The Moral Arc of History

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

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

1. One Tribe Becomes Many

Between fifty and one hundred thousand years ago, a small group of homo sapiens made its way out of Africa and established settlements in what we now call the Middle East. Over the millennia, we multiplied and spread across the whole earth. In response to variations in climate, one race became many.

As earlier hominids had done, we gathered and we hunted, preying on whatever and whomever we could. We also sought power and used our language and model-building skills to turn nature’s power to our purposes.1

Our forebears domesticated plants and animals, steadily improved their tools and weapons, and honed their fighting skills. By the time different tribes ran into one another, they no longer recognized they were all of one family. Other humans looked strange, sounded stranger, and made us afraid.

When facing enslavement or death, we used our martial skills to defend ourselves, or, if we had the advantage, to prey on others. All it took was one predatory tribe to drag others into the fight.[*]

Among the models we built, those pertaining to social organization and governance were especially important to the power we could mobilize. The nature of relationships within a group can either facilitate or undercut alignment around a common political purpose. Prosperity and solidarity, both so powerfully affected by institutions of governance, determine a group’s capability to defend itself against other groups or to dominate them.

2. Power Rules

The “olden days” often seem rosier in hindsight than they did to people at the time. So, it’s not hard to understand why, in the thick of the struggle for survival, the authors of Genesis conjured an Edenic paradise. We’ve been comforting ourselves with stories of bountiful origins ever since.

Archeologists tell a different story. In place of noble savages living in abundance and harmony, they give us a picture of “constant battles” driven by scarcity of food and resources.2 Humans multiply quickly; our numbers can soon outstrip the food supply. The causes of conflict likely ranged from competition to survival in the face of dwindling resources to dreams of empire. Life presented an endless series of choices that turned on kinship. Friend or foe? To embrace or exploit?

One choice sees strangers as lost relatives, the other as potential aggressors, or as prey. In the struggle for survival, “we” have just what “they” need—food, water, tools, territory, animals, child-bearers, manpower—and vice versa. If resources are scarce, appropriating those of other humans may be the only chance for survival, or it may simply recommend itself as a get-rich-quick scheme.

Once the choice is made to regard others as prey, the aim, if not to kill, is to subordinate and enslave. Far from being an aberration, slavery has been commonplace in history. Only in the nineteenth century was its legitimacy seriously questioned. Slavery continues to this day in overt forms (child-slavery and human trafficking), and in the indirect form of subsistence wages. As Reverend Jim Wallis has put it, “Poverty is the new slavery.”3

Of course, modern humans didn’t invent the predatory option. We absorbed it imitatively from our hominid ancestors, and before that, from apes whose internecine battles have been well documented.

To limit injury to self, we, like other predators, opportunistically target the weak. None of us would be here if our own ancestors had not been either relatively successful predators (or relatively good evaders of others’ predations).

Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem and a descendant of an aristocratic Palestinian family, quotes his father as telling him, “All family dynasties can trace their histories back to some act of brigandage.”[†] I have heard similar rueful admissions from the heirs of several American fortunes.

3. Hierarchy and Rank

We tend to think of rank as sanctioning abuse and exploitation, but, in its conception, rank served as a device for regulating predation within the group. By concentrating power in a “top dog” or a “king” and a ruling class, rank served to replace anarchic predation with regulated predation. Despite the privileges taken for itself by the aristocracy, this represented progress at the time.

Every human society, of any size and complexity, has employed hierarchical control. Not to do so was to fall victim to groups that did avail themselves of the superior organization afforded by the tools of rank and hierarchy. Law and order trump anarchy. In return for providing order, the ruler and the ruling class take a share of the fruits of the labor of those they protect from domestic and foreign predators. No wonder we’re wary of rank—it’s the linchpin of the archetypal protection racket. With a few notable, game-changing exceptions, benevolent lordship degenerates into malevolent dictatorship.

But, rank itself is not inherently evil, as evidenced by the occasional benign ruler: we admire, we even love, just, fair-minded authorities who serve the group and eschew personal gain.

When rulers violate the terms of the tacit contract they have with their subjects—by unduly exploiting them, self-aggrandizement, or by failing to protect them against external predators—indignities multiply, fester, and may lead to mutiny, rebellion, and revolution. Over the long-term, the result is incrementally to reign in the powers of the governing class. Reforms that hold rulers accountable diminish rank’s prerogatives and represent an extension of human dignity and human rights.

This paper does not go into the practical, tactical politics of how to secure dignity and rights, but rather tries to account for the long-term trend, heralded by Martin Luther King, Jr., towards greater justice. Detailed models of dignitarian organizations, as well as tips on how to win political support for them, are discussed elsewhere.4,5,6

dignitarian (dig-ni-TÂR-e-an)

1. Adjective. a condition in which dignity is protected, honored, and secure. In a dignitarian society, there are no nobodies, no degradation of others, directly or indirectly. Dignity is everyone’s birthright, and is affirmed regardless of role or rank.

2. Noun. someone who regards dignity as an inalienable right of personhood, and conducts him or herself so as not to cause others indignity.


Think of the examples that follow as milestones towards a world in which the opportunity for abusing the power entrusted to officials is reduced. In listing a few key figures and landmark events in the expansion of the circle of dignity, no attempt is made at completeness. This is merely a “starter” list, the purpose of which is to provoke readers to come up with their own nominations to the Dignitarian Hall of Fame.

4.Milestones on the Road to Universal Dignity

4.1 Monotheism

I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of human beings.7

– Albert Einstein

In contrast to polytheism, where the various gods may be at odds with one another, a single god is presumed to have a comprehensive, unitary consciousness.

Monotheism is the theological counterpart of the scientist’s belief in the ultimate reconcilability of apparently contradictory observations into one consistent framework. If God is of one mind, we cannot expect to know that mind until, at the very least, we have eliminated inconsistencies in our data and contradictions in our partial visions. This democratizes the search for truth by undermining the notion that the imprimatur of authority (e.g., the Church) is what makes a proposition true.

Monotheism is therefore a powerful constraint on the models we build. Our explanations must be free of both internal and external contradictions; they must not depend on the vantage point or status of the observer. This is a stringent condition for models to satisfy, and few do.

Theistic religions proclaim the existence of a personal, caring God. Given the supreme importance of dignity and human beings’ spotty record when it comes to providing it to one another, it’s the rare person who, when worldly options are exhausted, has not imagined acceptance from a supra-human source. As the “dignifier of last resort,” a supreme being, whose judgment trumps that of our community, can validate our strivings when our fellow humans reject us.

If and when we discover life elsewhere in the universe, the question of monotheism will arise again: if extra-terrestrials worship a god, is their god our God, or are we back to polytheism?

The same laws of nature that obtain on Earth hold as far as we can peer into the Universe. If there is a Creator, it would appear that He doesn’t reinvent the wheel. If the same physical laws hold throughout the universe, then it’s plausible that aliens will covet dignity as we do. This will be a good thing for us, if, as is statistically likely, we are not the most advanced life-forms in the Cosmos, because then more advanced beings will watch over us, much as we protect endangered species.

Robert W. Fuller: Fellow of WAAS and Former President, Oberlin College
1. Robert Fuller, All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2006). For a primer on modeling, see Chapter 3.
2. Steven LeBlanc and Katherine E. Register, Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).
3. Jim Wallis, God’s Politics (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).
4. Robert Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 2004).
5. Fuller, All Rise, 1.
6. Pamela Gerloff, Dignity for All: How to Create a World Without Rankism (San Francisco: Berrett Koehler, 2008).
7. Banesh Hoffmann, Albert Einstein – Creator and Rebel (New York: Viking, 1972), 254.
[*] As Andrew Bard Schmookler points out in The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (University of California Press, 1984), if any one group adopts an aggressive policy towards others, the targets of that aggression must either develop a commensurate martial capability or submit to domination.
[†] This quote appears in a New York Times book review by Ethan Bronner on March 29, 2007 of Sari Nusseibeh’s book (with Anthony David) Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).


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