Monday, January 21, 2013

The scaffold sways the future

I do a lot of holiday posts, for reasons that aren't clear to me. It’s not like I do a lot of observance in real life, but they provide a nice theme to crystallize thought, and their annual reappearance provides a sort of long rhythm to what is otherwise a pretty formless stream.

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.


jlredford said...

I wonder if there's a technical component aiding rising equality. It's easy to be a warrior aristocrat if only you can afford a horse and armor, but harder when every yeoman has a longbow. It's harder still when they have muskets. That's why the shogun banned them, after all.

It goes the other way too, of course. The Maxim gun helped build the British Empire. Robots prop up the American one. That tech spreads fast, though, so the advantage is temporary.

This doesn't account for modern equality movements, though, such as gay or women's rights. Still, maybe it helps bend the curve.

JSA said...

It's a noble sentiment, and perhaps made more likely by our believing in it, but it's not all that obvious that justice is improving. A large and rapidly-growing portion of the world sees women as semi-human and treats other groups abysmally. Slavery is probably at the highest level ever, in number of enslaved.

In general, I think that sentient knowledge progresses ever-forward, since we're error-correcting machines and we eventually learn from our mistakes. And our knowledge does include things like moral knowledge. But I think things get sketchier when we're dealing with multiple agents who have conflicting intentions. Our ability to envision and pursue justice increases lock-step with our ability to use the justice system to our advantage (and our adversaries' disadvantage), while convincing ourselves that this is virtue.

I'm not saying it's impossible. The economy is one of those areas where we build up knowledge in an attempt to increase human flourishing despite conflicting, often adversarial, intentions. And the fact that we avoided a 2nd Great Depression after the last financial crisis persuades me that we've learned. But then again, I think a lot of parties are learning a lot of very bad lessons about economics, and the chickens are yet to come to roost.

Jay said...

For a long-term perspective on justice, consult a neighborhood American Indian.

If you live in North America and your neighborhood doesn't have any Indians, that's a data point.