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June 27, 2015

Does the moral universe arc?

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”

Does it?

That saying was of course made famous by Martin Luther King who put it between quotation marks to indicate that it was not original with him. Had King’s own arc not been stopped short by a white racist with a gun, it might have been MLK, at the age of 86, who addressed us on Friday in Charlestown. As it is, our President did him proud.

The always awesome Quote Investigator tells us that the quotation in fact came from Theodore Parker in 1857; Parker was a Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and abolitionist. The entire sermon (“Of Justice and the Conscience,” pp. 66-102) is worth reading, but here’s the relevant snippet:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. 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 towards justice.

The sermon points out that the wicked often suffer in ways that the outside world can’t perceive. But Parker is realistic enough to recognize that “we do not see that justice is always done on earth,” (p. 89) and he proceeds to remind his congregation of some of the overwhelming evils present in the world, including: “Three million slaves earn the enjoyment of Americans, who curse them in the name of Christ.” (p. 90) Neither does Parker let us rest in the comfortable thought that justice reigns in the next world. We need a “conscious development of the moral element in man, and a corresponding expansion of justice in human affairs…” (p. 90).

But, is Parker right? Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, or towards injustice, or toward neither, or toward entropy? Why shouldn’t we think we construct that arc out of our wishes and happy thoughts?

Parker’s support for his claim is not what sight shows him but what is visible to his conscience. But what did conscience mean to him?

In 1850 Parker delivered a sermon called “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws.” He begins by explaining the term: “It is the function of conscience to discover to men the moral law of God.” He puts it on a level with our other faculties, part of the reaction against the reduction of consciousness to what comes through our sense organs. Transcendentalists were influenced by Kant who argued that sense perception wouldn’t add up to experience if we didn’t come into the world with a pre-existing ability to organize perceptions in time, space, causality, etc. In addition, affirms Parker, we have a faculty — conscience — that lets us understand things in terms of their moral qualities. That faculty is as fallible as the others, but it is “adequate to the purpose God meant for it”; otherwise God would have failed to outfit us adequately for the task He has set us, which would be on Him.

For Parker, conscience (knowledge of what is right) is at least as important as intellect (knowledge of the world). In “Of Justice and Conscience,” he bemoans that “We have statistical societies for interest” but “no moral societies for justice.” (p. 92) “There is no college for conscience.” (p. 93). (Statistics as a concept and a field had entered British culture at the beginning of the 19th century. By the 1850s it had become a dominant way of evaluating legislative remedies there. See Too Big to Know for a discussion of this. Yeah, I just product placed my own book.)

The faculty of justice (conscience) is at least as important as the faculty of intellect, for conscience drives action. In “The Function and Place of Conscience,” he writes:

Nothing can absolve me from this duty, neither the fact that it is uncomfortable or unpopular, nor that is conflicts with my desires, my passions, my immediate interests, and my plans in life. Such is the place of conscience amongst other faculties of my nature

Indeed, the heart of this sermon is the injunction to rise to the demands inherent in our being children of God, and to reject any conflicting demands by government, business, or society.

Much of this sermon could be quoted by those who refuse as businesspeople or government employees to serve same-sex couples, although Parker is talking about returning fugitive slaves to their owners, not decorating cakes:

This statute [the Fugutive Slave Act] is not to be laid to the charge of the slaveholders of the South alone; its most effective supporters are northern men; Boston is more to be blamed for it than Charleston or Savannah, for nearly a thousand persons of this city and neighborhood, most of them men of influence through money if by no other means, addressed a letter of thanks to the distinguished man who had volunteered to support that infamous bill telling him that he had “convinced the understanding and touched the conscience of the nation.”

That “distinguished man” was, shockingly, Daniel Webster. Webster had been an eloquent and fierce abolitionist. But in 1850, he argued just as fiercely in support of the Fugitive Slave Act in order to preserve the union. Parker wrote an impassioned account of this in his 1853 Life of Daniel Webster.

Parker’s sermon exhorts his congregants, in a passage well worth reading, to resist the law. “[I]t is the natural duty of citizens to rescue every fugitive slave from the hands of the marshal who essays to return him to bondage; to do it peaceably if they can, forcibly if they must, but by all means to do it.”

So, conscience trumps the other faculties by bringing us to act on behalf of justice. But the moral law that conscience lets us perceive is different from the laws of nature. Parker writes in “Of Justice” that there is no gap between the natural laws and their fulfillment. This is so much the case that we learn those laws by observing nature’s regularities. But the moral law “unlike attraction [i.e., gravity] … does not work free from all hindrance.” (p. 69). The moral law requires fulfillment by humans. We are imperfect, so there is a gap between the moral law and the realm over which it rules.

Parker continues: Even if we could learn the law of right through observation and experience — just as we learn the laws of nature — those laws would feel arbitrary. In any case, because history is still unfolding, we can’t learn our moral lessons from it, for our justice has not yet been actualized in history. (p. 73) Man has “an ideal of nature which shames his actual of history.” (p. 73) So, “God has given us a moral faculty, the conscience…” (p. 72) to see what we have yet not made real.

Intellect is not enough. Only conscience can see the universe’s incomplete moral arc.

So, does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?

Our intellect sets off warning flares. History is too complex to have a shape. The shape we perceive of course looks like progress because we always think that what we think is the right thing to think, so we think we’re thinking better than did those who came before us. And, my intellect says quite correctly, yeah, sure you’d think that, Mr. Privileged White Guy.

At the moment of despair — when even in Boston citizens are signing letters in favor of returning people back to their enslavement — “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice” brings hope. No, it says, you’re not going to get what you deserve, but your children might, or their children after them. It is a hard, hard hope.

But is it true?

I will postulate what Theodore Parker did not: Neither our intellect nor conscience can know what the universe’s arc will actually be. Even thinking it has any shape requires an act of imagination that bears an unfathomable cost of forgetting.

But, I believe that Parker was right that conscience — our sense of right and wrong — informs our intellect. Hope is to moral perception as light is to vision: You cannot perceive the world within its moral space without believing there is a point to action. And we can’t perceive outside of that moral space, for it is within the moral space that the universe and what we do in it matters. Even science — crucial science — is pursued as a moral activity, as something that matters beyond itself. If nothing you do can have any effect on what matters beyond your own interests, then moral behavior is pointless and self-indulgent. Hope is moral action’s light.

So, of course I don’t know if the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But if there is a moral universe, modest hopes bend its history.


June 26, 2015

Too happy to blog

That is all.

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June 23, 2015

Old man yells at cloud, at SxSW

SxSW’s video talk show interviewed me about my talk, which was basically about why the Net isn’t as dreadful as it seems. Something like that.

Anyway, here’s the segment, with Douglas Caballero. It’s 11.5 minutes long.


June 22, 2015

Has the Internet been paved? has just posted an article of mine that re-examines the “Argument from Architecture” that has been at the bottom of much of what I’ve written over the past twenty years. That argument says, roughly, that the Internet’s architecture embodies particular values that are inevitably transmitted to its users. (Yes, the article discusses what “inevitably” means in this context.) But has the Net been so paved by Facebook, apps, commercialism, etc., that we don’t experience that architecture any more?


June 19, 2015

Spoilers and Time

I remember a 1971 National Lampoon article that gave away the endings of a hundred books and movies. Wikipedia and others think that article might have been the first use of the term “spoiler.” But “SPOILER ALERT” has only become a common signpost because of what the Internet has done to time, and in particular, to simultaneity.

In the old days of one-to-many, broadcast media, the events that shaped culture happened once and usually happened on schedule. So, it would make sense to bring up what was on the news broadcast last night, or to chuckle over that hilarious scene in this week’s Beverly Hillbillies. Now we watch on our own schedules, having common moments mainly around sports events and breaking news — games or tragedies. Perhaps this has contributed to our culture’s addiction to extremes.

We need SPOILER ALERT signposts because we watch when we want but the Net is so huge and unconstrained and cheap that it operates like a push medium — the opposite of why traditional broadcast was a push medium. Trying to avoid finding out what happened on Game of Thrones this week is like trying to avoid getting run over when crossing a highway, except that even seeing the approaching cars counts as getting run over.

Tom and Jerry
Game of Thrones spoiler

This change in temporality shows up in the phrase “real time.” We only distinguish one type of time as “real” because it is no longer the default. The default is asynchronous because that’s how most of our communications occur online. Real time increasingly feels like a deprivation. It requires you to drop what you’re doing to participate or you’re going to lose out. And that feels sub-optimal, or even unfair.

Without the requirement of simultaneity, we are more free to follow our interests. And that turns out to fragment our culture. Or liberate it. Or enrich it. Or all of the above.

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June 4, 2015

Digital literacy

I’m at workshops held by the Center for Educational Technology in Tel Aviv (I’m on its advisory board) and they’ve asked me to do a brief introduction at a session on digital literacy. I plan on saying very little, especially since Renee Hobbs is there and she actually knows this topic.

I want to make only three points, all obvious.

First, obviously digital literacy is first about values and only then about mechanics. E.g., traditionally media literacy has been about making cannier individuals, which then results in a cannier society. Digital literacy — especially if we think of it as network literacy — may decide that it would prefer to grow literate networks.

Second, I personally would want to give students a lively sense of how the Internet and the Web work. This isn’t so they can grow up to be network architects or Web designers. Rather, it explicitly aims at preserving the values implicit (yes, the meaning of “implicit” here needs a lot of explicit explication) in those technologies…values at risk as that architecture becomes increasingly paved over by commercial apps.

Third, our new media literacy is not just about making us better consumers of content but is actually about shaping the medium itself. What do we want it to be? That’s never before been so directly the case.

If I were home, I’d make these points by referring to Howard Rheingold, Dan Gillmor, Renee and others.

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May 15, 2015

John Lennon: dreamer awake

I asked my mobile this morning to shuffle up Instant Karma – Save Dafur, a two-volume set of John Lennon covers. Great album. Big mistake.

It played these tracks in this heart-breaking order:

  1. Imagine [lyrics]
  2. God (I don’t believe) [lyrics]
  3. Beautiful Boy [lyrics]
  4. Grow old with me [lyrics]

I think I write about John Lennon every spring as I start to run and listen to music again. I’m pretty sure I say the same things every time.

So I’m not going to say anything about this mix except that it shows why inconsistency is the truth.


May 3, 2015

NPR frees up 800,000 stories

NPR has announced that it’s making 800,000 pieces of audio embeddable anywhere you want, including on this blog:

When you browse their site you’ll find an “embed” button to the right of a story’s “Play” button. Click ‘n’ paste. (And at the bottom of the widget that you embed you’ll see a tiny, gray copyright notice.)

Thank you, NPR.

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April 30, 2015

A UN museum?

I got to spend yesterday with an awesome group of about twenty people at the United Nations, brainstorming what a UN museum might look like. This was under the auspices of the UN Live project which (I believe) last week was endorsed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Some of the people at the meeting
Some of us

Although it was a free-ranging discussion from many points of view, there seemed to be general implicit agreement about a few points. (What the UN Live group does with this discussion is up to them, of course.)

Security Council
Where we did not meet

First, there was no apparent interest in constructing a museum that takes telling the UN’s story as its focus. Rather, the discussion was entirely about ways in which the values of the UN could be furthered by enabling people to connect with one another around the world.

Second, No one even considered the possibility that it might be only a physical museum. Physical elements were part of many of the ideas, but primarily to enable online services.

Here are some of the ideas that I particularly liked, starting (how rude!) with mine.

I stole it directly from a Knight Foundation proposal by my friend Nate Hill at Chattanooga Public Library. He proposed setting up 4K displays in a few libraries that have gigabit connections, to enable local residents to interact with one another. At the meeting yesterday I suggested (crediting Nate, but probably too fast for anyone to hear me, so I’m clear, right?) that the Museum be distributed via “magic mirrors” – Net-connected video monitors – that connect citizens globally. These would go into libraries and other safe spaces where there can be facilitators. (We’re all local people, so we need help talking globally.) Where possible, there might be two screens so that people can see themselves and the group they’re talking with. (For some reason, I like the idea of the monitors being circular. More like portals.)

These magic mirrors would be a platform for activities to be invented. For example:

  • Kids could play together. Virtual Jenga? Keep a virtual ball afloat? (Assume Kinect-like sensors.) Collaborative virtual jigsaw puzzle of a photo of one of their home towns? Or maybe each group is working collaboratively on one puzzle, but each team’s pieces are part of the image of the other’s team’s home. A simple mirror imitation game where each kid mimics the other’s movements? It’s a platform, so it’d be open to far better ideas than these.

  • Kids could create together. Collaborative drawing? Collaborative crazy machines a la Rube Goldberg?

  • Real-time, video AMAs: “We’re Iranian parents. AUA [ask us anything] at 10am EDT.”

  • Listings for other activities, including those proposed below.

Someone suggested that the UN create pop-up museums by bringing in a shipping container stocked with media tools. (Technically, a plop-down museum, it seems to me.) The local community would be invited to tell its story, perhaps in 100 images (borrowing the British Museum’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects”), or perhaps by providing a StoryCorps-style recording booth. Or send the kids out with video cameras. (There might have to be someone who could help with the media.) The community would be able to tell its story to the world. The world could react and interact. (These containers could contain magic mirrors.)

Another idea: Facilitate local people coming together virtually to share solutions to common problems, building on the multiple and admirable efforts to do this already.

Another idea: One group pointed out that museums typically face backwards in time. So suppose the UN museum instead constructed itself in real time as significant events occurred. E.g., as an earthquake disaster unrolls, the UN Museum would track it live, presenting its consequences intimately to the world, recording it for posterity, and facilitating relief efforts.

There was general agreement, I believe, that all of the UN Museum’s content should be openly available through APIs.

There were many, many more ideas, many of which I find exciting. I don’t know if any of the ideas discussed are going to make it past the cool-way-to-spend-an-afternoon phase, but I am thrilled by the general prospect of a UN Museum that takes as its mission not just the curation of artifacts that tell a story but advancing the UN’s mission by connecting people globally around common concerns, shared interests, and a desire to help and delight one another.

Now go ahead and be cynical and snarky.


April 25, 2015

Our new plummy acting

I have to say that I’m enjoying our new hammy acting style. But hammy isn’t the right word for it, since it implies a lack of craft. So I’ll call it plummy. (The fact that I’m a kosher vegetarian has nothing to do with this.) Our new plummy actors are fully in control of what they’re doing. They’re on purpose pushing it a little further than realness, knowing that we know that they’re doing so.

Leo Dicaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is not hammy or plummy.

Leo in Wolf of Wall Street is plummy.

Had he gone for a Brando-like realism, Wolf would have been as depressing as businesspeople-are-shallow movies like 1959’s What Makes Sammy Run?

Every character in American Horror Story is plummy. Most of the actors on Justified are plummy. Well, the male actors. They get to have way more fun than almost all the women. (The exception: Margo Martindale who played Megs, the Big Bad in 2011. And guess what? She won an Emmy for it.)

Everyone on Fargo, both the TV show and the movie.

Everyone on Veep. which has has gotten ferociously funny this season.

Tony and the Henchmen on The Sopranos. Not so much Carmela or Dr. Melfi, although Nancy Marchand‘s Mom the Destroyer certainly counts.

I’m not sure that Breaking Bad is a great example of this, but Better Call Saul is…again, for the men more than the women, with the exception of Julie Ann Emery‘s Betsy Kettleman.

I’m not saying this is an unprecedented style of acting. In some ways it’s similar to the old days when stars were visible through the roles they played: You could see Cary Grant behind the lines he suavely delivered, and you could see Marilyn Monroe through her bombshell comedienne roles. Or at least you thought you could.

But the current style of acting is different. These actors are as invisible in their roles as Brando’s generation was. But what they’re making of themselves on screen isn’t intended to be mistaken for real life captured by well-placed hidden cameras. They are clearly playing roles. They’re just playing the hell out of them.

So why the men more than the women? As everyone who has watched TV in the past five years has pointed out, the new great series have been dominated by stories of men struggling with their flaws. The women too often are there to “ground” the characters around them. They are often phenomenal actors — Edie Falcon? Get out of town! — but are just not allowed to push beyond the natural. I’m sure it’s all just a coincidence though.


Mad Men isn’t on this list because I think the acting aims for naturalism, perhaps because we already see the distance between the roles people play within their world and who they might be if they were less constrained by the 1950s and 1960s social norms.

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