Seth Shulman in The Washington Post:
‘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.”
If that weren’t tough enough, Shermer also needs to show that science and scientific reasoning are responsible for bettering our lot. Given science’s role in everything from the development of the atomic bomb to pervasive government surveillance, it’s hard to know which of his self-appointed tasks is more daunting.To his credit, Shermer tackles this broad agenda with an abundance of energy, good cheer and anecdotes on everything from “Star Trek” episodes and the reasoning of Somali pirates to the demise of the Sambo’s restaurant chain. The anecdotes provide leavening but don’t alter the fact that this is a work of serious and wide-ranging scholarship with a bibliography that runs to nearly 30 pages. The effect can be kaleidoscopic and even a bit scattershot at times, but that doesn’t detract from the truly impressive array of data Shermer assembles.