Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Religious Studies

First Advisor

Franks, Paul


When it comes to injustices in free societies, Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.” This dissertation asks what responsibility individuals in fact bear for societal injustices of which they are not guilty, and offers a construction of the prophetic vocation as the answer. We are each responsible for caring about (those suffering under) injustice, and we are each responsible for holding each other responsible for so caring. We effectively address demands to others to care by manifestly caring ourselves, which turns out to require the assumption of some measure of cost, risk, or sacrifice in pursuit of redress for the injustice. The introduction motivates, as against certain common cynicisms, the position that societal injustice is a proper object of moral activity, and proceeds with various methodological clarifications, especially as regards the concept of prophecy. Chapter 1 situates the project in the context of contemporary moral and political theory, showing that “prophetic normativity” as I define it responds to outstanding, parallel desiderata in both fields. Chapter 2 asks what modes of reasoned dialogue are called for in response to the problem of moral indifference and elaborates a model of expressive interpersonal action in response. The underlying mechanics of this model are shown to be identical in salient regards to those underlying Heschel’s model of prophetic action. Chapter 3 looks at the work of Joseph Soloveitchik, both to further develop certain aspects of my prophetic model and to show that the robustly theological category of the prophetic is a moral one as well and so available to moral agents as such. Chapter 4 looks at Arendt's indictment of Eichmann for what is, on my interpretation, a failure to act prophetically. Arendt is shown to offer a powerful case for the power of “mere words” to combat mass-societal evil, and further expands and clarifies the model of the prophetic by articulating the expressive power of mere refusal to participate in structures of evil. The fact that Heschel, Soloveitchik, and Arendt – three thinkers sharing a common historical horizon but differing profoundly in their intellectual and spiritual commitments – converge on the same cluster of ideas is marshalled as evidence both of those ideas’ cogency and of their availability to theists and non-theists alike. Chapter 5 asks whether a prophetic ethic is compatible with liberal-democratic norms, the question being whether prophetic persuasion can be performed in a manner exhibiting appropriate civic respect for the rational autonomy of others. I show that liberal-democratic norms ought to constrain the practice of prophecy in important ways, but that these constraints are in any case necessary for the legibility of true prophecy as true, rather than false, prophecy. And I show that Rawls' category of "witnessing" effectively maps on to my model of prophecy. To fulfill one’s vocation as a liberal-democratic citizen, I show, is to fulfill one’s vocation as a prophet, and vice versa.