The Moral Arc of the Universe Won’t Bend, Unless We Bend It

Recently, a friend of mine was ranting about some neighbors on the book of face. It was a relatively minor rant, but something that annoyed her.

My comment was ” People generally suck – The sooner you accept that … the happier you will be”

She replied “Humans are generally good, and the sooner you accept that, the happier you will be.”

I thought about this conversation as I read “No America, It’s Not Gonna Be Okay” by John Pavlovitz

I am a newly retired optimist.

I used to believe that things would always be okay: that no matter how bad circumstances seemed in the world, I trusted that people would do the right thing, that goodness would prevail, that the rational center would hold.

I used to believe that our system of checks and balances would protect us from overreaching parties and mentally-unstable presidents and political leaders lacking a working moral compass and complete perversions of our systems of justice.

I used to believe that most people were basically decent, and that this decency would win the day, because our shared humanity was something we were all equally interested in protecting.

I no longer believe those things.


Hi John, welcome to the club. My actual philosophy is a little more nuanced than “people suck”. People after all are capable of doing tremendous good, and I have witnessed that many times in my life. I have seen people put themselves to great inconvenience and personal risk to help others or to do the right thing. Occasionally, I have even done so myself.

But people aren’t naturally good, and individual acts of kindness, selflessness and doing the right thing may be wonderful but they aren’t enough. It might be comforting, perhaps even inspirational to believe that things will continue to get better.

Throughout his campaign and presidency, President Barack Obama cited Dr. Martin Luther King’s precept that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The quote is so important to Obama that he had it literally woven into a rug in the Oval Office.

With all due respect to the President, it takes a lot more faith than I have to believe any kind of natural or supernatural force is guiding humanity to a more just world. Covid-19 is not nature’s revenge for our lack of environmental stewardship, it is just nature doing its thing.

“Nature is ruled by processes like competition, predation, and mutualism,” Naeem says. “Some of them are positive, some are negative, some are neutral. That goes for our interactions with the microbial world, including viruses, which range from super beneficial to super harmful.”

The universe doesn’t really give a crap about us or about justice. As Robert Wright tells us, the processes that drive us are set by our DNA with the single goal of replicating itself into the next generation. That’s what drives all living things, the goal to to pass the genetic code on to the next generation. People aren’t naturally “good” or “evil”. We are driven by all living things to pass on our DNA to the next generation, and our “DNA Programming” tells us that our DNA is special, it is better than other DNA, and whatever passes it to the next generation is good.

…ever since the Stone Age, the expansion of human social organization has been impelled by a technologically driven growth in the range of interdependence. Over time, people at farther and farther distances from one another have come into contact and in many cases have come to trade or otherwise cooperate with each other. Today, more than ever, we depend on people halfway around the world for the goods and services that sustain us, as do those people. In other words, the fates of people around the world have become more and more correlated. That’s what interdependence is. And, oddly, this correlation is actually strengthened by such global problems as climate change, problems that are bad for people in diverse parts of the world and whose solution would therefore be good for people in diverse parts of the world. In various different senses, people on different continents are in the same boat. It is in our common interest to work together. What could go wrong? Well, if you’re viewing the whole thing up close, answers may spring to mind. Here’s the answer that springs to my mind: groups of people fighting with each other. The lines of battle may be ethnic, religious, national, or ideological, but antagonism seems to have grown along many of these lines in recent years. What’s more, there seem to be some dangerous positive feedback loops: antagonism on one side creates more antagonism on the other, which creates more antagonism on the first side, and so on. This is the kind of dynamic that can fuel a long downward spiral—which would be alarming even if we weren’t living in an age of nuclear weapons and increasingly lethal and accessible biological weapons. But we are living in such an age. What’s more, we’re living in an age when information technologies make it easy for relatively small numbers of people bound by a common enmity to find each other, no matter where on earth they are, and then coordinate to deploy violence. Hatred, even when diffuse and far-flung, has increasingly lethal potential.

The very programming which has caused humanity to fill every corner of the world has become counter productive, and threatens our very existence in a myriad of ways. Our programming does not promote justice, it does not promote the common good, it does not promote long term thinking. Our programming promotes reproduction.

But we humans are unique. We have the ability to rise above our programming. We have the ability to see that we really are in this together and do the work that needs to be done. It isn’t going to happen quickly or easily. Pavlovitz has a checklist of what’s needed to “make things OK”

If the 100 million people who abstained from voting in 2016, decide they give a damn enough to register to vote, and that a few hours next November are worth sacrificing in order to get a Government that represents them.

If Christians and Atheists and Muslims and Jews and Sikhs and Agnostics and Hindus and Buddhists and Humanists who are all committed to the common good—realize that their strength is in their combined power and their unified voice.

If progressives and moderates realize that hashtag campaigns and one day marches aren’t substitutes for sustained engagement in the political process and showing up at the polls en masse and in unison.

If moderate people of faith stop ceding the conversation about religion to the bigots, grow louder about their religious convictions, and push back hard against the supremacy and misogyny and nationalism of the Evangelical Right.

If straight, white Christians decide that the rights of migrant families and gay teenagers and Muslim communities are worth them pissing-off their friends and neighbors and pastors and families, to defend.

And I am going to add one more. We, each and every one of us (and that includes me) needs to work on ourselves. We have to clear ourselves of our biases, and ask ourselves what is really important. We have to see that everything is connected, and we have to do the work for justice

We have to know that the arc of justice can only bend if WE BEND IT.

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