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Inertia, Entropy, and the Arc of the Moral Universe

Martin Luther King, Jr. often included in his writing and his speaking a quote from Theodore Parker, a nineteenth century abolitionist. It’s one that President Obama has also been known to cite as well, namely, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This hopeful notion is an article of faith for many of us in the social justice community: we hold fast and firm to the belief that despite whatever temporal setbacks may occur, we are working on the winning side. Certainly, recent victories, namely marriage equality and health care, inspire this hope.

But is it really true? How do we know?

As a pathological optimist, I am comfortable holding firm to a seemingly improbable, if not patently ludicrous, hopeful notion. As the leader of a progressive community foundation, however, I often find myself wishing that there were laws of the moral universe akin to, say, the laws of physics or Newton’s laws of thermodynamics, to which I could point and say: “The universe is on our side.”

At first blush, however, it would appear that the opposite is true. To be clear: to say that I have a rudimentary understanding of physics would be an overstatement, but there are two laws of the physical universe that I do vaguely remember. Taking more than a bit of poetic license, for each I offer a translation or a corollary for the application of the law to the moral universe:

INERTIA

Physical Universe: An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force.

Moral Universe: Change in the moral universe does not happen passively. It requires “agency,” a person or a thing through which a change is achieved.

ENTROPY

Physical Universe: The observation that the universe goes from order to disorder.

Moral Universe: Bending the moral arc of the universe requires work.

Both of these laws suggest that, when left to its own devices, the moral arc of the universe wouldn’t bend at all, or would bend toward greater injustice. However, on closer inspection, we find that the reality is they affirm for us what we actually know about justice, equity, and social change. That is: people make it happen. It doesn’t happen because we believe it will happen. It doesn’t happen because we hope it will happen. It only happens when we make it happen.

People bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

This is the essential truth that animates our mission at Maine Initiatives.

–Phil Walsh

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