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Difficulties of Ethical Life

Dennis Schmidt

Publication Year: 2008

This book brings the powerful insights of Continental philosophy to bear on some of the most challenging difficulties of ethical life. Currently philosophy is being radically transformed by questions of how to live well. What does such a way of life mean? How are we to understand the meaning of ethicality? What are the obstacles to ethical living? And should we assume that an ethical life is a betterlife? The movement of history and the developments of culture and knowledge seem to have outstripped the capacity of traditional forms of reflection upon ethical life to understand how we might answer these questions. Ranging from existentialism to deconstruction, phenomenology to psychoanalytic theory, and hermeneutics to post-structuralism, the twelve essays in this volume take up a wide but clearly connected set of issues relevant to living ethically: race, responsibility, religion, terror, torture, technology, deception, and even the very possibility of an ethical life. Some of the questions addressed are specific to our times; others are ancient questions but with quite contemporary twists. In each case, they concern the philosophical significance of ongoing historical, cultural, and political transformations for ethical living and thinking.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 1-8

It has long been recognized that the task of living well and justly has a special relation to the project of philosophy. From its origins, philosophy has made a claim to have a privileged relation to this task of thinking and living an ethical life. Only religion has made an equally serious claim on how it is that we are to understand and practice the ethical life. As a result of this deep kinship,...

PART I: Questions of Ethics

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pp. 9

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1. In the Name of Goodness

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pp. 11-24

The word goodness, like the word nature, carries a huge burden. Both words suggest orders of highly diverse things. They can suggest the availability of systematic comprehension and articulation of those things they name, a common quality that allows at least the promise of a harmonious whole. Goodness often operates in its meaning on an axis of virtues and sustained social practices....

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2. What Is Philosophical Ethics?

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pp. 25-34

The question ‘‘What is ethics?’’ carries the burden of seeming to be interesting, in no small part because so much is expected of philosophical ethics. If philosophy still receives the attention of a broader public at all and ethics is not dismissed as philosophy’s declaration of its own superiority, then it concerns above all...

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3. Hermeneutics as Original Ethics

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pp. 35-47

Ethical questioning has always been defined by its essential difficulty: it is that realm of questioning that begins where the uncomplicated and the facile have ceased. One speaks of ethics only when there is difficulty; Immanuel Kant’s notion of ‘‘judgment,’’ especially as Hannah Arendt develops it, nicely captures...

PART II: The Ethics of Intersubjectivity and Interpersonal Relations

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pp. 49

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4. Ethical Experience, Ethical Subjectivity

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pp. 51-71

For me, philosophy does not begin, as ancient tradition related by Aristotle contends, in an experience of wonder (thaumazein) at the fact that things (nature, the world, the universe) are, but rather with the indeterminate but palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled, that a fantastic effort has failed. One feels that things are not, or at least not the way we expected or hoped...

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5. 9/11: America and the Politics of Innocence

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pp. 72-87

On the one hand it seems obvious—righting the wrong suffered by the innocent victim is a necessary ingredient of a politics of justice. The agreed-upon justice of the allied cause in World War II and the agreedupon injustice of the failure to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda testify to the rightness of this ethical-political intuition. The Geneva Conventions established after World...

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6. Engage the Enemy: Cavell, Comedies of Remarriage, and the Politics of Friendship

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pp. 88-111

Of all the good things that we rely on for individual happiness, few are as important as friendship. This is true not only on a personal level. As Aristotle argues, cooperative bonds in the household and among citizens ground thriving political communities. Of course, modern-day liberals rightly reject Aristotle’s tight, conflict-free communitarianism for a more fluid, egalitarian, and multicultural...

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7. The Intimacy of Strangers: The Difficulty of Closeness and the Ethics of Distance

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pp. 112-127

One of the central themes of Plato’s work is the question, why be moral? Some of his most memorable and important dialogues are focused on the reasons why it is better to be moral than not, why it is better to be done wrong than to do wrong, why it is more noble to be just, and why to wish suffering and pain on...

PART III: Responsibility and Race

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pp. 129

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8Before Whom and for What? Accountability and the Invention of Ministerial, Hyperbolic, and Infinite Responsibility

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pp. 131-146

The term responsibility is so ubiquitous in discussions of ethics and politics today that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it has been in use for only a little more than two hundred years and that philosophers have seen a need for it in ethics for only about half that time. More precisely, it is a term that cannot...

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9. Racism and Responsibility

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pp. 147-161

Forty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and fifty years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, members of racial minority groups are still disproportionately disadvantaged in American society. Despite official civic integration, despite a massive shift in the terms of public discourse, despite a publicly avowed moral and cognitive reorientation...

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10. Whiteness as Family: Race, Class, and Responsibility

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pp. 162-178

It is all too easy to think of historical events in which white people have dominated, oppressed, and even exterminated people of color. Native American genocide, the Middle Passage and the enslavement of Africans, and the World War II internment of Japanese Americans are just a few of the most obvious examples...

PART IV: The Ethics of Nontruth

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pp. 179

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11. Narrating Pain: The Ethics of Catharsis

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pp. 181-194

One of the most enduring ethical functions of narrative is catharsis. From the ancient Greeks to the present day, the healing powers of storytelling have been recognized and even revered. In his Poetics, Aristotle spoke about the purgative character of representation as a double act of muthosmimesis (plotting-imitating). More...

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12. On Deception: Radical Evil and the Destruction of the Archive

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pp. 195-211

It is not often noted that the problem of deception occupies a central place in Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism. At the outset of The Origins of Totalitarianism, prior to her analysis of anti-Semitism, imperialism, or radical evil, she raises the issue of deception, considering the difference between ancient and modern...


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pp. 213-238


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pp. 239-242


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pp. 243-256

E-ISBN-13: 9780823247714
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823229734
Print-ISBN-10: 0823229734

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2008