How would W. E. B Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Descartes, and West explain the issues of social and political philosophy?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both W. E. B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. developed social and political philosophies in response to the sufferings of African Americans and the need for serious social reform to establish African American civil rights. Both philosophized concerning the need for immediate action; both philosophies of both also deviated in terms of violent and nonviolent approaches. Hence, both philosophies would also address such issues addressed in social philosophy as ethics and value theory, as well as such issues addressed in political philosophy as justice, liberty, property ownership, civil rights, laws, and legal codes.

Du Bois argued against the social philosophies of Booker T. Washington that were prevalent during his day. Du Bois lived from 1868 and died the eve of Martin Luther King's famous civil rights march in 1963, while Booker T. Washington lived from 1856 to 1915. Washington argued that African Americans could gradually earn "economic self-reliance, full political citizenship, and eventual social acceptance" if they proved to be of good character, "honest, socially productive," and worked hard ("Africana Philosophy"). Du Bois, in contrast, argued against gradualism and instead argued for "immediate recognition" of African American "civil rights and political rights ... social equality, and economic justice" ("Africana Philosophy").  It can further be said that he created what can be considered a "philosophy of the soul" based on the social injustices and degradations of the African American people that he witnessed and was subjected to himself. Hence, Du Bois generated his own social philosophy to argue that oppression of the African race was unethical and that his race should value fighting to end oppression. He further generated his own political philosophy to argue that his race deserved the same economic, social, and political freedoms as white Americans and that laws should be abolished that currently destroyed these freedoms, such as segregation laws, and that laws should be established to preserve these freedoms. Moreover, Du Bois's call for immediate action also justified the use of self-defense, which is where his philosophies also differ from the later Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophies. Hence, Du Bois placed value on the use of violent self-defense, defining self-defense as good, while King later placed a value on self-defense that defined it as bad. When after World War I even Northern white Americans were starting to attack African Americans for the sake of jobs and housing, even starting violent race riots, Du Bois argued for justifiable self-defense. In a speech titled "Let Us Reason Together," Du Bois argues for physically fighting against the murderers, the lynchers, and the mobs. However, he warns that African Americans "must never let justifiable self-defense against individuals become blind and lawless offense against all white folk" ("Let Us Reason Together").

In contrast, while Martin Luther King Jr. also developed social and political philosophies in defense of African American civil rights, King argued for a more passive, nonviolent approach. While many pacifists do not exclude self-defense as appropriate and even necessary behavior, King rejected the idea of self-defense and instead argued for organized protestations ("Pacifism"). In fact, among his six principles of nonviolence, he argues for the need to "accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve the goal" ("The King Philosophy: Six Principles of Nonviolence"). In other words, like the New Testament principle commanding us to "turn the other cheek," King argued for African Americans to accept suffering so that the strength of their character will also give momentum to their movement, much like Booker T. Washington had previously argued. But unlike Washington, King was also dedicated to making immediate changes and saw that a nonviolent approach would fight the current conflicts and issues much more calmly, rationally, and analytically, which would help their movement gain more ground. Hence, King also placed value on facing conflicts calmly, rationally, and analytically, defining such things as ethically good.

Hence, both Du Bois and King developed social and political philosophies concerning oppression and the need to act immediately to gain social and civil rights; however, both philosophies differ in the use of self-defense or any type of aggression.