“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Can we talk about this quote for a moment, and why it’s exactly backwards? I don’t mean that the universe’s arc bends towards injustice, I mean it’s backwards the other way. I mean that what we do is:
- Check out what our cultural mores of the moment are.
- Label them justice.
- Check if history is moving away from the past and toward the present moment.
- By gum, it is!
- “The arc of the moral etc.”
This is not a good way to go about things! It’s not like someone 2500 years ago write out a definition of justice that we can check all the intervening centuries against, plotting out how close or far from this ideal each century is and then drawing a curve through them and seeing how it bends…
Ha ha! Of course someone did. Several people did, and if you want to plot how closely the universe aligns itself to some ancient Greek’s idea of justice, you’re welcome to. Of course, different ancient Greeks had different definitions of justice (Thrasymachus, Glaucon, etc.) and if you choose one that you agree with, you are arguing circularly: of course the one you agree with is the one that history [so far] has bent towards the most!
You can get around this problem by picking Plato / Socrates, since at least he / they have been a recognized authority on justice for most of the past few millennia. The key text here is The Republic (co-starring Thrasymachus and Glaucon, and yeah, this is where I got them from) and while I’m certainly interested in how well history has moved towards the Republic—in other words, how successfully predictive Plato was—we should still be asking ourselves: When we quote, “The arc of the moral etc.” is what we mean, “We keep moving more and more towards the Republic”? Is this what we’re talking about at all?
No, what we mean is something like: “For all our apparent differences, there is sufficient consensus among a large enough group of our countrymen that the zeitgeist (or whatever) has a certain number of features that most of us value, and that would not be valued by people of a different era. By focusing on these, and calling them ‘just,’ we can pretend that justice in increasing by definition.” I know I just repeated myself, but I really want to drive this home.
Look at some of the ways that justice has increased in recent history. Gay marriage has been legalized in America. That’s great! Now go back in time even just fifty years and see how many people would agree that this is a good yardstick for measuring the increase or decrease of justice. Probably 90 or 95% of people would say gay marriage would be a decrease in justice. From their point of view we’re bending away from justice!
Ask a medieval anyone if religious liberty would be good or bad. The medieval gets it wrong! But we only know this peasant / emperor is wrong in hindsight. We know we’re right, and religious liberty is good because it happened. This is all Genealogy of Morals stuff, and nothing new, I know; but we keep forgetting it.
When Orwell said that the future is “a boot stomping on a human face forever,” he didn’t mean that history was bending towards justice. When Whittaker Chambers said he was leaving the winning side (Communism) for the losing side (liberal democracy), he didn’t mean that history was bending towards justice. When Jack London wrote the Iron Heel, he didn’t mean that history was bending towards justice. Depending on who you are and what history is doing at the moment, you may think that justice is receding. Kirk Cameron does not think gay marriage = more justice!
But we can pick and choose who is right and who is wrong thanks to the mutable term justice.
All I’m saying is that quote is silly, and you should probably stop saying it.
(Unless you believe that at the imminent eschaton the sky will crack open and God will judge the living and the dead, in which case, go right ahead; in that case, history will have eventually bent towards justice and I take back everything I said above.)