She repeats herself sometimes and some of the text can get tedious but on the whole I quite enjoyed reading this biography. From her observations on cultural differences (“One evening, I found myself with a group of girls sitting in our resident adviser’s dorm room. One of them mentioned being invited to a wedding and that she’d decided just to choose a gift from the bridal registry. What the hell is a bridal registry? I wondered…Where I came from, you handed the couple an envelope with money at the reception. Were people here so rich they could afford weddings without gifts of cash?” — RIGHT?!) to her advice to dream big, she offers an intriguing glimpse into her pre-Supreme-Court private life. This bit reminded me of my own thoughts and leanings before and after law school. She’s gotta be a Libra, right? (no.)
I asked [my debate opponent] what had inspired the hostility that I sensed from her. “It’s because you can’t take a stand,” she said, looking at me with such earnest disdain that it startled me. “Everything depends on context with you. If you are always open to persuasion, how can anybody predict your position? How can they tell if you’re friend or foe? The problem with people like you is that you have no principles.”
Surely, I thought, what she described was preferable to its opposite. If you held to principle so passionately, so inflexibly, indifferent to the particulars of circumstance – the full range of what human beings, with all their flaws and foibles, might endure or create – if you enthroned principle above even reason, weren’t you then abdicating the responsibilities of a thinking person? I said something like that.
Our conversation ended on that unsettled note, but I have spent the rest of my life grappling with her accusation. I have since learned how these considerations are addressed in the more complex language of moral philosophy, but our simple exchange that day raised a point that remains essential to me. There is indeed something deeply wrong with a person who lacks principles, who has no moral core. There are, likewise, certainly values that brook no compromise and I would count among them integrity, fairness, and the avoidance of cruelty. But I have never accepted the argument that principle is compromised by judging each situation on its own merits, with due appreciation of the idiosyncrasy of human motivation and fallibility. Concern for individuals, the imperative of treating them with dignity and respect for their ideas and needs, regardless of one’s own views—these too are surely principles and as worthy as any of being deemed inviolable. To remain open to understandings – perhaps even to principles – as yet not determined is the least that learning requires, its barest threshold.