Michele Moody-Adams is Joseph Straus Professor of Political Philosophy and Legal Theory at Columbia University, and the author of Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture, and Philosophy (1997) and Making Space for Justice: Social Movements, Collective Imagination and Political Hope (2022). She also writes on democracy, academic freedom, justice, and moral psychology. In this Recently Published Book Spotlight, Moody-Adams discusses the arguments presented in her most recent book, its connection to her previous work, and her writing practice.
What is your work about?
Making Space for Justice is, fundamentally, an attempt to answer one very simple question: What does it mean to take seriously the social criticism and political struggles of the progressive social movements that began to emerge in the early 19th century (with the abolitionist movement), and that have continued to reshape social life well into the 21st century (in movements as varied as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the Arab Spring)?
What topics do you discuss in the work and why?
The three chapters in Part One of Making Space for Justice show that social movements have provided invaluable theoretical insight into the obligations of conscientious citizenship (Ch. 1), the special demands of democratic citizenship along with the habits of mind, social norms, and political values that are critical to stable democracies (Ch. 2); and, perhaps most importantly, the nature of social justice (Ch. 3). In particular, social movements have shown that justice is what I call humane regard: a complex combination of robust respect for the capacity for rational agency and compassionate concern for the capacity to suffer. They have also shown that we cannot produce and preserve humane regard unless we reject what Iris Young called the “distributive justice paradigm” in favor of an “enabling” conception of justice.
In the three chapters that comprise Part Two of the book, I contend that the methods of effective political struggles have always involved more than sit-ins, boycotts, protests, and strikes. Much of the time, social movements must “make space” for social justice by first getting others to understand the social world and their places in it in new ways. This involves reliance on several types of imaginative activity: especially aesthetic, sympathetic, epistemic, and narrative imagination. I show how, drawing on these heterogeneous forms of imagination, social movements have engaged in several rarely discussed forms of activism. Ch. 4 discusses aesthetic activism (as in the challenges to stigmatizing monuments that helped define the summer of 2020); Ch. 5 considers language activism (as in resistance to the idea of “separate but equal,” or in the development of the concept of sexual harassment;) and Ch. 6 considers various forms of narrative activism, (as in the production and dissemination of 19th century slave narrative).
In the final two chapters of the book in Part Three, Making Space for Justice shows that progressive social movements are most effective—and the change they create most lasting—when they harness the politically transformative power of collective hope. In Ch. 7, I argue that Spinoza was correct to think of hope and fear as a complex affective “dyad”, and that if we are not careful societies can too easily fluctuate between hope and fear in socially destructive ways. I also show that “backlash” counter-movements sometimes garner support by trying to turn ideas and policies rooted in fear and resentment into what the book calls “simulacra” of hope. But I conclude the book, in Ch. 8, by discussing the habits of mind—including a phenomenon that I call “civic grace,” as well as a commitment to the importance of humane regard—most likely to enable us to sustain collective hope even in the face of great challenge and adversity.
How does this work fit into your larger research interests?
Making Space for Justice grows out of three central preoccupations that shaped my philosophical writing over the course of my career.
First, it develops and extends my long-standing interest in the nature and sources of moral progress. I first developed this interest in print in the 1999 article, “The Idea of Moral Progress.” Metaphilosophy 30, no. 3 (July 1999).
Second, the book develops my conviction that the community of “eligible” moral inquirers always extends, in principle, to include any human being—or any group of human beings—capable of reflection, and especially self-reflection. Even as I greatly value the deliverances of the best moral and political philosophy, I have always insisted that philosophy is rarely (if ever) authoritative in moral inquiry. This is a claim that I made in my very first published paper, “On the Alleged Methodological Infirmity of Ethics,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 3, (July 1990). I then developed the idea with greater clarity and detail in my book. Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture and Philosophy (1997).
Third, Making Space for Justice rests on my longstanding assumption that moral argument and inquiry are always interpretive projects, and that throughout history even the most compelling moral and political thought is not capable of introducing new moral ideas, but only of reinterpreting, reformulating, or reconstructing central elements of ‘ordinary’ moral consciousness to reveal hitherto unstated, or unfamiliar, commitments. I make this claim in several places, drawing, in part, on the work of philosophers as varied as C.D. Broad (in Five Types of Ethical Theory 1930) and Mark Platts (in Ways of Meaning 1979).
Who has influenced your work the most?
Three influences are most important for the project I undertake in Making Space for Justice.
The first is John Dewey, mainly because of his commitment to philosophical humility in relationship to the moral and political thought produced by non-philosophers. But I have also been deeply influenced by Dewey’s claim, in the 1917 essay “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” that philosophy “recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.”
The second important influence on the argument of Making Space for Justice is Iris Young, particularly the view she defended in Justice and the Politics of Difference, that we must reject the distributive justice paradigm and instead turn to an enabling conception of justice. What makes this influence so remarkable is that I went to graduate school to study with John Rawls, in particular, I hoped to show how the Difference Principle portion of Rawls’s 2nd principle of justice might be used to constructively address the problems of lingering racial injustice in America. I was clearly committed to the plausibility of the distributive justice paradigm. But while I will always hold Rawls’s brilliance as a philosopher in high esteem, and in spite of the fact that Rawls was the most extraordinary and inspirational teacher I ever had, I began to doubt the power of his theory to address deep-rooted racial injustice almost right after I arrived in graduate school. At the time, I had no label for what I thought the problem might be, nor any clear concept of the best alternative. In this regard—as Jeremy Bentham once said of David Hume—when I read Iris Young’s work it was as if “the scales fell from my eyes.” It is important for me to stress that I do not end up defending Young’s particular enabling conception, even though I accept the idea that removing disabling constraints is central to achieving social justice.
Finally, the third main influence on Making Space for Justice is a trio of “movement intellectuals”—or “organic intellectuals” in Gramsci’s sense—who figure as intellectual heroes over the course of the book: (1) Martin Luther King Jr., (2) Vaclav Havel, and (3) Nelson Mandela. Pouring over their writings, watching documentaries about their successes and failures, and reading biographical and autobiographical accounts of their lives, proved to be powerful sources of inspiration. Figures like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Raphael Lemkin, and Catherine MacKinnon are also important to the argument of Making Space for Justice. But King, Havel, and Mandela proved to be the most important sources of inspiration for many of the arguments and concepts articulated in the book.
What writing practices, methods, or routines do you use, and which have been the most helpful?
Three writing practices have proven most useful over the course of my career.
First, I often do some of my best philosophical reflection when I stop to write the elements of an argument, and the most important objections to the argument, in longhand. I am from a generation that needed to write the first chapter of my PhD dissertation in longhand and then type it on a typewriter using what was known as “corrasable bond” paper (paper from which the typing could be erased) because personal computers were still too expensive when I began the project. It was quite exciting when personal computers became affordable as I was beginning Chapter Two of the dissertation. But for many years after that, I always typed my work (using word processing software) only after I had first written it out meticulously in long hand on yellow legal pads. About 15 years ago, I finally learned to write most of my complete drafts of papers and book chapters using a computer. But I still need the tactile experience of developing certain ideas on paper. Now, instead of writing on a clean yellow legal pad, I use sturdy notebooks and journals—numbered and labeled in order to keep track of content—to think on paper. It is always informative, and more than a little humbling, to go back and see the very rudimentary stages of an idea that might come to mean a lot in one’s final drafts.
Second, I find that as a moral and political philosopher, I expect, as I write, that wisdom will come from non-philosophers as often as it comes from philosophy. This is obviously an implication of my conception of moral inquiry as a collective human project. So, in addition to re-reading philosophical classics with a fresh eye, I always read widely outside of our discipline—including non-fiction (history, psychology, political science, in particular); memoirs and autobiography; newspapers and long-form journalism in the best weekly and monthly publications, and of course poetry and fiction. For my part, however, fiction is rarely a source of as much wisdom and genuine inspiration as poetry and non-fictional sources.
Finally, one thing that always helps me get going on a writing project (whether a self-contained article or a long project like Making Space for Justice) is keeping a collection of “commonplace books” organized around the theme or themes I will be writing about. These books will contain such things as (a) quotations that I’ve found interesting (very carefully reproduced with careful citations for possible later use), (b) evocative passages from my favorite poetry or novels; (c) anecdotes from biographies, memoirs, or works of history that I’ve read (carefully recording the source is important here too); and (d) my own personal observations or quick thoughts about something I’ve read or seen. My commonplace notebooks and journals can be incredible sources of inspiration—especially when I feel stuck while writing. They can also be useful sources of material to enliven class lectures, and sometimes even to enrich professional talks.