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"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 toward justice."

The passing of another Martin Luther King day prompts reconsideration of this fundamental philosophical question.

John A Leslie introduced the concept of axiarchism, proposing that justice is a fundamental universal value. Prior to that would be the original value of existence.

According to Plato, Justice is not the right of the stronger but the effective harmony of the whole.

So not just in the human sense, but universally, does the arc of history bend toward justice?

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  • Judgement doesn't evolve its an absolute any time any place.
    – 8Mad0Manc8
    Nov 7, 2023 at 20:03
  • Really? Are you sure? Do you have any evidence? Can you define justice? Any chance you could post an answer?
    – Meanach
    Nov 7, 2023 at 20:08
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    Your post’s title asks one question, its body another. What exactly is it that you want to know, and is it likely to elicit pure opinion rather than reasoned responses? Nov 7, 2023 at 22:35
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    What for some is the arc of history for others is more of a sine wave. Enlightened ideals can vanish without trace. Look at what happened in Germany in the 1930s.
    – nwr
    Nov 8, 2023 at 1:37
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    I have re-opened the question on the grounds that it has provoked interesting comments and answers.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jan 2 at 19:26

3 Answers 3

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Martin Buber, in his "Rung of Redemption," once cited a prophecy that goes something like, "The tears of Esau will not cease until the time of the anointed one," which he interpreted qualitatively, as a cessation of tears of the kind Esau shed (impious ones, it was said). But at other times this sort of prophecy was interpreted quantitatively (see e.g. this footnote to a New Testament passage), as if there is an amount of suffering that has to be used up before the transition.

Sometimes, this viewpoint is known as a narrative trope, with the popular name Justice Will Prevail:

The underlying principle of all series on the idealistic end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: the good guys will always win in the end. Most of the drama in the show comes from the sacrifices they will have to make to this end, and sometimes from their lack of faith in this principle, though usually The Hero, The Love Freak, The Mentor or Messianic Archetype will be there to serve as an endless supply of optimism for the ultimate victory of their cause.

May come as a package deal with Right Makes Might, but not necessarily. If the show is idealistic enough or targeted to a very young audience, Justice Will Prevail without a single drop of blood being shed — indeed, justice usually prevails with the aid of karma, and the heroes won't actually have to beat anyone into submission. If it's cynical enough, the word 'justice' becomes propaganda that both sides of a conflict use to justify violent/controversial/misc shade of grey actions.

That corollary trope Right Makes Might involves attributing some default greater force to good in comparison with evil. Kant did not believe in this as guaranteed except by the postulate of God or something similar enough in abstracto:

... the moral law [leads] to a practical problem which is prescribed by pure reason alone, without the aid of any sensible motives, namely, that of the necessary completeness of the first and principle element of the summum bonum, viz., morality; and, as this can be perfectly solved only in eternity, to the postulate of immortality. The same law must also lead us to affirm the possibility of the second element of the summum bonum, viz., happiness proportioned to that morality, and this on grounds as disinterested as before, and solely from impartial reason; that is, it must lead to the supposition of the existence of a cause adequate to this effect; in other words, it must postulate the existence of God, as the necessary condition of the possibility of the summum bonum (an object of the will which is necessarily connected with the moral legislation of pure reason).

Wherefore Onora O'Neill reads Kant more delicately, though, suggesting that his apparent piety was a partial masque for historical pluralism about the source of power that establishes the justice of history:

In some of his political and historical writings Kant takes a this-worldly view of reasoned hope, in which neither God nor immortality is taken to be an indispensable corollary of our commitment to his views of our dual commitment to the natural and the moral orders. In place of the religious interpretation of the Postulates of Pure Practical Reason of Critique of Practical Reason, he articulates the hopes we must have as hopes for an earthly future, for the possibility of progress in which nature and morality are coordinated not in another life but on this earth. If moral action is seen as a historical goal, reasoned hope may fasten not on God and immortality, but on history and progress.

C.f. democratic peace theory and the examples of nonviolent might in Ackerman and Duvall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. One does not necessarily see a monotonic improvement in the moral condition of the general world, and cosmological dangers like the hypothetical Big Rip scenario might seem to point away from the victory of the good over the greatest timespans, but perhaps if time itself "evolves", and the laws of physics thereby with time, it could be that the kind of hope that John Stuart Mill preemptively shared with Onora O'Neill will be reflected in the transformation of even the physics of things, "here and now."

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It is the nature of humans that we are far better at achieving what we think is reasonably achievable, than what we think is not. Clear-eyed judgement on the reality of justice in the world, may well lead to much LESS justice in the world than an optimistic belief in an arc of history toward justice.

There are good Darwinian reasons to think that there is no such arc, at least physically over the long term, based on the history of our universe. The degree of horrors that life has repeatedly visited upon life, in the process of millennia of Darwinian competition, is truly awful.

However, there are also good empirical reasons to think that there is such an arc operating over the time frame of human history. There is an excellent sociological study of this, Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, that spells out the gradual moral improvement century by century that we humans have achieved in how we treat one another.

Technological/moral projections over the very long term, in which one can project, from the successes of human moral development mostly unaided by technological amplification, to the possibility of humans or our descendants/creations to morally restructure the universe due to technological amplification, are certainly not impossible.

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  • Pinker is good, but in one of his books the events he was telling about sickened me to such a degree that I stopped reading the book, and didn't return to reading him. He needs to use a little judiciousness.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 9, 2023 at 0:14
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Failing divine justice, does a conscious universe contain justice as value? If so, does justice develop with the universe? Divine or human justice is absent or insufficient. So I suggest that the universe considers that justice has value. The arc of universal history does bend toward justice. I submit human history as an experiment in justice. For example, the recognition of the concept of human rights is a step shift in human justice, even if those rights are not always respected.

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  • This is not the place for political comments.
    – Meanach
    Jan 4 at 9:14

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