Book review: ‘The Moral Arc,’ science as a force for good, by Michael Shermer

Feb 3, 2015

Image credit: Henry Holt

By  and Michael Shermer

‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of protesters in Montgomery, Ala., in March 1965. King’s use of that quote stands as one of history’s more inspiring pieces of oratory, acknowledging that victories in the fight for social justice don’t come as frequently as we might like, while offering hope that progress will come eventually.

But is the contention empirically true?

Michael Shermer, a professor, columnist for Scientific American, and longtime public champion of reason and rationality, takes on this question and more. In “The Moral Arc,” Shermer aims to show that King is right so far about human civilization and that, furthermore, science and reason are the key forces driving us to a more moral world. It is at once an admirably ambitious argument and an exceedingly difficult one to prove.

First, Shermer — defining moral progress as “improvement in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings” — needs to make a case that we humans are, in fact, moving toward such an improvement despite terrorist attacks on cartoonists, Islamic State beheadings, Taliban massacres of schoolchildren and police shootings of innocent civilians, among other seemingly daily atrocities. As he notes in the preface, when they heard he was working on a book about moral progress, “most people thought I was hallucinatory. A quick rundown of the week’s bad news would seem to confirm the diagnosis.”


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