The Arc of the Moral Universe
Justice May Be Just Around the Bend
Let’s face it: things are bad and getting worse every day. Even a casual glance at the daily headlines provides ample reason for dismay, from perpetual warfare and the ravages of climate change to economic collapse and the abject brutality of the “criminal justice” system (a cruel misnomer if ever there was one). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, a millenarian, or even an avowed cynic to surmise that the ship is sinking and that actual justice is but a faded memory.
Still, despite all evidence to the contrary, I maintain that we might not be as bad off as it seems. This isn’t an exercise in wide-eyed optimism, strategic denial, or the power of positive thinking. Rather, it is reflective of what I take as an inexorable impulse in nature — and thus within humankind, as part of its workings — toward productive, sustainable, and ultimately just relations at all points in the web. In short, I want to suggest that life is good, and that it matters.
What is the alternative? That we are part of some predestined machinery of death and decay, bent on nothing except ushering in our own demise? Seriously? The narrative of a self-fulfilling apocalypse is merely another way of keeping us in fear and giving our innate power over to the immanence of “security” and “order” — whether its edicts are delivered to us by fiat or artifice.
Now, this is not intended to justify any of the calamities we have wrought in the modern era; in fact, precisely the opposite. The belief in a just universe is not a static, passive principle, but one that must be struggled for and actively promoted at all levels of our lives. We don’t get to relax and bask in the goodness of creation, nor to indulge ourselves in the hedonism of abdication. Instead, we need to wake up every day and be the architects of the world we desire to inhabit.
These teachings have been reflected to us myriad times throughout history, and we likely know the names of many of the (oftentimes martyred) proponents. As Peace Pilgrim once said, the only thing new about any of this would be actually doing it. We can make the choice at every turn to humanize our relations with one another, and to reorient our roles within the balance of nature. Manmade law, as Thoreau argued, may turn us into the agents of injustice, but perhaps there are even higher principles to be found all around us and within ourselves alike.
Martin Luther King, Jr., summoned this potential power on many occasions, entreating us to consider the active manner in which we might align our intentions with a greater good:
I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow…. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
King delivered these words more than once, including at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery on March 25, 1965. He was, of course, invoking scripture and spiritual teachings in many of his speeches, yet we can also discern that “the arc of the moral universe” is equally an expression of science and politics as much as it is one of theology or philosophy.
The origins of the phrase actually date to 1853, with the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, who said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” In this sense, the notion can be read as part observation and part intuition, simultaneously a projection of reality and a longing for a better world all at once, both practical and idealistic.
This integration of the empirical and the intuitive represents the best of modern thought’s spirit of interconnection, by viewing pieces of the whole as mutually reinforcing rather than oppositional. King added to this sensibility with his famous insight that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” again indicating the holistic, integral nature of moral inquiry.
Another way of thinking about this is conveyed by the notion of traveling “full circle,” which is actually inspired by the physics of the cosmos itself. If one was to trace the edge of a small arc and project it out to infinity, eventually it would intersect itself at the place of origin. Indeed, even the orbits of planets and stars — which appear elliptical in nature — are actually straight-line movements that lead to cyclical motions based on the curvature of space itself. From whence we came, so we return, yet each revolution also brings new insights and challenges.
Interestingly, this potent historical phrase referencing the moral arc has been described as “Barack Obama’s favorite quotation.” On April 4, 2008, the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination, then-Senator Obama declared: “Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice.” And in June of 2009, President Obama again invoked the phrase in support of the “universal rights to assembly and free speech” being exercised by demonstrators in Iran.
So now what? Obama seemingly gets it, at least rhetorically, yet still we find ourselves steadily descending into moral oblivion rather than ascending on the arc of justice. In a recent article asking “What Happened to Obama?” Drew Westen eloquently spells out the conundrum:
When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend. He exhorted others to put their full weight behind it, and he gave his life speaking with a voice that cut through the blistering force of water cannons and the gnashing teeth of police dogs…. But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.
Westen’s stark prose is an effective statement of the tenor of these angst-ridden times. Yet while it rightly reflects the proactive sense in which we must be participants in destiny rather than mere observers, it also makes a strategic miscalculation in assuming that the force of the entrenched “powers that be” can somehow use economic coercion and political chicanery to forestall the advance of justice in the long run of human and/or natural affairs.
King (and Parker before him) did not promise immediate returns on our activist investment in the service of righteousness; indeed, things didn’t get to be this way overnight, and it will take a long time — even an eternity, perhaps — to set it right again. In this sense, justice is asymptotic, something to be forever and vigilantly pursued without regard for its ultimate realization. Still, as we continue to work toward it and increasingly approach its arc, we can see it begin to infuse our relationships with one another and with the balance of existence as a whole.
Part of the task is to relieve ourselves of the unattainable burden of fixing it all or making some sort of “heaven on earth,” focusing instead on the small steps we can take (often thanklessly) at each moment in our lives. Being a good person — or a good people, for that matter — isn’t about being perfect and never doing wrong. Such a quest for moral certitude, especially in a fully wired postmodern world, is pragmatically impossible and thoroughly immobilizing. Rather, the signs of “goodness” are more about what we make of our missteps, whether we regret them appropriately and strive to learn their lessons as we forge ahead. In this manner, the essence of morality isn’t about absolutism or punishment for inevitable letdowns, but more so about the direction in which we are moving.
In fact, we might say that this sense of directionality is the arc of justice. It proceeds regardless as a function of the “unity in diversity” inherent in the cosmos, with or without our willing engagement. The question before us is whether we want to be part of it, or instead remain on a course toward self-imposed annihilation. We can help shape the moral arc by promoting economic fairness, environmental sustainability, and nonviolence; through our efforts toward ending warfare, rejecting consumerism, and stabilizing the biosphere; and by the virtue of teaching ourselves and our children to abandon hatred, embrace non-monetary values, and work in concert with others to produce both sustenance and justice in our communities.
This is the nascent arc now coming into view, calling upon us to help imagine and implement it. The journey may be long and the destination unfixed, but I have no doubt that we will “get there” someday. Indeed, by embarking on the enterprise at all, we may have already arrived.