About that “Arc of the Moral Universe”

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Did you know the original was part of a sermon?

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. 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 the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.[^1] Ere long all America will tremble.

Theodore Parker was an abolitionist who published those words in 1853. His words were popular at the time, but we know them through Martin Luther King Jr., who quoted a paraphrase that had been attributed to Parker. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King, of course, was also a minister.

It shouldn’t be any surprise then that the sentiment is ultimately a religious one. In fact, we should perhaps twig to this from the paraphrase, or even from the phrase “moral universe”. The idea that the universe has inherent moral qualities hasn’t been demonstrated. The impetus to view it that way is religious or at least is one of the impetuses to religion.

Yet I hear nonreligious people and skeptics use the phrase all the time. It’s used to energize activists and to comfort people in danger of burnout. Far more rare are statements or essays that question the idea even in its particulars. We even have a book with a title borrowed from the phrase arguing for the premise.

Yes, the book argues that nonreligious forces–science in particular1–are what bend the arc and that religion has the capability to reverse it. Yes, that book and many of the other uses of King’s quotation are referring to a metaphorical moral universe rather than the supernatural one of Parker’s original words. However, the directionality and inevitability of the quotation are generally accepted, if sometimes hedged.

If we don’t allow religion to dominate, our world will become more just. If we keep fighting, we will achieve more justice for more people.

The problem, of course, is that this isn’t necessarily true. We may live in a time when books like The Moral Arc and The Better Angels of Our Nature can comfortably be written, even if their choices of data sets and assumptions are questioned by scientists. That doesn’t mean, however, that the situation will or must continue to improve. It doesn’t even means our moral gains are stable.

In the summer of 2007, I received a phone call from a friend. I’d just gotten home from work. My friend wanted to know whether my husband was home yet. Why? Because one of the major freeway bridges over the river I live next to, the bridge my husband worked next to, had collapsed.

He was fine. Our other friends who worked with him were fine, though a couple had had close calls. We were all a bit stunned, though. Freeway bridges didn’t just fall like that. Everyone knew they didn’t.

Photo of a bridge support at the edge of a river. Support is tilted slightly, and the girders of the bridge itself are off their base. Bridge is steeply tilted. Emergency vehicles both in the water and on land.
“Minneapolis I-35W Bridge Collapse” by Tony Webster, CC BY 2.0

Except, of course, that the bridge had fallen. Examination of the records on the bridge indicated that it was “structurally deficient”, and it had been scheduled to be replaced–more than a decade out. A survey of bridges across the country revealed several more pieces of aging infrastructure that were no longer considered safe once we were forced to believe that bridges could fall.

We’ve started spending money on infrastructure again in the last nine years. Some of that is due to a change in administration and a focus on creating jobs. Some of it, however, is that it’s currently harder to deny that the kind of austerity we’d been operating under had no practical consequences. A bridge fell. People died.

What does that have to do humanity’s moral arc? Ask Donald Trump.

Okay, don’t do that. But Donald Trump really is the key to that answer, or perhaps a manifestation of it.

Justice also requires an infrastructure, and at least here in the U.S. 2, we’ve been neglecting ours. Actually, that’s an understatement. Starting in the 1970s for the most part, we’ve been dismantling ours. What have we done?

  • Failed to keep the minimum wage anywhere near a living wage.
  • Limited economic assistance in an economy where employment has become less stable.
  • Cut basic subsistence (food and housing) programs.
  • Cut public transit spending.
  • Cut infrastructure spending.
  • Privatized infrastructure.
  • Cut educational subsidies.
  • Cut child care subsidies.
  • Cut disability services.
  • Cut public-sector jobs, which have traditionally been living-wage work.
  • Cut rehabilitation programs in our justice system.
  • Cut educational oversight by functionally privatizing K-12 education.
  • Privatized large sections of the health care system.

I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that many of the programs put in place to reduce inequalities between people of unequal income have been reduced or eliminated. Yes, some programs have also been increased in that time, and yes, not all of the programs that have been eliminated were effective, but the overall effect has been to magnify the consequences of income inequality.

By allowing that to happen, we’ve undermined our own stability as a country. A candidate like Trump isn’t supposed to be unthinkable, but he isn’t supposed to be able to win even a major party’s nomination. He’s supposed to be a fringe candidate, a vanity candidate. He’s supposed to be there to be laughed at and not taken seriously–exactly the way much of our media has treated Trump. That’s been widely pointed to as a failure of the media, but most of the time, that’s all it would take to keep him out of the real running.

I won’t try to tell you that Trump’s success is directly and only a product of the widening income and wealth gap in this country. Lots of factors led to his nomination. The Tea Partiers’ challenge from the right deprived the GOP of a lot of potential candidates whose promises to protect the interests of wealth are more plausible than Trump’s. Their remaining candidates had a remarkable lack of charisma. Conservative media waffled on its Trump strategy, failing to either laugh or grill consistently.

Still, even accounting for all those factors, it’s likely that Trump would have done well this year because of the situation we’ve allowed ourselves to get into economically. Economic unrest often opens doors to fascism. Trump isn’t an oddity, or at least, his success isn’t.

This isn’t just a question of divisions among the working class. Trump’s supporters are, by and large, not lower-middle-class whites. They skew significantly wealthier than that, even if the wealthiest of conservatives would prefer another candidate. Working-class whites may vote their perceived racial interests over their economic interests, but those divisions are fomented from above. The history of racial politics in the U.S. is a history of elites being willing to have a little less as long as they can maintain the existence of a group that will have significantly less than they do.

So the situation that puts someone like Trump within reach of the White House is complex, but it’s predicable, at least as a significant possibility. It is not an unprecedented event. It was made more likely by the political choices we made even as we made other progress on which we congratulate ourselves.

Moreover, it puts all that progress in jeopardy.

Let me say right here that I’m not interested in your theory about why Trump will never become president. First of all, many of you saying that also told me he would never become the nominee, so your credibility as a soothsayer is scant. Beyond that, I already know that it’s unlikely he will be elected. It was unlikely Mitt Romney would win in 2012 as well. That wasn’t the same as impossible, however. Unlikely events sometimes happen, and until you have a guarantee to give me, I’m not interested in the debate.

The point is that, in the unlikely event of a Trump presidency in 2017 or the election of a different fascist demagogue down the road, all of the infrastructure on which we’ve built our gains is at risk. It won’t just be neglected, as our bridges were. It will be actively undermined. We have a lot of it, from our three-branch governmental system to a massive bureaucracy that largely believes in what it’s doing, and that infrastructure will resist its own demolition. But the outcome is anything but clear.

Should it fall, we will lose the progress we’ve made. When marriage equality, for example, depends on the U.S. Supreme Court for its existence, it only lasts as long as the court.

I’m sure some readers are rolling their eyes at this point, wondering how melodramatic I can be. A disaster scenario under Trump in which the Supreme Court ceases to exist is a bit dramatic. I grant that. On the other hand, my point doesn’t rely on it. Rights are lost on much smaller shifts than that. A simple conservative majority on the the court has undermined our Voting Rights Act and made it acceptable to restrict access to abortion on grounds that are simply made up.

I bring up Trump because some people who find comfort in the image of the moral arc consider these losses wobbles. They say we shouldn’t expect the arc to be smooth.

The reality, however, is that people claiming the existence of a moral arc assume a stability for Western governments going forward that isn’t historically warranted. They also elide the degree to which rights for marginalized groups have depended on that governmental stability. Not to call Trump a new Hitler (because I’m not starting that argument here), but the Weimar Republic is famous for its acceptance of homosexuality. That a country can go from that to an extermination campaign so quickly should make us question that our universe has any predetermined shape to it.

Can we make progress? Yes. Can we hold progress? Sometimes, for a time, with a constant risk of regression to the mean. Success at holding progress, however, depends on understanding the infrastructure that underlies that progress. It depends on understanding the forces that threaten that infrastructure. It depends on understanding its fragility and the constant work required to keep it in place.

In short, maintaining and building on our progress depends on understanding that our secular moral universe has no set shape. Even as we make gains, we cannot become complacent about their inevitability. A bend in any particular direction must always be viewed as temporary, because it is always at risk.

As comforting as the image of a moral arc bending toward justice is, it started as a religious idea. It remains a religious idea, or an idea at best unsupported by reality. Let’s continue to fight and continue to take comfort in our gains. But let’s do it because these gains help people in the here and now, not because we lull ourselves into believing we’ve made permanent progress. That’s a worthy goal in itself, and frankly, it’s more likely to result in justice in the long term.

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  1. I’ll save the discussion of how science as practiced can be a conservative force impeding progress for another time. 
  2. It isn’t just the U.S. I’m just not going to argue about the situation in other countries when I’ve got a prime example right here. 
About that “Arc of the Moral Universe”
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4 thoughts on “About that “Arc of the Moral Universe”

  1. AMM

    The arc of the universe bends towards justice — if we make it do so. If we sit on our hands and congratulate ourselves, it won’t.

    It also requires that we know what we’re doing and do the hard work to make it happen. Good intentions count for nothing, at least in terms of making the world a better place. Progressives are rather good at skiving off the hard stuff and doing stuff that is counter-productive because it makes them feel like they’re Doing The Right Thing.

    In fact, IMHO, it’s the failure of progressives to get their hands dirty with the unglamorous, discouraging, messy work that is what actually changes things that has led to the country (and the world?) getting into the state it’s in.

    To get political: so many people are focussing on the presidential race, because it’s glamorous and it gets covered on TV and blogs and such. But getting Clinton (or Sanders) elected won’t improve things, it’s just a holding action. To actually change things requires action on the state and local levels. State legislators do the gerrymandering that affects who gets elected. And it’s U.S. Senators and congresscritters that control the legislation (not to mention the approval of Supreme Court justices and other appointed officials.) The right-wingers have spent the past 30 years doing hard labor to get control of those levels of government, and it’s going to take us a good 30 years of the same sort of effort to reverse it.

    We’ve had it lucky. The USA (and Europe) have had all kinds of unearned prosperity, prosperity that came at the cost of using up environmental and social and financial capital. That prosperity put people in a more generous mood, which allowed all kinds of progressive things to be done with relatively little effort. Justice (or at least the appearance of justice) was relatively cheap.

    Now that capital is gone and the payments are coming due, the exponential growth in quality of life has leveled off and it’s going downhill. Social justice means some people will get less of whatever it is they want, so they’re not inclined to be generous. We’ve got our work cut out for us convincing people that Justice will really make us all better off, if only in that it will make us feel happier if we look at it the right way.

  2. 2

    Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a different observation about the moral arc of the universe:

    “My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent towards chaos then concluded in a box … “

  3. 3

    In defense of MLK, his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” makes crystal clear that he didn’t think that arc would bend towards justice on its own. His adversaries were a bunch of white clergymen saying “Oh, sure, racial justice is a good idea, but it will come on its own in the fullness of time — you people shouldn’t be trying to force it.” And in what I think is his all-time best writing, MLK used almost every figure in Western moral thought to show how the arc NEVER bends towards justice unless people are willing to sweat and sacrifice and even die to achieve it. I’m sure he’d be saying the same thing today. Preacher he may have been, but I don’t think there was too much magical in his thinking.

  4. 4

    Regressions have happened in the past, it must be noted.

    Like the collapse of the western Roman Empire and various smaller-scale civilizational collapses.

    Closer to home, Arthur Schlesinger father and son have noted that the United States moves in a liberal-conservative cycle, between bursts of reform and periods of stagnation or regression. Liberal phases tend to end because it can be hard to sustain a massive reform effort, and sometimes because its reforms have had some success. Conservative phases tend to end because problems pile up that society’s elites are unable or unwilling to address, or even accept the existence of.

    Here are their identifications, and my identification for the latest phase:

    Lib: Adoption of Constitution, Con: Hamiltonian Federalism, Lib: Jefferson Era, Con: Aftermath of War of 1812, Lib: Jackson Era, Con: Domination by Slaveowners, Lib: End of Slavery, Con: Gilded Age II, Lib: Progressive Era, Con: Republican Restoration, Lib: New Deal, Con: Eisenhower Era, Lib: Sixties Radicalism, Con: Gilded Age II

    The first Gilded Age featured a major regression for black people. A white-supremacist “Redemption” movement ended Reconstruction and forced black people into little better than serfdom. Our current Gilded Age has also had a regression, in the form of drug warring and increased incarceration of young black men.

    I don’t see any clear sign that Gilded Age II will end anytime soon. Obama’s Presidency has been a disappointment, the Occupy movement was crushed, and Bernie Sanders’s candidacy didn’t get very far. But those movements may turn out in retrospect to be the beginning of the end of it.

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