05 November 2008

In the Aftermath of the Election

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

President-elect Obama is fond of quoting (e.g., [1] [2] [3] . . .) this inspiring assertion from Martin Luther King, Jr. who , it turns out, was himself fond of paraphrasing abolitionist Theodore Parker.* Both King and Parker, of course, were ministers who grounded their faith in the notion of a "moral universe" in their religious convictions. Obama too, is a religious man. Lacking religious convictions - and not wanting to assume that others have them, either - I am not inclined to believe that the universe has a distinctly moral character. It is not just, as Parker suggests, that it is difficult to discern. Instead, following pragmatists like Peirce and Dewey, I think that the universe is indifferent to human concerns and strivings.

This, though, brings me to agree with Obama and King and others in an important respect. If we ever are to have justice in any meaningful sense, not only will the effort to bring it about be "long," but it will be a struggle, a contest with forces, human and natural, that may be not just indifferent to our strivings but actively hostile to them. For Obama the easy part is done. What remains to be seen is whether he will engage in that struggle and, if he does, whether he will prevail. And that means the rest of us cannot sit back and simply hope for the best. We cannot rely on "conscience" to win out. The hard part is political and, mostly, politics takes place outside of elections. That is the lesson of King's struggle as he traced an arc from advocating for civil rights to protesting war and economic oppression.
* "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." Theodore Parker, "Of Justice and Conscience," in Ten Sermons of Religion, (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, & Company,1853). [source]

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Blogger Lee said...

I am just thankful that sanity has prevailed at last and both the US and the rest of the world can look towards the future with hope instead of dread.

05 November, 2008 16:14  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Agreed, basically we're back to the starting point of sanity; and I sincerely hope that once the honeymoon is over, he does, in fact, lead- and not compromise his position away a la the Clintons.

05 November, 2008 19:48  
Blogger matt h2o said...

I'd argue that the term is intended to describe the universe *of* moral sentiment, rather than suggesting that the universe has any kind of moral sentiment.

09 November, 2008 06:12  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Which would be fine Matt, except for the fact that neither Parker nor King said that. And King used the phrase 'arc of the moral universe' repeatedly in just the way I've quoted him here.

09 November, 2008 10:28  

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