The Moral Arc of History

4.20 The Civil Rights, Women’s, and Other Identity Movements (late 20th c.)

Exploited subgroups have learned how to organize so as to resist predation by fellow citizens. Much as slavery lost its sanction in the nineteenth century, the residue of slavery—segregation and racism—lost legitimacy in the twentieth. Other ignoble “isms” (anti-Semitism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia) have joined racism in disrepute.

But identity politics can take us only so far because it’s predicated on an “us” versus “them” distinction. In contrast, dignitarian politics is all-inclusive. Most of us are both victims and perpetrators of rankism. 30

rankism (RANK-iz-m) noun

1. abuse, discrimination, or exploitation based on the power signified by social or organizational rank

2. degrading assertions of rank

In every struggle to overcome an ism there are some non-victims who nevertheless ally themselves with the ism’s principal targets and attempt to overturn the prevailing consensus. For such liberal forerunners, there’s an element of altruism at work. Empathy blurs the line between altruism and self-interest.

With the realization that one’s dignity is only as secure as the next person’s, one may support the dignity movement against rankism in order to secure one’s own dignity. 31 As self-interest and altruism align, the Golden Rule becomes self-enforcing and the transition from a predatory to a dignitarian world gains momentum.

4.21 The Human Potential Movement (1960–present).

Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture.

– Iris Murdoch

In its insistence that everyone has untapped mental, physical, and spiritual faculties, the Human Potential Movement goes beyond identity politics. Heralds of the universality of unrealized abilities include William James, John Dewey, A.S. Neill, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Michael Murphy, et al. The Human Potential Movement presents us with a new picture of ourselves—”We are as gods and might as well get good at it”—and we are gradually coming to resemble the picture. 32

4.22 The Arab Spring (2011)

After decades of suffering authoritarian rule, mass protests spread across North Africa to the Middle East demanding an end to paternalism and autocracy. Beginning in Tunisia with the so-called “Jasmine Revolution,” the common goal of these non-violent uprisings is not so much freedom or bread, but elemental human dignity.

Each of the milestones mentioned above marks a curtailment of the potential for rank-based abuse, and so a strengthening of individual human rights. Establishing a human right doesn’t guarantee it, but it does shift the burden of proof from victim to perpetrator, and that makes officialdom more accountable and therefore less likely to engage in rankism.[§§]

These milestones provide empirical evidence for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s claim that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. The arc’s curvature, however, is still indecipherable to many. Indeed, no one who witnessed the horrors of the twentieth century can be faulted for thinking that the moral arc is bending away from justice.

To make out the curvature in spite of the ambiguous and arguable historical record, we need a theory.

5. From Predation to Dignity: The Paradox of Force

Without a theory the facts are silent.

– Friedrich Hayek

Since World War II there have been scores of wars, millions of casualties, tens of millions of refugees; fighting continues today in many parts of the world.

Since the Holocaust, and despite the world’s determination that it not happen again, genocides have occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and elsewhere. Persistent poverty enshrouds one-third of the world’s seven billion people and many warn that population pressure and/or climate change will pit us against each other in a struggle for scarce resources.

In this light, it’s not unreasonable to argue that man’s predatory practices continue unabated, and many so insist. But, an analysis of the social dynamics of power provides grounds for hope. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not prophesy quick or easy passage to justice, only that over the long haul the moral arc was bending toward justice.

Successful predation depends on a power advantage. Humans have an edge over the other animals and, from time to time, often as a result of a technical or organizational breakthrough, they may gain an edge over other humans as well. To the extent that we can put people down and keep them there, we can take what’s theirs and force them to do our bidding. To the extent that we can’t credibly do so, we become vulnerable to their predations.

One reading of the human story emphasizes war, domination, rapine, pillage, slavery, colonization, and exploitation. Wealth and leisure for the few and a subsistence living for the many.

Another telling of history, as suggested by the milestones cited above, highlights overthrowing tyrants, expelling colonizers, and, by marshaling the strength of numbers, progressively emancipating ourselves from domination, slavery, and exploitation.

A “paradox of force” lies in the fact that a group’s competitive success vis à vis other groups depends on limiting the use of coercive force within the group. Why?

If a ruler is regarded as unjust or self-aggrandizing by his subjects, morale will deteriorate to the point that group solidarity is weakened and the will to fight impaired. Unjust leaders neither deserve nor elicit loyalty and, when push comes to shove, their people may turn on them.

This means that governance that promotes loyalty and solidarity has survival value. Even societies that adopt a predatory stance looking outwards, are unwise to disregard dignitarian values looking inwards. Over the course of history, not to complement outward-directed predatory capability with a modicum of dignity for those within the group has been to lose out to groups whose stronger social bond enabled them to marshal and project superior force.

For this reason, the principle of equal dignity is more than an admonition to be “nice.” A policy of relatively equal dignity enhances the strength of groups that practice it. None do so consistently, of course, but some do so more than others and this gives them a competitive advantage stemming from group cohesiveness. This suggests that, on a millennial time scale, the Golden Rule is self-enforcing. We were too quick to judge it toothless. Rather, it simply took a few thousand years to grow teeth.

As we realize that dignitarian societies have, over the long haul, a competitive advantage, and as less dignitarian groups are absorbed by more dignitarian ones, we operationalize the Golden Rule and extend its purview.

Within a group, it’s not just “top dogs” who abuse power. Power abuse is a tempting strategy at any rank because everybody is a somebody to someone and a nobody to someone else. Accordingly, a predatory posture can be assumed towards underlings no matter where one stands in the hierarchy.[***]

Because societies predicated on equal dignity are generally more productive and creative, and are more strongly committed to their common cause—be it aggressive or defensive—they are, on average, fitter. This does not mean that dignitarian groups win every contest with more predatory groups. Factors other than social cohesion also figure in the outcome. But it does mean that, with starts and fits, organizations that tolerate power abuses effectively de-select themselves.[†††] Over a long enough time period, the circle of dignity expands.

The paradox of force is that, statistically, dignitarian societies gradually absorb more predacious ones until finally there is no longer a significant likelihood of inter-group predation. Indignant, disgruntled outliers may resort to terrorism, but they will not be viable unless they are serving as proxies for a group large enough to harbor and support them.

A selection process governed by the same dynamic unfolds among organizations. For example, more dignitarian companies will, on average, serve their customers and employees better, and will outperform less dignitarian ones. Over the long haul, equal dignity slowly gains ground.

While such an evolutionary trend may sound Pollyannaish, it is revealed as a logical consequence of the free play of power within and between competing groups. The paradox of force—that in the long run, right makes might, not vice versa—provides causal underpinning for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation regarding the curvature of the moral universe. Despite the relentless drumbeat of bad news, and barring a major catastrophe (such as one resulting from nuclear or cyber war, pandemic, famine, climate change, or a colliding asteroid) denizens of the twenty-first century could find themselves witnessing a phasing out of our age-old predatory strategy and its replacement by a dignitarian one. Even if there are major setbacks—and we must expect at least a few—universal dignity seems to be the state of social equilibrium toward which we are tending.

6. Predation, No; Competition, Yes

The majority of our human ancestors have suffered lives that, as seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously put it, were “nasty, brutish, and short.” A great many still do. But we’re at a critical juncture beyond which lies the possibility of an epochal shift to a post-predatory era. Predation has taken us this far, and for that we must give it its due. But as a survival strategy it can take us no further without undermining what any strategy is meant to do—ensure our survival. We can take heart from the fact that we’ve already disallowed several broad categories of predatory behavior (e.g., those referenced in “Milestones”), and go on from there to disallow predation itself.

First, however, there’s one more make-or-break issue that must be addressed. Removing the traces of predation from our treatment of others is analogous to that of changing attitudes about race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. It’s not a quick or easy process, but a start has been made and there’s no going back. For those of us who grew up within a social consensus that condoned the familiar “isms,” we can change our overt behaviors, but not entirely eradicate attitudes to which we were exposed as children. What can change, what in fact does change, are the attitudes that one generation models for the next. For the most part, baby boomers did not pass the prejudices of their parents on to their own children. With each successive generation, bigotry attenuates. Over the course of several generations, prejudice and discrimination may diminish to the point where the young wonder what all the fuss was about.

But, in addition to overcoming temptations to put others down and advantage ourselves at their expense, there’s a conceptual barrier to putting our predatory past behind us. Disallowing predation sounds impossible because we haven’t figured out how to forego it without inhibiting competition. Although it’s natural to see competition as the culprit (because it is so very often unfair, and because many competitors interpret winning a particular competition as an excuse for demeaning and exploiting those who lost), no society that has curtailed competition has long endured. As libertarian ideology confuses predation with competition and may find itself an apologist for the former, so egalitarian ideology confuses competition with predation and may advocate killing the goose—competition—that lays the golden egg. To this dilemma—how to allow competition and disallow predation—dignitarian governance provides a possible solution.

Competition is an integral part of our past and fair competition is indispensable to a robust future. To delegitimize gradations of power is not only impossible, it’s a recipe for dysfunction and anarchy.

From the natural selection that drives the differentiation of species to the marketplace that refines products and ideas, competition determines fitness and protects us from abuses of power by economic and political monopolies. To abolish competition is to invite economic and political stagnation, and eventually to fall behind societies that hone their competitive edge.

The difference between predation and competition is that predation knows no rules. In contrast, competition can be made fair. Making sure that it is—by disallowing rankism in all its guises — a proper function of government.

At every point in our social evolution, power rules. Power is neither good nor bad, it just is, and objecting to the existence of power differences is like complaining that the sun is brighter than the moon. Abuses of power persist until the individuals or institutions perpetrating them find themselves confronted with greater power. This would be grounds for cynicism were it not that when power is abused there eventually surfaces a less abusive and therefore still more powerful alternative. Groups that harbor indignity, burden themselves with the corrosive effects of suppressed indignation. The long-term trend of this evolutionary process is the discovery of ever more effective forms of cooperation, successively out-producing, out-performing, and finally replacing more rankist organizations, institutions, societies, and states.

7. The Dawning of a Dignitarian Era

As Mo Tzu tried to tell us, we are one big extended family. The simultaneous advent of globalization and dignitarian values is no coincidence. Predation isn’t working as well as it used to. In addition to the reasons given above, greater exposure to “foreigners” is making their demonization untenable.

Another factor in the demise of the predatory strategy is that victims of rankism have gained access to powerful modern weapons and can exact a high price for humiliations inflicted on them. Thus, the victims themselves are increasingly in a position to make the cost of predation exceed the value of the spoils. Weapons of mass destruction seize the imagination, but even if we do manage to keep them out of the hands of terrorists, non-violent “weapons” of mass disruption, employed by aggrieved groups, can bring modern, highly interdependent societies to a standstill. This represents a fundamental shift in the balance of power in favor of the disregarded, disenfranchised, and dispossessed.

Given that predation has been a fixture throughout human history, it’s not surprising that when one form of predation ceased to work, we devised alternative, subtler forms to accomplish the same thing. Although slavery itself is no longer defended, poverty functions in much the same way—by institutionalizing the domination and exploitation of the poorer by the richer.

In the twenty-first century, the largest group of people that can still be taken advantage of is the poor. We should not be surprised if, using techniques of mass disruption (tactics of non-violent civil disobedience), they acquire the organizational skills to make their ongoing exploitation untenable.

Something new is afoot, and it marks a change fundamental enough to define an era. Opportunistic predation—the survival strategy that we’ve long taken for human nature—has reached its “sell-by” date. Even wars by superpowers against much weaker states are proving unwinnable. Military domination is no longer the profitable business it once was.

Rankism is the residue of predation. As predatory uses of power are revealed as counterproductive, we are leaving predation behind, like the toy soldiers of childhood, and creating a world in which the uses of power are limited to those that extend and enhance dignity.

Humanity’s next step is to build dignitarian societies in a post-predatory world. Knowing that the moral arc of history does indeed bend towards justice gives reason to hope that this may be possible.

30. Robert Fuller, “What is Rankism and Why Do We “Do” It?” The Huffington Post, 17th February, 2010
31. Paul Rosenberg, “Rankism-An Issue Custom-Made For Obama,” Open Left
32. Stewart Brand, “The Whole Earth Catalog (1968–72),” Whole Earth Catalog
[§§] As defined in the text, rankism is not the mere use of rank, but rather abuse of the power attached to rank. I use “abuse” to signify the persistent misuse of power, that is, its continued use not to serve the group but to advance the personal interests of its high-ranking members. Dictators and monopolists go to great lengths to avoid competition because they sense their own vulnerability to it. By the time rivals win a chance to challenge their monopoly, the institutions presided over by dictatorial rulers are usually far weaker than the alternatives they’ve been suppressing. Transitions to more dignitarian governance, once they begin, often occur almost overnight, as in Romania, the Soviet Union, Indonesia, and Serbia.
[***] Unless, of course, you are at the very bottom. But even then, you can resort to kicking the dog. Much cruelty to animals is a result of indignation that humans feel towards other humans who have humiliated them, but whom they dare not confront because the abusers are shielded by rank.
[†††] Whenever a “survival of the fittest” argument is invoked, a question of circularity arises: Can “fittest” be defined independently of “what survives”? In this case, the question takes the form: Can “dignitarian” be defined independently of “what prevails”? If not, the argument is circular, a mere tautology and it can tell us nothing about the curvature of the moral universe.
Indeed, Darwin’s theory was initially attacked as circular. Critics maintained that the only way we could gauge fitness was to look and see what survived. Fortunately for the theory of natural selection, it is possible to state independent conditions that give organisms an advantage, or handicap them, in the struggle to survive and reproduce. Similarly, there is by now a long list of practices that are known to undermine dignity. The de-selection of rankist organizations that tolerate rankism is analogous to the de-selection of relatively unfit organisms in the struggle for reproductive survival. Darwin’s principle is not circular (fitness criteria can be delineated independently of survivability), and since it can be foreseen that the inefficiencies attendant to rankism handicap organizations burdened by them, the notion that rankist values are recessive—and dignitarian values dominant—is not circular either.

Pages: 1 2 3