Zygmund Bauman: ethics for postmodernity

Zygmund Bauman may not be a name many students or teachers of AS/A2 level ethics are familiar with. He is, after all, an eminent sociologist, rather than a traditional philosopher. More than that, his concern is with the world of postmodernity, the world which he believes we now inhabit which is characterised by ambiguity and uncertainty. It is not a world which easily falls into a clear and concrete philosophical or theological order. It is through this concern that he has written a heavy critique of traditional ethics of most kinds and traditional sources of moral authority. He is a lightning rod for ethics which is why it is important that his ideas are explored. The kind of criticism which he makes of ethics, which is sociological, philosophical and political, is important in the evaluation of the classic ethical theories, from Aquinas to Bentham, Kant to Ayer, and MacIntyre to boot. His arguments offer us a toolkit for investigating these classical ethical ways of thinking.

In his classic work, Post Modern Ethics and partner volume, Life in Fragments, he developed his attack. On page 10 of Post Modern Ethics he lays into the idea of granting authority to the moral wise, “If philosophers, educators, and preachers make ethics their concern, this is precisely because none of them would entrust judgement of right and wrong to the people themselves or would recognize, without further investigation, the authority of their beliefs on the matter”. He is profoundly suspicious of the very practice of high ethics as he sees it as a tool for undermining the status and responsibility of the people.

“Only ethics can say what really ought to be done so that the good be served. Ideally, ethics is a code of law that prescribes correct behaviour ‘universally’ “that is, for all people at all times; one that sets apart good from evil once for all and everybody. This is precisely why the spelling out of ethical prescriptions needs to be a job of special people like philosophers, educators and preachers.”

These special people have a position of authority over ordinary people. We are left to carry on applying rules of thumb that we cling to, given us by the moral authority which has legal and judicial weight. In other words the kind of moral behaviour which ethical experts tend to offer is one governed by law. Those experts also govern how good the people are at following these moral laws. Their authority comes from having special access to knowledge not available to ordinary people. They gain it by communing with the spirits of the ancestors, studying the holy scriptures, or unraveling the dictates of Reason.

Bauman feels this approach embraces a derogatory view of the ‘ethical competence’ of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. We are impotent in the face of these experts who we depend upon and must go to for guidance. What is more the kinds of ethics the “experts” come up with are distanced form the hurly burly of real life. It is developed in the rarefied environment of university philosophy or theology departments. We live in the muddy, ambiguous world of real life where applying these sorts of rules seems much more difficult than in the carefully worked out calculations the experts made. What is more, simply following laws laid down doesn’t help us learn to take responsibility for making moral decisions ourselves. Quite the reverse is true. We are inducted into becoming dependent on the wise, but when we are alone in the world, having to act, we do not have our experts at hand to help.

One last aspect of his criticism is the role of community in expressing and organising morality. Moral rules are seen as the ways in which society organises and orders itself. We see religions encouraging their believers to live by their moral systems, politicians asking for people to uphold the common good, live by the agreed values of society. However, Bauman reminds us that being good sometimes means opposing the moral standards of the community, not least in Nazi Germany. So for society to be morally fit, it needs to encourage a willingness to stand against the common accepted view.

Bauman’s contribution is to challenge the nature of ethics itself and the power relationships which seem to be implied in the kinds of systems which ethics has classically looked to. In any ethical theory, we can ask, does the theory encourage moral responsibility, does the theory encourage the idea that must take moral responsibility for our actions and judgements, or does it encourage us to defer to others, or do what we are told.

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