Moral perfectionism, infinite responsibility, and the ethical in critical race theory

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University of Alabama Libraries

This dissertation is an investigation into the value of moral perfectionist thought broadly construed as a means of further developing antiracist strategy and theory, especially with regard to facilitating self-originary, antiracist political action by White subjects. To that end, I draw connections between the theoretical contributions of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Stanley Cavell, Michel Foucault, and Emmanuel Levinas regarding ethics and the ethical, and I argue that all four thinkers fall under the broad classification of moral perfectionist thought, albeit with distinct core assumptions and approaches. This dissertation submits moral perfectionist strategies for motivating White subjects to see the ethical harm inflicted upon them by practices of race, despite social, economic, and political inequalities from which they otherwise profit. Race per se represents an ethical harm to White subjects insofar as it denies people of color the status of “other” for whom Whites would otherwise care and accept responsibility; race also limits Whites’ ability to do self-work and obtain their unattained, but attainable, next selves since it restricts who can count as the friend with whom they would otherwise converse (in the Emersonian perfectionist sense) and be constructively challenged. I position above moral perfectionist theorists into conversation with a variety of thinkers from the tradition of critical race theory to flesh out the importance and potential of the new model of ethical subjectivity that I propose.

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Political science, African American studies, Ethics