The Moral Arc Bends Toward Justice

I would like to respond to Ron Bailey’s well-crafted argument for “The Evolution of Liberty” by expanding his point to include morality and moral justice. Bailey notes that “[t]he sweep of history clearly shows that the natural state of humanity is abject poverty.” As Thomas Hobbes argued in his 1651 book Leviathan, the sweep of history also clearly shows that the natural state of humanity is abject violence and cruelty to those not in our immediate clan or tribe (and sometimes even to our own kin and kind):

In such condition there is no place for industry because the fruit thereof is uncertain … no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

The full title of Hobbes’ great work is: Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. Hobbes was the first modern thinker to apply the newly developing methods of the physical sciences to the social sciences. Hobbes fancied himself as the Galileo Galilei and William Harvey of a new science of society. The dedicatory letter to his earlier work published in 1644, De Corpore Politico, has to be one of the most immodest statements in the history of science:

Galileus…was the first that opened to us the gate of natural philosophy universal, which is the knowledge of the nature of motion. … The science of man’s body, the most profitable part of natural science, was first discovered with admirable sagacity by our countryman, Doctor Harvey. Natural philosophy is therefore but young; but civil philosophy is yet much younger, as being no older…than my own de Cive.

Hobbes’ introduction to scientific thinking came at the age of 40, when he happened upon a copy of Euclid’s Elements at a friend’s home and turned to a theorem he could not understand until he examined the preceding definitions and postulates. This stimulated Hobbes to apply geometrical logic to social theory. Just as Euclid built a science of geometry, Hobbes would build a science of society, beginning with the first principle that the universe is composed of material matter in motion. His second principle was that all life depends on “vital motion,” just as, in Hobbes’ words, “the motion of the blood, perpetually circulating (as hath been shown from many infallible signs and marks by Dr. Harvey, the first observer to it) in the veins and arteries.” Through the senses, the brain detects the mechanical motion of objects in the environment. Since all simple ideas come from these basic sense movements, complex ideas must come from combinations of simple ideas. Thus, all thought is a type of motion in the brain called memories. As the motion fades, the memory fades. Humans are also in motion, driven by passions—appetites (pleasure) and aversions (pain)—to maintain the vital motion of life itself. To gain pleasure and avoid pain, one needs power. In the state of nature everyone is free to exert power over others in order to gain greater pleasure. This Hobbes called the right of nature. Unequal passions among individuals living in nature lead to a state of “war of all against all.” Fortunately, Hobbes continued, humans have reason and can alter the right of nature in favor of the law of nature, out of which comes the social contract. The contract calls for individuals to surrender all rights (except self-defense) to the sovereign who, like the biblical Leviathan, is responsible only to God. Compared to a war of all against all, a sovereign presiding over the state is far superior and forms the basis for a rational society in which peace and prosperity are available on a mass scale.

Of course, we libertarians worry that Hobbes’ social contract can evolve into a state Leviathan that wields so much power that we have even fewer liberties than in the original state of nature. And so the history of modern politics has been a history of finding the right balance between the order brought about by living in a society based on the rule of law, and that rule becoming so draconian as to stifle our freedoms.

Between the time Hobbes was writing in the mid-seventeenth century and today, something dramatic has happened: the moral arc of the universe has been bending ever more toward justice. This observational metaphor was made famous in a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. on August 16, 1967, when he encouraged his freedom fighters to take the long view despite the numerous setbacks they were experiencing: “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” King was inspired by the 19th century Unitarian minister and slavery abolitionist Theodore Parker, who wrote in his 1853 book, Of Justice and Conscience:

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.

Fortunately, thanks to the tools of modern science, we no longer have to divine it by conscience. We have data, comprehensively compiled by the Harvard University social scientist Steven Pinker in his new book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011). The thesis sounds counterintuitive. Shortly after Reverend Parker penned his book, over 600,000 Americans died in a brutal civil war. Half a century later, millions more died in the Great War, and just over two decades later tens of millions more were murdered in the Second World War and the Holocaust, followed on by Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Cambodia’s killing fields, and the numerous genocides in Africa. With bodies stacked like cordwood and the ashes in the crematoria still cooling in living memory, how can anyone seriously argue that there has been a decline in violence?

The idea that we live in an exceptionally violent time is an illusion created by the media’s relentless coverage of violence, coupled to our brain’s evolved propensity to notice and remember recent and emotionally salient events, of which violence plays second fiddle to none. Pinker’s thesis is that violence of all kinds—from murder, rape, and genocide to the mistreatment of blacks, women, gays, and animals—has been in decline for centuries as a result of two forces: (1) a top-down rule of law created by Hobbes’ Leviathan state and an ensuing social contract, and (2) a bottom-up civilizing process brought about by trade, travel, and other social forces that have expanded the circle of our moral sentiments to include people beyond our kin and kind and clan.

Consider how far we’ve come since the violence of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Data from dozens of studies reveals the percentage of deaths in warfare from prehistoric times to the present. The contrast is striking: Prehistoric peoples and modern hunter-gatherers and hunter-horticulturalists are far more murderous than states, with the percentage of death by violence for the former ranging from 10 to 60 percent, and an average of 24.5 percent, compared to 5 percent and under for the latter. Even the bloody twentieth-century wars weren’t so bloody by comparison: About 40 million people died in battle deaths during the century in which around six billion people lived, which amounts to 0.7 percent battle deaths. What about noncombat deaths, such as all those citizens who became the collateral damage of war? “Even if we tripled or quadrupled the estimate to include indirect deaths from war-caused famine and disease, it would barely narrow the gap between state and nonstate societies,” Pinker explains. Even all those genocides and the Holocaust only bring the death toll up to 180 million deaths, which “still amounts to only 3 percent of the deaths in the twentieth century.” And it’s been getting better ever since. In 2005, Pinker computes, a grand total of 0.008, or eight tenths of one percent of Americans died in two foreign wars and domestic homicides combined. In the world as a whole, the rate of violence from war, terrorism, genocide, and killings by warlords and militias was 0.0003 of the total population, or three hundredths of one percent.

Just consider a few of the things we no longer have to worry about, says Pinker: “abduction into sexual slavery, divinely commanded genocide, lethal circuses and tournaments; punishments on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs, decapitation for not bearing a son, disembowelment for having dated a royal, pistol duels to defend their honor, beachside fisticuffs to impress their girlfriends, and the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization or to human life itself.”

The civilizing process begins, says Pinker, with “the centralization of state control and its monopolization of violence, the growth of craft guilds and bureaucracies, the replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung individuals,” and the like. But this is not enough. There has been as well a centuries-long process in which the moral arc has been bending toward justice, first documented by the Jewish historian Norbert Elias in the 1930s, which he subsequently reported in his 1939 book The Civilizing Process:

beginning in the eleventh or twelfth and maturing in the seventeenth and eighteenth [centuries], Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. A culture of honor—the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions. These ideals originated in explicit instructions that cultural arbiters gave to aristocrats and noblemen, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the villains and boors. But they were then absorbed into the socialization of younger and younger children until they became second nature.

Second nature. Our first nature is to be selfish, greedy, and nasty, as Hobbes noticed. Our second nature requires a little coaxing and persuading to come out. Analysis of medieval books of etiquette, for example, reveals that the numerous prohibitions are reducible to a few principles related to this second nature. Pinker sums them this way: “Control your appetites; Delay gratification; Consider the sensibilities of others; Don’t act like a peasant; Distance yourself from your animal nature. And the penalty for these infractions was assumed to be internal: a sense of shame.”

Of course the moral arc is not a perfectly sloping curve. It is filled with bumps and back turns when the darker demons of our nature emerge in points of history where they can express themselves. Yet compared to 500 or 1000 years ago, today a greater percentage of people in more places more of the time are safer, healthier, wealthier, and freer. With the recent ascendancy of the Tea Party movement and the media coverage of angry white men, liberals understandably believe that things are grim and getting worse. But, in fact, Pinker notes that “in every issue touched by the Rights Revolutions—interracial marriage, the empowerment of women, the tolerance of homosexuality, the punishment of children, and the treatment of animals—the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than yesterday’s liberals.”

The moral arc is ultimately grounded in our moral natures, so well captured in Abraham Lincoln’s prescription for a nation about to be hurled into a civil war, in his Inaugural Address of March 4, 1861: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Michael Shermer discusses scientific findings about belief formation. Beliefs, including political beliefs, are usually the result of automatic or intuitive moral judgments, not rational calculations. One cluster of those intuitions presumes that human nature is malleable; these usually produce a liberal politics. Another group of intuitions presumes that human nature is static; these tend to produce conservatism. But Shermer argues that humans really fall somewhere in between — malleable, within some important limits. He argues that this set of findings should produce a libertarian politics.

Response Essays

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky suggests that the partial mutability of human traits is an auxiliary reason at best for Michael Shermer’s libertarianism. Take that fact away, and Shermer’s politics probably wouldn’t go with it. Yudkowsky says that his own small-l libertarian tendencies come from the long history of government incompetence, indifference, and outright malevolence. These, and not brain science, are the best reasons for libertarians to believe what they do.

    Moreover, we make a logical error when we infer shares of causality from shares of observed variance; the relationship between nature and nurture is cooperative, not zero-sum. One thing, however, is clear: Human genetic variance is tiny, as indeed it must be for human beings all to constitute a single species. Environmental manipulation can only achieve so much in part because of this universal human inheritance.

  • Joe Carter invokes an argument by philosopher Alvin Plantinga: If purely naturalistic evolution created the human brain, then we should expect our brains to be tuned for survival, not for truth detection. Michael Shermer appears to agree, at least so far. But if this is the case, then we have no reason to consider the theory of purely naturalistic evolution, or for that matter any other set of propositions, to be true. Under this rubric, truths are at best possible; they can never be necessary. Indeed, the monkey mind can never know that it knows the truth.

  • Ronald Bailey argues that the freedom envisioned by classical liberals is congruent with science and democracy, and that the progress of all three together has enriched much of the world in the last two centuries. The enemies of this libertarian project hearken back to tendencies from mankind’s evolutionary history; for much of that history, experiment of any type could often be fatal, and therefore we find within us what may well be an evolved resistance to experiment. This resistance manifests politically as either conservatism, or a yearning for a purer, more primitive time, when noble savages walked the earth. It is a vice found on both left and right, Bailey argues, and one for which the antidote is libertarianism.