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The University Center for Human Values Series

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The University Center for Human Values Series

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Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry

Robert Pinsky

The place of poetry in modern democracy is no place, according to conventional wisdom. The poet, we hear, is a casualty of mass entertainment and prosaic public culture, banished to the artistic sidelines to compose variations on insipid themes for a dwindling audience. Robert Pinsky, however, argues that this gloomy diagnosis is as wrongheaded as it is familiar. Pinsky, whose remarkable career as a poet itself undermines the view, writes that to portray poetry and democracy as enemies is to radically misconstrue both. The voice of poetry, he shows, resonates with profound themes at the very heart of democratic culture.

There is no one in America better to write on this topic. One of the country's most accomplished poets, Robert Pinsky served an unprecedented two terms as America's Poet Laureate (1997-2000) and led the immensely popular multimedia Favorite Poem Project, which invited Americans to submit and read aloud their favorite poems. Pinsky draws on his experiences and on characteristically sharp and elegant observations of individual poems to argue that expecting poetry to compete with show business is to mistake its greatest democratic strength--its intimate, human scale--as a weakness.

As an expression of individual voice, a poem implicitly allies itself with ideas about individual dignity that are democracy's bedrock, far more than is mass participation. Yet poems also summon up communal life.. Even the most inward-looking work imagines a reader. And in their rhythms and cadences poems carry in their very bones the illusion and dynamic of call and response. Poetry, Pinsky writes, cannot help but mediate between the inner consciousness of the individual reader and the outer world of other people. As part of the entertainment industry, he concludes, poetry will always be small and overlooked. As an art--and one that is inescapably democratic--it is massive and fundamental.

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Goodness and Advice

Judith Jarvis Thomson

How should we live? What do we owe to other people? In Goodness and Advice, the eminent philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson explores how we should go about answering such fundamental questions. In doing so, she makes major advances in moral philosophy, pointing to some deep problems for influential moral theories and describing the structure of a new and much more promising theory.

Thomson begins by lamenting the prevalence of the idea that there is an unbridgeable gap between fact and value--that to say something is good, for example, is not to state a fact, but to do something more like expressing an attitude or feeling. She sets out to challenge this view, first by assessing the apparently powerful claims of Consequentialism. Thomson makes the striking argument that this familiar theory must ultimately fail because its basic requirement--that people should act to bring about the "most good"--is meaningless. It rests on an incoherent conception of goodness, and supplies, not mistaken advice, but no advice at all.

Thomson then outlines the theory that she thinks we should opt for instead. This theory says that no acts are, simply, good: an act can at most be good in one or another way--as, for example, good for Smith or for Jones. What we ought to do is, most importantly, to avoid injustice; and whether an act is unjust is a function both of the rights of those affected, including the agent, and of how good or bad the act is for them. The book, which originated in the Tanner lectures that Thomson delivered at Princeton University's Center for Human Values in 1999, includes two chapters by Thomson ("Goodness" and "Advice"), provocative comments by four prominent scholars--Martha Nussbaum, Jerome Schneewind, Philip Fisher, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith--and replies by Thomson to those comments.

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The Limits of Constitutional Democracy

Jeffrey K. Tulis

Constitutional democracy is at once a flourishing idea filled with optimism and promise--and an enterprise fraught with limitations. Uncovering the reasons for this ambivalence, this book looks at the difficulties of constitutional democracy, and reexamines fundamental questions: What is constitutional democracy? When does it succeed or fail? Can constitutional democracies conduct war? Can they preserve their values and institutions while addressing new forms of global interdependence? The authors gathered here interrogate constitutional democracy's meaning in order to illuminate its future.

The book examines key themes--the issues of constitutional failure; the problem of emergency power and whether constitutions should be suspended when emergencies arise; the dilemmas faced when constitutions provide and restrict executive power during wartime; and whether constitutions can adapt to such globalization challenges as immigration, religious resurgence, and nuclear arms proliferation.

In addition to the editors, the contributors are Sotirios Barber, Joseph Bessette, Mark Brandon, Daniel Deudney, Christopher Eisgruber, James Fleming, William Harris II, Ran Hirschl, Gary Jacobsohn, Benjamin Kleinerman, Jan-Werner Müller, Kim Scheppele, Rogers Smith, Adrian Vermeule, and Mariah Zeisberg.

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Striking First

Preemption and Prevention in International Conflict

Michael W. Doyle

Does the United States have the right to defend itself by striking first, or must it wait until an attack is in progress? Is the Bush Doctrine of aggressive preventive action a justified and legal recourse against threats posed by terrorists and rogue states? Tackling one of the most controversial policy issues of the post-September 11 world, Michael Doyle argues that neither the Bush Doctrine nor customary international law is capable of adequately responding to the pressing security threats of our times.

In Striking First, Doyle shows how the Bush Doctrine has consistently disregarded a vital distinction in international law between acts of preemption in the face of imminent threats and those of prevention in the face of the growing offensive capability of an enemy. Taking a close look at the Iraq war, the 1998 attack against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, among other conflicts, he contends that international law must rely more completely on United Nations Charter procedures and develop clearer standards for dealing with lethal but not immediate threats.

After explaining how the UN can again play an important role in enforcing international law and strengthening international guidelines for responding to threats, he describes the rare circumstances when unilateral action is indeed necessary. Based on the 2006 Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, Striking First includes responses by distinguished political theorists Richard Tuck and Jeffrey McMahan and international law scholar Harold Koh, yielding a lively debate that will redefine how--and for what reasons--tomorrow's wars are fought.

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Truth v. Justice

The Morality of Truth Commissions

Robert I. Rotberg

The truth commission is an increasingly common fixture of newly democratic states with repressive or strife-ridden pasts. From South Africa to Haiti, truth commissions are at work with varying degrees of support and success. To many, they are the best--or only--way to achieve a full accounting of crimes committed against fellow citizens and to prevent future conflict. Others question whether a restorative justice that sets the guilty free, that cleanses society by words alone, can deter future abuses and allow victims and their families to heal. Here, leading philosophers, lawyers, social scientists, and activists representing several perspectives look at the process of truth commissioning in general and in post-apartheid South Africa. They ask whether the truth commission, as a method of seeking justice after conflict, is fair, moral, and effective in bringing about reconciliation.

The authors weigh the virtues and failings of truth commissions, especially the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in their attempt to provide restorative rather than retributive justice. They examine, among other issues, the use of reparations as social policy and the granting of amnesty in exchange for testimony. Most of the contributors praise South Africa's decision to trade due process for the kinds of truth that permit closure. But they are skeptical that such revelations produce reconciliation, particularly in societies that remain divided after a compromise peace with no single victor, as in El Salvador. Ultimately, though, they find the truth commission to be a worthy if imperfect instrument for societies seeking to say "never again" with confidence. At a time when truth commissions have been proposed for Bosnia, Kosovo, Cyprus, East Timor, Cambodia, Nigeria, Palestine, and elsewhere, the authors' conclusion that restorative justice provides positive gains could not be more important.

In addition to the editors, the contributors are Amy Gutmann, Rajeev Bhargava, Elizabeth Kiss, David A. Crocker, André du Toit, Alex Boraine, Dumisa Ntsebeza, Lisa Kois, Ronald C. Slye, Kent Greenawalt, Sanford Levinson, Martha Minow, Charles S. Maier, Charles Villa-Vicencio, and Wilhelm Verwoerd.

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Work and Welfare

Robert M. Solow

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow directs his attention here to one of today's most controversial social issues: how to get people off welfare and into jobs. With characteristic eloquence, wit, and rigor, Solow condemns the welfare reforms recently passed by Congress and President Clinton for confronting welfare recipients with an unworkable choice--finding work in the current labor market or losing benefits. He argues that the only practical and fair way to move recipients to work is, in contrast, through an ambitious plan to guarantee that every able-bodied citizen has access to a job.

Solow contends that the demand implicit in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act for welfare recipients to find work in the existing labor market has two crucial flaws. First, the labor market would not easily make room for a huge influx of unskilled, inexperienced workers. Second, the normal market adjustment to that influx would drive down earnings for those already in low-wage jobs. Solow concludes that it is legitimate to want welfare recipients to work, but not to want them to live at a miserable standard or to benefit at the expense of the working poor, especially since children are often the first to suffer. Instead, he writes, we should create new demand for unskilled labor through public-service employment and incentives to the private sector--in effect, fair "workfare." Solow presents widely ignored evidence that recipients themselves would welcome the chance to work. But he also points out that practical, morally defensible workfare would be extremely expensive--a problem that politicians who support the idea blithely fail to admit. Throughout, Solow places debate over welfare reform in the context of a struggle to balance competing social values, in particular self-reliance and altruism.

The book originated in Solow's 1997 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University. It includes reactions from the distinguished scholars Gertrude Himmelfarb, Anthony Lewis, Glenn Loury, and John Roemer, who expand on and take issue with Solow's arguments. Work and Welfare is a powerful contribution to debate about welfare reform and a penetrating look at the values that shape its course.

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