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Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Clearly one of my most sacred concerns is the idea that ethics precedes ontology, that moral behavior is more important than the quest for understanding of what it means to be. I learn this from Emmanuel Levinas who measures what it means to be as an encounter with the other, a face-to-face simulacrum of the Absolute (unknowable) Other. This fundamental ethical obligation, the duty to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation is the foundational aspect of Levinasian ethics. While this formula holds for dyadic encounters, it fails to respond to Levinas’s greatest fear: the reduction of the self into the same, a reduction to the universal, the politically defined normative behavior expected of good citizens. While it is difficult for reduction to occur during face-to-face engagement, it is likely to occur in situations of mass audiences, of entire populations. Two philosophers take this into account as they describe the process of reduction of the self into the same, Giorgio Agamben and Zygmunt Bauman.

Both Agamben and Bauman find the bureaucratic dependence of Modernity to be the focus of the process of reduction. Agamben, quoting Foucault, writes, “For the first time in history, the possibilities of the social sciences are made known, and at once it becomes possible to both protect life and to authorize a holocaust.” Agamben’s argument is that the rise of Modernity as depicted by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, coupled with the rise of Mercantilism followed by the ubiquity of Capitalism, created conditions for the state to define what normal would look like, to define what it means to belong to or be labeled apart from the body politic of the state itself. Bauman goes a step further by suggesting that the real culprit is not only Modernity and the idea of the social contract along with the rise of Capitalism, but it lies in the administration of Capitalism through the bureaucratic apparatus that manages the entire system, creates the regulations for and thereby defines belonging. The bureaucrat as defined by Weber lies at the heart of the reduction to normalcy yet this bureaucrat is anonymous, representing only his or her direct superior, knowing only what is needed to perform the job asked of him or her efficiently and economically.

Bauman carefully analyzes the potential of the functioning bureaucracy operating in Nazi Germany arguing that the Nazis took advantage of the already efficient German bureaucracy by infusing a singleness of purpose and then by defining what it meant to be German and what it meant to be other (than German). Then the Nazi power structure simply allowed the bureaucracy to find the most economical and efficient process for eliminating those who were other, those who were not Germans and must be isolated and later eliminated from Germany and existence altogether. While Capitalism played a role, if anything, that role was to create a private sector bureaucracy to run the economic powerhouse that was German industry. The same could be said for the rise of public bureaucracy in the 18th and 19th centuries; growing out of a need for efficiency and economy in providing for the welfare of the population within its borders, the state bureaucracies learned how to be efficient through a model of normative behaviors.

In our own postmodern era, Bauman suggests, it is the obligation of the self to break these ties to what is or is not normal. By seeking out others of like minds, one is able to better address the failings of the bureaucratic malaise that defines just who belongs and who does not. In fact, what he is suggesting is that we examine the taken-for-granteds that define what it means to be a normative member of society; to explore what it means for the state to define some people as less than and, therefore, are defined out of the mainstream, held hostage in poverty, in prison, or institutionalized; by exploring these taken-for-granteds, Bauman suggests, that the grip of the bureaucracy may be broken and a new, more moral, structure may emerge. In brief, Bauman, heavily influenced by Levinas, is arguing for a society in which the dyad of the face-to-face expands into something where whole groups can engage in the fundamental ethical obligation without reservation or expectation of reciprocation.

Part of the Bauman approach is that diversity, the absolute uniqueness of the other (human being or human beings as a class), must be embraced without reservation. In short, what is good for one is good for all with the caveat that each individual within the larger social order be treated fairly and not equally. Equality simply levels the playing field allowing those who are clearly advantaged rise to the top at the expense of those disadvantaged human beings. Advantage and disadvantage, normative and abnormal, are definitions enforced by bureaucratic intervention. Being treated fairly, on the other hand, is a process whereby we all cooperate as an ethical political unit and care for the disadvantaged among us in order to help them gain an advantage to compete. By embracing diversity, by truly understanding that each human being on this planet is unique, with hopes and desires, with dreams to fulfill, and that uniqueness include the self, you and I, for without including the ‘I’ in the mix of diversity it is too easy to think that everyone else is (or should be) just like me. What a boring world that would be (already is).

Communal ethics is not out of our reach as a species. It begins with eschewing selfishness and embracing the other without reservation.

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9 thoughts on “Modernity and Ethical Engagement

  1. Now this is a great post! Society and what we hold so dear for ourselves as normative should not make us hostage to our own ways by then neglecting what others call their own norm. I think we are all getting better, but humanity will always have this game it plays with itself. WE are a selfish brood indeed.

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  3. Alesia, only by recognizing and embracing the uniqueness of the other can we embrace our own uniqueness. While one cannot expect reciprocation, it is almost always granted when the self takes the first step by embracing the other’s diversity. It is modernity, the application of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, that breeds selfishness that is engendered by the privilege of equality rather than privileging fairness or justice. Modernity can never accept the saying that “It takes a village,” because that kind of cooperation can only occur when we are able to listen to the voices different from our own and not protect that which is perceived to be singularly important to “me.” When we let others make the rules we are doomed to equality which cannot be either fair or just. I, as one voice, opt for fair and just treatment for ALL; a different mindset entirely.

  4. I completely agree with your assessment. In our lives we can embrace the other. I do not see this as a whole in our democratic society at times. It is the reason we have so much fighting within our politics. I personally can not believe how some people can live with themselves when they know they have so much and it is within their power to make sure the one with less can have more. I guess I am on my high horse this morning.

  5. Yep, it all comes down to selfishness and hubris. My question is why do we all put up with the antics of the 1%? Why do people allow themselves to be brutalized by the phony claims that you can be whatever you choose to be when, clearly, that is not the case at all? I used to put my middle school students through an exercise where they had to interview people in the community about the meaning of the words Freedom, Fairness, Liberty, Equality and Justice. When I first assigned this project we talked about the ideas behind each of the words and the consensus was always that they were pretty equal. By the end of the project, students made sharp distinctions between each of the words in question placing equality at the bottom of the list with fairness and justice topping the list. Pretty smart 8th graders in the Chicago Public Schools yet these very kids were defined as abnormal due only to one test score at the end of every academic year. There is a certain banality in the bureaucratic drive for equality, for reducing everything to the same in order to exclude from participation large swaths of the population.

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