The Moral Arc of History

4.2 The Golden Rule

Just as good parents do not play favorites among their children, so God, conceived of as a single idealized father figure, would presumably accord equal dignity to all his “children”. The Golden Rule is a symmetry condition—equal dignity for all, regardless of rank or role—that, with slight variations, is found in virtually every religion or ethical code. [‡]

Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.

– Hinduism

Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

– Buddhism

What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to oth­ers.

– Confucianism

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.

– Judaism

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

– Christianity

Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.

– Islam

We should behave to our friends, as we would wish our friends to behave to us.

– Aristotle

Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

– Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Neminem laedere 8

– Legal codification of the Golden Rule, which translates as “general rule of care,” or “hurt no one”.

Contrariwise, a deviation from equal dignity is a broken symmetry and, as in physics, a deviation from symmetry signals the existence of a force that breaks it. Among humans, asymmetries take the form of inequitable or preferential treatment of persons or groups and, as in the physical world, these deviations from the symmetry implicit in the Golden Rule reveal the existence of coercion. For example, slavery requires force or the threat of force.

4.3 Hammurabi’s Legal Code (18th century BCE) 9

I had an ah-ha experience as a boy when I heard about King Hammurabi’s practice of posting not only a list of crimes, but right alongside them, the specific punishments that would be meted out for committing them. By having the code carved in stone, the Babylonian ruler was signaling that the laws were immutable, universal, and not even subject to the whim of the king himself. Hammurabi’s Code is one of the first to establish the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. I urged my parents to emulate Hammurabi.

4.4 The Ten Commandments of Moses (15th-13th century B.C.E.) [§],10

The notion of a commandment raises the question of the authority of the command-giver. Although most of the Ten Commandments sounded reasonable in Sunday School, I wondered about their origin. How could anyone be sure they came from God? Moreover, not everyone believed in the existence of God. I thought it would be important to non-believers to demonstrate that these rules could be justified in terms of their contribution to social wellbeing. And, if they could not be so justified, to drop them. Among other things, the Commandments give expression to the idea of monotheism and its corollary of a single Fatherhood within which we are all brothers and sisters deserving of equal dignity.

4.5 Confucius (551 B.C.E.– 479 B.C.E.) 11

Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality and justice. Like the biblical prophets and their Kingdom of Heaven, Confucius imagined a Mandate of Heaven in which rulers chosen on the basis of merit, not birth, would bring peace and prosperity to the people through the power of exemplary moral behavior. Again, the idea is that the governing class is not above the law but rather is honor bound to serve others, not self.

4.6 Mo Tzu’s Family of Man and Doctrine of Universal Love (5th century B.C.E.) 12, 13

Mo Tzu is less well known in the West than other Eastern prophets, but no less visionary. He may have been first to see the world as a village of kinsfolk, and from this insight he deduced that aggressive war is never justified. His doctrine of universal love and his argument that it is “supremely practical” were prescient and original. Mo Tzu’s place in the Dignitarian Hall of Fame is unassailable, despite his diatribes against music and dance. Even in antiquity, futurists had their foibles.

4.7 Jesus (6 B.C.E. – 30 C.E.)

An advocate of universal love and teacher of dignitarian values, Jesus instructed: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[**] This goes beyond assurances of equal dignity, but a world in which no one fears for his or her dignity will likely be one in which brotherly love will feel much nearer at hand than it does to most today. Absent threats to dignity, love might just possibly “bust out all over”.

4.8 Magna Carta (England, 1215) 14

When King John yielded to the demands of the barons at Runnymede—that he spell out his powers and guarantee their privileges—he was starting down a road that would lead to constitutional democracy. The “Great Charter” he was forced to sign famously includes the writ of habeas corpus, enshrining the right to appeal against unlawful imprisonment. I suspect there were voices at Runnymede who resisted taking those first baby steps towards democracy on the grounds that many animals didn’t do so and therefore it was contrary to nature to devolve power. That kind of thinking, still heard today, fails to appreciate the extent to which human intelligence and communication skills make possible complex organizations that, by tapping the power of numbers, can trump brute force. Contemporary manifestations of this dynamic are the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East known collectively as the Arab Spring of 2011.

4.9 Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation (Germany, 1517) 15

The Protestant Reformation began as a protest against systemic corruption within the church hierarchy, extending even to the Pope. In his magisterial account of political revolutions, Eugen Rosenstock-Heussy argues that states that are relatively free of corruption owe this happy circumstance to the Protestant Revolution.16

4.10 Oliver Cromwell, Charles I, and the “Divine Right of Kings” (Britain, 1649)

Putting the king on trial and chopping off his head unambiguously made a point (reiterated by the execution of France’s King Louis XVI) that indeed there was no right to rule, divine or otherwise. Once the Divine Right of Kings had been nullified, people were free to ask, “Who does have the right to rule?” and to imagine that governing is no right at all; that our governors should serve us, not vice versa. The shift from monarchy to democracy prefigures the shift from faith-based to evidence-based truth: trust your own eyes over authority.

4.11 The Glorious Revolution (Britain, 1688–89) 17

The Glorious Revolution marked the end of absolute monarchial power in Britain and the beginning of modern parliamentary democracy there. The monarch could no longer suspend laws, levy taxes, make royal appointments, or maintain a standing army during peacetime without Parliament’s permission, a first step towards civilian control of the military. The Bill of Rights it produced is a major milestone in the history of liberty, justice, and human dignity.

4.12 Frederick the Great (King of Prussia, 1744–97) 18

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Frederick did not believe in the Divine Right of Kings. He saw himself as the “first servant of the state” and joked that the crown was “a hat that let the rain in.” To attract a more skilled citizenry, he generally supported religious tolerance, proclaiming, “All religions are equal and good and as long as those practicing are an honest people and wish to populate our land…we will build them mosques and churches”. Yes, mosques.

4.13 American Independence and the U.S. Constitution (1776–1787)

The American Revolution can be seen as the beginning of the end of Imperialism—a liberation from colonial rule that would spread worldwide over the next two centuries. Having rid themselves of foreign rule, the genius of the Founding Fathers was to assume the worst of their own governors and design a constitutional system of checks and balances to minimize corruption and maximize the accountability of office holders. The Constitution’s most egregious moral flaw was the creation of two kinds of exclusions: women and people of color were held in abusive, exploitative second-class citizenships.19,20,21,22,23 It took the Suffragette movement of the nineteenth century to win women the vote and the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement to establish the principle of equal rights for racial minorities. Despite its shortcomings, the amended U.S. Constitution is a milestone in imposing constraints on the power of government and establishing what Abraham Lincoln described as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” 24

4.14 “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (France, 1789)

France’s tri-partite revolutionary slogan has inspired reformers for two centuries. Omitted is Dignité, which requires generous measures of both Liberty and Equality. That is, no society qualifies as dignitarian that does not also offer constitutional protections of liberty and place limits on economic inequality so as to ensure equal opportunity. The overlap and interdependence of these four cardinal values is a subject warranting separate treatment.[††]

4.15 Latin American Independence (Latin America, 19th century)

The second European colony to expel its imperial rulers was Haiti, born in the Slave Revolt of 1791 and achieving permanent independence from France as a new nation in 1804. The Haitian Revolution is a milestone in the history of Africans in the New World. Other blows against (Spanish) colonialism are personified by Simon Bolivar in Venezuela; José de San Martin in Argentina; and José Martí in Cuba. The decolonization of the Western Hemisphere prefigures the worldwide spread of anti-colonialism in the twentieth century.

4.16 The Abolition of Slavery (Britain, 1833; Russia, 1861; & the United States, 1863)

Slavery was regarded as business as usual until the eighteenth century when Enlightenment thinkers criticized it for violating the Rights of Man and Quakers condemned it as a violation of Christian ethics.25 Czar Alexander II freed the serfs in Russia in 1861 and Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves held in the Confederate States in 1863. Two years later, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited slavery throughout the United States.

4.17 Labor Unionization (19th – 20th century)

A landmark in the struggle between Nobodies and Somebodies (in the respective roles of Labor and Management) was the adoption of legislation guaranteeing the right of employees to unionize and bargain collectively.

4.18 Defeat of Nazism and Fascism, Death Knell for Imperialism (20th century)

Attempts by Germany, Italy, and Japan to establish empires of their own met with catastrophic defeat. In the half-century following World War II, national liberation movements spread across Asia and Africa, and, by the end of the twentiethcentury, colonialism was widely condemned like slavery with a paternalistic face.[‡‡] Colonialism went from a proud and profitable enterprise to shameful and indefensible exploitation in about two centuries, a mere six to eight generations.

4.19 Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations (1948) and International Courts and Tribunals in The Hague (1945, 1993, 2002) 26,27,28,29

The United Nations Charter elevates dignity to the status of a human right and charges governments with protecting it. The Declaration set in motion a gradual acceptance (in law, if not always in practice) of many post-World War II conventions on human rights, and has led to a view of the person, not merely the citizen, as the carrier of human rights. Some have heralded this trend as the emergence of “global law” as distinct from “international law”.

The International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Court—which all have a historical antecedent in the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg—have a variety of jurisdictions and purposes, but among them are the prosecution of individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.

8. Domenico Parisi and Nicola Lettieri, “Neminem laedere: Other-damaging behaviours and how to contain them,” In silico
9. “Hammurabi,” Wikipedia
10. “Ten Commandments,” Wikipedia
11. “Confucius,” Wikipedia
12. Di Mo, Mo Tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963). An introduction to Mo Tzu’s thought is provided by Burton Watson.
13. “Mo Tzu,” Wikipedia
14. “Magna Carta,” Wikipedia
15. “Protestant Reformation,” Wikipedia
16. Eugen Rosenstock-Heussy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (Norwich, VT: Argo Books, 1969)
17. “Glorious Revolution,” Wikipedia
18. “Frederick the Great,” Wikipedia
19. Richard Baldwin, Perfecting our Union See analysis.
20. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies, 4.
21. Robert Fuller and Thomas Scheff, “Bleeding Heart Liberals Proven Right: Too Much Inequality Harms a Society” The Huffington Post, 18th June, 2009.
22. Robert Fuller, “Bridging Left and Right: A Foundation for Transpartisan Politics” The Huffington Post, 4th June, 2007. The relationship of dignity to liberty and equality is also discussed in these articles.
23. Fuller, All Rise, 1
24. “The Gettysburg Address,” Abraham Lincoln Online
25. Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
2005) The story of William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery is told in this gripping book.
26. “United Nations Declaration of Human Rights,” Wikipedia
27. “International Court of Justice,” Wikipedia
28. “International Criminal Court,” Wikipedia
29. “International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia,” Wikipedia
[‡] See and
[§] See Exodus 19:23 and Deuteronomy 5:2
[**] Matthew 22:39
[††] See, for example, the work of Jeremy Waldron who spoke on “Dignity and Rights” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values at the University of California at Berkeley in 2009:
[‡‡] For purposes of illustration, a list of states and national independence leaders, would include, India (Gandhi, Nehru), Africa (Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Senghor, Nyerere, Mondlane, Mandela, et al), South East Asia (Ho Chi Minh), the Soviet Union (Gorbachev, Yeltsin) and its East European Satellites (Walesa, Havel).


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