U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Guest Post: Ethics, Literature and the Problem of Goodness

Editor's Note

Today we have a guest post from friend of the blog Richard H. King. Richard is Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham, and the author of many books and articles, most recently Arendt and America (Chicago, 2015). What follows is a revised, longer version of Richard’s paper from the latest USIH Conference in Dallas. It was part of a panel on Hannah Arendt and the Novel of Ideas. Thanks to Richard for revising this and agreeing to have it posted. It’s another example of his typically thoughtful, fascinating stuff. Enjoy everyone.

After thinking about evil in Hannah Arendt’s work, I decided to spend some time exploring the meaning(s) of goodness as it appears in fiction and ethical thought. Not surprisingly, goodness is no easier to define, decipher, construe than its evil twin.[1]  In her reading of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd in On Revolution (1963), published the same year as Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt he claimed that “active goodness” or “goodness beyond virtue” was destructive of settled legal and political institutions. In fact, Arendt had raised the issue of private goodness before in her essay “What is Authority?”(1958). There she observed that, for Machiavelli, both “the Greek concept of the ‘good for’ or fitness, and the Christian concept of an absolute goodness which is not of this world” were only suited for the private sphere of human life.[2] This suggests that, for her, goodness fit ill with politics of any sort, unless we imagine a notion of political morality where morality involves something like responsibility for, a taking care of, the public realm. Certainly Arendt did not think that goodness was excluded from the political realm because the politically engaged were of weak moral fibre, only concerned with gaining of power and pursuing their own selfish interests. The reason rather is what she called human plurality. We exist in a world where various conflicting views of the world, virtues and interests are in play, whether they are public or private. In such a situation, the claims of goodness are always likely to be experienced as dogmatic or impossible to fulfil or all consuming.[3]

Altruism: Goodness and Self-Consciousness

Goodness is often equated with extremes of altruism and self-sacrifice and frequently is perceived by others as a “reproach,” notes Larissa MacFarquhar in her fascinating study Strangers Drowning (2015).[4] It can even seem a form of bragging and invites suspicions of hypocrisy. We still live in a world where the Christian injunction not to pray like the Pharisees in public has a certain resonance, even though the residual power of the idea of Christian witness can be felt in injunctions to stand up for one’s beliefs. A powerful strand in Protestant theology teaches that striving to be good is a suspicious impulse and that there is nothing natural about the good. Theologically, to strive for virtue is an attempt to pre-empt God’s plans for our lives; to try to earn salvation sabotages the “workings of grace”(Pascal). Thus Christianity, particularly of the Protestant sort, has pretty complicated notions of what goodness and virtue are “for.” No wonder the tradition of the “imitation of Christ” has remained largely a Catholic tradition.

In her book, MacFarquhar’s focus falls on those relatively rare people who devote themselves to being good by doing good. In fact, the distinction between being and doing good, where the former refers to a total life’s vocation and the latter to a single or limited set of actions, is a crucial one in the literature of goodness. What interests her are not the lives of religious devotees or political resisters or public heroes. Rather she is interested in  “altruism” as pursued over a lifetime by those she refers to as “do-gooders.” Philosopher Susan Wolf has suggested the term “moral saints” for people who have such a “passion for goodness”(MacFarquhar,10). They are either saints “out of love” or “a saint out of duty”(Wolf, 420). Altruists belong among those whom Kierkegaard was referring to when he pronounced that: “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Examples she explores include those who make full-time commitments to the homeless or to the poor, work in leper colonies or foster several generations of children. A do-gooder may also devote his or her life to protecting the non-human world, including becoming a vegetarian, fighting for animal rights, or protecting the natural world or parts of it. Most do-gooders have, or had, some religious commitments, but not necessarily. What they all have—the vocation or the calling to help–stands on the borderline between the religious and secular. But again, many people suspect extreme altruists of being what Freud called “moral masochists.” In seeking to cultivate absolute moral purity, they risk what Andre Green calls “moral narcissism,” the pursuit of goodness not for the sake of others, but to disguise or displace unwanted impulses involving sex and violence, guilt and self-loathing (MacFarquhar,111-13). Still, a more complex sort of do-gooder prefers to believe that “Being ethical was not about being pure…it was caring about suffering”(45).

McFarquhar is remarkably even-handed in her consideration of various types of altruistic vocations, but ultimately she thinks it unsustainable. She follows thelate Bernard Williams in refusing to believe that altruism is the virtue of all virtues or that it trumps all other human activities or dispositions. Put succinctly McFarquhar thinks it omits too much of “what makes life worth living and people worth loving.” This leads to the thought that the do-gooder’s “impartial universal love seems the antithesis of what we value about deep human attachment”(67). Finally, as Susan Wolf phrases it: if “the moral ideal is not a human ideal, then we should revise our ideas about the place of morality in life”(quoted in MacFarquhar,7).

It is important here to note a theme that recurs throughout the whole debate about goodness: the ambiguity of what it means to be human. Are pronouncements about goodness normative or descriptive in nature? It was the belief that one could offer a merely descriptive account of what it meant to be human that Alasdair MacIntyre thought was so problematic in modern ethical thought.[5]  The Wolf-Williams criticism of altruism also contains more than a hint of Nietzsche’s critique of inherited morality. For example, Wolf contends that “a person may be permanently wonderful without being perfectly moral” and questions whether “it is always better to be morally better”(Wolf, 436;438). Among other things, it suggests that goodness involves more than following rules and doing one’s duty as Kant enjoined us to attempt. Considering goodness in terms of well-being and human flourishing of self and others is both very Greek and very contemporary.

More generally, can consistent altruism, the ethics of do-goodism, pass the universalizablity test? Should we always elevate morality over, say, the aesthetic or the pleasurable? Can we imagine what human life would be if the altruistic ethic defined everyone’s way of life (MacFarquhar,300-01)? Would this enrich or impoverish individual and group life? Would we have the Theory of Relativity ,if Einstein had been a do-gooder or would we have Bach’s music, if it were up to the altruists? Another telling criticism of the ethics of do-goodism is its tendency toward moral paternalism and an ambivalence toward moral equality. With animal rights and ecological concerns, it is clear that one is doing good on behalf of the objects of concern. With the treatment of disease, the implacability of the natural makes imposing values and behaviour of medical efficacy mandatory. But treating children or other human beings as the object of our goodness is more complex. Here we are rigorously restricting the range of choices a child or a ward. Can we consistently keep imposing the injunction to be free or to love others?  Do foster parents treat their fostered children as permanent objects of solicitude or are the children trained to follow their own moral paths as they grow up, even if it involves rejecting do-gooding?

Finally, most altruists are practical Kantians in another sense. Not only do they try to universalize their behaviour, the also are intensely concerned with motive and intentions (298). Generally, MacFarquhar concludes that “What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence”(298). Doing good entails a heavy investment in intellectual and moral self-consciousness, an awareness, for example, that every good thing has its costs and its limits. The altruist knows what is at stake in the kind of life s/he has chosen. In doing so do-gooders have “open[ed] themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility”(299-300). Thus the heavy burden of altruism, of permanently standing at moral attention.[6] There are no Jamesian moral holidays.

Goodness: Ethical and Literary Theory


Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote that his desire was to “portray the positively good man.”[7] Those who have read The Idiot will recognize one particular outcome of this desire. It has also been said that the difficult thing for post-World War II literary critics was not to find Christ figures or noble savages in American literature. (If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) In those years, scholars and critics beat the bushes of American literature for something similar called “Christ figures” and figures of innocence, American “Adams,” as it were. Examples come easily to mind, ranging from Lenny in Of Mice and Men to Faulkner’s Benjy Compson and on to Flannery O’Connor’s more satirically inflected Hazel Motes in Wise Blood. These years also saw the critical resurrection of Billy Budd, while and the Corporal in A Fable also exemplified Faulkner’s attempt to write an “imitation of Christ” set in World War I.[8] Alert readers will also realize that Christ figures and noble savages have a different philosophical and theological provenance and that helps explain both the great similarities and differences between figures of “absolute goodness”(Arendt’s term) and a person of “innocence.” To be good involves a high degree of self-consciousness, as witness MacFarquhar’s description of altruists as lacking in “innocence,” just because their behaviour is so thought-through. Here Melville’s description of Budd is relevant: “To deal in double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature”(Melville,14). What is essential about a person of innocence is that he or she just is that way. It is something natural. For this reason, to describe Budd as good seems like a category error.

Attending to the richness of such literary works, despite the odor of allegory that sometimes hovers over them, also reminds us of the intimate relationship between fiction and ethical inquiry. Recently, for example, there has been a reaction against those forms of critical literary theory that view “the ethical” with great suspicion. One thinks here of  works such as Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness (1986) and Love’s Knowledge(1990) or Richard Rorty’s suggestion in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity(1989) that narrative, not theory, is the best way of “coming to see other human beings as ‘one of us’ rather than as them.” Specifically, Rorty contends that the novel’s strength lies in the way it asks its readers to grapple with “detailed redescriptions” of the world and thereby to extend the range of “imaginative identification” we have with characters and situations.[9] From this perspective, fiction is a repository or archive of stories, characters and situations that can aid our attempt to imagine ourselves in the place of others and what others are like. Bridging of the self-other gap is also a way of closing the particular-universal gap and thus central to our ethical Bildung, or self-formation.

This Rortyan stance has recently been expanded upon by Rita Felski in The Limits of Critique (2015). There she urges us to stop assuming that the “idiom of critique” and the “hermeneutics of suspicion” trump all other ways of reading and interpretating texts. Texts also invite readings that emphasize “inspiration, inventions, solace, recognition, reparation or passion.”[10] Ironically, notes Felski, the idea of expanding the canon should have prompted us to expand the ways we read and interpret texts too. Instead, mainstream literary theory assumes, and then proceeds to discover, the self’s imprisonment in the structures of power and/or a merely illusory coherence. But she, and others such as Lisa Ruddick, have come to reject “the profession’s devaluation of selfhood” and the tendency to dismiss all claims about the subject’s coherence to the insidious effects of private property or neo-liberalism.[11] Against theory’s lasting hostility to an ethical self, Felski and others also remind us that fiction belongs at or near the center of contemporary education(even for intellectual historians). Its purpose is not to provide pat representations of how to live a life, but to explore we might best position ourselves up to discover the answers to those sorts of questions.

One cautionary word should be registered in regard to Rorty’s identification theory of reading. In J. M. Coetzee’s novel of ideas Elizabeth Costello (2003), the basic argument which Costello, a writer and critic, advances in Lesson 6 “The Problem of Evil” is that literature may offer powerful points of “imaginative identification”(she doesn’t use Rorty’s term), but the reader’s imagination may, just as likely, be captured by images of wickedness or wrong-doing. The transgressive can be attractive for its emancipatory potential as often as it is seen as taboo. How do we know that the reader of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2006) will not have his or her moral sensibilities corrupted by seeking to understand the smart Nazi whose sensibility dominates that novel? How do we acknowledge the transgressive without being seduced by it? With whom do we “identify” in Moby Dick? Ahab as often as Starbuck, I suspect. No wonder Melville wrote to Hawthorne: “I have written a wicked book and feel spotless as the lamb.” At best Rorty’s ruminations on the capacity of literature to create David Hollinger’s “wider circle of we” is based on a fragile hope.

Natural Goodness


Finally, the novel I want to explore is Richard Powers’ Generosity (2009).[12]  I have chosen Generosity because it falls in a tradition of literature, some examples of which I have already mentioned, that is fascinated with how to imagine and represent goodness. Here it should be said that Powers is a sophisticated novelist, who plays around a good bit with point of view, modes of narration and levels of meaning. For example, early in the novel, the narrative shifts gears and becomes a shooting script for a television/film production about some of the characters we will spend time with later in the novel. This happens several times. There is a general narrator (let’s call him Powers) who moves from character to character but generally stays with Russell Stone, a sometime (blocked) fiction writer and now teacher of writing to a night school class in an art school in Chicago. Indeed, one of the questions Powers explores, primarily through Russell’s consciousness, is how we (novelist and reader both) can imagine a convincing fictional character, who seems to be a paragon of goodness and happiness? One that they might even fall in love with (36)? A second thematic cluster is whether the behavioural sciences, backed by enormous amounts of financial and institutional power, are better at imagining and then constructing(via genetic reconstruction) a more satisfactory human nature. Thus one of the things Powers explores in Generosity are the moral implications of the possible existence of a “happiness gene?” If such does exist, what are the terms under which it can be or should be reproduced? Might someone profit from it?

In the novel, these intellectual and moral issues emerge as we learn about a 23 year-old MA art student in Stone’s writing class. Her name is Thassadit Amzwar. She is of Berber origins and came originally from Kabylie in Algeria. Early in the semester, Stone, begins noticing that Thassa has the amazing capacity to enhance the mood of the group, to encourage a kind of relaxed receptivity in every class member as the group strives to become a class together. Stone and his almost partner, a psychologist Candace Weld, come to realize that they have something very special on their hands. The deeper they are involved in the complex interaction of lives and ideas, inside and outside the classroom, the more they fear for both Thassa’s fate in a world not exactly designed for the well-being of someone with her openness to experience and for the capacity of old-fashioned literature and the humanities to retain their credibility. In universities and research institutes, human nature is being transformed via genomics, something that Hannah Arendt once suggested was the goal of all totalitarian movements and projects.[13] In this situation, Russell fears that “fiction is obsolete. Engineering has lapped it”(163). Less pessimistic, Candace counters that surely “will and words make a difference”(166).But in the words of a famous novelist they go to hear at a symposium: “genetic enhancement means the end of human nature”(146). If you can change or reconstruct it, it can’t really be said to exist.

Gradually, Thassa begins to become known locally and nationally through public interviews and TV appearances, even appearing on the nationally televised The Oona Show (guess who). The efforts of Russell and Candace to protect Thassa from exploitation are directed particularly against the efforts of a globe-trotting geneticist and experimental scientist, cum scientific entrepreneur, Tom “Happiness is Chemical” Kurton (think Craig Venter, I suppose), and also Tonia Schiff, a hip documentary filmmaker, who is intrigued by Thassa’s story as a kind of “innocent abroad.” No longer is the care of the soul entrusted to traditional universities and the churches. Nor does Generosity present a very rosy future for fiction’s attempts to imagine/create ethically and psychologically more appealing characters than big science can. Thassa has been subjected to all sorts of tests in the effort to find out what makes her so effortlessly able to open herself and others to their own potential. One of the novel’s central questions, then, is: “who gets to design the future?”

But, the other question is just as important–what sort of character does a writer like Powers create(think up, imagine) to be a prototype for humanity? One test of Power’s skill as a novelist is whether he can create a fictional character who is convincingly happy or generous or good. And he does pretty well, though the reader is told more than s/he is shown about Thassa’s remarkable, seemingly natural, power. Superannuated therapeutic jargon like Abraham Maslow’s “self-actualization” or “peak experiences,” New Age chatter,  or even quasi-Nietzschean talk of “becoming who one is” keep coming to mind. But by this point in history, they all sound too glib and kitschy, too much Esalen and not enough Great Books. Whatever else she is, Thassa is not one of MacFarquahar’s secular saints or moral supermen and women. Yet, almost everyone notices “this effortless glow”(112) about Thassa. How she is with others seems to reflect who she is. What you see is what you get—and it seems all good. She is not a narcissist, in love with her own capacities or virtues. Her classmates do not respond with envy but with bafflement and wonder at her presence. She can play happily with Candace’s son as well as she can do intellectual work with Russell and even Tom Kurton. Yet, not surprisingly, others are worried that she is “excessively happy”, a bipolar type, a manic depressive in an extended manic phase. But the scientific tests she is subjected to don’t support a pathological diagnosis. The narrator (Powers) says about her writing that it “has that open confidence of a child who might still become an astronaut when she grows up…Her words are naked. Her clauses sprout whatever comes just before wings”(32). After being on Oona’s television show, she is stopped in the street by perfect strangers, and inundated by emails and phone calls. Thassa observes with some distress what has happened to her: “I’m some kind of Jesus mascot” (226). People look to her for the saving charisma of grace.

But Powers also gives Thassa the capacity to develop the self-consciousness, the reflective moral intelligence, that a figure like Billy Budd really lacks. She is both very self-aware and natural. But also vulnerable. A typically smart observation by the narrator speaking through Stone makes this point: “it strikes Stone that a constitutionally happy person in this country is like a New World native at the first touch of smallpox. No antibodies”(289). Still, each reader will have to answer the question whether Thassa is convincing as a character. Within the novel, Russell also has his doubts by the end which is confusing to say the least. Driving her to Montreal where her relatives live, Thassa attempts suicide in a motel. All this makes Russell wonder whether she had been faking it. And yet, what would it mean for someone to feign happiness? How long can we fake emotional and aesthetic generosity over time? Isn’t it like faking being natural? Or is all this underpinned by  some lucky genetic endowment? Is saying Thassa is naturally good just a layperson’s way of saying she lucked out genetically? The novel ends with the visualized narration of the scene of Thassa’s home in Algeria gradually disappearing. It was Powers not Thassa who was faking it. That’s what novelists do.

To conclude: there has been a fudge in my account of Powers’ Generosity and its relationship to the goodness question. In Generosity Powers creates a fictional situation where one of the central issues is about the existence of a happiness gene. Thassa’s way of being in the world is certainly one that resembles what we imagine authentic happinesss might be like. The title of the book refers to generosity and Thassa’s standing invitation to the inclusion of everyone testifies to a lack of self-centeredness, a generosity that is the opposite of the narcissism which so infects her cultural moment. (The only person in Thassa’s world not concerned with self-actualizing is herself). My own concern has been with the representation of goodness. Leaving aside the suspicion that the novel should have been called The Pursuits of Happiness, Powers the novelist makes it possible for us to see that these three psychological and moral dispositions bear a strong family resemblance to one another without quite being identical. The best way to grasp what the novel has achieved with the character of Thassa comes when Candace observes that Thassa “had found something about how best to be alive”(146). All questions of determinism vs freedom, of fiction vs. reality aside, we should imagine, I think, that Thassa has some stronger sense of knowing “How best to be alive?” than most people, either in the novel or in reality, do. This, I would suggest, is roughly the same as figuring out the point of trying to live an ethical life, of being good.


[1] Whether there is something like the “banality of goodness” is an issue I don’t want to take up here.  I would suggest that goodness may be simple, even seem simple-minded, without being banal. See Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?”(1958), Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought(New York: Penguin, 1968), 137 and Nakul Krishna, “Is goodness natural?” Aeon: https:aeon.co/essays/how-philippa-foot-set-her-mind-against-prevailing-moral-philosophy.

[2] It is “incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions” in Melville, Billy Budd and Other Tales (New York: Signet Classics, 1961), 26; See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 2nd ed. (New York: Viking Compass, 1965), 74-83 as well as “What is Authority?(1958),” Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought(New York: Penguin, 1968), 137.

[3] See Bernard Williams, “Politics and moral character,” Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980 (  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[4] Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering urge to Help (New York: Penguin Press, 2015), 5. Her conceptualization of this issue owes much to Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints,”The Journal of Philosophy, 79,8 (August 1982): 419-39.

[5] See, of course, Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). The distinction is captured in the distinction between being “human” and “being humane” or in the German distinction between “Menschheit” as referring to human beings as a whole and “Menschlichkeit” as referring to the positive qualities identified with human beings such as compassion and responsibility, etc.

[6] But there is another kind of goodness  involved when individuals or groups feel an obligation to act on behalf of others in extreme historical and political crises, what Karl Jaspers called a “boundary situation” (Grenzsituation): “Situations like the following: that I am always in situations; that I cannot live without struggling and suffering; that I cannot avoid guilt; that I must die—these are what I call boundary situations.” See Elizabeth. Young-Bruehl, Freedom and Karl Jaspers’s Philosophy (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1981), 21.

[7] Martin Halliwell, Images of Idiocy: The Idiot Figure in Modern Fiction and Film(Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004), 5.

[8] Arendt’s high estimate of A Fable has not been generally shared by critics, though her high estimate of its author has been.

[9] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), xvi, 93.

[10] Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 16-17.

[11] Lisa Ruddick, “When Nothing is Cool,” The Future of Scholarly Writing: Critical Interventions, ed. By A. Bammer and R. E. Boetcher Joeres(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015): 79. Thanks to Peter Wirzbicki for the reference to the Ruddick article.

[12] Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement (New York: Picador, 2010/2009).

[13] See Arendt, “A Reply to Eric Voegelin,” in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954 ed. by Jerome Kohn (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company ),1994), 407-8.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Richard, what a marvelous essay. Thank you for making good (!) on your challenge of earlier this year for all of us to up our blogging game. I am glad to see that you’re keeping up. 😉

    I would push back a little bit on your characterization of (white? evangelical?) Protestant Christianity as being suspicious of the search for virtue — or, at the very least, I would push back on your reading of the theology of virtue.

    The perceived relationship between “faith and works” — or, to put it one way, between “imputed righteousness” and “demonstrable goodnes” — is vexed and muddled and varies widely across the broad swathe of American low-church (and not-so-low-church) Protestantism, including its less and more “Spirit-filled” varieties. (That is, Pentecostalism in its various manifestations offers a different understanding of the relationship between soteriology and pneumatology and how both are manifested in the life of the saint or, for some, saint-in-the-making).

    In any case, I suspect you know as well as I do that it’s a rare Southern Baptist preacher who would both preach salvation by grace alone *and* encourage his congregation not to worry about living a life of virtue. “Shall we sin then, that grace may abound? God forbid. How then shall we that are dead to sin live any longer in it,” etc etc etc. While no one can “earn” salvation by being good, the pursuit of virtue is of course considered by many Protestant traditions to be a sign that one *is* “saved” as well as a demonstration of gratitude to the Savior.

    Sorry if this seems nit-picky and abstruse, but it’s a crying shame to let my seminary education go entirely to waste. 🙂

    *There are still a few women out and about who have been ordained by Southern Baptist churches. Or so I’ve been told.

  2. Dear LD–
    This was just the kind of response I was hoping for–one that taught me something or enriched what my own thinking. First, I was thinking more of classical Calvinism than I was low-church Protestantism. But the key thing is the debate about why should humans will something or attempt anything, since what they will or attempt has already been determined, as have their worldly success and whether they are a good person? Emotionally, the psychology entailed by the theology was that the fact of worldly success or even goodness was a possible sign or a clue that you were chosen. In addition there is the gnostic strain which your sin-your-way-to-salvation observation echoes and which which finds its way into the Christian tradition of the holy sinner or even the prodigal son.
    All that is enough to make me think we are in agreement that this is a really complex matter, full of theo-logical pitfalls, even if an emotional solution has been found. So, what you write in your last long paragraph is what I was trying to convey with less clarity–the striving to be good in Christianity assumes paradoxical form. It is something like the effort to be more humble. It is self-cancelling. Overall, it reminds of the old joke, in which a stranger is lost and meets someone he hopes can help him find his way home. The latter says, “Sure, I’ll tell you how to get there. You just go about a mile and then turn left across the bridge…Nope. Wait. The bridge is closed. Try this: if you turn right at the bridge, you go about a mile and take another right. Wait. That won’t work either. After pondering the problem in silence, the man finally says to the lost stranger. “Damned if you can get there from here!” That’s the way I feel when I’m confronted with the Christian understanding of the nature of goodness. It seems clear, maybe even easy. But just try it.

    Thanks again,

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