So, here’s a couple of past posts on MLK Day. And here is MLK himself:
I have not lost faith. I'm not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven't lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing "We Shall Overcome" because Carlyle was right: "No lie can live forever." We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant was right: "Truth pressed to earth will rise again." We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell was right: "Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne." Yet, that scaffold sways the future.Is there an arc to the universe, and does it bend toward justice? If so, how does that work exactly? Yes I am a crudely materialistic engineer contemplating the spiritual and wanting to hack it, to understand, invade, and improve it. It feels slightly silly. Unlike King, I can’t simply summon faith, I need to know the wiring diagram.
Justice is one of those things (like Truth and Beauty) that act as cosmic attractors, that pull people and reality itself towards them. More than just exerting a passive gravitational pull, it inspires passion in people. The arc bends, but individuals must do the work of bending it. This must be something like what someone from King’s religious world would call doing the Lord’s work, and what we modern Jews call Tikkun Olam.
The concept of justice seems to have deep biological roots, predating humanity (that link goes to a paper on cheating in primates by Marc Hauser, who himself was caught cheating). That may represent the starting point of King’s arc. Humanity is somewhere further along. The endpoint is not really visible to mortal eyes, yet we have these capital-letter names for it, and some like King claim to be able to see through the murk of the present into the far distance and want to lead us there. But as usual humanity is caught somewhere in the uncomfortable middle between ape and angel.
The implementation of justice relies on the ability to consider people on a level playing field, where my rights and freedoms are the same as yours and his. This is exceedingly unnatural, because obviously the human in the mythical state of nature privileges himself, his family, his friends above random strangers on the other side of the world. I never liked Peter Singer’s utilitarian ethics, because it is impractical, and because it ignores this basic fact of human psychology. It starts from a place we haven’t gotten to and perhaps can’t get to.
I am more interested in the practical and humble psychology of justice and empathy, how we go about constructing this would-be universal sense of justice, this ability to treat every human being with equal dignity and equal rights. It might be unattainable, it might not even be desirable, but it exerts a pull on the arc of humanity nonetheless.