Trump’s Election, the Way History Works, and the Arc of the Moral Universe


One Thing after Another recently read Rebecca Onion’s piece in Slate where she responds to those who, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, have tried to console themselves by referring to history.

Onion responds first to the “school” of thought (if we may dignify it with that name) that claims the United States has survived disasters in the past and can therefore survive future disasters. Yet as Onion points out, such an argument forms a very weak syllogism: America experienced disasters in the past; these disasters did not destroy America; therefore, the disaster of Trump’s election will not destroy America. The problem is that America today is not the America of the past, and the dangers presented by a Trump presidency are not the same as those that confronted the United States on previous occasions. Onion’s argument calls to mind the phrase that the Securities and Exchange Commission compels all mutual funds to include in their brochures: past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Second, Onion takes on the notion that “history” is against Trump. This idea amounts to the claim that events move in a particular direction, and that a Trump presidency is some sort of doomed anachronism that will soon be inundated by an unstoppable progressive tide. Most commonly, this position is expressed with a simple, “It’s 2016!” as if to say that Trump, discrimination, inequality or some other undesirable development is, at the very least, out of joint with our times or, at most, plainly impossible. Others make essentially the same case when they refer to Theodore Parker’s claim (made famous when Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased it in an article and later at a baccalaureate sermon at Wesleyan University): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yes, so the argument goes, Trump has won for now, but the future, which becomes more just as time goes on, is against him. Onion points out, however (and quite rightly), that history has no trajectory of its own that is free from our choices or actions. In other words, following David Sessions, she writes, “we have control over any moral arc that exists,” and “the shape and flavor of the future is in our hands.”

One Thing after Another likes Onion’s essays very much because she relates history to current events in ways that anybody can understand. In this particular case, she is correct so far as she goes. However, she and Sessions make the same mistake that everybody else on Facebook has made when quoting Parker; they have removed his observation about the moral arc of the universe from the context of the sermon in which it was delivered and thus distorted the meaning of his words. Leaving out as they do how and why the arc of the universe bends toward justice, they make Parker’s famous sentence seem, to use Onion’s words, “a big theory of how history happens.” Understood this way, Parker’s statement seems to imply that if we wait long enough, justice will somehow arrive of its own accord. Such was not at all Parker’s message when he wrote “Of Justice and Conscience” in 1852 (which is where his famous statement about the arc of the moral universe appears). As we try to convey his meaning precisely, it makes sense that we use his own words (and refer to  “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws” where he developed his ideas about justice and conscience).

A prominent Unitarian minister who was heavily influenced by the Transcendentalists, Parker (1810-1860) (whose portrait is above) preached in Boston for most of his career. Parker argued there was a natural law that expressed itself, among other ways, as the law of Morals. This law of Morals was immutable, universal, and absolutely right. When one acted according to this law, one fulfilled the moral purpose of his existence and carried out justice. According to Parker, God gave all of us a “Conscience” by which to apprehend this law. The conscience, of course, was imperfect, but it was “adequate to the purpose God meant for it.” If one cultivated one’s conscience, he or she could come to internalize the law and love it. Parker set a high store on the conscience, for it showed the way to “Duty” which was nothing more than obedience to God’s will. Parker stressed that duty trumped everything, including “Business,” which consisted of the obligations laid upon us in our roles as citizens or workers. In making this argument, Parker took especial pains to show how notions of duty then pointed in an abolitionist direction—people ought to follow their duty as dictated by their conscience, disobey man-made laws like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and free their fellow humans from slavery.

Because of their consciences, Parker asserted, people naturally inclined toward justice. Unfortunately, the world did not always reflect this inclination. In the pursuit of their own self-interest, the wealthy and powerful, whether they be “crafty aristocracies” or “monopolists,” had shunned “moral culture” and “scorned justice.” Partially for this reason, government had become “an organization of selfishness” that seemed “to foster the strong at the expense of the week” and “protect the capitalist and tax the laborer.” In such a world, it should come as no surprise that the unjust did not always appear to receive their due punishment.

It is in this context of a world that only poorly reflected divine justice that Parker argued:

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. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged for long.

Why? Because human nature, which yearned for justice as conceived by the conscience, would not tolerate evil forever. The important point is that people would have to take action to bend that arc toward justice. As Parker put it, “In human affairs the justice of God must work by human means.” “You and I can help forward that work,” he told his audience, to “prepare the way for the republic of righteousness.”

And so, in his way, Parker did agree with Onion and Sessions. We are responsible for the arc. We determine how, when, and whether it approaches, asymptotically, the law of Morals. This vision of the world is liberating—we are in charge—but it lays a great obligation upon us as well. Of course, this view of matters raises the question of whether we possess a conscience that truly can recognize justice. The next several years might give us an opportunity to find out.

NOTE: One Thing after Another is indebted to the following post on David Weinberger’s blog: “Does the moral universe arc?”


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