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  • Memoir Ethics: Good Lives and the Virtues by Mike W. Martin
  • Raymond Angelo Belliotti (bio)
Mike W. Martin. Memoir Ethics: Good Lives and the Virtues. Lexington Books, 2016, 196 pp. ISBN 978-1498533652, $80.00.

A memoir is an autobiographical narrative of a life. As Mike W. Martin informs us, memoirs "are non-fiction in that they are presented as truthful and as true … Memoir Ethics is the study of moral aspects of memoirs" (5). Why might we select memoirs as a fruitful springboard for moral theorizing? A colony of [End Page 442] possibilities bursts forth. By examining memoirs, we can learn about moral values within the context of actual human experiences, understand the motivations and socializing influences that drew prominent historical figures to embody particular normative visions, analyze situations in which such figures exercised and exerted virtues they extolled elsewhere in their literary work, dissect the philosophical and moral self-awareness of influential thinkers, underscore how authors exemplify within the writing of their memoirs the virtues they celebrate in the labors that earned them renown, and highlight the manner in which authors apply philosophical and normative concepts to their lives.

Another crucial dimension must be noted: enchanting stories have a power to convey moral lessons that far exceed the persuasiveness of an ethicist holding court within a traditional classroom. Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, and Gandhi shunned conceptual precision but mastered the art of teaching the trajectory of morality through fables, parables, folklore, aphorisms, and proverbs. Perhaps careful scrutiny of the memoirs of historical icons is worth more than hundreds of presentations by learned professors on the is-ought conundrum and the intricacies of categorical imperatives.

Martin explains and interrogates moral themes illustrated by an impressive array of human exemplars. Sonia Sotomayor pays tribute to "love and generosity instilled by her family; ambition and rigor fostered by her teachers; and fairness and empathy cultivated throughout her career in law" (1). Frederick Douglas provides an autobiographical protest argument against slavery. Albert Schweitzer's memoir is a paradigm argument for a rendering of a good life—the story of his life is his argument. Benjamin Franklin emphasizes the development of good character and the importance of social impact.

In Martin's view, canonical thinkers such as Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre self-consciously promote authenticity as the highest value distinguishing worthy human living. Jill Ker Conway's contemporary account describes authenticity as a "hybrid virtue governing personal identity—the discovery, creation, and expression of who we are" (45). Martin's favored notion of authenticity includes "individual autonomy, self-honesty and self-respect" (46). He prudently distances his understanding of authenticity from the seductive but fatuous platitudes uttered by the character Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Martin then demonstrates how subjective and objective meaning motivate, explain, and underwrite vigorous human action by analyzing Leo Tolstoy's description of his psychological crisis, Ernest Hemingway's chronicle of his years in Paris, and Ted Honderich's summaries of the intricate causal sequences molding his life. Beryl Markham's, Roland Barthes's, and Galen Strawson's contributions focus on whether lives unify and achieve coherence [End Page 443] within the domain of values. Alternate prescriptions for searching for happiness within moral realms arise from John Stuart Mill, Gretchen Rubin, and Henry David Thoreau. The connection between the good human life and health emerges from the work of Havi Carel and Arthur Frank, who stress the challenges of illness and disability.

Martin advises that "self-fulfillment is the process and outcome of unfolding deep aspirations and valuable capacities over a normal lifetime … it is the most inclusive aspect of good lives" (4). He consults the lives of Charles Darwin, Hazel Barnes, and P. D. James to piece together the major themes of the book through the art of self-fulfillment. Martin continues his labors by asking and answering: are the memoirs of philosophers, taken collectively, different in tone, topic, and aspiration from the memoirs of other writers? Do they exude unique insights into leading good human lives? Does their writing of memoirs promote different, more personal ways of expressing philosophy generally?

Martin concludes his work by connecting personal meaning, as "the sense persons make of their...


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