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Ethics and contemporary global society

By Anna Yeatman - posted Monday, 18 October 2004

Ethics, unlike morality, demands to be thought. Let me explain. Ethics refers to the practice of thinking about what living as a human subject in relation to fellow subjects and the world that they share demands of us. To open ourselves to ethical demands is to open ourselves to the challenge of thinking well and in ways that make our thoughtful engagement with the human condition both open and accountable to our contemporaries as fellow co-existents. It means being willing to listen to their objections to how we have represented the demands ethics poses for us and them, and when we have listened to those objections, to reconsider our position and to continue to engage in the dialogue with these interlocutors.

Morality on the other hand refers to ways of conducting ourselves that are oriented in terms of habit, custom, and rule. These modes of conduct certainly function on behalf of acting well in relation to our fellows, acting reliably in ways that sustain expectations of us, acting cooperatively so as to make possible common enterprises ranging from sharing a meal to sharing in electing a government, and acting with sufficient predictability as to make possible the order that underpins shared practice.

Morality has a relationship to ethics. Morality is the unreflective side of ethics: it refers to potentially ethical action which is not yet ethical action because it has not yet been tested by what it means to think openly, universally, and accountably about what we should do and why. Being unreflective, morality often operates as a set of internalised prescriptions and prohibitions for which those ruled by them cannot account. When we allow morality to rule us in this way, we surrender our capacity for self-determination. And when we do this we surrender our capacity for ethical action because ethics demands of us that we risk thinking for ourselves and thus engage with practices of autonomous action. It follows that morality may, or may not, be reconcilable with ethics.


Morality, then, is reconcilable with ethics when those who engage in moral action see themselves as free to question and to think about the ethical sense and justification of such action. More than this: they have to see themselves as not just free to do this but as obligated to question and think about what they might otherwise take for granted. When actual moral practice is open to ethical reflection then we have to hand a type of morality that is potentially ethical in orientation. However, there is another type of moral practice that carries within the sense of moral rule the injunction not to question or think about it. Values that are paraded in a sentimental fashion as the glue that makes an exclusivist group identity possible - “Australian values” for example - are indicative of the type of morality that is predicated on the surrender of the individual’s capacity to think for him or herself to some kind of group-based identity. This type of moral practice is inherently antagonistic to ethics.

We live in a global society where we cannot fail to be unaware of the risks to human security and ecological viability if group-based morality displaces ethics. One obvious consequence of such displacement is a righteous moralism that discounts the importance of reasoned dialogue across moral differences and simply asserts itself as dogma. Group-based morality licenses the use of power to impose its sense of right - the end justifies the means. In a world where there are serious differences between competing moralities, this kind of moral practice creates a vicious circle of claim and counter-claim on behalf of moralistic conceptions of right that leads to war, and more war.

Group-based morality is something we are tempted to retreat to in a world where what we thought we knew about who we are and what we should do is constantly called into question by those who found themselves marginalised or excluded by the morality of the West in its imperial-global project of domination. Yet until recently it is fair to say that the morality of the West was of the potentially ethical kind. That is, it was a morality that was in principle open to questioning on behalf of those who saw themselves excluded by how it operated. Open because this was a morality that understood itself in universalistic terms because it addressed the human subject in a universal way and did not restrict itself to being the basis of an exclusive group-based identity. Open also because this was a morality that was in principle open to reasoned argumentation of the kind that tested the adequacy of the version of universalism that informed it in relation to contemporary claims on justice.

In the last twenty years, two forces within the West have colluded to destroy this type of morality. The first of these forces has taken the flawed universalism of a specifically “Western” expression of morality to mean that its universalistic pretensions are fraudulent and that in fact it is really a type of morality that is determined in terms of securing the exclusivist privilege of the West in a global world. In this line of critique, this force has in effect refused to take the other direction of critique - one that would open up the ethical dimension of a universalistic morality by making this universalism open to reasoned contestation and reconceptualisation.  The second of these forces has been a reactionary effort to shore up the Western subject’s right to dominate and exploit both its co-existent others and the world that they share in the face of the loss of legitimacy for Western dominance in a postcolonial era. Western Reaction has cast aside the universalism of Western morality precisely because of its vulnerability to critique in the name of those it has excluded historically, and reconstructed Western morality as a distinctive and thus exclusive group-based morality.

The effect of this combined onslaught on the potentially ethical morality of the West, and its reduction to a group-based morality that is designed to secure an exclusive rather than universal sense of right, has been dire. It has brought about the corruption of an institutional order that was built up over centuries of commitment in the West to universal and reasoned values. With the exception of the judiciary that is still oriented in terms of the conventions of constitutional thought, this corruption has implicated all arms of government. A public conception of government is one that is designed to ensure that government is not corrupted by private interest and purpose. Yet a public conception of government makes sense only in terms of the universalism of the identity of the public that government is to serve. If this universalism is surrendered in the name of a particular group-based identity, it is all too easy to use group-based morality to justify the erosion and corrosion of the public purpose of government. The undermining of the historically established universalistic type of Western morality by a group-based version of Western morality has contributed also to the undermining of the sense of vocation for the modern professions and university. The weakening of professional knowledge practices that can be justified only in terms of a reasoned universalism that is accountable to questioning, contestation and dialogue is particularly dangerous because it has weakened the institutions that are responsible for the conservation and renewal of this tradition of reasoned universalism.

Like many of us in Australia I have been flabbergasted at how quickly what we thought was a robust democratic-constitutional order of government that understood its reliance on modern universalistic institutions of knowledge production and dissemination has been eroded and corroded. I have not been able to understand it given that most of the people implicated in this degeneration of Australian institutional life have continued to act with probity, diligence, good will, and commitment to Australians. The account I have just offered of the supplanting of a universalistic morality by a group-based morality is the best explanation I can offer as to why an open public culture of ethical dialogue and reasoned debate is occurring not within the mainstream of Australian institutional life at the moment, but at its margins.

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About the Author

Professor Anna Yeatman is Professor and Canada Research Chair (Social Theory and Policy), Department of Political Science, University of Alberta, Canada

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