The Difficulties of Being a Moral Leader in an Unjust World

I just Googled "Moral Leader" and found out I was number ten in Google. Here’s the number two result:

Jim Sterba, professor of philosophy at University of Notre Dame, gave this presentation at a panel on Global Ethical Leadership, May 6, 2004. He is the author of Justice for Here and Now, Social and Political Philosophy: Contemporary Perspectives, and The Triumph of Practice over Theory in Ethics.

The unjust world in which we live tends to reward those who cooperate with it, rather than those who oppose it. This makes it difficult to be a success (as the world sees success) and still be just. This has led many to adopt strategies of partial justice. They oppose some injustices but not others. This is what many of our so-called moral leaders do. But if we oppose some injustices while benefiting from and never challenging other injustices, how just can we be? Justice surely requires that we oppose the most significant injustices that relate to us, especially those from which we benefit. And this, I have argued, is a very difficult to do in the unjust world in which we live. It is especially difficult for anyone who aspires to be a moral leader in our unjust world.

To be a moral leader one needs a following. But it is very difficult to have a following if the path one is recommending is one that is very difficult to follow. This is why most of the world’s would-be moral leaders try to make it easier for us. They do not offer a full program for avoiding injustice. They try to make us feel satisfied if we succeed at ridding the world of just one or another unjust practice.

But neither we, nor our moral leaders, should be satisfied with partial justice. Justice demands a complete agenda for ridding the world of all important injustices that relate to us, particularly those from which we benefit. And difficult though it is a real moral leader will hold us to such an agenda even when it is necessary to focus now and then on particular injustices, like stopping the war against Iraq. Neither we nor those who would lead us must lose sight of our multi-faceted agenda if our goal is to rid society of the significant injustices that plague it. This is why true moral leadership in the unjust world in which we live is as important to society as it is rare.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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