Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day from Compliance Culture!

In honor of the holiday, please check out the below selections from some sermons and speeches delivered by Dr. King which are especially pertinent to ethics and morality.  These profound and incisive words can inspire not just spiritual and philosophical observations, but are also useful to consider in formulating individual and organizational values and cultural identity.

  • Rediscovering Lost Values (1954) – This sermon, delivered at Detroit’s Second Baptist Church, espouses Dr. King’s recurring conviction that everything in life has a moral basis.  Therefore no choices can be taken or commitments made with considering moral and ethical implications.
    • Dr. King states that the most significant hindrance to human progress and positive growth in society is a deficit of morality:  The trouble isn’t so much that we don’t know enough, but it’s as if we aren’t good enough. The trouble isn’t so much that our scientific genius lags behind, but our moral genius lags behind… The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood.  
    • Dr. King’s antidote is to accept that the universe is intrinsically moral and that morality is an inescapable and important consideration in all affairs: The first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this: that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws.
    • Dr. King blames the negative influence of moral relativism for the lack of ethical leadership and unclear commitment to values that is a drag upon integrity in society:  We have adopted in the modern world a sort of a relativistic ethic… Most people can’t stand up for their convictions, because the majority of people might not be doing it. See, everybody’s not doing it, so it must be wrong. And since everybody is doing it, it must be right. So a sort of numerical interpretation of what’s right. But I’m here to say to you this morning that some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so.
    • Moral relativism, according to Dr. King, leads to a damaging sort of practicality – not one in which a values-based approach to decision-making is sound and reliable, but one in which a slippery slope enables unethical choices and misconduct:  The other thing is that we have adopted a sort of a pragmatic test for right and wrong—whatever works is right. If it works, it’s all right. Nothing is wrong but that which does not work… Just get by! That’s the thing that’s right according to this new ethic. My friends, that attitude is destroying the soul of our culture. It’s destroying our nation.
    • Therefore, Dr. King urges a return to fundamental moral values:  This is a law-abiding universe. This is a moral universe. It hinges on moral foundations. If we are to make of this a better world, we’ve got to go back and rediscover that precious value that we’ve left behind.
  • Keep Moving From This Mountain (1960) – In this Founders Day Address that Dr. King delivered at the Sisters Chapel at Spelman College, the overall message is that even if the world is bad, then people must define and protect their inner moral convictions and endeavor to nonetheless be good.
    • Inner success and individuals’ own internal code of ethics are the most important measure of integrity:  You must never become complacently adjusted to un-obtained goals; you have been in this mountain long enough, “turn ye and take your journey.”
    • Dr. King again returns to his condemnation of moral relativism, imagining it as a mountain which can be daunting in traveling life but nonetheless must be surpassed:  I think we have been in the mountain of moral and ethical relativism long enough. To dwell in this mountain has become something of a fad these days, so we have come to believe that morality is a matter of group consensus. We attempt to discover what is right by taking a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Everybody is doing it, so it must be all right, and therefore we are caught in the clutches of conformity. We’ve been in this mountain long enough—the feeling that there is nothing absolutely right and nothing absolutely wrong, that right is a matter of customs and tastes and appetites and what happens in a particular community. Nothing is absolutely right. To put it in sociological lingo, we follow the mores of the right way.
    • As before, commitment to fixed moral and ethical values protects integrity not just from individuals but in society as a whole.  Erosion of this commitment is a serious risk:  Another consequence of this moral and ethical relativism is that we have developed a sort of pragmatic test for right and wrong. According to this view, anything that works is all right if you can get by with it…  And so, according to this view, it is all right to lie with a bit of finesse. It’s all right to exploit, but be a dignified exploiter. It’s all right to even hate, but dress your hate up into garments of love and make it appear that you are loving when you are actually hating. This type of moral and ethical relativism is sapping the very life’s blood of the moral and spiritual life of our nation and our world. And I am convinced that if we are to be a great nation, and if we are to solve the problems of the world we must come out of this mountain. We have been in it too long.  For if man fails to re-orientate his life around moral and ethical values he may well destroy himself by the misuse of his own instrument.
    • Dr. King recognizes ethical choice as an expression of individuality and liberty:  An individual who is not concerned about his self-hood and his freedom is at that moment committing moral and spiritual suicide.  Again, the morality of the universe, and the imperative for all individuals to aspire toward integrity and work for justice, are ultimate aspirations:  I believe that there is a power, a creative force in this universe seeking at all times to bring down prodigious hilltops of evil and pull low gigantic mountains of injustice. If we will believe this and struggle along, we will be able to achieve it.
  • Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1964) – This is one of Dr. King’s most famous pieces of writing and it reinforces the morality and ethical importance of seeking justice.
    • The interdependence of all people in a progressive society makes justice a necessary mutual goal: 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. 
    • Dr. King’s description of non-violent protest against discrimination describes a process similar to that which should be undertaken in dilemma analysis and ethical decision-making of all kinds:  In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.
    • A frequent area of emphasis and analysis for Dr. King looks at just and unjust laws, highlighting the discrepancies which may exist between legal expectations and moral standards, a gap which is often in business filled by compliance and ethics programs:  How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts the human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
    • In this view, injustice must be exposed in order to be cured; therefore transparency is necessary for resolution and reform:  Like 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 its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
    • Dr. King explains that in moral and ethical questions, the ends and the means are inextricable from each other, and can never be inconsistent or at odds:  I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. 
  • Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence (1967) – This speech by Dr. King at Riverside Church in New York City gives further insights on ethical decision-making and handling of moral dilemmas.
    • Dr. King recognizes that ethical dilemmas are difficult and making the right choice can often be attempted through significant adversity: Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
    • Leadership and good conduct means standing up despite these challenges:  And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.
    • Therefore in order to reform society and improve the status of integrity and truthfulness, people must re-orient themselves toward values and a purpose-driven life:  I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
    • In making difficult ethical decisions, it is necessary to understand competing interests in order to consider them fairly and fully:  Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
    • Equality, fairness, and integrity are incontrovertible values of the moral universe and therefore society must progress toward these in order to be just: A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.
  • Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution (1968) This sermon that Dr. King delivered at the National Cathedral offers useful insights on ethical leadership.
    • Ethical and moral leadership requires hard work and persistent commitment.  It is never to soon to dedicate oneself to this pursuit:  Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals… And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.
    • Leadership is often about conflict modeling and expectation setting, not about making easy choices:  Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.
    • In making ethical decisions, time, ego, and popular opinion all weigh heavy on leaders who grapple with hard choices:  On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
    • However, personal convictions about morality and commitments to ethics can make difficult choices ones that leaders can still stand by and stand up for when they are made conscientiously and with full understanding of all consequences and outcomes:  Conscience asks the question, is it right?  There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.
    • Finally, one of Dr. King’s most famous statements (paraphrasing, among others, the words of Theodore Parker) to reinforce the importance of commitment to justice and work through integrity toward harmony with the moral universe:  We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—”No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—”Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right—as we were singing earlier today, “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne.” Yet that scaffold sways the future.

For another look at the power of words frequently used by Martin Luther King Jr., check out this post on compliance and the moral universe.

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