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Living With Injustice: Lessons from 1963

Ethics & International Affairs Online Exclusive

September 6, 2013

CREDIT: Minnesota Historical Society, Wikimedia Commons

Essay by Claire Katz and John Kaag

1963: it was a remarkable year in political philosophy, and in the violence and injustice that often begets it. Philosophy has no shortages of anniversaries, but some are more important than others. The most important, we argue, are those that remind us of what philosophy can be, how it can respond to and articulate the pressing social issues of the day, how it can speak to a public that would rather ignore them. This amounts to saying that some of the most important anniversaries in philosophy are also some of the most disturbing. Such is the case with 1963.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the writing of three seminal texts in twentieth century philosophy. Like most great moments in philosophy, they were not regarded as great moments of philosophy at the time. They weren't even regarded as philosophy. The first was a letter, a little short of 7,000 words, written by Martin Luther King, Jr. from a Birmingham jail where he had been placed after his arrest for protesting racial segregation. The second started as a New Yorker article on the war crimes trial of a Nazi, an article that eventually became Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. In this text, Arendt, like King, reminds us how immoral systems are often sustained in normal, everyday ways by the many who support them. In the same year that Arendt published Eichmann, the twentieth century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas presented his Talmudic reading, "Toward the Other," which dealt with the general theme of atonement after atrocity. Read together, these pieces show us something rather disturbing about morality and the law, namely that they often do not go hand in hand. And when they do not, strange and horrible things tend to happen in our moral universe.

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