There will likely be times in your life when it seems like the big, important ideals are impossible to achieve—when the world seems fundamentally and irredeemably unjust or when, as some people say today, it all becomes “post-truth.” At such moments, it’s important to remember just how crucial the pursuit of ideals like justice and truth is—even, and perhaps especially, when they seem unattainable.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He might have added that there doesn’t even need to be a “moral universe” in some metaphysical sense for his point to hold. There just have to be lots of people who want to do what’s right and who keep making the effort to do so. In the end, we can bend the arc of history toward justice together; we just have to keep working at it.
Something similar could be said about the arc of the informational universe: It bends toward truth. Not because knowing some final truth is our inevitable destiny (it isn’t), but because the desire to understand provides the gravitational pull that centers our informational efforts from the start.
Just as morality without justice makes no sense, so information exchange without truth makes no sense. And just as a long-term movement toward justice doesn’t have to be grounded in anything other than a large number of people trying to do what’s right, so a long-term movement toward truth doesn’t have to be grounded in anything other than a large number of people trying to understand and share what’s really happening all around us.
As long as enough of us remain dedicated to becoming moral beings, King’s claim will prove correct: We will move—too slowly, perhaps, yet inexorably—toward justice. Similarly, as long as enough of us remain dedicated to creating and sharing knowledge—to discovering and relating what’s real—we will move, if sometimes unsteadily, toward truth.
Notably, everyday people like you and me have critical roles to play in both of these efforts. Thankfully, they are roles that we’re fully capable of playing, even as the fallible creatures we are.
In the first role, we’re asked to strive for goodness—to pursue morality, which must include justice. We’re not asked to achieve perfection or to always do what’s right or to navigate the world with perfect ethical insight. We’re simply asked to fight the good fight, to try to do unto others as we would have done unto us, and to avoid being mean or cruel or exploitive. We can do this.
In the second role, we’re asked to strive for truth. We’re not asked to know with certainty or to communicate with perfect clarity. We’re not asked to see or to think beyond the limits of human comprehension. We’re just asked to listen carefully to others, to be honest with ourselves and with them, to seek and tell the truth as best we can. We can do this, too.
Perfect justice and absolute truth may well be out of reach for mere mortals like us, living in this imperfect world. But a crucial part of what makes you, and all of us, better is the effort to keep bending toward them. Not only that: the effort to keep bending toward them, made by enough of us, can actually make the world we know more just and our accounts of it truer. Indeed, nothing else ever has.
The moral and cognitive limitations of human beings are real. But so is our capacity to love and to learn. Keep feeding your capacity for both and you’ll continue to become a better person. You’ll also make the world around you better.