Speaking at the Constitution Day celebrations at the Supreme Court on Saturday (November 26), Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud used the famous phrase about the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice.
Talking about the accessibility of the justice system, the CJI said, “The Indian judiciary has been adopting several measures of institutional reform with the single objective — and I borrow the celebrated phrase of American civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King Junior to describe it — to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.”
The phrase has been used several times by former US President Barack Obama too, who even had it woven into a rug at the Oval Office during his term in office.
So what does the ‘moral arc of the universe bending towards justice’ mean? Why has its use by politicians, including Obama, been criticised? What can it mean in the Indian context? And is Dr King Jr really the first person to say it? We explain.
What is the full quote?
Martin Luther King had used the phrase several times in different contexts. One of its recorded uses, according to the US’s National Public Radio (NPR), is during the march from Selma in 1965, which had been taken out over the issue of African-American people’s right to vote. Asked how long it would take to see social justice, Dr King said, “How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long.”
On another occasion, he wrote, “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ will rise up and split history into AD and BC, so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”
Note the single quote marks around ‘the arc of…’ that Dr King put. This is because the statement is not originally his, and he was in fact borrowing from the 19th-century Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker, of Massachusetts.
Thanks to Dr King’s popularity and his prominent role in the US civil rights movement, the quote is often believed to be his.
So what is the original quote, then?
Dr King had paraphrased the words of Parker, who, in a sermon in 1853, said, “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 experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
Put very simply, the phrase means that though justice may take long, the universe moves towards it.
However, many have pointed out that the version popular today — “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — makes it sound like justice is a foregone conclusion, and will eventually come about on its own because that is how the arc of the universe bends. What is often missed is that the arc won’t automatically bend towards justice, but has to be made to bend in that direction through human efforts.
While the quote paraphrased by Dr King is punchier and cheering, the original is more circumspect. Parker has written that he can’t see the long arc, but “can divine it by conscience”, and “from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” Thus, while as a clergyman, Parker believed in an eventually just world, he was offering cautious hope, not an easy certainty.
CJI Chandrachud, in his speech, made the need for effort clear when he said the judiciary is “adopting several measures” to attain the objective of bending “the arc of the moral universe towards justice.”
Another criticism of the phrase — and one acutely relevant to the Indian context — is that it seems to assume everyone is agreed upon what is “justice”. Often, competing interest groups in a diverse population, like in India, can have very different ideas of what is “justice”, and critics claim that before trotting the phrase around like a happy platitude, a robust debate is needed to arrive at an informed and fair definition of justice.