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<nettime> An unfinished meditation on ethics
Rana Dasgupta on Mon, 17 Feb 2003 19:13:20 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> An unfinished meditation on ethics

Dear Nettimers

A recent essay on the difficulties and hopes
associated with reimagining ethics.  To be published
in upcoming Sarai Reader 03: Shaping Technologies.

Keywords: ethics, morality, technology, biotechology,
imagination, hollywood, regulation.

To a human future?


An unfinished meditation on ethics

Prelude: the brick wall of the imagination

Around the time of the Fall, Hollywood was in the
process of making a $70 million film version of The
Time Machine, H.G. Wells' early novel (1895).  It was
directed, interestingly enough, by his great-grandson,
Simon Wells.  

H.G. Wells' original story is narrated by a member of
the London bourgeoisie who assembles in the evenings
with stock-figure bourgeois friends ("the Lawyer",
"the Psychologist", "the Editor", "the Doctor"; he is
referred to only as "the Time Traveller") to hear
these incredible stories of the future.  Having
discovered that time is only another dimension within
which movement is as possible as in the first three,
the Time Traveller tells of his journey to the world
of 800,000 years in the future where the human species
has split into two: the bourgeoisie has become a race
of effete aesthetes ("Eloi") who are preyed upon by
the Morlocks, a hideously transformed working class,
entirely dehumanised by underground toil.  After his
own narrow escape from the Morlocks, the hero embarks
on a meditative exploration of the even more distant
future – ending up thirty million years away – where
the simultaneously enfeebling and brutalising forces
of capitalism have finally destroyed humanity.

Two things should be noted.  

First, the dispassionate context of the narration. 
The Time Traveller is a scientist motivated simply by
the acquisition of knowledge and completely involved
in the telling of it.  There is no attempt to enliven
the fireside chat amongst educated men from different
intellectual backgrounds, for this ability of such men
to comprehend all has its own drama: it is central to
the heroism of the nineteenth century imperial

The second point is the extraordinary periodicity of a
story which, after all, is about the very contemporary
issues of Wells' class-based society.  So eternal is
the class system of industrial capitalism that its
effects are still dominating the progress of nature
thirty million years into the future.  While the story
speaks of the threat to humanity that the class system
represented, readers at the time can not have felt
that the dangers he was describing were exactly
imminent; and indeed the triumph of bourgeois science
and the magnitude of the capitalist project seem far
more impressive in his story than their eventual

A number of changes, apparently minor, in Simon Wells'
scenario transform the vision of the novel utterly. 
In fact, Wells junior was adamant that the demands of
film and of our more relaxed times necessitated a new

'The problem with adapting The Time Machine from the
book is that it was written much more as an essay
about the grand scheme of time and is less of a
personal adventure story.  To be honest, I'd feel
rather cheated if the movie were a word-for- word
version of the book.' 

'Despite his family ties, Wells chose to eliminate
most of the class issues from the film because "A
hundred years on from when the book was published, I'm
not sure the class struggle is all that relevant."' 

Alexander Hartdagen, his (no longer anonymous) hero,
now based in New York, is neither disinterested nor
dispassionate: he undertakes his experiments in time
travel in order to try and undo the murder of his
fiancée; when his successful arrival in the past does
not avert her death a second time he decides to travel
in the opposite direction to see if future humankind
has discovered why the past cannot be changed.  He
lands in 2037 where a space exploration catastrophe
has caused the moon to rain down on the earth,
destroying capitalist society utterly.  He only just
manages to escape from the disaster zone, and
collapses, stunned, over the controls of his machine
as it careers 800,000 years hence.  There is of course
now no historical continuity between the world he
discovers and our own since the technological disaster
has created a tabula rasa; and yet the pastoral
community of the future has made a little place of
contemplation out of stone fragments from the past
("Brooklyn Bridge" and "New York Public Library") from
which, amazingly enough, some of them have been able
to learn English.  Hartdagen saves the people of the
future, falls in love with the most buxom and
beautiful of them and decides to stay, teach them all
English and describe for them the wonders of American
civilisation – 8000 centuries after its destruction. 
His destiny is tragic: once he finds out that he is
living at the end of capitalist time he do nothing but
settle down with ignorant people and teach them to
join him in mourning it.

The shift from a nineteenth-century vision of
capitalism, in which it sets the terms of the world
for thirty million years to come, to this one in which
it destroys itself through technological hubris a mere
thirty-five years from now, is dramatic.  Of course
the twentieth century was full of voices, often
dissenting ones, predicting technological calamity;
but what is remarkable is that this has, increasingly
over the last twenty years, become the orthodox vision
of the future in that crucible of capitalist fantasy,
Hollywood: from Bladerunner, Aliens and Brazil to
Gattaca, Dark City, Twelve Monkeys, The Matrix and the
recent Minority Report, the idea that technological
and corporate excesses will destroy us over an ever
shrinking timeframe has become the received wisdom of

But just as the nineteenth-century bourgeois'
confident and epic relationship with time in Wells'
novel must be understood, not in terms of how events
were actually to unfold, but in terms of how a
specific set of circumstances contributed to a certain
confident relationship with the course of history, so
we must see Hollywood’s "precipice of time" not simply
as an objective narrative of impending apocalypse, but
as a sign that the framework within which we recognise
ourselves as "our selves" is in crisis, and that we
are thus unable to project these "selves" confidently
into the future.  More precisely, I choose to see in
this a lurking sense that the structures (political,
social, legal, etc) through which we have constructed
ourselves as agents of history, in control of our
future, have become inadequate in the face of the
seemingly more mighty, and historically more
consequential, forces of technology and capitalism. 
The cessation of "our" time in these films is about
the imagined expiry of these structures, and this
expiry is seen as apocalyptic because whatever
framework will supersede our current thinking and
allow human time to continue is currently difficult to
imagine.  In short, the end of capitalist time in such
movies is a brick wall at the end of our own

This "brick wall" has not gone unnoticed.  The last
five years have seen the emergence of a now
well-established genre of apocalyptic writing by
dissenting economists and scientists who see the twin
juggernauts of freewheeling capitalism and new
technologies sweeping away everything that we know and
value.  In most cases such books and articles are
unable to point towards convincing solutions, and end
on a grave and somewhat mystical note: if we are to
avoid the foregoing terrible scenarios we had better
sit up and think very hard about ourselves.  The
debate leaves behind, in other words, the specific
areas of IMF policy or the declining power of national
governments or the threat of genetically modified
foods, and gestures despairingly towards a different
territory: the realm of ethics.  

I am entirely in agreement with the idea that we are
all currently faced with profound ethical questions. 
I think that our inability to imagine our own future
is, fundamentally, a breakdown of an ethical
imagination.  I also think, however, that the way in
which these problems are often discussed is too quaint
to really address the scale of our imagination block. 
The rest of this essay will seek to find points of
departure for the imagination of a new ethics.

The failure of ethics: a biotechnological scenario

Where does the sense come from that our current
ethical framework is not working?  Let us look at a
simple scenario drawn from the world of biotechnology
– one of the most popular subjects for dystopian
fantasies.  This is the kind of scenario that would
inform a popular sci-fi nightmare like Gattaca (1999).

It seems difficult to imagine that genetic
"improvements" will not be offered in the marketplace
to new parents at some point soon in order to give
their future children the best life possible.  After
all, this would only be an extension of the same logic
of technological improvement that governs discourses
of inoculation, fitness, dietary supplements, etc.  It
would only be one more service being offered in our
crowded marketplace; only another set of companies
bringing the benefit of their research to consumers
and making legitimate revenues from their investment. 
In this context, would it not be nearly impossible for
any parent who could afford such a technology to shun
advantages for their children that would probably be
decisive in a biotechnological future; would there not
be a massive boom in the industry as every family
acted in its own private way out of a fear of
relegating their child to a future exclusion or
obsolescence; would all this not happen in spite of
the fact that many of these parents would feel great
moral concern or even repugnance at what they were
doing; would it not be facilitated, rather than
hindered, by the ruminations of in-house corporate
bioethics experts whose impressive jargon and moral
seriousness would help people to suspend their
uncertainty; would it not, independently of the
desires of any of the individual actors, necessarily
generate a society obsessed with genetic hierarchy in
which the children of the poor were doubly cursed –
through poverty and through genetic inferiority; and
would not this make a mockery of the discourses of
rights and equality, dependent as they are on that
essential liberal category – the species – that have
defined the terms of moral and political philosophy
for the last two hundred years?  

All the tiny steps on the path to such a scenario are
in themselves both plausible and humdrum – it would
seem strange even to raise moral questions about many
of them.  And yet the world that would come about
through this process is, at this point in time, alien
and, to many of us, horrific.  In contemplating such a
sequence of events it is easy to feel that the ethical
opinions that human beings might hold have become
rather irrelevant to the course of history and that
"human time," in this sense, is in its last days. 
Easy to see why the subjectivity of the age is put
forward in culture, not as rational and epic, but as
private, painful, and constrained.  Ours is not the
relaxed armchair contemplation of a future that our
curiosity and energy can only improve, but the fear
that we will be able to do nothing while technology
takes us over and destroys us – even as we continue to
put our faith in new cures, new security systems and
new forms of communication.  

Such "sci-fi" scenarios as that sketched above
encapsulate effectively and melodramatically a more
everyday sense (1) that the interlocking systems of
technological development, state power and commerce
are leading us into social situations where the moral
discourse of capitalist societies (liberalism,
democracy, peace, progress, etc) will finally become
completely unsustainable; and (2) that the direction
in which these systems are headed will not in any way
be set by the ethical beliefs and practices of
individuals and informal communities.  I would suggest
that the fundamental problem that we face lies in this
second point: in the complete disjunction of ethical
experience between informal, interpersonal networks,
and formalised, impersonal systems.

The narrowing ethical code

If we are pessimistic about our ethical future, I
would argue that it is not because (as so many
governments seem to be proposing) people don’t know
how to be ethical anymore.  In such informal networks
as families, friends, many small communities and
trading circuits, some online communities – ethical
codes are an important part of the functioning of
social life.  Most of us live our lives with a set of
ethical values which are important components of who
we consider ourselves to be and how we are known by
those around us.  We are willing to compromise our own
interests significantly in order to ensure that we do
not treat other people in ways that compromise these
values.  And other people return these favours of
generosity and selflessness to us every day.  

The problem we face is not about people’s inability to
think or behave ethically.  It is rather that the
operation of this "ethics" has become increasingly
restricted as more and more of life becomes formalised
and dominated by a larger logic that is not available
to individuals for negotiation or manipulation.  These
realms seem to operate without reference to any sort
of ethical code, and it is easy for us to see them as
chaotic and dangerous.

Why we feel this narrowing of our ethical
possibilities is not particularly obscure; I give here
only those observations that are relevant to what

-- Everyday experiences of work provide an
increasingly stark sense of the difference between the
ethical climates of informal and formal settings. 
While an individual may place a high value, for
instance, on compassion when thinking about her
interpersonal behaviour, she may be taught that
harshness will be a much more successful strategy for
her dealings in the workplace.  This placing aside of
personal "values" in favour of institutional
"techniques" while one is at work has become much more
significant over the past twenty years: middle
managers’ freedom to make ad hoc concessions to
employees has been reduced, employee "effectiveness"
has become a major area of enquiry, etc.  When
Hollywood wishes to demonstrate that someone is a good
person they must show us how much they love their
spouse and children: the domestic has become the only
place where ethics is easy to represent.

-- The sense of the global.  The national stage,
especially in "welfare states," allowed citizens to
subcontract their ethical responsibilities towards
their fellow citizens to governments through taxation,
and thus to find an ethical framework that bound their
domestic, professional and civic lives.  It now
becomes impossible to avoid the sense of being part of
a global system, which simultaneously extends the
potential ethical responsibilities of the individual
while denying him even a theoretical framework for
fulfilling them.  This creates political personae
fraught with ethical uncertainty.  Within the
unimaginably complex flux of global forces, what part
does any one individual play?  Even if we wish to take
full moral responsibility for our role, small as it
may be, in global systems, it is difficult to see how
to do it.  

-- The vocabulary of ethics has retreated
significantly from debates on the economic system
which gives shape to so many of the formal structures
of our lives.  The assorted assaults on, and failures
of, organised alternatives to free market capitalism
over the last two decades have allowed the market to
occupy significantly more of our imaginative space: it
is no longer an ideology, simply a fact.  Political
debate surrounds less whether, or in what measure, the
market should be allowed to determine crucial aspects
of economic, social and political life, and more how
various groups can best align their interests with it.
 It is no surprise that the notion of the “good”
society has now become focussed much more on the
pragmatic logic of effective “management” than on
abstract moral principle.  The market is the
paradigmatic system in this respect: it has a set of
procedures and regulations which, if they are upheld,
are supposed to guarantee that all outcomes from the
system are just.   If such a situation seems risky for
ethics – since the system becomes an end in itself,
immune to moral critique – it is remarkable how deeply
it has taken hold in many places of the world.  (Many
of those who would criticise the market for the
inequalities it breeds, for instance, would still feel
that it is the best guarantee for them of the best
consumer deal, the best health, the most rational
society, etc.)  This replacement of metaphysical
concerns by those of systems and procedures is also
mirrored in many other domains: "science" is simply
that which comes out of laboratories that are run
according to accepted institutional practices;
"knowledge" is the product of various approved modes
of research; "art" is whatever is sold in the art

-- The sense that the "large debates" of society, as
opposed to our own personal dilemmas, require a very
different set of skills from the ones we have
available to us.  It is crucial to note the critical
importance of "experts" within the systems that
generate and manage the incredible dynamism of our
world, a pre-eminence that has set the terms of
debate, particularly since the second world war, by
discouraging and discrediting not only all "amateur"
thought, but also most intercourse between different
areas of thought (such as moral philosophy and
science).  This structure obviously creates a great
sense of inadequacy in the "amateur" who would wish to
think about his world in ethical terms – for how could
such a person even begin to understand the
complexities of the forces at work?  The intellectual
and expressive passivity that is prescribed in this
way as the proper attitude of the individual towards
contemporary societal systems is one of the primary
issues that must be addressed by any ethics of those

I think even this cursory picture gives a sense of why
it is that individuals might feel that, in contrast to
an intimate or informal sphere of human plenitude, the
world at large might seem alienating and out of
control, and why we might be faced with a "brick wall
of the imagination" when we try to construct a
credible ethics for it.  These are the issues to which
any serious attempt to breach this wall must take into

Two common strategies

Unfortunately, the most common strategies for thinking
about how to solve the problems of our future keep
this separation between formal systems and the
informal life of individuals firmly in place.

The most obvious place to turn if we wish to address
the problems of a world without ethics and “out of
control” is to regulation – i.e. to the tools of
management.  Nearly all attempts to solve these
problems focus on the challenge of better management
through regulation – whether in the press, the
academy, activist groups or parliamentary chambers. 
It is of course entirely right and proper that
powerful institutions and forces should be regulated. 
I think it should be clear, however, that our problem
of an ethical imagination is not solved by simple
regulatory "containment," and that regulation is
itself an ambivalent response to the specific issues
we are discussing here:

-- First of all, a regulatory framework is not
something that enters laboratories and corporations
from the outside and imposes on them an order they
would not otherwise have had.  We are living in the
most regulated world that has ever existed, and the
power of those forces that seem to evade ethical
control is dependent on this regulation: most of what
corporations do is because of, not in spite of,
regulation.  Regulations may be used to prevent
certain specific forms of behaviour that society does
not like, but they also reinforce further the
non-negotiability of impersonal processes which, once
they have been set up, do not need to look outside
themselves for any ethical reference.  This is
precisely the notion that has contributed to the
obsolescence of ethics in favour of institutional
authority in the first place.

-- Secondly, and this follows on from the above, all
regulation is about defining legitimate and
illegitimate behaviour, and it is not only powerful
institutions that are controlled by this.  In a highly
regulated environment, every category of our being
(space, leisure time, the body, everything we say or
write, etc) is over-determined by a stranglehold of
regulation that makes it increasingly impervious to
new thought.  Much of the cautiousness, passivity and
hopelessness we feel when we try to imagine new
realities for ourselves is due to the fact that our
reality is not ours to imagine differently.  The
hypnotic advertising incantations about the freedom of
the consumer universe make this reality difficult to
discern sometimes, but it is crucial to realise it if
we are to understand why it seems so well-nigh
impossible for us to take hold of our own destinies.

-- Finally, it should be clear that even if regulation
will have to be a part of any ethical thinking that is
trying to address problems on such a large scale, it
must logically be preceded by an ethical vision of
which this regulation will be an expression.  If we
currently feel that there is no ethical vision then
how are we to know how or what to regulate?  Who,
indeed, are we going to trust to take on the
regulatory responsibility?  Will it be, as it usually
is, the same "experts" whose status, no matter how
great their personal ethical credentials, reinforces
the sense of public divorce from society’s ethical
direction?  After all, and this is crucial, we already
have a complex regulatory system, which has not
prevented us getting into the dire straits we are in

But a second position is also often put forward, and
that is that people themselves need to become more
sensitive to the problems of the world.  Such a
position is not adopted simply by conservative social
critics decrying the "moral decline" of society, but
by some of the most daring and profound thinkers about
our contemporary reality.  A recent essay by Zygmunt
Bauman outlines the great moral challenges of the
"global" society, and concludes thus:

"The awesome task of raising morality to the level of
new, global challenges may well start from heeding the
simple advice [Richard] Rorty offers: 'We should raise
our children to find it intolerable that we who sit
behind desks and punch keyboards are paid ten times as
much as the people who get their hands dirty cleaning
our toilets, and  hundred times as much as those who
fabricate our keyboards in the Third World.'" 

Again, we can have no argument with moral sensitivity.
 But this idea too is a greatly inadequate response to
the problems we are discussing:

-- Firstly, it is a problem posing as a solution.  It
might sound good to say that the answer to the
problems of the world is to make people "better," but
that is just another problem that is even more
mystical and insoluble.  Bauman says nothing about how
we might go about it, although his comments about the
family confirm one’s suspicion that the modus operandi
of this turn to "turn to psychology" is social
conservatism: a nostalgic valorisation of a lost order
of familial stability, religious instruction, etc. 
Once again, this is to solve nothing.  The fact that
these things are either gone or fundamentally altered
is precisely the problem we are dealing with.  The
technological drive of capitalism is a rapid and
exhilarating one, to which nostalgia is always going
to be an ineffectual response.  

-- It is also highly questionable whether we are
living at a time when people are particularly
insensitive.  There is nothing that anyone could
present as evidence that contemporary human beings are
more or less "moral" than those of another time –
unless your concept of morality is borrowed from
another time, in which case contemporary people will
by definition perform worse than their forbears, and
you will be condemning yourself to see absolutely
anything that can or does happen in the contemporary
moment as a tragedy.  In the last section we
discussed, precisely, how even if moral concerns are
the most important thing in your life, the problem of
how you behave morally in a world of large, impersonal
forces is one that poses an almost impossible
challenge to the imagination.  

-- Finally, I think that to pin our ethical hopes on
the myth of the "better" human being is a gesture of
desperation, the last gasp of a moral thinking that
has lost all hope and has no options left except to
dream of a time when people are good enough to take on
the responsibility that we cannot.  Because there is
no way that an ethics that can merge with the forces
of the market society and take them over can be based
simply on individual feelings of compassion or honesty
or community.  It must engage with systems and social
forms, and it must, at some level, be indifferent to
individuals' moral thinking, just as capitalism is
itself – for we have long since left behind the age of
the moral consensus and we are not going to find it
again soon.  If we look at any of the great moral
shifts in the modern era – the Enlightenment project,
the shift from nineteenth century social Darwinism
towards various ideas of social democracy, the
development of multiculturalism – none of these
depended on there being "good people" to take them up.
 They were based on a body of thought that came into
the mainstream and fundamentally transformed how
everyone related to themselves, the people they knew,
and society as a whole, independently of their
personal moral qualities.  To abandon philosophy and
to throw our hope on people being simply good is a
massive capitulation on the part of our social

>From the "remoralisation" of society to ethical
consumption to better corporate governance to global
regulatory bodies: the responses to these issues, even
by brilliant and radical critics, are conspicuous by
their conservatism.  We need to find a new vision, in
which the fundamental divide between the logics of
informal and formal systems are overturned, and in
which the ethical creativity of individuals and
communities can be allowed to interact in more
significant ways with the knowledge of institutions.

A half-glimpse of a new ethics

This new vision, I would argue, will not consist of a
set of ideas.  It will consist of a set of procedures
by which we can build a new kind of ethical agency for
ourselves.  The profound sense of disenfranchisement,
and the accompanying fears of a desperate, amoral
future, is what we need to tackle first – and this can
only happen by imagining new kinds of community and
communication through which informal ethical practices
can be given greater salience in society as a whole. 
Our objective will be to create a set of entry points
for ethical ideas into a space that currently resists
our best efforts to imagine it ethically.  

We will not assume that the mere existence of ethical,
critical argument is enough in itself to transform the
terms of a particular debate; we will look at how
ideas can take on a life in a community such that
those terms cease to command the consensus they once
did.  We will not be satisfied with any conception of
ethics that locates itself solely in the private
reflections of the individual, but will seek ways in
which the individual can redefine the scope of these
reflections through new kinds of public debate and
collaboration.  And we will seek to overturn the
fantasy of the perfect regulatory system, and the
crippling inferiority complex that sets the horizon of
possibility for the "non-expert" in the market
society, by encouraging new forms of public knowledge
and expression that do not derive their legitimacy
from state or institutional power and managerial

The last decade has given us some striking examples of
how networks of people can create organise themselves
into new community forms, often with compelling
ethical visions.  Such projects, I would argue, are
essential if we are to avoid pinning all our hopes on
mere unfelt regulation or on a more sensitive
generation to come.  There is still a lot of thinking
to do.  But we should not expect that a crisis of the
magnitude that we face today will be solved simply, or
with the tools that have laid it at our door.  We need
to look into unknown territory.  Perhaps there we will
find new forms of human relationship and ethical
thought that will allow us to believe in a long

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