Why that Moral Arc Idea Convinces

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That quote popularized by MLK Jr and originated in a different form by an abolitionist preacher in the 1800s has appeal for a lot of people, not just to our sense of optimism but also to our sense of reason and observation. We see injustice spark resistance, we see how some great injustices of the past were defeated, or at least greatly diminished by long struggle. It makes sense that given enough time, all injustices will fall, right?

With more recent history we can see resurgence, re-empowerment, and expansion of old injustices, which is a really useful reality check for those naturally inclined to optimism like (believe it or not) myself. And while outside of the worst environments for these prejudices (such as being trans in the UK) it can still be easy to see the resistance and feel optimistic they will overcome again, what would that mean long-term, if anything?

I’m not going to say that this process is perfect equilibrium, with history swinging between justice and injustice in equal measure. There does seem to be some staying power in some of the successes justice has achieved. People aren’t willing to lose the freedoms they earn with blood. But the arc idea is too simple to describe how the world works. A more accurate way to look at this fight, I think, is that there is an ecosystem of ideas in which selection plays a role.

Injustice species Misogyny rex rules the land unopposed, king of ideas. But wait, opposition appears. Justice species Feminism ceratops evolves defenses so effective that M rex dies out. But a subset of M rex mutated bigger teeth that can overcome F ceratops defenses, and do so well against them that F ceratops goes extinct. But lo, there were a few survivors of F ceratops and they evolve into the next progressive resistance.

In this model, injustices in their existing forms do go extinct – the phenomenon that makes the moral arc model seem convincing – but something always seems to evolve to replace them. What replaces them isn’t always equally bad, so it is still useful to keep fighting. But without the absolute destruction of these injustices, some form of them always survives and has a chance to grow again.

And now, from my reality-checked place of diminished optimism, I feel like even if every ounce of racism misogyny homophobia transphobia ableism antisemitism islamophobia colonialism etc. were magically extirpated from the minds of our species, some new injustice would arise de novo, due to the angling of the power hungry.

The arc of the natural universe is long, but it bends toward everything going extinct in ways ranging from miserable to horrible. Humans have time and again shown ourselves collectively unable to overcome our animal nature. As much as hippies like to separate man from animals to say industrialism is unnatural, it is not. Human decimation of the biosphere is the natural result of a species becoming too fucking successful – something we’ve seen many many times before in nature. The difference between freshly evolved plants causing a mass extinction and what we’re doing now are mostly cosmetic.

My only hope is in the unnatural. Not Elon Musk pipe dreams of technology saving us. More like Gene Roddenberry pipe dreams – the idea we can somehow overcome human nature to create a lasting utopia. And where I said the difference was mostly cosmetic? There’s a fundamental difference that might offer a sliver of hope. The tool of our decimation is a social construct, and we have the power to change those within the space of a single generation sometimes – if rarely. Whether that happens or not, praise for all of the warriors for justice, whatever your part of the struggle. Power on.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I agree with many of the things you say here, Satan, with one caveat. Like you, my thoughts on history have been heavily shaped in recent years by meme theory. I really like your term “ecosystem of ideas,” and I agree that it’s useful to see history through the lens of competing concepts.
    What your model leaves out, I think, is the fact that, through most of human history, warring memes haven’t just been a metaphor. The primary engines of selection in your ecosystem have always been literally fire and the sword. When I read about ancient cultures, I’m stunned by how many that we’ve never even heard of were wiped out by their aggressive neighbors. Aggression itself is selected for — if your culture isn’t good at producing warriors, you’ll definitely be conquered by someone else who is. I believe that most of our morality — our emphasis on virtues like bravery, cooperation, nurturing of children, as well as religious concepts like Valhalla, all evolved because cultures that possessed them could out-compete cultures that didn’t.
    Take your example of feminism. As far as I can tell, in the ancient world a lot of inter-cultural conflicts involved numerous low-casualty wars and battles that played out over generations. In that kind of situation, technological and tactical innovations won’t be decisive — anything one side comes up with, the other side will copy. Instead, the main decisive factor in a series of battles over time is likely to be sheer numbers — whichever side can show up with the most warriors on the battlefield. I think that is why memes like the strict segregation of sexual roles evolved — because birthrate was key. If we are to believe stories about the Amazons, there probably were ancient societies where women and men were treated equally and fought side-by-side. Those societies lost out because, if you kill an enemy female, you are killing all her potential progeny as well; men are simply less valuable to the society’s ability to flourish.
    The same thing is true of anti-LGBTQ attitudes. If I believe that the main thing preventing me and my children from being killed or enslaved by the Assyrians is my neighbors having as many children as possible, you can bet I will use all the means at my disposal to discourage behavior that diminishes their fertility.
    I don’t think it’s an accident that womens’ and LGBTQ rights have surged to the forefront in the last century when, for the first time in human history, advances in the technology of warfare and tactics (such as terrorism) have led us to a point where numerical advantage is no longer a decisive factor in warfare. Also, I think that Pinker is right when he says that the fear of being invaded by ones’ neighbors has diminished remarkably in recent times. Nowadays, memes can compete with one another directly over the internet, rather than relying on warfare for their survival.
    I also think the same thing is true for a lot of other conservative memes that we now see as destructive, like kings and hereditary aristocracies and religion. At some point in the past, they all gave the societies that possessed them a leg up in their states of constant warfare. Nowadays their usefulness has diminished or disappeared, but due to the ancillary memes they have accumulated, they are hard to get rid of. Some of them may get repurposed (like the hereditary monarchy of England turning into a tourist attraction), but I think most of them will go away over time now that they aren’t useful any more. That’s what gives me optimism.

  2. says

    Hmm, I’ve got a few disagreements with that, but don’t have the mental juice to articulate them. I barely mustered the juice to write this article, haha. But I appreciate thoughtful replies from people with good intentions, think they add value to my articles, whether I agree with them or not. So thanks!

  3. brucegee1962 says

    I’d love to hear your disagreements when you feel up to them. One of the main reasons I like to comment on FtB is to hear people tell me the weaknesses in my arguments so I can make them better — they don’t get much pushback inside my head! And someday after I retire I want to do more research and write all my ideas up, so better to find out where I’m wrong now rather than later.

  4. Saurs says

    Hmm, for reasons you say (humans ARE nature and nature is not just because justice is a concept only some natural actors, mainly us, have developed) I have always found the phrase to be a warning/stipulation/offer, rather than either an ideal or a law.

    As I conceive it, it doesn’t bloodlessly describe phenomena so much as it says to take heed if you wish to live in a moral world because a moral world is a difficult thing to collectively construct and requires vigilance and perseverance and most of us, especially the vaunting puffing types, don’t actually yearn for a moral world that doesn’t privilege our specific, individual comfort. It’s not that purity gets in the way of transformative moral projects but that our disagreements are rarely so pragmatic and reasonable that we only quibble about details. The gap within the arc seems a black mirror of our division on these points. And if the division is to be reconciled rather than widened, one has to adjust both one’s expectations and one’s responsibilities.

    Not as heartening a reading as it is generally undertaken, but perhaps fortifying, in that ground that is lost can indeed be regained, if only for some later party to enjoy.

  5. says

    Bruce – don’t think I’ll get to it, but thanks for saying so.

    SARS – This comment was flagged as spam, and while it doesn’t include links to sexslavery.ru, it does read very similarly to the random text from my longer spam comments. Not sure what you’re saying, assuming you’re human, but I can’t calmly stroke my chin and philosophize while my species is driving itself to extinction.

    Posts like what I’ve written here are my part of the effort to fight against that, seed useful ideas in people’s heads, hope they somehow influence the people pulling the levers, or those adjacent to them. I’m trying to understand things (philosophizing) only in the same sense that a person shot in the face thinks “why me” in the moment before they die.

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