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The ethics of mediocrity : conceit and the limits of distributive justice in the modern mediocre-artist narrative Papin, Paul Patrick


The modern principle of freedom of subjectivity sets a moral standard which radically departs from Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean: modern moral agents, exemplified by the rising middle class, are granted the right to develop extreme dispositions towards goods like honour and wealth. Given that Aristotle considers such goods divisible in the sense that when one person gets more another gets less―the basic definition of distributive injustice―it isn’t surprising that modern philosophers like Kant have trouble reconciling this right with duty to others. Failing to resolve this dilemma satisfactorily in ethical terms, Kant and others turn to aesthetics, but Kant, at least, takes no account there of moral agents’ interest in the actual existence of goods. In this respect, the alternative to the Kantian aesthetic response I document in my dissertation is more Stoic than modern. This response, the modern mediocre-artist narrative, features a mediocre artist who fails to achieve the new standard of distributive justice and a genius who ostensibly succeeds. Though other critics discuss the ethical dimension of mediocre-artist narratives, they don’t consider the possibility that the mediocre artist’s failure might be due to the ethical dilemma just described. They therefore tend to uphold uncritically the narratives’ negative judgments of mediocrity, ascribing the latter’s failure to egotism. By contrast, I examine the genius’ artistic efforts for evidence of a similar failure. Ultimately, I demonstrate that the genius does indeed fail, albeit less spectacularly, arguing on this basis that egotistical characterizations of mediocrity are unjust. But the mediocre aren’t the only victims: in “concealing” genius’ failure, mediocre-artist narratives ignore unmet claims on its fruits. Finally, I invoke Derrida’s notion of the “lesser violence” to outline a new genre that recognizes the unattainability of the modern standard of justice. I call this genre morally progressive, rejecting Jürgen Habermas’ view that freedom of subjectivity has hit a dead end, and that we must backtrack to a philosophical turning indicated but not taken by Hegel, namely, the path of intersubjective freedom.

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