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46 Duke L.J. 781 (1996-97)


The word "appropriate" is so wildly overused in American culture that, as with other vacuous words and phrases, a person learns to read right through it. "Appropriate" is verbal tofu. This Essay pauses instead of reading through, particularly to notice the instances in which "appropriate" and its negative counterpart are used to give the appearance of a moral or legal judgment.

"Appropriate," chosen to express a legal judgment, is not only vacuous; it is also irresponsible. It catches the legislator, judge, or administrator in the act of passing the buck, as the President did when he ordered the Justice Department "to take all appropriate steps" to obtain a reversal of a decision by the D.C. Circuit regarding the employment of replacement workers during strikes.

The choice of "inappropriate" to express moral judgment is not only thoughtless; it is the attempt to have it both ways ethically, to appear to use the human capacity to separate right from wrong, good from bad, without actually doing so. Whatever slight moral judgment it implies rests on a cultural ethic of individualism, a moral discourse for a society of autonomous agents in which the principal or only criterion for moral action is choice: what makes an action right or good is that the actor chooses it, as liberated as possible from the moral influence of others. Every person is her own tyrant.


Reprinted with permission of Duke Law Journal.



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