This column was written by James A. Beshai, PhD, as an "epilogue" to his article “Martin Luther King Jr.—On Love and Justice” that appears in the Dec. 2017 issue of The Humanistic Psychologist (DOI10.1037/hum0000080).

Ricoeur’s hermeneutic work (1970, 1978, 1987, 2000, & 2005) may have been my primary insight into thinking that Martin Luther King Jr. developed an abiding faith in the power of a “Beloved Community,” such as the one founded by St. Paul in the Early Christian Church. Like St. Paul, Martin Luther King Jr. believed in universal human rights for all mankind, guided by a Christian Mission of a radical inner change of conversion.

“A mystery can be seen only by one who lives it,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI in Magnificat, Ignatius Press, SAS, 2006. King was a Protestant Baptist Minister who completed his theological training at Crozer Seminary. He developed an abiding faith in the mystery of the “Beloved Community” of Christian believers who shared a firm belief in the reasonableness of the universe. In Pope Benedict’s meditation entitled: “The Reasonableness of the Universe,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “The universe is not the product of darkness and unreason. It comes from intelligence, freedom, and from the beauty that is identical with love.” (p.15).

Human beings stand erect, and they are born to see that they are bound to behold others as equal to themselves. This universal mutual recognition of one another is a primary universal truth shared by all mankind. Martin Luther King Jr. preached that we must always see the other human beings with whom we share the finality of death an inherent mutual recognition of equality.

James A. Beshai, PhD, with Martin Luther King Jr.
James A. Beshai, PhD, with Martin Luther King Jr.
This maxim has been salient in bringing about de facto racial integration in American society. Ricoeur grafted hermeneutics on phenomenology. Throughout his work he drew attention to two forms of narrative identity: narrative performance, which he sums up in the dialectic of character or idem, and keeping one’s word in ipse-identity. The spirit of agape between identity as sameness and selfhood makes mutual recognition and forgiveness possible. In keeping my word over time, I manifest a form of permanence as an acting and suffering human being, a permanence that cannot be reduced to a trait or faculty as a substratum in Aristotle’s sense. Identity as sameness and selfhood cannot be reduced to each other.

From a temporal perspective of one’s personal identity, King’s letter to Americans (1986) reflects the creative tension between self-sameness (character) and self-constancy (promise). Creating a plot to a narrative of love and justice entails an interaction of a self that maintains constancy of character on the one hand and a selfhood, self-esteem and a capability to configure another narrative of commitment to a shared common cause of solidarity and brotherhood with others. The ethics of attesting selfhood is given as a religious call to fulfill the common good as well as what is right to do. For a citizen to maintain selfhood, one adopts the spirit of macarism in Psalms or in Songs of Praise, similar to those expressed in the Beatitudes, e.g. Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The strong poetic logic of an unconditional love for others develops a logic of abundances as well. This new logic transforms the utilitarian logic of eros, as exchange of benefits, into the logic of agape. King’s call for civil rights upheld that the time has come for the logic of unconditional love for oneself as another to be the appropriate pathway for social and racial integration in the U.S.

This process of identity narrative transformation characterizes the life and mission of Martin Luther King Jr. It began with the story of the Bus Boycott in 1954 (Beshai, 1988). An empirical qualitative content analysis of King’s “Stride toward Freedom” in 1955 disclosed eight themes: non-violent actions (24%), love of God and neighbor (15%), self-esteem via mutual recognition and respect for the other (15%), pragmatic problem solving  approach (11%), self-other and family love (9 %), courage to face adversity (8%), fairness and the rule of law (9%) and perseverance in the call for human rights (6%).

Martin Luther King Jr. appropriated the logic of equivalence with the logic of abundance. King’s life story is one of a time that has come to fulfill the promise of human equality in the U.S. Constitution. The time has come to fulfill the American Dream.

The temporal dimension of social integration is expressed by the never-ending struggle toward stability and change, sedimentation of tradition and innovative change. There is an ongoing practice of what is socially right within a democratic society such as the United States of America committed to racial and social equality, immanent in law and freedom.

Martha Nussbaum on Love and Justice

Martha C. Nussbaum (2014) presented in her book Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice a hermeneutic of how Martin Luther King Jr. was able to persuade the American people to consider the urgent need for reconciliation by his shrewd and generous speech: “I have a dream.”

Her book gives a comprehensive and deeply held ethical, religious and metaphysical view about liberal society, such as the United States, committed to ideals of freedom, articulated by Rawls (1971, 1993), on how a reasonable citizen can ensure de facto inter-racial relations by respecting every other citizen’s equal rights. Rawls two books on love and justice were published after 1968, the year of Marin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Nussbaum (2014) came two decades later, but thinking with Ricoeur, as I attempted to do in my original article, makes it possible for me to say that King’s thinking had moved from Brightman’s personalism to love and justice.

According to Nussbaum (2014), King’s thinking had moved to an interpretation of political emotion. In his speeches and books, King advocated a new understanding of American citizenship in a liberal society. Such an understanding demands that people treat each other as free and equal citizens. Being a full citizen in a liberal society, Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded the American people of their commitment to a reasonable pluralism and that such a state is justifiable without resort to violence.

An important consequence of King’s liberal transformation is that he became politically and religiously convinced of the reasonableness his civil rights conception of justice. The Christian ideal of Brightman’s personalism, expressed in brotherly love in the “Beloved Community,” gave Christian terms to the core normative ideas of liberal political thought. King also seems to have concluded in his last “I Have a Dream” speech that the grasp of the state in the enactment of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and that the common good are also the right path for the American government to use its power to enforce integration without conflicting with any citizen’s reasonable comprehensive doctrine of personal freedom. State power is justifiable and affirmable by every citizen who interacts with fellow reasonable citizens.

Nussbaum (2014) regards her own theory as giving rational grounds for the development of equal racial capabilities in every American citizen as long as there is mutual respect for freedom and dignity. The problem of being a liberal, which presents problems posed by a traditional utilitarian political doctrine, was addressed rationally by Rawls (1993) and Nussbaum (2014) in concrete steps of how society can set its goals for equal opportunities in education and economy by widening the opportunity for achieving the common good via education and equal employment.

The problem of seeing only the aggregate in terms of race or gender or education can be resolved over time. The Rawlsian concept of social justice presents possible solutions. Nussbaum (2014) shows that the threshold for the possibility for the good life for the disabled, gender, the poor, the uneducated and for non-human animals.

The application of these guidelines to establish human capabilities is the rightful approach to the issues of strife and inequality and are based on the rational Aristotelian example of a golden mean to provide for efficient and final causes.

Nussbaum (2014) in Part II of her book entitled “Goals, Resources, Problems” aims to identify the emotional resources available to draw attention to the relevant kinds of problems and nasty aspects of our nature create for racial prejudice. She explains the way in which the project as a whole stays within the basic normative commitments of political liberalism. To fill in seemingly intractable gaps of the theories discussed in Part I, as well as Rawls’ theory, she draws on her own work in moral psychology and the moral emotions, including research from experimental psychology dealing with humans and non-human animals which display complex behavior.

In Part II “Public Emotions,” Nussbaum illustrates how the great American tradition by American public figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. have sought to inspire public emotions of a stabilizing and justice-seeking kind through their exercise of political influence. They were able to address atrocities and grave injustices committed towards segments of the populations in the name of respect for and love of their country. In this part, Nussbaum also proposes ways to understand how various aspects of educational systems and public art (national monuments and memories and city paintings express, aid and foster citizens’projects of loving and working on their country in the right kind of way, namely, in the way that furthers its striving towards a more just and stable future, not only for itself but for all of humanity.

In her review of Nussbaum’ book Professor Helga Varden of the University of Illinois of Urbana-Champaign (2014) gives a judicious summary of how the key principles, of pluralism and personal autonomy can be implemented to cultivate political emotions. Nussbaum investigates a family of interrelated emotions such as compassion, grief, fear, anger, hope and envy to cultivate the spirit of fairness. She argues that public policies based on the emotions of disgust and shame are profound threats to the existence and stability of a liberal political culture because they prevent citizens from assessing realistically their own humanity. 

The Limit of Practical Wisdom in Moral Blindness

Throughout his Civil Rights Movement for racial equality, Martin Luther King Jr. raised a question about moral blindness of some citizens who prevent a liberal society from achieving de facto justice and equal  opportunity for all U.S. citizens. In Political Emotions, Martha C. Nussbaum (2013) makes the same thesis that Martin Luther King Jr. advocated and died for in 1968. In her explorations of political emotions, she makes the case for love and justice. Public emotions, rooted in love — in intense attachments to things outside our control —can foster commitment to shared patriotic goals and keep at bay the forces of prejudice expressed in emotions of disgust and envy. Nussbaum (2013) explains how great democratic leaders in history, including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., understood the importance of cultivating political emotions without violence.

The Primacy of Ethics over Morality

Ricoeur (1992) makes a distinction between ethics and morality. The former inquires what is good and the latter into what is obligatory. The former takes its bearing from Aristotle, where ethics is teleological. The latter is influenced by Kant, for whom morality is defined by teleological norm. Ricoeur notes the necessity of three theses: the primacy of ethics over morality, the necessity of the ethical aim to pass through and be tested by morality and the necessity to have recourse to teleological aim when norms lead to conflicts and antimonies as they inevitably do. The morality of relating self-respect to solitude has to be authentic, and moral blindness is often inevitable.

The good life is the object of the ethical aim. As such, the good is the action that is defined by standards of excellence. These standards are integrated into deeper and broader plans that have a narrative unity, and one may be blind to see this narrative unity.

Aristotle refers to the authenticity of these plans as the end or telos of life plans. The content of the good life is to live rationally, ethically and contemplate the ideal ethical plan to subordinate self-respect to self- esteem. Self-respect is self-esteem as it passes through the testing of the norm if one leads an authentic life.

The apparent solitary, egological focus on the good life is grounded in self-esteem, according to Ricoeur. Aristotle reflects on friendship in order to develop the concept of solitude, the “with and for others” aspect of ethical life. Friendship serves as a transition between the aim of the good life and justice, the virtue of human plurality in the political sphere. The fully happy person, rather than being self-sufficient, needs friends because they are essential to the exercise of virtue prior to setting the goal of human excellence.

Friendship Is Essential for the Good Life and for Justice

One needs excellence in friends to understand the true meaning of the relation between love in friendship and maintaining self-esteem via self-respect in respecting each other’s self-esteem in society. Friends are essential to exercise virtue in friendship prior to human excellence. I cannot adequately be a friend to myself and thus have self-esteem unless I am friends with another, another self. “I cannot myself have self-esteem unless I esteem others as myself.” Friendship in the truest, fullest sense, that is, based on the good as opposed to mere utility or pleasure, is reciprocal and mutual. Friendship borders on justice, but it is not justice because the latter governs institutions and the former interpersonal relationships.

If the good and happy person needs friends, it is because friendship helps him or her realize and perfect himself or herself on the highest intellectual or moral level. Friendship in its intrinsic goodness and pleasure is to be fully conscious of myself as rational, free and generous.

Solitude or self-esteem do expand what we mean by ethical life. Solitude is not added onto self-esteem from outside but simply unfolds its dialogic aspects. Solitude, the concrete care for the other as other, benevolent spontaneity based on self-esteem. This disposition allows the benevolent and compassionate self to rectify the initial asymmetry involved in either receiving an injunction from the other as a “master of justice,” in offering sympathy toward one who is suffering. In the first case, self-esteem is enhanced insofar as the suffering other enables me to feel and share his or her suffering. Mutuality as reciprocity, however, remains the norm in the light of which either asymmetry is judged inadequate.

Justice in institutions is based upon but goes beyond solitude to concern itself with equality. “Equality…is to life institutions what solicitude is to interpersonal relations.” Institutions are the structures of living together as this belongs to a historical community; this structure is irreducible to interpersonal relations and yet bound up with them in a remarkable way. The institution is the point of application of justice, and equality is the ethical content of justice.

My friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. gave me an understanding of the dignity of human beings endowed with equal civil rights. I realized that I had blind spots about how we were treated differently by others. I felt that there was an “unsaid” moral blindness to racial origin. He was treated as an “American person of color” while I was treated as a “foreign” student or a “guest.” There was a moral blindness to the history of slavery in the United States. This history functioned as “a blind spot.”

Personal relations between us were civil, and I did not realize that I was morally blind to racial segregation. There were situations where I turned a blind eye to what was happening on a daily basis. I did not take sides in discussing the civil war with my classmates. With the benefit of hindsight and practical wisdom, I can see that I was “morally blind” to the racial issue, and that Martin probably saw this but never hinted at it, and he may have felt it. We were both blind toward finding a solution to the problem.

The motion of patriotism in a society, according to Nussbaum (2013), assume that being civil would entail refraining from public expression of “disgust” or “envy” in dealing with a person of a different race, religion or nationality. A recognition of moral blindness is necessary to find the right expression of political emotions. According to Ricoeur, we must not ever think that we reached the final solution to de facto justice.

If you liked this article and would like to read more from The Humanistic Psychologist, then become a member of Div. 32 to get full access to the journal and more content like this.

Already a member of Div. 32? Then access the The Humanistic Psychologist by logging in on the journal's page.


Nussbaum, M. C. (2014) Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, Harvard University Press.

Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rawls, J. (1993) Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Varden, Helga (2014) Book Review in Notre Dame Philosophical Review 2014, 03, 34.