Second, it is quite reasonable to take into account a person’s misdeeds when assessing him and deciding what honor and praise are fit. On the positive side, Jackson was an impressive entertainer and he did donate some time and money to charity. On the negative side, there seems to be evidence that Jackson was improperly involved with children. After all, he was acquitted of child molestation allegations in 2005 and in 1995 he settled another such case out of court-allegedly to the tune of millions of dollars. Of course, because he was acquitted and the other case was settled, it is not completely clear what he did or did not do. Naturally, the fact that he settled out of court does cast some negative light on him. But, this is hardly conclusive-sometimes innocent people do decide to settle a case outside of court. Given these facts, claiming that he did actually molest children would be problematic (and perhaps slanderous).However, these facts do provide adequate grounds for legitimate concern.

Sorting out the overall balance of a person’s life can be challenging. After all, there is no clear measure of how to weigh the good a person does against the evil they do. And, of course, the nature of the misdeeds matter quite a bit. For example, although Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior is supposed to have plagiarized some of his work, it seems clear that his good deeds massively outweighed that academic failing. Whether the misdeeds were relevant to the good a person did also matters. For example, a soldier who killed enemy soldiers to save his fellow soldiers did some wrong, but had to do that wrong (killing) to do what was right (save his fellows).

In Jackson’s case, if he did (as Peters alleges) really abuse children, then his entertainment value would certainly be outweighed by those (alleged) misdeeds. To not condemn this sort of thing would be to say that it is okay for a person to molest children provided that he entertained people. That is, of course, absurd.

Of course, some folks (such as Al Sharpton) are saying that the alleged misdeeds should be ignored and the focus should be on the good he did. While that is the sort of thing one often says of the recently departed, that seems to be the wrong approach to take. If we are going to praise a person for what good he did, then honesty and fairness also compels us to condemn the bad things he did. Naturally, the special circumstances of death do move us to correctly forgive small misdeeds and flaws. But, death does not provide a complete moral absolution.

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