"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 ... the real danger confronting civilization today is that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness -- that’s the atomic bomb that we’ve got to fear today. Problem is with the men. Within the heart and the souls of men. That is the real basis of our problem."
Do you know who spoke these words and when he first uttered them?
The sentiment sounds so timely. Almost every day, I hear people talking about the lack of brotherhood and the hatred that divides our society. They say, "We need to turn back the clocks to a time when values were important. Unless we return to a time of moral foundations and absolute convictions, this world is going to explode." It seems as if morals are no longer important. Well, it also seemed that way in the America of the post-war 1950s.
The words above are from a speech titled "Rediscovering Lost Values" given by Martin Luther King Jr. in February 1954, just days after he finished his final comprehensive examination and a few weeks before his graduate school approved his dissertation outline. In the speech, King insisted that "all reality hinges on moral foundations," that "this is a moral universe, and ... there are moral laws of the universe, just as abiding as the physical laws."
King is prophetic as he seems to describe the culture of today in his words of 60 years ago. He warns of "putting faith in things such as modern gadgets and contrivances and not giving your life to something eternal and absolute -- Almighty God." And, King explains how easy it is to forget values when minds are so concerned about temporal and material advancement: "We just became so involved in things that we forgot about God -- we didn't mean to do it."
Here are just a few lines from the famous speech. King tells of things that are injurious as they become substitutes for God. Just listen for the similarities to today:
* "We just became so involved in getting our big bank accounts that we unconsciously forgot about God."
* "We became so involved in getting our nice luxurious cars, and they're very nice, but we became so involved in it that it became much more convenient to ride out to the beach on Sunday afternoon than to come to church that morning."
* "We became so involved and fascinated by the intricacies of television that we found it a little more convenient to stay at home than to come to church."
* "And that is the danger confronting us, my friends: that in a nation as ours where we stress mass production, and that's mighty important, where we have so many conveniences and luxuries and all of that, there is the danger that we will unconsciously forget about God.
Just imagine what King might add to his comments if the speech were given today.
Long ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was denouncing ethical relativism, which may be defined as "the belief that nothing is objectively right or wrong and that the definition of right or wrong depends on the prevailing view of a particular individual, culture, or historical period." Instead, in ethical relativism, right and wrong are based on social norms. Ethical relativism would mean that our morals have evolved, that they have changed over time, and that they are not absolute.
If, from an objective point of view, one’s own values and the values of one’s society have no special standing, then an attitude of “live and let live” toward other people’s values seems appropriate.
Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th century B.C., advanced this view when he observed that different societies have different customs and that each person thinks his own society’s customs are best. But no set of social customs, Herodotus said, is really better or worse than any other.
Ethical relativism contends there is no such thing as what is “really” right, apart from social codes for particular societies, for there is no culture-neutral standard to which people can appeal to determine which society’s view is correct. The different social codes are all that exist.
Although ethical relativism allows for a wide variety of cultures and practices as it lets people adapt ethically as the culture, knowledge, and technology change in society, it also contends that truth, right and wrong, and justice are all relative. Therefore, strict adherence to this thought means values are in constant flux.
But, of course, what is morally acceptable is not necessarily correct. Consider the norm of slavery in the United States a couple hundred years ago, or the socially "attractive" habit of smoking in the not too distant past. Without a framework of absolute "right and wrong," indecency is more apt to become popular.
And, wouldn't most agree there must be a consensus of right and wrong for a society to function well? Ethical relativism undermines that glue. It is the basis of the "live and let die" philosophy that cheapens the moral foundations that provide much-needed stability. One might think of the Ten Commandments as bedrock for many of our legal obligations.
Applying "Rediscovering Lost Values"
So, what are the "truths" so often found in the 21st century? Today's ethical relativism certainly puts great stock in wealth, power, control, and sexuality. Much of the "purpose" of living relates to "getting what you can get while you can get it." In America, so many believe accumulative wealth, large estates, and instant acquisition of "happy possessions" is paramount to living the good life.
Now, the level of indifference and tolerance may be so great that few see the need for defining proper and improper behaviors. Somehow, society believes second, third, and fourth changes for wrongdoers are wonderful, positive guarantees. Retries, recalls, redos, and rehabs are common and seemingly limitless. As King said so many years ago, we live with the mantra "We didn't mean to do it." The fact is morals scare the hell out of the pleasure seekers on cruse control in the new millennium.
What does this teach youngsters? A society's smorgasbord of chosen values produces offspring that not only model their teachers but also push their instructors' envelopes. Are we digging ourselves deeper and deeper into problems that create an ever-increasing immoral universe? Foundations seem to be crumbling -- some of them proven to very basic to human survival.
Looking back at King's speech is startling. Understanding his times and the terrible racism that existed then makes us realize the need for relative change in the 1950s, but it also makes us realize the parallels to today when Godlessness is the major problem that haunts the hearts and souls of men.
We have taken great strides to squash the ethical relativism of racial injustice in the last 60 years; however, we have largely failed to rediscover the "lost values" King spoke about then.
What is so frustrating? Few us would deny that some things are right and some things are wrong and that there are, indeed, certain moral absolutes. No matter if the majority is doing the contrary, we understand the need to correct wrongs. But, as King sarcastically said in this famous speech, and I believe it applies today ...
"We have adopted a sort of a pragmatic test for right and wrong—whatever works is right.That's the attitude, isn't it? It's all right to disobey the Ten Commandments, but just don't disobey the eleventh, 'Thou shall not get caught.' That's the attitude. That's the prevailing attitude in our culture.
"No matter what you do, just do it with a bit of finesse. You know, a sort of attitude of the survival of the slickest. Not the Darwinian survival of the fittest, but the survival of the slickest—whoever can be the slickest is the one who right. It's all right to lie, but lie with dignity.
"It's all right to steal and to rob and extort, but do it with a bit of finesse. It's even all right to hate, but just dress your hate up in the garments of love and make it appear that you are loving when you are actually hating. Just get by! That's the thing that's right according to this new ethic."
Martin Luther King Jr. put the burden for change directly upon the shoulders of the American individual. He understood that changing greedy systems and immoral policies begins with a change in each person. It is so true and pertinent to our society. Without new, positive attitudes in men and in women, society will continue to fumble in directions that produce nothing but dangerous trial and error. King said it best...
"God has made the universe to be based on a moral law. So long as man disobeys it he is revolting against God. That's what we need in the world today: people who will stand for right and goodness. It's not enough to know the intricacies of zoology and biology, but we must know the intricacies of law.
"It is not enough to know that two and two makes four, but we've got to know somehow that it's right to be honest and just with our brothers. It's not enough to know all about our philosophical and mathematical disciplines, but we've got to know the simple disciplines of being honest and loving and just with all humanity. If we don't learn it, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own powers. "
Read the entire "Rediscovering Lost Values" speech:
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