This article is based on an after-dinner speech given at the annual meeting of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters in June of 2014. The invitation had come from the president of the Academy, who had also proposed the above title, an allusion to my then-recent novel A Desperate Man. The structure and tone of the text is due to the setting for my remarks and my somewhat awkward assignment, which was to discuss the novel as a work of fiction and relate it to our historical situation. As the novel is relevant to the state of America and the Western world in many ways, I might have explored possible parallels between the stark, fictional circumstances of the narrative and our actual predicament, but I used the occasion primarily to set forth a philosophical argument. I concentrated on a philosophical problem that has long occupied me and that the novel raises in acute form. The topic is relevant to any historical circumstances, but trends in today’s American society seem to me to give it urgency.
The subject is as large as it is difficult: the meaning or form of morality, particularly as it relates to politics. My concern is with what I consider a dubious tendency in Western moral philosophy since the ancient Greeks. That tendency seems to me detrimental to morality’s ability to find its way in actual circumstances, especially in highly charged and hard-to-understand situations. What is questionable is the habit of defining morality as adherence to a preexisting rational or ideal standard. The problem is not with the assumption that human beings must respect a moral imperative over which, in a crucial sense, they have no control. Morality does have a universal dimension and its own morally binding authority. The problem is with a particular, abstract, reifying conception of that authority.
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