Examples, Exemplars, Exemplarity

Activity: Talk or presentation typesLecture and oral contribution

See relations at Aarhus University

Carsten Fogh Nielsen - Lecturer

References to and use of examples and exemplars have always been an important part of both moral philosophy and moral education. Moral philosophers use examples to argue for and draw attention to moral and conceptual distinctions. Teachers and educators employ examples to illustrate abstract moral norms and principles and enliven the discussion. And public as well as philosophical debates often refer to morally exemplary persons, moral exemplars, as a way of defining and making visible particular moral, religious and political values. This paper investigates the notion of moral exemplarity as a way of explicating the moral and educational importance of examples and exemplars, using the parable of the Good Samaritan as an entrance point to this discussion. Part One defines and systematically distinguishes examples, exemplars and exemplarity. Examples are concrete and embodied expressions of particular forms of normativity, typically designed or presented so as to clearly illustrate a specific point to a pupil, a reader or an audience. Exemplars are exemplary examples; concrete and embodied expressions of particular forms of normativity which not merely illustrate and exemplify but also ground, inspire and define these types of normativity. Finally exemplarity is the normative authority exerted by and through the embodied expression of an abstract normative concept (a norm, value, virtue, ideal) in a concrete particular (a person; an action; a story; a speech; a law; a place). Part Two utilizes the distinctions developed in Part One to discuss three different ways in which examples and exemplars have often been used in (philosophical discussions of) moral education: As particular instantiations of abstract, universal principles; as inspiration for reflection on and search for such universal principles or norms and as illustrations of the genuine possibility of actually responding to and fulfilling det demands of morality. Finally Part Three presents three critical arguments against the idea that moral education can and should be based solely on the use of examples and exemplars. First: Uncritical acceptance of the normative authority of particular examples and exemplars serves to undermine individual autonomy. Second: Imitating the actions and considerations of (perceived) exemplars requires some form of prior normative evaluation. Third: Over time an example or an exemplar can become so deeply engraved in the (argumentative) practices of a community that it becomes fetishized; the example is mistaken for the ideal or norm which it were merely supposed to illustrate and reflect. The example thereby loses its normative authority, while maintaining its normative social function within the community.
11 Dec 2016

Event (Conference)

Title42nd Association for Moral Education Annual Conference
LocationHarvard Graduate School of Education
CountryUnited States
Degree of recognitionInternational event


  • Ethics, Education, Normativity, Exemplarity

ID: 105318874