Does The Arc Of The Moral Universe Really Bend Toward Justice?


Posted by Bob Lord

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice" is a famous quote most commonly attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., but it first was articulated by Theodore Parker a century earlier. 

It sounds great, but is it really correct? Do we repeat it just to make ourselves feel good?

I think it depends a bit on the type of justice to which you're referring, but overall Dr. King was not correct. In my mind, justice can be broken down into at least four varieties. There are social justice, economic justice and criminal justice. There also is what I'll call international justice: The right of sovereign nations to be free from imperialistic intervention by foreign powers. 

The case can be made that the arc of the moral universe ultimately bends toward social justice. That's likely the type of justice to which Dr. King referred, although he may have had economic justice in mind as well. The case for that arc bending toward social justice is not a slam junk by any means. I imagine Cornel West and others would say social injustice has not ebbed; it's just evolved into more subtle forms of injustice.

If you're picking a form of justice upon which to base support for the famous quote, however, social justice easily would be the best pick. Because whichever direction in which the arc of the moral universe may be bending, it doesn't seem to be in the direction of criminal justice, economic justice or international justice.

Today, the United States, with its 1000 military bases strewn around the globe and its CIA and JSOC operating in 100 or so countries, is every bit the empire its British, Spanish and Roman predecessors were.

Ask any member of a minority group, or any lawyer working for the Innocence Project, and they'll tell you that criminal justice is a fantasy. When the country with the most developed economy in history chooses to privatize its prison system, making the imprisonment of human beings a for profit venture, the arc of the moral universe is not bending towards criminal justice.

Of course, if we're referring to economic justice, the accurate quote would be "the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward economic injustice." 

The bottom line: The quote sounds great and makes us feel good, but there just isn't a lot of substance there.