- Vulnerabilities of Morality
Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2006.
Margaret Urban Walker, Moral Repair: Reconstructing Moral Relations after Wrongdoing. New York: Cambridge University Press 2006.
The authors of these two books are concerned with morality understood as embedded in social relations, and with the vulnerability or fragility of morality that comes with that. They practice philosophy in very different genres, but both bring to the fore a slate of moral issues and questions that have not been as well developed by philosophers, as have principles, rules, and foundations for ethics. Jonathan Lear's examination of what he calls Radical Hope is exemplary: it tells one complex historical story - fascinating in itself - in order to display conceptual complexity and to bring deeper understanding of a type of moral phenomenon. His subtitle is exactly right: here is a real story of Cultural Devastation that bids fair to destroy all value within a specific historical society, and a story of how individual action may rise above it. Margaret Walker's title is equally accurate; Moral Repair directs us to a wider range of topics that are, today, much under discussion, namely Restorative Justice and such close relatives as Transitional Justice, Justice as Recognition, and Transformative Justice. Both books are concerned with wrongs that can be appalling. In the case of the second, think of the extreme real cases such as Apartheid to which Restorative Justice has been offered as an answer. Neither book is concerned with righting wrongs. Each examines, however, the possibilities of reconstructing a coherent moral fabric that has been horrendously torn - or even, as in [End Page 141] Lear's case, with constructing a new range of values to replace what is irrevocably damaged or lost.
Although the styles of the two books are very different, there are many overlapping themes, of which, perhaps, hope itself is dominant. Reconstruction, after all, is never guaranteed to work. It can take place only in an environment of potential trust and it demands not so much optimism as courage. Yet even that is too simple, for Lear's story involves a radical conceptual transformation of the virtue, courage, itself. He presents a real person in a situation which in one respect is classic, someone who raises the question of how to live a good life. But the possibility of such deliberation is far from Aristotelian, because in this story the virtues of the protagonist's society have lost their meaning.
Lear thus takes a new direction in searching for the psychological structures that would be required for such conceptual and moral transformation, and what cultural resources might make such psychological transformation possible. The story of Radical Hope's protagonist is specific and detailed, and partly for that reason, important for us. It is a philosophical account of the transformation of a central virtue, courage, and of the psychological traits and formation of the individual who manifested it. While Lear does not, at least explicitly, discuss the extent to which generalization is possible of his story, we need to raise very general questions regarding the moral education, and the psychological resources, that enable such transformations.
Walker's scope is not global destruction of a society but with the ways in which more local moral relationships between people are endangered and can even be destroyed. There is then the question of how, and if, they can be restored. Walker's book is part of, and in ways a response to, the current preoccupation with repairing wrongs. While reckoning with wrongs is a feature of human society, and philosophical questions about the justification of punishment are old, there is a specific cultural moment and moral agenda now, as Walker notes. Political projects try to do some kind of justice or offer some kinds of social or moral repair or both. Reparations movements for wrongful harms and losses have proliferated, seeking official apologies, restitution, material compensation for losses, public education and commemoration. There is a growing empirical literature on the effects of restorative justice practices both in dealing with ordinary crime and with the aftermath of political violence. Walker offers useful...