The Arc of the Moral Universe

Martin Luther King made famous the observation that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends to justice.” Some say he was not the first to make the observation, but he certainly was the one who made it memorable.

I wonder if King would stand by that observation were he alive today. Or would he make this observation instead: “The arc of moral injustice is long, and it bends towards increasing sophistication”?

I’ll make the case for the alternative.

I just finished The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. Her analysis is devastating. She makes what I believe is an airtight case that Jim Crow has been replaced by a system of mass incarceration of blacks that is by design as suffocating to Black America as was the Jim Crow era.

So, as Alexander explains, we’ve moved from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. Each mechanism was more sophisticated and less overt than the mechanism that preceded it. In her concluding chapter, Alexander observes that overthrowing the current system of mass incarceration will not ensure progress, because another system could replace it, and the form that new system will take is impossible to predict.

There’s one aspect of that new system we can predict: It will be more sophisticated than today’s system of mass incarceration.

And more sophisticated means harder to overturn.

In today’s Book Review section of the New York Times, Naomi Klein, reviews The Age of Acquiescence, by Steve Fraser. Fraser compares today’s gilded age to the circa 1900 gilded age, the robber baron era. A huge difference is the lack of any real resistance effort to this gilded age. Back in the robber baron days, there were open battles between unionists and hired thugs. Why is the resistance today so less palpable? I submit it’s because the new gilded age is far more sophisticated than the previous one. And it’s proving far harder to overturn.

Finally, consider American imperialism. Imperialism certainly morally unjust. Is it with us any less than in centuries past? No, it’s just more sophisticated. Just as the British empire was more sophisticated (and less overt) than the Roman empire, the sophistication of the American empire dwarfs that of the British. Heck, it’s not even well-recognized as an empire. But only an empire could consume five times its natural share of the world’s resources and have its forces in one-third of the countries on the planet. Only an empire can have 1000 military bases strewn around the globe.

Okay, so the arc of moral injustice bends toward increasing sophistication. Does that mean the arc of moral history doesn’t bend towards justice? I’d argue yes. The driving force behind the increasing sophistication of injustice is the realities that those who have the ability to dominate others will always seek to do so and that some subset of our population always will seek to garner an insanely outsized share of wealth for themselves. In order to bend that arc of the moral universe towards justice, we’d need to change those realities, but can aspects of human nature that have survived millennia of human evolution unchanged really be expected to change? No, they can’t.

2 thoughts on “The Arc of the Moral Universe”

  1. As the movie star man said when things are at their very worst you people are at your very best. When all seemed lost the minute men at lexington green, captain John Brown at harpers ferry, Rosa Parks on a birmingham city bus said “If not me who? If not now when?

  2. I really enjoyed this post. It provides some pretty deep material to think about. I will get hold of that book and see what I think.

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