Candace Vogler to speak on moral relativism at Vanderbilt University October 5

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Our principal investigator Candace Vogler will be at Vanderbilt University October 5 to speak on moral relativism, hosted by the Thomistic Institute chapter in Nashville. Here is the abstract for her talk.

Moral Realism in a Climate of Moral Doubt

The thought that good is to be pursued, and bad is to be avoided is a basic condition on the intelligibility of animal movement generally.  We are intellectual animals—the kinds of animals that need to figure out what to pursue and how to go about pursuing it.  And this means that pursuit and avoidance are harder for us than they are for other kinds of animals.  For all that, making sense of what we go for and what we fear or flee operates in the context of some understanding of what is good for human beings.  These days, in the face of stark and shrill disagreement among thoughtful people about some of the most basic aspects of our lives, it can seem as though people have lost any clear, common understanding of human good.  Moral disagreement can seem completely intractable.  In this talk, I will look at some serious, likely intractable examples of profound moral disagreement, with an eye toward learning how to think about and engage these topics in the secure understanding that disagreement is partly a function of the challenges that intellectual animals face in trying to see what is good for them, urging a kind of modesty that does not require setting aside one’s own convictions.

Racism and Negligence

 

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Torch-bearing white nationalists rally around a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017. (Edu Bayer/New York Times)

For those who thought the racial tensions that have long shaped the fault lines of American politics could continue to be ignored, Charlottesville was the seismic event that shook up this complacency. Like many an earthquake, much of the damage was not limited to the initial event; the political aftershocks have done equal, if not greater, damage. For when torch wielding Nazis and white supremacists march in large numbers, chanting racist slogans, screaming slurs, and threatening violence against minorities, when one of them drives his car into a crowd, killing one and injuring nineteen others, we should be able to expect our President, at the very least, to denounce them immediately and unequivocally. And yet this did not happen; incredibly, the opposite did.

 

Civility and a commitment to equality for all are American values that transcend partisan interests. We have a right to expect our leaders to form a government for everyone, and strive to keep the peace for all of the people. President Trump appeared to be trying to do this, denouncing “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, many sides” (emphasis mine). However, this initial response was, as many have pointed out, disastrously off base: the bigotry was clearly on one side, and there is no moral equivalence between the promulgation of fascist and racist ideology and principled opposition to it. While the counter-protest was far from perfect, it was not worthy of our president’s equal condemnation.

 

Presidents are supposed to unify their citizens in times of crisis, but in the aftermath of Charlottesville the only thing that seemed to unify most Americans was disappointment in the president’s inability to carry out this vital task. In a rare moment of concession to his many critics, Trump later denounced the hate groups by name. But this rare act of humility was short-lived. Just a few days later Trump lashed out at the press and doubled down in defense of himself; notoriously, he even went so far as to claim that there were “some very fine people” involved in the “unite the right” rally. And just in case anyone doubted what his true priorities were, the following week Trump held a rally in Phoenix, not primarily aimed at defusing racial tensions or uniting a divided populace in turbulent times, but solely in defense and even celebration of his troubling remarks.

 

We are about a month on from Charlottesville; nuclear threats, destructive hurricanes, and football now dominate our news feeds, and it would be all to easy to forget about it. But forgetting about it is a kind of political negligence, a failure to give it the importance it deserves. Negligence is a too little considered feature of our moral and political life. It is also important to the analysis of what was so awful about Trump’s post-Charlottesville behavior.

 

Consider his defense of some of those marching for “historical preservation” in Charlottesville. Negligence is a key to grasping why these defenses are indefensible. Let us set aside the issue of whether it is legitimate to support confederate monuments, as it is beside the point. As is well known, the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville was organized and promoted by white supremacist groups. The names listed to speak at the rally comprise a veritable who’s who of fascist and racist political leaders in America. These are men who openly admire Hitler, adopt Nazi imagery and rhetoric, and who advocate some form of racial apartheid in our country. A rally that is organized, promoted, and features speeches by such men is arguably a racist rally, no matter what cause it serves; but it is most certainly a racist rally when the cause is the defense of the statues of men who devoted their lives to the perpetuation of enslavement of blacks in the South. Any right thinking person who merely cared about preserving historical monuments as a testimony to history would not make common cause with Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists.

 

Even if we concede the very remote possibility that one of these warm hearted historical preservationists somehow missed the fact that the organizers, promoters, and speakers at the rally were all extreme racists, at best we could say their actions were grossly negligent, which makes them very far from being “very fine.” Failure to know what’s going on isn’t admirable, nor does it inoculate one against censure or blame. Ignorance doesn’t always excuse.

 

Determining culpable ignorance is an important aspect of morality and the law, and is part of any theory of negligence. Negligence comes from the Latin phrase “nec eligens” which literally translates to “not choosing.” Negligence is a normative and not merely descriptive word. There are an infinite number of choices I didn’t make this morning, but most of them, like the choice I didn’t make to begin writing the next great American novel, are of no consequence. Only a very small range of what I don’t do counts as a blameworthy failure, and the determination typically depends on the roles that can be legitimately assigned to me (for instance, as a parent, I am culpable if I oversleep and fail to get the kids to school on time).

 

We know as a matter of common sense morality and the law that we are responsible for what we fail to do, even when that failure is completely unintentional. Now, a prudent citizen should be well informed about the kinds of civic engagement he participates in; therefore a failure to notice that an event is organized by and prominently features white supremacists is a classic case of culpable ignorance.

 

Even so, one might still argue that culpable ignorance does not necessarily imply racism. Fine, but footage of Charlottesville reveals that once there one could have had no doubt that this was an event for promoting racist ideology. At that point, one is further at fault for not realizing that marching in the rally not only would not advance the cause of preserving history, but would also deepen racial tensions in Charlottesville and possibly lead to racially motivated violence.

 

To march alongside virulent racists shouting racist slogans and slurs displays a culpable lack of concern for members of the minority groups being targeted. We need to be clear that one is a racist not simply if one has active animus directed towards racial minorities, but also if one lacks active good will towards them; one lacks such good will when one does not care at all, or does not care enough about their well being and security to act (and not act) towards them in certain ways. One should care enough about minorities not to march alongside those that seek to marginalize and defame them. Failure to care enough about the manifest harms to these communities by placing the importance of historical preservation above their safety and well being is racist.

 

Charlottesville should still deeply trouble us. We cannot make racial progress, however, if we cannot come to a reasonable agreement about what racism is. If elements on the left can sometimes be blamed for making us all racists just in virtue of being born into a racially unequal society, elements on the right can sometimes be blamed for making the racist into a fantastical unicorn by imagining criteria for it that almost none of us will ever meet. A sensible understanding of the complexities of racism would steer a steady course between these two extremes, and we need such an understanding if we have any hope of having a reasonable public discourse about race in this country. A small step in this direction would be to acknowledge that racism of neglect is a real and damaging.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

VIDEO: Jean Porter, “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

Moral theologian Jean Porter gave the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago.  The video below includes Candace Vogler’s introduction and the audience Q & A following the talk.

Cooperation in evil and Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of justice

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We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Kevin Flannery, S.J., is Professor of the History of Ancient Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

As the participants in our seminar may recall, I am writing a book on the ethics of cooperation in evil. At an earlier meeting of the seminar, I discussed some of the problems contained in the treatment of such cooperation as found in the manuals of Catholic moral theology of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. On that occasion, I expressed agreement with Elizabeth Anscombe’s criticism of that tradition as vitiated by what she calls “Cartesian psychology,” according to which “an intention was an interior act of the mind which could be produced at will.” I also expressed then a preference for an analysis in terms rather of Thomas’s Aquinas’s understanding of the moral virtue of justice. In my presentation, I would like describe how I understand this virtue and how it helps us to determine when a person’s—or indeed an institution’s or a government’s—cooperation is immoral. This will involve an explanation of how justice, according to Thomas, stands in relation to the other virtues, especially prudence. It will also involve an account of how justice, which is a virtue of the will, bears upon the consciences of individuals.

“What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

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Moral theologian Jean Porter (University of Notre Dame) will give the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago. An audience Q & A will be followed by a reception in the Swift Hall Common Room. This talk is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

The talk and Q&A will be live-streamed at 7pm central time. For more information and to RSVP, go to https://virtue.uchicago.edu/porter

Here is the abstract for her talk:

 

Courage is pre-eminently an individual virtue. Yet we can also describe a community or a nation as courageous in its response to a threat or an attack. To take one well-known example, the behavior and attitudes of the English during the Blitz of 1940-41 offers an outstanding example of collective public courage. Somewhat to the surprise of government officials, the civilians subjected to intensive German bombing were not only relatively free of trauma, they were able to carry on with their lives, and even to be cheerful in the face of repeated attacks. The collective courage of the English under the Blitz was of course dependent on the courage of countless individuals, and yet it cannot be reduced to the sum of so many courageous acts and lives. The government promoted, and individuals cooperated in creating a set of practices and expectations that encouraged bravery and perseverance. At this point, England was a brave society, which both drew its courage from individuals and communicated it back to them.In my remarks this evening, I want to examine another example of public courage and public cowardice, which began to develop within the memory of many of us and is still unfolding today.  I am referring to public reactions to the threat of terrorism since the attacks of 9/11.  During and immediately after the attacks themselves, the men and women at the scene, together with the police, fire fighters, and medical personnel, behaved with exemplary bravery in the face of an unimaginable danger.  These clear, unambiguous examples of courage do not call for extended analysis. However, at another level, public reactions to the threat of terrorist attacks present a more complex and ambiguous example.  I want to suggest that we as a nation responded initially to terrorist assaults and the threat of further attacks with another kind of courage, not physical bravery but a firm resolve to hold onto central values, including equality, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. However, over the past fifteen years, our attitudes as a civic society, as expressed by the actions taken in our name, reflect a growing unwillingness to live with risk and, correspondingly, a willingness to do almost anything to our supposed enemies, in order to secure our own safety.  In other words, we as a nation have moved from courage to a kind of cowardice when it comes to our attitudes towards these threats. I will consider some of the possible causes of this development, and suggest some ways in which we might reclaim our initial courage.

Moral Art

This post was written after a visit to ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago, at the Alphawood Gallery, 2014 North Halsted Street, Chicago. The show runs through April 2, 2017.

 

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“AIDS—JUDGMENT HAS COME, Slidell, Louisiana,” 1989, Inkjet print, Ann P. Meredith. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

It is hard to enter the space of the ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago exhibit without experiencing outrage. The massive human tragedy caused by years of governmental and mainstream social indifference toward a disease that wiped out an entire generation of young men here and abroad, as well as women and children, and that still rages on today, draws comparison to the callous use of soldiers as machine gun fodder by the decrepit British generals of the First World War, or the stubborn insistence by the Johnson and Nixon administrations that teenaged boys by the truckload be shipped off to die in Vietnam. In 1980, 31 people had died of what would later come to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Ten years later, the death toll in the U.S. alone was 18,447, and continued to rise throughout the 1990s. People living with and dying of AIDS included all sorts of people–gay men, male and female IV needle users, straight and gay women, hemophiliacs, and children born to HIV-positive mothers. Still, the disease was perceived as particular to gay men, and as a result of the stigma associated with them, the U.S. government failed to respond quickly to the crisis.

 

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“Every 12 Minutes,” Nayland Black, 1991. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Artists responded to the crisis by making overtly activist and political art. Many works in this show foreground issues of exclusion, stigma, and injustice. Entering the exhibit, one is immediately confronted by Nayland Black’s 1991 “Every 12 Minutes,” a clock on the wall with STOP IT! written in the middle, its face divided into 5 equal sections by the words “ONE AIDS DEATH.” The clock exhorts us to stop these deaths, but it also commands us to stop all the other behaviors contributing to the crisis, from spreading misinformation to having unsafe sex to stigmatizing people with the disease.

 

Turning from the clock, visitors can see a shimmering bluish beaded curtain by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Water), 1995, that stretches across a wide entryway, separating the entryway from the room beyond. Yet through the clear and bluish beads this next room is also gauzily visible, glowing and beckoning from beyond a veil.

 

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“Untitled” (Water), 1995. Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

In a small, adjacent room Native American symbols speak to both stigma and loss. David Wojnarowicz’s gelatin silver print “Untitled” (Buffalo), 1988-89 is a photograph of a diorama of the Native American hunting practice of herding buffalo off a cliff, suggesting the intentional killing of people with AIDS not only through indifference, but through active hostility and homophobia. Ronald Lockett’s “Facing Extinction,” 1994, made of chalk, metal, and wood, shows a ghostly buffalo, a recurring symbol for Lockett of hunted creatures. It stands on a too-solid three-dimensional cliff, gazing into our space as its body begins to disappear into the background. “More Time Expected,” 2002, by Sicangu Lakota artist Thomas Haukaas, shows figures riding singly and in pairs surrounding a riderless horse, symbolizing those felled by the disease.

 

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“More Time Expected,” 2002. Thomas Haukaas. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Part Gonzalez-Torres’s beaded glass curtain and enter a large open space with soaring ceilings. On one wall, a recreation of ACT-UP NY/Gran Fury’s 1987 video and neon installation “Let the Record Show” shines like a dark window, dominating the room. At the top a neon pink triangle glows steadily over white letters spelling out the famous ACT-UP logo, “Silence = Death.” The projection of an arched crescent and decorative columns around the outside of the logo gives it an architectural quality, like a temple or a church nave, beneath which long panels stretch down like stained-glass. Here photographs of six people from the Reagan era are superimposed on an old photograph of the Nuremburg Trials depicting Nazi war criminals seated in a courtroom guarded by Allied soldiers. An electronic panel with running titles in red shows AIDS statistics and epidemic facts. The superimposed photographs light up and go dark, alternately revealing the faces of Senator Jessie Helms, columnist William F. Buckley Jr., Cory Servaas of the Presidential AIDS Commission, an anonymous surgeon, and President Ronald Reagan. These are the war criminals of the AIDS crisis. Underneath each face is an offensive quote made by each one about disease victims, such as Buckley’s infamous assertion that people with AIDS should be “tattooed on the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals,” or the surgeon’s quip that AIDS provided a better reason to “hate faggots.” To underscore the work’s declaration that silence equals death, there is no quote from Reagan, who famously said nothing even as the worst health epidemic in centuries raged around him.

 

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“Let the Record Show”, 1987. ACT-UP NY/Gran Fury. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Other mixed-media and video works include a bank of screens with headphones and seating for projects such as T. Kim Trang Tran’s “kore,” 1994, which swoops in and away from grainy black and white moving images of Asian men relaxing at the beach or walking through cities, zooming out every so often to show these figures, distanced from us by time, being watched by other men and boys on hand-held screens and scrolls. The gaze created here suggests that cruising after AIDS cannot be dispassionate; the look of curiosity, appreciation, and desire for Asian men created in and by these images is now tinged with melancholy, memory, and loss.

 

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Still from “kore,” 1994. T. Kim Trang Tran. Photo by Jaime Hovey

 

In what is thought to be the first AIDS painting, Izhar Patkin creates in his “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity” a surface of erupting skin lesions fashioned out of rubber paste, latex, and ink. Moved by the symptoms he saw in patients at his dermatology office, he documented their wounds a year before there was any public announcement about the disease or its victims. Here the sores break open the skin of the painting to ooze and glisten in the light, pushing through from underneath as if something monstrous is housed inside. The painting is shocking, but it also forces the viewer to confront the disease at the level of skin, pain, and the body.

 

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“Unveiling of a Modern Chastity,” 1981, Izhar Patkin. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

The cumulative effect of these works is to move viewers from outrage at homophobic and indifferent responses to the epidemic to admiration at the courage and resilience of AIDS artists, activists, allies, and survivors. In these works we see creative, political, and deeply moral reactions to the absence of justice, to the withholding of compassion, and to the celebration of love in America at a time when huge numbers of people were suffering and dying.

 

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“Eleven, October 2015”, Kia LaBeija. Originally posted on Refinery 29 here.

 

Religious imagery shapes many of the works, speaking to the gulf between the moral response of the queer community–which involved projects such as public safe sex education and meals on wheels for the homebound–and the judgmental condemnation and indifference of government officials and mainstream religious groups, which shuttered bathhouses and gay clubs in a misguided effort to stop gay sex from happening. In “AIDS—JUDGMENT HAS COME, Slidell, Louisiana,” Ann P. Meredith documents a set of billboards she saw in Louisiana as she traveled to photograph women living with AIDS. Her print shows the harsh messages of the billboards as undercut by a graffiti tagger who writes “Love” and “Peace,” and slyly quotes from Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, no, not one,” a verse that when it appears in the Bible is followed by the words, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.”

 

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“Altar Piece,” 1990, Keith Haring. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Keith Haring’s gleaming silver “Altar Piece,” the last work he completed before he died, shows a weeping Mary with a shining heart and multiple arms holding the infant Jesus under a cross in the center panel of a triptych. Here the Trinity is reimagined to include her, and below her crowds raise their hands in anger and supplication as angels fly and fall.

 

Echoing the theme of Icarian angels, Daniel Goldstein’s “Icarian I Incline,” fashions a Shroud of Turin from the leather cover of a weight bench that once belonged to the Castro gym Muscle System, nicknamed Muscle Sisters by patrons. Stained with the sweat of a thousand gay men, many of whom have since died, the cover bears the ghostly image of their bodies, framed here as a relic memorializing the exuberant communities that flew too close to the sun, flourished before AIDS, and came together to support each other during and after the crisis.

 

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“Icarian I Incline,” 1993, Daniel Goldstein. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Martin Wong’s 1988 “I.C.U.” shows an eye in a triangle floating over a brick building. Echoing the pink triangle in the nearby “Let the Record Show,” the eye above the building here resembles the eye on a dollar bill, but appears amidst constellations, like the eye of God. A pun on “I see you,” the letters are also the common abbreviation for Intensive Care Unit, the place in hospitals where so many gay men lay dying during the epidemic. In this work, most of the brick building is dark, and only the wing with fire escapes is lit and accessible. The eye of providence seems not to know or care about what is inside; in any case, here God is only potentially available upon exit.

 

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“I.C.U.,” 1988, Martin Wong. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

This is not to suggest that the show is tragic; indeed, the entire exhibit is a triumph of creativity, defiance, and love. Artists pay tribute to the fallen in painting, video, textiles, and sculpture, remember those who were there, and call out those who refused to be present. Charles LeDrey’s teddy bear in a box from 1991 suggests both mourning and the end of innocence. In Rosalind Solomon’s gelatin silver print “Silence Equals Death, Washington, DC,” 1987-90, a young man covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions confronts the camera wearing full protest regalia, including ACT-UP buttons, a straw hat, and a paper Star of David. Frank Moore’s “Patient,” 1997-1998, shows an empty hospital bed painted with leaves and snowflakes, where environmental devastation and AIDS are emergencies that require equally urgent care.

 

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“Patient,” 1997-1998, Frank Moore. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Kia LaBeija’s glossy technicolor photographs, such as “Eleven, October 2015,” and “Kia and Mommy” (below) document her dignity living with hospitals and doctor visits, and celebrate fashion and makeup as creative gestures that make everyday life beautiful.

 

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“Kia and Mommy,” 2014, Kia LaBejia. Photo Kia LaBejia – Visual AIDS here.

 

The pieces gathered here span three-and-a-half decades and include work by people still living, as well as cataloging the talent of too many who died too soon. Their project is a deeply moral one: to remind viewers that sick people are human, that no one deserves to suffer, that death comes for all of us, and that the proper response to tragedy is always—must be—art, compassion, and action.

 

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Detail from “By Punchinello’s Bed”, 1992, Patrick Webb. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 


Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago runs through April 2.

On the Eve of a New Administration: Frederick Douglass on Civic Virtue in Turbulent Times

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Frederick Douglass. Image from VermontHumanities.org.

 

Frederick Douglass is alive.

 

At least, that was the impression given by the 45th President of the United States when he praised Douglass at a recent Black History Month event, saying: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” The Atlantic, Feb 1 2017.

 

Douglass, one of the most important figures in the anti-slavery movement and one of the greatest orators America has ever produced, died February 20, 1895, and the widespread public amusement at Donald Trump’s remarks about him came from a sense that the President had almost no idea who Douglass was. However, if Mr. Trump read one of Douglass’s Reconstruction-era speeches on virtue and political change, he might almost be forgiven for believing that the greatest Black American leader of the 19th century still walks among us.

 

April 16, 1885 was the 23rd anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia. President Grover Cleveland reviewed a parade of over 5,000 people marching near the White House, and that evening, Frederick Douglass gave a speech, “We are Confronted by a New Administration,” at the Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church.

 

The occasion of Douglass’s speech was ominous. The Republican party had lost power after 25 years of running a post-Civil War government the emancipated slaves had come to rely on. Faced with the prospect of diminished freedoms and the great work of Reconstruction left undone, Douglass spoke of the election as a bitter defeat: “We do not stand where we stood one year ago. We are confronted by a new administration. The term of steady, unbroken successful Republican rule, is ended. The great Republican party that carried the country safely through the late war against the rebellion, emancipated the slave, saved the Union, reconstructed the government of the southern states, enfranchised the freedmen, raised the national credit, improved the currency, decreased the national debt, and did more for the honor, prosperity and glory of the American people, than was ever done before in the same length of time by any party in any country, under similar circumstances, has been defeated, humiliated, and driven from place and power.”

 

For Douglass, this election is not just the defeat of a good cause, but the triumph of those opposed to justice: “For the first time since the chains fell from the limbs of the slaves of the District of Columbia; for the first time since slaves were raised from chattels to men; for the first time since they were clothed with the dignity of American citizenship, they find themselves under the rule of a political party which steadily opposed their every step from bondage to freedom; and this may well give a peculiar coloring to the thoughts and feelings with which this anniversary of emancipation is celebrated.”

 

He acknowledges that slavery and racial oppression do not exist apart from the social structures that justify and maintain them, “Like any other embodiment of social and material interest peculiar to a given community, slavery generated its own sentiments, its own morals, manners, and religion, and begot a character in all around it in favor of its own existence.”

 

Such attitudes are not those of a morally strong and healthy nation; Douglass praises the wisdom in the rejection of a two-nation system, one slave and one free, “hostile civilizations side by side, with a chafing bloody border between them,” in favor of “one country, one citizenship, and one liberty for all the people.”

 

Insisting that the divisions that led to the Civil War were moral, he suggests the solution to the unfinished business of Reconstruction lies in the cultivation of virtue: “There never was any physical reason for the dissolution of the Union. The geographical and topographical conditions of the country all serve to unite rather than to divide the two sections. It was moral, not physical dynamite that blew the two sections asunder.”

 

Douglass explains that: “Twelve hundred more colored votes in the state of New York would have saved that party from defeat,” and suspects these votes were lost because the campaign did not address moral issues: “Little was said, thought, or felt, about national integrity, the importance of maintaining good faith with the freedman or the Indian, or the protection of the Constitutional rights of American citizens, except where such rights were in no danger . . . No nation, no party, no man, can live long and flourish, on falsehood, deceit, injustice, and broken pledges.”

 

“On the other hand,” he notes, “where good faith is maintained, where justice is upheld, where truth and right prevail, the government will be like the wise man’s house, in scripture: the winds may blow, the rains may descend, the flood may come and beat upon it, but it will stand, because it is founded upon the solid rock of principle. I speak this, not only for the Republican party, but for all parties.”

 

Attempting to find common ground with Democrats, he appeals to democratic ideals of citizenship, “We boast of our riches, power, and glory, as a nation, and we have reason to do so. But what is prosperity, what is power, what is national glory, when national honor, national good faith, and national protection to the rights of our citizens are denied?”

 

Warning that the social unrest of the European under classes could just as easily happen in American, Douglass urges politicians not to abandon oppressed peoples, writing: “Who could blame the negro if, when he is driven from the ballot box, the jury box, and from the school house, denied equal rights on railroads and steamboats, called out of his bed at midnight and whipped by regulators, compelled to live in rags and wretchedness, and his wages kept back by fraud, he shall imitate the example of other oppressed classes, and invoke some terrible explosive power as a means of bringing his oppressors to their senses, and making them respect the claims of justice.” To this typed passage Douglass has added, in script, “denied a fair trial when accused of crime,” and, “This would be madness, but oppression will make even wise men mad.” Although he hastens to assure his audience that he does not hope for or approve violent means, his edits suggest he believes that repeated injustices inevitably produce violent outcomes.

 

Yet Douglass seems to sense that he is standing on the eve of a terrible era. One of the speech’s most chilling passages concerns the “recent” Supreme Court decision that Douglass says “came upon the country like a clap of thunder from a clear sky . . . a surprise to enemies, and a bitter disappointment to friends.” Douglass is referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling in The Civil Rights cases of 1883, a decision that would usher in 80 years of Jim Crow racial segregation and pave the way for the infamous “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Fergusen (1896), as well as widespread lynching and other forms of racist terrorism. The Civil Rights cases of 1883 laid the groundwork for Plessy by ruling that public accommodations were not reached by the Fourteenth Amendment, and that Congress and the courts could not stop hotels, clubs, and restaurants from discriminating on the basis of race. Justice John M. Harlan was the sole dissenting voice, and Douglass praises him for being a “grand representative of American Justice standing alone.” Harlan’s famous dissent in the Civil Rights cases would someday serve as the basis for civil rights jurisprudence—but not until after World War II.

 

Despite his sense that the lives of Black Americans were about to get much worse, Douglass speaks to the “soul of the nation” and its virtues, the “spiritual side of Humanity” that cannot be burnt or drowned so long as it holds fast to its moral ideals, declaring: “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous, for upon these conditions depends the life [o]f its life.” He talks about the great Chicago fire as one that left the city in ashes, yet could not eradicate the ideals of its inhabitants because they were possessed of civic virtue: “[T]here remained the invisible soul of a great people, full of energy, enterprise, and faith, and hence, out of the ashes and hollow desolation, a grander Chicago than the one destroyed, arose as if by magic.”

 

Douglass’s speech concludes with an appeal to civic virtue and civic involvement as crucial to surviving political change, not just as because civic virtue cultivates the self, but because it helps form a democratic community of brave and just citizens. As we celebrate Black History Month, we might take to heart his sense that a morally virtuous citizenry is the bedrock of a flourishing democracy. Quoting a poem by Sir William Jones that asks, “What constitutes a state?” Douglass answers with lines emphasizing courage and justice as virtues that carry the nation even in its most turbulent eras: “Men who their duties know,/ But know their rights, and, knowing, dare maintain.”

 

For the full text of Douglass’ speech, visit “Speech on the 23rd Anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia,” also known as “We are Confronted by a New Administration” here.

 


Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.