Ronald Dworkin on recent Supreme Court decisions Reply

Ronald Dworkin has a two-part blog post at The New York Review of Books concerning the recent Supreme Court decisions Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn et al and Arizona Free Enterprise Club PAC v. Bennett. (Links point to the blog posts, not the decisions.) 

In the second paragraph of the first post, he gives a wonderful and concise statement of law-as-integrity:

The popular assumption that justices can decide constitutional cases by just consulting the text of that document and the intentions of its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors, without relying on their own sense of justice, is simplistic and wrong. Many of the most important constitutional clauses—the First Amendment’s promise of “the freedom of speech,” for instance, its guarantee of “free exercise” of religion, and its prohibition of any religious “establishment”—are drafted in abstract language; justices must interpret those clauses by trying to find principles of political morality that explain and justify the text and the past history of its application. They will inevitably disagree about which principles best satisfy that test, and they will inevitably be influenced, in making that judgment, by their own sense of what a good constitution would provide.

But he criticizes the “conservative bloc” of the Roberts Court on these grounds:

But that does not mean that the justices are free to interpret the abstract clauses of the Constitution to match their own political convictions, whatever these are. In the last few years they have overruled a long series of recent and important precedent decisions and they have reversed several long-standing constitutional traditions. They have flatly prohibited even obviously sensible race-conscious social and educational policies, bolstered government’s support for religion, and progressively narrowed the scope of abortion rights. They have changed the American electoral system to make the election of Republican candidates more likely, for example by guaranteeing corporations a constitutional right to spend as much as they wish denouncing candidates they dislike. As I have argued, these various decisions cannot be justified by any set of principles that offer even a respectable account of our past constitutional history.

That’s what I love about Dworkin, and part of what makes him so much fun to teach: you can agree wholeheartedly with hsi formal jurisprudence but I disagree just as strongly with the way he fleshes it out substantively. (More on this, I hope, in future posts.)

Daring Rescues, Dead Babies, and ‘Another Vietnam’ 3

A big thank you to Warren Emerson and The Literary Table for welcoming me. I’m excited to be joining the interdisciplinary fun on this blog. The following is cross-posted from Legal Lacuna:

As Americans debate the recent “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, I am reminded of an NPR feature that aired last year. In the fall of 2010, NPR’s All Things Considered told the story of the U.S.S. Kirk, a small U.S. naval ship that, at the end of the Vietnam War, conducted an unusual humanitarian mission.

On April 29, 1975, as Saigon fell, the Kirk and its astonished crew were sent to retrieve thousands of refugees who were fleeing South Vietnam by boat and helicopter. The next day, the Kirk returned to “rescue . . . the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy,” about thirty ships that constituted the last sovereign South Vietnamese territory. The “rescue” of the navy was effected by lowering the South Vietnamese flag and raising the U.S. flag on each ship, transforming it into sovereign U.S. territory. Anthems were sung. Tears were shed. A Vietnamese baby who died of fever was mourned by all aboard the Kirk. All ended well, with the refugees resettled in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The story, explicitly a redemption narrative, says a lot about Americans’ view of themselves as citizens of a military superpower, particularly in relation to the “Orient.” NPR resurrects and rewrites that other Vietnam narrative, the one usually characterized by destruction, grief, and moral failure, into a tearful rescue. The story contains all the ingredients for an American comeback on the world stage: grateful Asian refugees, brave (and hitherto unsung) American heroes, and the distinctly harmonious, shared mourning of a Vietnamese baby—an innocent, civilian “other” who dies not because of U.S. violence, but in spite of U.S. medics’ efforts to save him from illness.

It is significant that this story appeared at a time when the U.S. was engaged in two seemingly interminable, geographically vague conflicts in the Middle East/western Asia. For most of the last decade, Americans have been haunted by a discursive ghost, that nagging refrain: “We don’t want another Vietnam,” an expensive, bloody, ideologically-motivated conflict against an enemy whose low-tech warfare somehow overwhelms the U.S.’ “modern” might. This was even before the “Arab Spring” came with its tech-savvy hopefulness and its double edge of democracy and violence; we were tired of the same, old War on Terror.

NPR, in fact, gave listeners “another Vietnam,” much better than the one we remembered. Foregrounding the U.S. military’s humanitarian functions, the story of the Kirk momentarily absolves the U.S. of its other actions. The story serves as a palliative to widespread American anxieties about war, territory, immigration, and imperialism. It enables a transformation of grief caused by human conflict into grief for the lost child, who functions as a cipher for innocence and the will of God. As we cry with nostalgia and pride at the raising of U.S. flags over South Vietnamese navy ships, we are also reassured that there is such a thing as colonialism by consent.

We live in a murky world where military action causes more violence, even as it saves lives. As listeners to the NPR story, we glimpse ourselves among the refugees, rescued from the horror of real war, seeking shelter aboard the Kirk.

Mai-Linh K. Hong is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Virginia and holds a J.D. from the U.Va. School of Law. She tweets from @FleursduMai and @LegalLacuna.

Justice Kennedy on the blogosphere Reply

From Josh Blackman’s blog (cleverly titled Josh Blackman’s Blog), we get Justice Anthony Kennedy’s comments on the legal blogosphere in his testimony before the Appropriations Committee:

We have seen since Justice Breyer and I have been on our Court, a quiet revolution because of IT, information technology. We have a website we run it ourselves. We get 59 million hits a month. There is a study I have seen, I am somewhat skeptical of, we are 12th or 13th of any government agency, 179,000 page hits a day.

I used to read Supreme Court cases over the summer. I would wait for months or years for law review articles. Now there are blogs. There are law professors in specialized areas, information technology, antitrust, that have blogs, that within weeks, days, even hours, they comment on our cases.

Our case law is now part of arguments that attorneys make to distirct and circuit judges within hours after we decide cases.

This has been very efficient. There has been a sea change how accessible our cases are. The system works. It is a quiet revolution. It makes our courts very efficient and very effective.

Make sure you also read Josh’s comments (and watch the video of Kennedy’s testimony) at his blog (Josh Blackman’s Blog, in case you forgot the name), especially regarding Kennedy being the first to use the world “blog” in an opinion.

Pablo Gilabert on “Cohen on Socialism, Equality, and Community” (April 28 at Columbia) Reply

Just passing this along from an email I received this morning–Gilabert seems to have an interestingly nuanced perspective on these issues…

The Columbia University Seminar on Political Economy and Contemporary Social Issues invites you to a talk and discussion with

PABLO GILABERT on “Cohen on Socialism, Equality, and Community.”

The talk will take place on Thursday, April 28th, in the Columbia International Affairs Building, room 1510 at 7:30 p.m.

You are also invited to join us for (optional) dinner at the Faculty House at 6:15 before the talk. Please email your dinner reservation to

About the talk:

Is socialism a desirable ideal? What principles ground it? In his last book, Why Not Socialism? G. A. Cohen argues that the socialist ideal is indeed desirable, that we have reason to favor the general implementation of the principles of radical equality of opportunity and community on which it relies. Cohen also considers the issue of the feasibility of socialism.  His agnostic conclusion on this issue is that we do not now know whether socialism is feasible or infeasible, although we can realistically envisage multiple partial approximations and instantiations of its demands. In this talk, Gilabert will focus on Cohen’s discussion on desirability. Although sympathetic to Cohen’s contribution, Gilabert identifies what he takes to be some problems in it and suggests ways to overcome them. He challenges Cohen’s claim that although the principle of radical equality of opportunity is a principle of justice, the principle of community is only a wider moral requirement. He argues that to fully account for the role and weight of considerations of community within the socialist ideal, and to justify the limitations on liberty that they would impose in practice, we have reason to see some of them as more stringent demands of justice. More specifically, he proposes a construal of some of the demands of community as focused on sufficientarian concerns with basic needs and on requirements to protect equal political status and self-respect, and explains how, so construed, the demands of community relate to demands of equality of economic opportunity and to the protection of personal and political liberty.

About the speaker: 

A native of Argentina, Pablo Gilabert is an associate professor of Philosophy at Concordia University, Montreal. He has been an HLA Hart Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford, a DAAD Fellow at the University of Frankfurt, and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University. In 2011-12 he will be Laurence S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His papers appeared in journals such as The Journal of Political Philosophy, Political Theory, The Philosophical Quarterly, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Philosophical Studies, Kant-Studien, The Monist, Social Theory and Practice, and Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, among others. His book From Global Poverty to Global Equality: A Philosophical Exploration, is under contract with Oxford University Press.
Please feel free to forward this email to interested friends and colleagues.

The Columbia Seminar on Political Economy and Contemporary Social Issues was founded in 1971 by Sidney Morgenbesser and Seymour Melman as the Seminar on the Political Economy of War and Peace. It focuses on issues of contemporary concern from interdisciplinary perspectives, integrating philosophy, political theory, and economics. The co-chairs of the Seminar are Carol Gould, Phil Green, and Gary Mongiovi.

Columbia University encourages persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities. University Seminar participants with disabilities who anticipate needing accommodations or who have questions about physical access may contact the Office of Disability Services at212-854-2388 or  Disability accommodations, including sign-language interpreters, are available on request.

Requests for accommodations must be made two weeks in advance.  On campus, Seminar participants with disabilities should alert a Public Safety Officer that they need assistance accessing campus.

Stanley Fish on Elena Kagan’s rhetorical style Reply

In today’s New York Times, Stanley Fish comments on Justice Elena Kagan’s rhetorical style in her dissent in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (as well as his views on the case itself and his deep admiration and appreciation for Justice Scalia). In  Fish’s opinion, Kagan displays

a style of argument that marks her as someone to reckon with, both inside and outside the Court. And that she does, not by attempting to match Scalia’s sentence-by-sentence pyrotechnics (see for example his scintillating and prophetic dissent in Lawrence v. Texas) but by dismantling the majority’s reasoning piece by piece until there is nothing left standing.

If there is a rhetorical gesture that marks her performance (as biting scorn marks Scalia’s), it is “Oh yeah?” — as in, I see you assert X, but here is evidence, often from your own mouths, that X is a bad or inapposite or silly argument. Her weapon of choice is not the hit-and-run example (that is Scalia’s forte), but the extended example that open up and fills the landscape. To illustrate her point that the majority’s distinction between direct and indirect funding “is one in search of a difference,” she asks us to “imagine that the Federal Government decides that it should pay hundreds of millions to insolvent banks” (imagine that!) but finds itself resisted by taxpayers who don’t want “their hard-earned money to reward irresponsible behavior.”

Suppose further that the government thought to disarm the resistance by allowing banks “to subtract the exact same amount from the tax bill they would otherwise have to pay to the U.S. Treasury.” Would the proposal, she asks, “calm the furor or would most taxpayers respond that a subsidy is a subsidy (or a bailout is a bailout ), whether accomplished by one means or the other?” The question answers itself, but she answers it — “Surely the latter” — and she adds “we would think the less of our countrymen if they failed to see through this cynical proposal.” She doesn’t accuse her fellow justices of endorsing a cynical proposal; she just leaves it there.

Next she takes advantage of, without explicitly naming, her own religious identity: “Suppose a state desires to reward Jews — by say, $500 per year — for their religious devotion.” Would it matter to non-Jewish taxpayers “if the state allows Jews to claim the aid on their tax returns, in lieu of receiving an annual stipend” directly? And if Jews are too small a sample, how about subsidizing the purchase by Catholics of crucifixes? The state “could purchase the religious symbols in bulk and distribute them … or it could mail a reimbursement check to any individual who buys her own and submits a receipt … or it could authorize that person to claim a tax credit equal to the price she paid.”

“Now really,” she comments with only a bit of tongue in cheek, “do taxpayers have less reason to complain if the State selects the last of these three options?” (Notice that the question is asked in the negative and thus made at once softer and harder.) This time she doesn’t answer the question, but only says quietly (and devastatingly), “The Court today says they do.”

Nothing flashy here. Just a steady unrolling of point after obvious point in a relatively tranquil and moderate prose punctuated by an occasional flaring of amiable wit — “not really,” “what ordinary people would appreciate the Court’s case law also recognizes.” (Sometimes even the Supreme Court rises to the level of common sense.) If I am right, what we are seeing here is the emergence of a powerfully understated style of argument, inexorable without being aggressive, comprehensive without claiming to be so, regnant even when it is on the losing side. I look forward to more of the same.

The Confucian Worldview and the Odes Reply


I have a basic introduction to the Confucian worldview over at ReligiousLeftLaw* that I wanted to let readers know about because in the near future I plan on posting something here at the Table on one of the Five Classics of the “Confucian” canon, namely, the (book of) Odes (also called the Book of Songs or Book of Poetry). Familiarity with my fairly abstract and stylized rational reconstruction of concepts central to the Confucian worldview can thus serve as a propaedeutic backdrop, if you will, to this forthcoming piece on the Odes for the Table.

My status as an ardent amateur with regard to Chinese worldviews (i.e., my standing as an academic and intellectual parasite) means I depend mightily on the scholarly labors of others, in this case, Michael Nylan’s absolutely brilliant book, The Five “Confucian Classics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001). For a taste of things to come, I quote from her introduction:

“For most of the time from 136 BC to 1905, the study of the Five Classics of the ‘Confucian’ canon—the Odes, the Rites, the Changes [Yi Jīng/I Ching], and the Spring and Autumn Annals—formed at least part of the curriculum tested by the government examinations required of nearly all candidates for the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. Thus the more cultured members of society in premodern China, even those who had failed the examinations or had passed but never held office, enjoyed a familiarity with the Classics that afforded them a common store of knowledge. As successive governments throughout East Asia came under the cultural sway of the Chinese system, the Classics came to influence thought and politics in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, so that the collection as a whole once occupied in East Asia a position roughly analogous to that of the Bible in the West, its compelling arguments couched in elegant formulations, ‘subtle phrasing with profound implications’ (weiyan dayi). These texts associated with the Supreme Sage, Confucius, were thought to set the pattern of what it was to become a fully developed human being, and also the principles that allowed for the complex and interrelated processes of political, social, and cultural reproduction. Thus, generation after generation tied the maintenance of the state and of personal identity to the propagation of this textual tradition. [….]

The modern rubric ‘Five Confucian Classics,’ however, has tended to skew understanding of these texts, as it implies both a direct connection with the historical Confucius (551-479 BC) and a closer connection among them than is warranted by their early histories. Most of the texts were evolving in oral as well as written forms for centuries before they acquired the designation ‘classic’ or ‘Confucian;’ hence vastly differing approaches to social, political, and cosmic issues are discernible among and even within the texts. Beginning in Han (206 BC-AD 220), state-sponsored classical learning—often dubbed ‘Confucian’ when ‘orthodox’ or ‘official’ would be more appropriate—drew freely on the teachings of many non-Confucian thinkers, the better to cope with the complexities (many unforeseen by Confucius) of ruling an empire [I would hasted to add that Confucius was not first and foremost concerned with ‘ruling an empire,’ even as he hoped to persuade ruling elites of the moral and political importance of teachings he believed sanctioned by tian and the sages of old].”

*Please see The Confucian Worldview: A Rational Reconstruction.

Image: Seven Scholars Going through the Pass, Li Tang (Chinese, ca. 1050s-after 1130) Ming dynasty. [click on image for enlarged view]

Description:  “Accompanied by a small group of retainers on foot, seven gentlemen riding mules, horses, and an ox leave behind the gate of a pass and casually proceed along a wintry riverbank. Six of the men are dressed against the cold in identical white robes and wide-brimmed hats worn over dark shoulder-length hoods, while the seventh is clad in gray and wears an official’s black cap. Some of the men turn to talk with each other, gesturing with their whips, but there is no urgency in their manner. The bundles of scrolls, umbrellas, and food utensils carried by the retainers—together with the ubiquitous wrapped qin (zither)—suggest that the group is venturing forth on a daytrip to some nearby scenic location.”

This is just the sort of thing I’ve imagined in my mind’s eye taking place with Confucius and his students: on a daytrip to a scenic location to sing and dance, including recitations from the Odes, in other words, a far cry from the rather staid and stern portraits one often finds of Confucius.

Analogy & Metaphor: An Idiosyncratic Introduction Reply

I’ve just posted my essay, “Analogy & Metaphor: An Idiosyncratic Introduction,” at SSRN. Here’s the abstract:

This essay is an idiosyncratic introduction to analogy and metaphor. It was previously posted in two parts respectively at the Ratio Juris and The Literary Table blogs by way of an introduction to my online bibliography at Ratio Juris for analogy and metaphor. The notes immediately follow each essay, and a list of “references and further reading” is appended to the end of the paper. The section on analogy is intended in part to provoke the interest of legal theorists, while the second half, on metaphor, is aimed at a broader audience although I hope it too will be of interest to legal theorists and philosophers of law. Both pieces no doubt betray their origins in blog posts, hence they are considerably less than polished, but comments to date were generous enough for me to make the inference that they deserve to be made more widely available.

My maiden voyage with SSRN just prior to this was a revised version of a Ratio Juris post from earlier this year:  Natural Law “Externalism” v. Law as “Moral Aspiration.” I want to thank Thom Brooks for prompting me to think aloud about topics broached in his paper, “Natural Law Internalism.”

I welcome comments (and downloads!) for both papers.

Narrative Goodness 1

The first passage below is from Colin McGinn’s book Ethics, Evil, and Fiction (1997). I’ve chosen it by way of prompting reflections on how we learn to be moral (I’m going to ignore here any putative distinction sometimes made between ethics and morality, indeed, I think it’s only relevant when the latter concept is used in a descriptive sense, while I’m here relying on a normative conception of what’s ethical or moral). From a Platonic perspective, it may be the case that, for the individual, learning to live an ethical life is not first and foremost a matter of being taught how to be ethical, say, in the manner in which one is taught the rules of grammar, or the facts of geography, or the names of birds. In other words, and in a peculiar sense, ethical understanding or moral knowledge is a different kind or peculiar sort of knowledge, at once both robustly objective and subjective, involving both a “knowing that” and a “knowing how” (that is, both propositional and non-propositional knowledge) in a way not conspicuously intrinsic to most things we conventionally group under the rubric of “knowledge.” All the same, Plato does seem to have held that we learn to be moral, that we can become, as Aristotle taught us, habituated to virtue, that we can learn to live virtuous lives (and such virtuous living is not necesssarily confined to lives in the familial and intimate realms of daily life, for its standards are equally relevant to arenas of collective action or the public realm). I hope to speak to this question again in a future post that builds upon the material broached here so suffice for now to keep in mind that any references to “teaching” or “learning” to be moral may be qualified if not clarified so as to incorporate and reconcile what Plato (or Socrates) meant in the Meno by claiming that virtue cannot be taught with the ostensibly contrary message in the Protagoras that argues for the “teachability of virtue.”

“[O]rdinary people—which means all of us—find [the] story mode of moral discourse [i.e., the form which includes parable, the play, short story, the narrative poem, the novel and the film] uniquely palatable and nutritious; it seems perfectly designed to engage our moral faculties. Our moral understanding and the story form seem fitted for one another. No rote learning is necessary: it all seems to flow quite naturally. This is the way our moral faculty likes to operate. It is almost effortless to take in a story, pleasant even, though the story may be replete with moral discourse. The novel, in particular, is a text of a very different kind from the scientific treatise. It is also very different from the philosophical text, which is what philosophers, naturally, are most comfortable with. Thus the novel form has tended to be ignored by moral philosophers: it is not, for them, the place to look for canonical expressions of ethical truth. Yet, quite obviously, it is for most educated people one of the prime vehicles of ethical expression. (Film plays a similar role for the less word-minded.) In reading a novel we have ethical experiences, sometimes quite profound ones, and we reach ethical conclusions, condemning some characters and admiring others. We live a particular set of moral challenges (sitting there in our armchair) by entering into the lives of the characters introduced. [….] Stories can sharpen and clarify moral questions, encouraging a dialectic between the reader’s own experiences and the trials of the characters he or she is reading about. A tremendous amount of moral thinking and feeling is done when reading novels (Or watching plays and films, or reading poetry and short stories). In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that for most people this is the primary way in which they acquire ethical attitudes, especially in contemporary culture. Our ethical knowledge is aesthetically mediated.”

I think McGinn’s conclusion is largely correct: our ethical knowledge is, indeed, “aesthetically mediated,” insofar as we learn about the virtues (whatever particular cluster of same our worldviews place emphasis upon), or how to be moral through narrative aesthetic forms. And such story forms are not just “secular,” for they are often the products of religious traditions. In fact, I happen to believe that for many individuals who at least nominally identify with religious worldviews, this aesthetic mediation assumes in the first instance a spiritual form (‘spiritual’ because its meaning is a bit wider than what we typically denote by the adjective ‘religious,’ and thus, for instance, we can include under this heading the Hellenistic ethical ‘therapies of desire’ as defined by Martha Nussbaum). Furthermore, to the extent that such aesthetic mediation is not “spiritual” or religious, I would contend it is less reliable or dependable as a form or medium of moral knowledge or ethical instruction, especially but not only when we are young. Put differently, spiritual and religious literature is ideally suited for the aesthetic mediation of moral knowledge, for learning what it means to be virtuous, for it is here we find “exemplars of goodness.” It is not the only or even primary way in which we learn to be moral, for we obviously and ideally learn to live a virtuous life, as both Confucius and Plato would remind us, from those who are responsible for our upbringing: our parents, caregivers, teachers, and others who are, it is hoped, suitable “role models,” those entrusted to take care of us until we reach the “age of reason.” Intriguingly, both Plato and Confucius appear to agree that learning to be ethical for children entails a training in the arts, particular arts to be sure, but there is something about the arts that these two philosophers find integral to the habituation to virtue, as a necessary yet not sufficient condition to being moral. And even as adults, we might learn something about virtuous living from those with whom we come into meaningful personal contact in daily life:

“It is not implausible to think we are elevated by others who are more developed than ourselves in their striving for harmonious hierarchical development and for a valuable life. We are aided and encouraged along our own path of development by their striving for self-development and purer feeling; contrast the effects on us of encountering those with a sour mixture of one-upmanship, self-aggrandizement, desire to dominate or destroy, and other festering emotions, the effects of wending our way and bending our attention to their motivations and trajectories. [….] We all know people, I hope, who bring out the best in us, people in whose presence we would be embarrassed to speak or act from unworthy motives, people who glow. In their presence we feel elevated. We are pushed, or nudged further along a path of development and perfection; rather, we are inspired to move ourselves along, in the direction shown. [….] We want to find a way of living whereby our best energies and talents are poured out so as to speak to and improve the best energies and talents of others. We want to utilize our highest parts and energies in a way that helps others to flourish.”—From Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations (1981)

In her book, Divine Motivation Theory (2004), the philosopher Linda Zagzebski makes an argument for what she terms a “direct reference” theory of the good. I will not go into the philosophical background and specific premises of her argument but want to invoke it in support of the idea that one of the primary ways by which we learn to be moral is through stories of one kind or another, narratives in which we learn about what it means to live a “good life:”

“I have proposed that ‘good’ is defined by direct reference. If so, it is plausible that ‘good life’ is defined by direct reference as well. It is a life like that, which is to say that we know it when we see it [Plato has some things to say about how this is possible]. Describing lives is one of the functions of literature and biography. [….] If we defined the good life as a life like that, we do not do it independently of referring to persons whose lives we want to imitate. We imitate persons we regard as exemplars, and we imitate lives we regard as exemplary, and these are not independent activities. [….] So what is a flourishing life? I propose that it is determined by what the exemplars say it is. [….] The exemplars make the determination of good lives in the hard cases. If ‘good life’ is defined by direct reference independently of a ‘good person,’ then the life of a good person can come apart from a good life. However, if I am right, that is not the way these concepts work. The lives we want to imitate are lives of persons we want to imitate.”

One lesson we might—or should—draw from Zagzebski’s proposal is that our choice of narrative sources for “exemplars” is fraught with consequences. For example, are contemporary novels, or films for that matter, invariably stocked with characters or protagonists who we might christen “exemplars” of the good life, of characters who exemplify virtuous living? And even if frequently bereft of such characters, might these stories nonetheless have some role to play in clarifying what the struggle to live morally entails, of what the moral life involves, of the relation between evil and the good, or the obstacles and difficulties faced in attempts, among people like us (so to speak) to become virtuous? After all, the vast majority of us are not living lives that call to mind a Socrates, the Buddha, Jesus, St. Francis, Dorothy Day, Maimonides, or “Friends of God” in the Islamic tradition. The hoi polloi, in other words and by definition are not prophets, saints, ascetics, seers, sages, or simply pious and wise teachers. At the same time, save Jesus’ Christian theological status as God incarnate, these exemplary spiritual figures are men and women who provide us with concrete models of human goodness, of what it means to live a spiritually flourishing life, of how to simultaneously engage in the processes of individual self-discovery and self-actualization, of how to incarnate and express moral and spiritual values, not in the sense of slavish and literal imitation but as inspirational exemplars worthy of ethical emulation in the widest sense as part and process of psychological and spiritual (or eudaimonistic) individuation.

The problem of moral development is the problem of discovering the conditions necessary and sufficient for the manifestation of the virtues and the actualization of value(s). Each person is morally obligated, from the perspective of virtue ethics, to sincerely and persistently endeavor to actualize, conserve and defend those values he or she identifies with as the product of self-examination and the prerequisite of self-direction and self-realization. The specific cluster of values so identified may (and usually does) vary from person to person and no one individual is capable of realizing all such values, although one might nonetheless recognize and appreciate all values (or value as such), especially insofar as these values have become identified with other individuals. Individual values identification brings in its wake the intrinsic and intangible rewards of personal fulfillment and flourishing. We are all alike with regard to values-potentialities by virtue of our human nature, but we differ, owing to genetic inheritance, upbringing, circumstance and so forth in the manner of values-identification and actualization. We might see this as the interdependence of value-actualizers, serving to confirm our inherently social nature as human beings. Such interdependence, furthermore, is capable of (has implications for) filling out the meaning of true community.

Perhaps contemporary literature (at least some of it) provides us with the narrative and biographical equivalent of “middle terms” that modulate for us the gap between ideal (and idealized) moral and spiritual virtues, and the morally messy lives lived in the shadows of such overwhelming or intimidating goodness: most of us cannot “stare” into the Sun, the Platonic metaphor of the Good in the Allegory of the Cave, but we can nevertheless look upon, and thus learn from, that which it illuminates. And even if one attains the Platonic vision of the Sun at the summit of dialectical ascent, one is obligated in Plato’s account to return to the Cave, to make the corresponding dialectical descent into the realm of particularity and the concrete, the world of the “ten thousand things” (wanwu) in Chinese philosophy, and it is with that world our contemporary novelists and filmmakers can be fairly said to be well acquainted, if sometimes or even often in a confused or uncertain manner, at least with regard to ethical values and moral insight. The extent to which we envisage contemporary literature, or any narrative vehicle, playing such a role appears to importantly depend upon our ability to make aesthetic and ethical discriminations and judgments as to what is morally and spiritually availing, another issue Plato addressed in as much as he asked how we can come to recognize goodness unless we are not already, in some intuitive or inchoate but no less real sense, in possession of or have some acquaintance with such goodness.  

In a future post I hope to expand upon some of the ideas and themes introduced and sketched here in a preliminary fashion.

 [Cross-posted at]