From the Dean: Our Moral Imperative

From the Dean

I am the unwitting recipient of the name of two great men in history—two individuals who did much to change the world: Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. While it's tempting to focus on the change they achieved, I believe there is another, more inspirational, side to the story, and it's that these two exemplary human beings didn't just foment change—they engaged with people on the wrong side of history.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in December 1964, Martin Luther King said, "There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technical abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers."

As public health professionals, our job is not merely to provide scientific and technological solutions to the pressing health issues of our time, but also to address the sociological, behavioral, political, and economic contexts that make it difficult for people to adopt those solutions. Science and technology have given us many wins, but it's all for naught if our children don't have access to those wins, if they fall sick or die because of a disease that can be prevented for less than a dollar.

Some 500 years ago, Martin Luther said, "You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say." Four centuries later, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him." Therein lies the eternal struggle—between what is (those things that we've inherited, either as a birthright or as the consequence of a social structure and our position within that structure) and what ought to be.

King suggests it is only through active participation that we achieve change. Of course, there are those who believe we can instigate change only by stark confrontation—by seizing the moral high ground with force. I prefer the approach voiced by another activist who changed the world. "In a gentle way," said Mahatma Gandhi, "you can shake the world." What binds Gandhi to the two Martins, Luther and King, is that all three hold up the mirror of the moral imperative in such a way that change becomes inevitable.

"In the final analysis," King said, "the rich must not ignore the poor, because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. ... The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich." With the variability of access to health care and services that promote health and prevent disease, with the alarming way in which we continue to pollute our air and water and to outsource pain and suffering for the sake of a cheap coat or inexpensive coffee, we must ask ourselves the fundamental question: At what price our culture? Who must bear the cost for our standard of living? Is it the woman working 16 hours a day in a building that collapses in Bangladesh? Is it the child with no future other than to descend into a mile-deep mine? Is it our slavish adherence to our interpreted constitutional rights at the expense of innocent children slaughtered in our schools and universities?

There are cases in which our inhumanity toward each other demands a swift and even vehement response: the stopping of genocide, the eradication of slavery in all its forms, systematic violence against women and children. Gandhi's "gentle shaking of the world" is not the solution for everything.

But it is the solution for much of what ails us. The restoration of justice and peace requires a firm moral and intellectual foundation, as do more basic changes like smoking cessation, violence prevention, food and water security, clean air, the primary prevention of disease. We don't need a grand stage for these change battles to occur—we need people who can dig in at the community level. For community action is the foundation for global change, and it is ultimately through the creation of better systems and programs and opportunities that we can provide the best chance for individuals to become their best selves. That's the genius of public health.

Dean and Professor of Toxicology