Friday, May 11, 2012

On the Arc of the Moral Universe

Dear Mackenzie,

On March 25th, 1965 on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech during which he said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

I have always loved that sentiment.  I believe fervently in its truth and have relied on it during difficult times, even when the length of the arc has seemed excruciating. I hope you will abide by that sentiment in your own life, Mackenzie, and that you’ll do your part to point the moral universe in the right direction.  But how does that work as a practical matter?

When I lecture at colleges and universities around the country I often talk about the so-called “rule of 200”. In our Facebook and Twitter society, this guiding principle might now be more aptly named the “rule of 500”, but either way it basically boils down to this.

Each of us knows about 200 people with whom we interact on some regular basis.  If I do something very nice for you or otherwise help you in some way, you’re likely to tell ten or twenty of those 200 people what a good person I am. But if I do something to harm you or to prejudice you in some way, you’ll tell all 200 people what a bad person I am and then go make new friends so you can bad-mouth me to them too.

Many years ago when I was practicing law, I found myself on the other side of a deal from a very inexperienced young attorney (we’ll call him Dick – not his real name).  Dick was cocky to the point of arrogance, yet as we continued to negotiate it became clear to me that he was in way over his head, at least on one particular but very big deal point. 

I got him to agree to something so advantageous to my client, and so patently disadvantageous to his, that in my heart I knew the right thing would have been to point out his glaring error and teach him the issue for the future. Instead, I called my client and told him what I had accomplished. The client was shocked and delighted, and I went home that night feeling like a hero.

The next morning I got a frantic call from Dick and his boss. Dick was chastened as his boss explained to me very respectfully that their client was furious and was threatening to fire the law firm.

I had taken advantage of Dick’s inexperience and I knew it.  I felt badly, but since I had rushed to tell my client what a great job I’d done so I could take a bow, I now had a problem of my own. Yet I also knew that unless I figured out how to give the other side some relief the deal itself might be in jeopardy. More to the point, Dick’s employment would no doubt be in jeopardy as well, and I certainly didn’t want that on my conscience.

Long story short, I went back to my client hat in hand and disclosed what had actually happened.  After plenty of grumbling, which could easily have been avoided had I done the right thing in the first place, my client relented. The deal now behind us, Dick called me and told me I had saved his job. He thanked me profusely, told me he would never forget my kindness, and promised that for the remainder of his career and mine I would have an endless supply of get out of jail free cards if ever I needed them. Fair enough.

Fade out, and then fade back in fifteen years later.

One day a young agent at my company came to see me in a panic. He explained that he had “fucked up royally” in a negotiation and that one of our clients was about to fire us because of his mistake. I had him explain the situation to me so I could help find a solution, and then asked who was on the other side of the deal.

You guessed it, my sweet daughter.  It was Dick, who by now had become quite successful. I assured my young colleague that this would all work out fine and suggested we call Dick together.  After some small talk I humbly acknowledged to Dick that my young colleague had made a material mistake in the deal, and that as a result we were in grave jeopardy with our client.

To my utter amazement Dick wouldn’t budge. He told us that a deal’s a deal and that our internal client management issue was not his problem.  I was horrified.  When we had called Dick, I’d had no intention of referencing what had happened those many years ago. I simply assumed that the universe was in alignment and that I’d call in my chit with no mention being made of the past either by Dick or by me. But nothing we said moved him, even when I suggested pointedly that I would consider his help a personal favor to an old friend from our early law days together.

Finally I asked my young colleague to step out a minute, and then told Dick that if he couldn’t find it in his heart to help us for the right reasons, he should at least honor the promise he’d made to me fifteen years earlier when I’d stepped up to save his job. He refused, and indeed we ended up losing the client.

Over the years I’ve used this example many times when lecturing about paying it forward, but truth be told I’ve never had it in me to divulge Dick’s real name. Lord knows I’ve been severely tempted.  

Did Dick ever get his comeuppance? I don’t know. Maybe the real lesson here is that it’s not for us to keep the tally. Maybe how or when the arc of the moral universe bends, or even in which direction, shouldn’t be what guides our own moral compass. Maybe our moral energy is best spent on how we conduct ourselves.

And let the universe worry about this Dick or that one.

All my everlasting love,



  1. I live in Montgomery, Alabama. And I wonder whether the arc bends towards justice. I want it to. I want it to badly. But I think mostly it is we humans who must bend, and we must be continually reminded why to bend towards what is right.

    1. You're certainly right that it is in us and up to us.