There is something wrong with our world, something fundamentally and basically wrong.
I don’t think we have to look too far to see that. I’m sure that most of you would agree with me in making that assertion. And when we stop to analyze the cause of our world’s ills, many things come to mind. We begin to wonder if it is due to the fact that we don’t know enough. But it can’t be that. Because in terms of accumulated knowledge we know more today than men have known in any period of human history. We have the facts at our disposal. We know more about mathematics, about science, about social science, and philosophy than we’ve ever known in any period of the world’s history. So it can’t be because we don’t know enough.
And then we wonder if it is due to the fact that our scientific genius lags behind. That is, if we have not made enough progress scientifically. It can’t be that. For our scientific progress over the past years has been amazing. Man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains, so that today it’s possible to eat breakfast in New York City and supper in London, England. Back in about 1753 it took a letter three days to go from New York City to Washington, and today you can go from here to China in less time than that. It can’t be because man is stagnant in his scientific progress. Man’s scientific genius has been amazing. I think we have to look much deeper than that if we are to find the real cause of man’s problems and the real cause of the world’s ills today. If we are to really find it I think we will have to look in the hearts and souls of men.
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 great problem facing modern man is that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. So we find ourselves caught in a messed-up world. The problem is with man himself and man’s soul. We haven’t learned how to be just and honest and kind and true and loving. And that is the basis of our problem. 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. And the great danger facing us today is not so much the atomic bomb that was created by physical science. Not so much that atomic bomb that you can put in an airplane and drop on the heads of hundreds and thousands of people—as dangerous as that is. But 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 and within the heart and the souls of men. That is the real basis of our problem.
My friends, all I’m trying to say is that if we are to go forward today, we’ve got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we’ve left behind. I want to deal with one or two of these mighty precious values that we’ve left behind, that if we’re to go forward and to make this a better world, we must rediscover. The first is this—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. I’m not so sure we all believe that. We never doubt that there are physical laws of the universe that we must obey. We never doubt that. And so we just don’t jump out of airplanes or jump off of high buildings for the fun of it—we don’t do that. Because we unconsciously know that there is a final law of gravitation, and if you disobey it you’ll suffer the consequences—we know that. Even if we don’t know it in its Newtonian formulation, we know it intuitively, and so we just don’t jump off the highest building for the fun of it… But I’m not so sure if we know that there are moral laws just as abiding as the physical laws. I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure if we really believe that there is a law of love in this universe, and that if you disobey it you’ll suffer the consequences.
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. Or, since everybody is doing it, it must be right. So a sort of numerical interpretation of what’s right and wrong. But I’m here to say to you that some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so. It’s wrong to hate. It’s wrong in America, it’s wrong in Germany, it’s wrong in Russia, it’s wrong in China. It was wrong in 2000 B.C., and it’s wrong in 1954 A.D. It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong. It’s wrong to throw our lives away in riotous living. No matter if everybody is doing it, it’s wrong. It always will be wrong, and it always has been wrong. It’s wrong in every age and it’s wrong in every nation. Some things are right and some things are wrong, no matter if everybody is doing the contrary. Some things in this universe are absolute.
Now that isn’t the only thing that convinces me that we’ve strayed away from this attitude, this principle. 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. If you don’t get caught, it’s 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 is 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. My friends, that attitude is destroying the soul of our culture. It’s destroying our nation. The thing that we need in the world today is a group of men and women who will stand up for right and to be opposed to wrong, wherever it is. A group of people who have come to see that some things are wrong, whether they’re never caught up with. And some things are right, whether nobody sees you doing them or not.
Source: “Rediscovering Lost Values” (Martin Luther King Jr., 1954)