What is Exemplarity?

Exemplarity Singularity
Image from the University of Chicago’s Department of Germanic Studies.

This post is one of two in a series Virtue in Context: Varieties of Exemplarity.

If we wanted to know which human beings are the most massive, or run the mile in the best time, or have the highest income, it would be relatively straightforward to find good answers. In all of these cases, there is a clear property, activity, or relation in view, and our job is simply to determine which individuals are the biggest, fastest, or most likely to wind up owing a lot of money should they find themselves subject to strict progressive taxation. However, if we wanted to know who the kindest, most generous, or most forgiving people are, it would be more difficult to find answers. It is not at all clear that being an especially good moral role model or an especially good counselor or having a very strong character (or some such) is the kind of quality that allows for talk of the best or the most or some other sort of superlative comparative assessment. Compare: there are more and less good mathematical proofs and better and worse novels. It is not at all clear what it even would mean to look for the best proof or the best novel. Proofs, works of literature, and human beings can be better or worse in many different ways. In this sense, I suspect, it would be folly to think that “moral exemplarity” was the name of a single quality, sort of activity, or relational property—like mass or running or income—where talk about more and less pointed to assessment along this or that dimension, or even along a cluster of relevant dimensions (as speed might be, relative to, say, the altitude of the track or the age of the runner, or as income might be relative to cost of living).


We already know, thanks to the work of Larry Walker and others, that exemplary caring for others need not feature prominently in the activity or character of those who risk their lives to save the lives of others. Courage and caring look like different admirable qualities. Anyone who has paid much attention to the private lives of very fine members of the armed forces or to firefighters or to very good people in law enforcement may rightly doubt that these people are more likely than others to be good parents. Worse, there is no special reason to suppose that people who show extraordinary love and concern for their fellow human beings will have excellent judgment in matters of justice or temperance. There is no reason, even, to think that the most spontaneously caring among us will provide sound counsel in matters of the heart. High functioning adults with Down Syndrome, for example, are often exquisitely sensitive and responsive to others and, in general, Down Syndrome people have higher levels of social understanding than do others with roughly comparable cognitive abilities. Because excellent social understanding can enable informed anti-social activity just as easily as it can serve as a source for active and appropriately targeted solicitude and affection, there is reason to see those who go in for significantly pro-social activity as worthy of admiration and imitation—i.e., exemplary. While we would do well to emulate their social awareness, they may not be good counselors.


Contrast the loving, high functioning Down Syndrome adult with the kind of individuals whose names often crop up in lists of exceptionally good human beings among my people (educated, middle-class North Americans). Contrast the spontaneous embrace with the pro-social activity of, say, Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa—the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.   All three of these were politically astute, innovative, and inspiring. All three were both courageous and caring (by any sensible understanding of those terms). All three struggled both inwardly and against social ills. All three led groups of people. Each of the three was, in various ways, morally exemplary.


These figures are known to my people in part because they lived large, although it was vital to Mother Teresa that love works between individuals, one-on-one. All three had and continue to have, through their writings, and sometimes through the institutions and organizations that they left behind, major impact. It may seem as though the insistent non-violence of Gandhi and Dr. King has disappeared. In the US, at least, something of Dr. King’s message and method continues to inform protest and activism. It seems possible that Gandhi’s legacy in the 21st century CE may be felt more keenly in South Africa than in India. Gandhi had a profound influence on South African anti-apartheid leaders. Satyagraha—the term for Gandhi’s nonviolent protest—is derived from satya (truth) and agraha (firmness), and there even may be an echo of Gandhi in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


In Part Two of this post, “Orientation to the Common Good,” I will ask two questions about the kind of people most likely to be named as moral heroes in my neck of the woods. First: Is there anything shared across these figures? Second: Does thought about such figures intersect in any very interesting way with neo-Aristotelian thought about virtue and character? I will urge that the answer to both questions is ‘Yes,’ but that what is shared may have less to do with what most of us might think of as traits than it does with the context—the larger orientation—in which and through which traits show themselves. I suspect that this will be true when we come down to earth and think of less spectacular and famously exemplary people.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.