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<nettime> Ethics and Social Transformation (part 1)
Benjamin Geer on Wed, 9 Mar 2005 05:07:57 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Ethics and Social Transformation (part 1)

After I said I thought this was probably off-topic for nettime, ed
phillips encouraged me to post it.  Please keep in mind what it says
on the tin: it's a work in progress.  Since it's too long for one
post, I'm posting it in two pieces.

The latest version (and the Creative Commons licence) can be found here:



Ethics and Social Transformation

by Benjamin Geer

This is a work in progress.

The Priority of the Social

Ethical philosophy has tended to deal with choices made by
individuals.  For example, philosophers have asked whether it is
wrong to lie, or whether someone with excess wealth has a
responsibility to give money to charity.  Few have asked how to
choose between different possible political or economic systems
on ethical grounds.  One might be tempted to respond that
individual evaluations and decisions are more basic and should
therefore be considered before social ones.  But this view is
misguided; all individual choice presumes an already existing

In 'Freedom and Resentment', P. F. Strawson writes:

    The existence of the general framework of [moral] attitudes
    itself is something we are given with the fact of human
    society. As a whole, it neither calls for, nor permits, an
    external _rational_ justification.[1]

But it is not only our ethical attitudes that are constrained by
society; our ethical choices are constrained, too, because the
structure of each society creates particular kinds of moral
problems and opportunities to act.

For example, charities exist because capitalism perpetuates huge
inequalities.  In a society where economic arrangements did not
create poverty, the question of whether to give money to charity
would not exist.  Moreover, as Antonio Gramsci argued:

    ...we have to dispense with the idea of abstract or
    speculative 'absolute philosophy', i.e. philosophy that
    arises from the preceding philosophy and inherits its
    so-called 'supreme problems', and even with the idea of the
    'philosophical problem'.... Practice, the real history of
    changing social relations, takes precedence; the problems
    that philosophers deal with arise from these changes, and
    hence ultimately from the economy.... if philosophy develops
    because world history develops (i.e. the social relations in
    which people live) rather than because a great philosopher is
    followed by an even greater one and so on, it is clear that
    by doing work that makes history in a practical sense, one is
    also creating an 'implicit' philosophy, which will become
    'explicit' to the extent that philosophers elaborate it

It does not make sense to consider the moral choices of
individuals before considering the moral effects of society
itself.  The question of what kind of society we should have in
order to prevent poverty is in fact more basic than the question
of whether a well-off individual should give money to an
impoverished one.  The answer to the individual question cannot
help us at all in answering the social one.  The answer to the
social question can either vastly simplify or vastly complicate
the task of answering the individual one.

Another reason for this approach is that human beings are
generally unwilling to follow moral principles that (at least in
their view) threaten their interests.  For example, anyone who
has worked in an office will be aware that most employees
carefully avoid telling their bosses what they really think about
all sorts of things, for fear of losing their jobs.  Because of
this tremendous pressure, insincerity permeates relations between
bosses and employees everywhere.  In this context, it is
pointless to ask whether it is right or wrong to lie to one's
boss.  In a society where work relationships were structured in
such a way that people could tell the truth without fear, the
question might not be pointless.  Moral standards that attempt to
pit individuals against the prevailing social order stand little
chance of being widely implemented.  In order to become a social
norm, a moral standard must on the contrary be implemented by the
normal operation of that social order.

Poverty is a systemic problem, caused by characteristics of the
global economic system, and only a systemic change can solve a
systemic problem.  There are many such problems; not a few of
them pose, like poverty, ethical dilemmas regarding individual
action. Solutions to these problems would eliminate the
associated ethical dilemmas as well; speculation about these
dilemmas would thereby become entirely academic.  It may be
objected that this approach simply moves the problem from the
domain of philosophy into that of politics.  But this is an
improvement, because it is only in the realm of politics that
systemic problems can be solved; that is the only sort of
solution that can end the suffering caused by those problems.
Ethics must take this step if it is to have any practical value.

Since one cannot do everything, it is sensible to concentrate
one's efforts where they can have the greatest effect.  Moral
problems are numerous and hard, and it seems unlikely that anyone
will devise a satisfactory universal decision procedure for
solving all of them.[3] In such situations, it makes sense to
apply heuristics, i.e. approaches that can solve a large number
of particularly important problems, or at least make them easier
to solve.  Social transformation is such a heuristic.  Therefore,
the first responsibility of ethics is describe principles to
guide social transformation.


I would like to discuss a particular ethical feeling I have, and
explore its potential consequences for social transformation.

In _Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life_, Theodor
Adorno writes:

    There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one
    shall go hungry any more. Every other seeks to apply to a
    condition that ought to be determined by human needs, a mode
    of human conduct adapted to production as an end in

This much of Adorno's argument is sound: from the standpoint of
'damaged life', we cannot clearly envisage what life would be
like in an emancipated society, because everything we currently
experience (even those aspects of life that we consider positive)
is to an extent 'damaged'.  Even our desires are damaged, and are
therefore not reliable guides for imagining an emancipated
existence.  But there are two serious problems with his negative
proposal.  First, hunger is only one cause of widespread
suffering that social change can eliminate.  One could add
torture, preventable disease, slavery and war; the list is in
fact very long.  Second, having compiled such a list, we are no
closer to knowing what sort of social change is required.  We
know that systemic change will be needed in order to solve these
problems: different political and economic structures will surely
be necessary.  But a purely negative goal does not help us
imagine what those structures might be, still less how to create
them.  We need a goal that can serve as a guide to strategy, as a
bridge between our current situation and a better one.

I would like to propose a positive goal, one that I believe
avoids the trap Adorno warns of, as well as the problems I have
just mentioned.  This goal can be summed up as follows: that
everyone shall have a good life.

What do people need in order to have a good life?  All answers
are, to an extent, culture-specific.  Words such as English
'well-being', Arabic _rafaah_ and Japanese _yutori_[5] are
partial expressions of such culture-specific conceptions.  For
the sake of convenience, in this essay I will use the terms
'well-being' and 'quality of life' to refer to 'a good life' by
any standards (not necessarily the standards implied by those two
English terms).  Phrases such as 'culture-specific standards of
well-being' would otherwise be nonsense; with this caveat, I hope
my meaning will be clear.

These conceptions can change over time; as Adorno points out,
they are likely to change as a result of social transformation.
There is no reason to suppose that any particular set of
standards could ever satisfy everyone.  Therefore, ethical
philosophy should not propose standards of well-being; instead,
it should identify social and political processes that can enable
people to implement whatever standards they have in a given time
and place.  Thus we can have a positive goal, while still heeding
Adorno's warning.

The ethical feeling I wish to explore is one that is not content
merely to hope for everyone's well-being; rather, it sees this
goal as an immediate, urgent requirement that must guide action
in all situations and at all times.  For simplicity's sake, I
will refer to this feeling as the 'urgency of well-being'.  I
will not attempt to justify it, nor do I think it can be
justified.  An account of its relationship to the 'general
framework of attitudes... given with the fact of human society'
that Strawson appeals to may be possible, but that would be a
psychosocial explanation and would not count as justification.
As Wittgenstein said, 'Explanations come to an end somewhere,'[6]
and in ethics it seems to me that they come to an end with
feelings such as this.

The urgency of well-being is not the same as Kant's idea that
people are ends in themselves;[7] the latter would mean that it
is an end in itself for people to be _as they are_, i.e. shaped
by 'damaged life'.  Moreover, I can acknowledge that some things
are ends in themselves (like pure mathematics) without feeling
any moral obligation to preserve them.  Nor can I agree with Kant
that human life matters because of human beings' capacity to
reason;[8] it seems to me that this is entirely the wrong
category of judgement.  Compassion is not a reward for
sophistication.  I would be tempted to say that human life is
precious because people can suffer and hope, but such talk would
be absurd.  To quote Wittgenstein again: 'Ethics, if it is
anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts;
as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water [even] if I
were to pour out a gallon over it.'[9] Instead, let us ask: if we
accept the urgency of well-being, what sort of social
transformation should we envisage?

Social transformation cannot aim to fulfil all aspects of
well-being.  In English, love is considered to be a basic need.
Social processes can increase people's chances of finding love
(e.g. by making sure they have enough free time), but love still
depends on individual and imponderable factors.  Social
transformation can only aim to bring about _socially producible_
aspects of good lives.  We can call for a society in which
everyone will have the time to look for love, but we cannot call
for a society in which everyone will be loved.  Even socially
producible protections cannot always be made wholly reliable; no
society could guarantee that illness and natural disasters would
never strike.  However, it is now widely accepted that the main
reason for poor quality of life is poor distribution of resources
and opportunities, rather than bad luck, individual failings or
the inherent limitations of human existence.  In this essay I
will take it for granted that, within the limits just mentioned,
the goal of well-being for all is achievable.  On that view, if
an ethics of well-being were successfully implemented worldwide,
everyone would, by definition, be content with the result.  That,
I think, is a strong test of the worth of any ethical principle.
I now intend to give the reader some reasons to believe that it
is also a useful tool for crafting practical objectives and
strategies for social transformation.

Moral Dialogue and Moral Language

It is easier to determine whether one's own quality of life is
adequate than to determine whether someone else's is.  Faced with
a possible change in my way of life, I may consult the opinion of
others, but ultimately I will trust myself more than anyone else
to determine whether the proposed change would be beneficial or
harmful to me.  But there are limits to individual moral insight.
Let us consider them in the following way.  There are three steps
to solving a problem:

    1. Recognising that there is a problem. In many cases, an
       individual can do this alone.

    2. Correctly identifying the problem. This is more difficult
       to do alone. It may be that the problem is to be found
       solely in your own perceptions of the situation; it can be
       difficult to find out without a dialogue.

    3. Finding the best solution for everyone concerned. The more
       people are affected by the problem, the more difficult it
       is to find the best solution alone, because this requires
       being aware of interdependencies that are likely to be
       known only to the other individuals affected.

In Kantian ethics, each individual is expected to imagine whether
a particular moral rule could be made into a universal law that
would be acceptable in all situations.  Such a cognitive act
would require the individual to be a sort of universal subject,
capable of imagining all possible situations in human life, from
the point of view of every possible human being.  Since this is
beyond the abilities of any real individual, we are obliged to
consult other people to find out the effect that any given policy
would have on them.  In other words, we are obliged to have a

J=FCrgen Habermas argues, erroneously I think, that dialogue can
produce universal moral laws:

    From this viewpoint, the categorical imperative needs to be
    reformulated as follows: "Rather than ascribing as valid to
    all others any maxim that I can will to be a universal law, I
    must submit my maxim to all others for purposes of
    discursively testing its claim to universality.  The emphasis
    shifts from what each can will without contradiction to be a
    universal law, to what all can will in agreement to be a
    universal norm."  This version of the universality principle
    does in fact entail the idea of a cooperative process of
    argumentation.  For one thing, nothing better prevents others
    from perspectivally distorting one's own interests than
    actual participation.[10]

There are several reasons why this does not make sense.  First,
it is not possible to consult 'all others' who might be concerned
by a putative universal law, i.e. everyone who exists and will
ever exist.  Even if we limit ourselves to attempting a dialogue
with everyone now living who might be affected, it is easy to see
that this might include every living human being.  For every
individual on Earth to have even a brief dialogue with every
other individual would take until the end of time.

Second, different societies have different conceptions of
well-being.  Anna Wierzbicka points out the fallacy of
ethnocentric accounts of ethical concepts:

    In particular, what most Anglo-Saxon ethical works tend to do
    is discuss ethical concepts embodied in English words as if
    they were language-independent moral ideas, culture-free and
    fully transferable from one language to another.  For
    example, concepts such as 'justice', 'honesty', 'hypocrisy',
    or 'greed' are discussed as if they stood for some
    universally valid categories, rooted in human nature and
    human reason rather than in the English language and in the
    broad cultural tradition which has given the English lexicon
    its present shape.[11]

Wierzbicka's argument is not that moral concepts are
untranslatable, but rather that to translate them accurately
requires a "culture-independent semantic metalanguage... a
non-arbitrary system of universal semantic primitives"[12], whose
development is the focus of her work.  However, this is no help
for those who wish for universal moral laws, because
translatability does not equal universality.  Wierzbicka shows
that there are stark differences between the vocabulary available
in different languages for talking about personal characteristics
seen as morally good or bad.  In her view, historical processes
account for these differences.

    In medieval Europe, including England, the sin called
    "superbia" (that is, 'bad pride') was regarded as the "king
    of all vices", as the "eldest daughter of hell", and as the
    "leader of Sins".  Yet in modern English there is not even a
    word to refer to this concept.  Is this an accident of
    language or a meaningful expression of culture and society?

    I believe it is the latter.  The idea that it is good to view
    oneself as 'small' and that it is bad to view oneself as
    'great' lay at the heart of the medieval European world view
    and was expressed in the contrast between the virtue of
    'humilitas' and the vice of 'superbia'.

    The spread of the ideology of humanism was of course hard to
    reconcile with that idea, and from the time of the
    Renaissance both 'humility' and 'superbia' lost their central
    place in the European moral outlook.  It appears, however,
    that in the Anglo-Saxon culture this process of decline of
    both 'humilitas' and 'superbia' went further than in other
    European countries.  Presumably, the relevant factor was
    religion, and it appears that in Catholic countries the
    concepts in question maintained their position better than
    they did in Protestant countries.  Weber's speculations about
    the link between the Protestant ethic and the development of
    capitalism may apply to the concepts of 'humility' and 'bad
    pride'.... If an ethical ideology places a great emphasis on
    individual success and competition, then it is hard for it to
    continue to regard 'pride' as the "king of all vices".  The
    thought 'I am better than other people' can no longer be
    regarded as the root of all evil; on the contrary, it must
    come to be seen as linked with 'cardinal virtues' rather than
    with cardinal sins.[13]

This is not to say that no moral norm can possibly apply to all
human beings; only that any such cases would be the result of
similarities between the ways in which all human beings live,
rather than of the inherent universality of sound moral
judgements.  However, if norms A and B are similar in some ways,
that doesn't justify replacing both of them with another norm, C,
containing only the similar parts, on the grounds that it can be
considered universal.  For in order to have any idea how to
implement A and B, it may be necessary to follow them in
precisely those respects where they differ.  I will return to
this point at the end of this essay, in a consideration of the
discourse of human rights.

For these reasons, moral dialogue should aim to produce agreement
on norms that apply to the particular social situation that
prompted the debate, among the particular group of people
affected by that situation at that time.

Impediments to Dialogue

Once we have acknowledged the need for dialogue, it is apparent
that some dialogues are better than others. Dialogue can be
constructive or destructive. Let us assert that a constructive
dialogue is one that leads to solutions that promote everyone's
well-being.  What is it that makes dialogue constructive or

In _The Ticklish Subject_, Slavoj Zizek writes:

    Ranci=E8re proves, against Habermas, that the political
    struggle proper is therefore not a rational debate between
    multiple interests, but the struggle for one's voice to be
    heard and recognized as the voice of a legitimate

But surely the goal of being recognised as the voice of a
legitimate partner is to then be able to participate in a
rational debate. Zizek seems to be describing the struggle to
_create_ a political process in which everyone will be recognised
as a legitimate partner.

This gives us one prerequisite for constructive dialogue. A
thorough study of the latter's characteristics would involve
negotiation and mediation strategies, and the relative merits of
different forms of discussion and different types of delegation.
For now I want to focus on psychosocial impairments that hinder
people's ability to participate in constructive political

An extreme case is when the individual in question is mad.  In a
conflict between an individual and a group, it is also possible
that the individual is sane and the group is mad. (Everything I
say here about individuals and groups should be taken to apply
equally to minorities and majorities.) It is not necessarily
always possible to know who is mad and who is sane, because
madness can be diagnosed only with the help of someone else, who
might themselves be mad.

Lesser impairments are widespread.  As I observed at the
beginning of this essay, individual choice presumes social
processes; these processes shape people's knowledge of their
options and their judgement about what is best for them.  This
line of argument leads to what is usually called the 'problem of
expensive tastes'.  As Elizabeth Anderson puts it:

    Some people--spoiled brats, snobs, sybarites--have
    preferences that are expensive to satisfy. It takes a lot
    more resources to satisfy them to the same degree that a
    modest, self-controlled person can be satisfied. If
    equalizing welfare or opportunities for welfare were the
    object of equality, then the satisfaction of self-controlled
    people would be held hostage to the self-indulgent. This
    seems unfair. Resource egalitarians argue, therefore, that
    people should be entitled to equal resources, but be held
    responsible for developing their tastes so that they can live
    satisfactorily within their means.[15]

This problem is similar to the one Adorno warns about: it is
likely that some people, whose present way of life is
unsustainable and incompatible with the well-being of others,
would be equally content with a different way of life, but cannot
know this, because the pleasures of that other way of life are
unfamiliar to them, and must be experienced to be appreciated.

I will suggest one possible solution to this problem in the next
section, but first I want to examine its causes.  Tastes do not
appear out of nowhere.  Building on Marx's account of commodity
fetishism,[16] Gramsci and Althusser have argued that
institutions such as education and the media function as
ideological apparatuses[17]; these institutions make people
believe that, by pursuing lives in which acquisition is the main
source of satisfaction, they are freely expressing an autonomous
subjectivity.  This is necessary in order to offset the cold,
alienating character of 'damaged life' that Adorno eloquently
describes, in which enforced competition makes solidarity a rare
luxury.  It also serves to mask the awareness that, in a
capitalist society, the safety net that protects individuals from
misfortune is often precariously thin, and is at best constantly
under threat of being dismantled.

In order to loosen the grip of such ideologies, and to enable
those who are attached to them to imagine another way of life, we
can envisage transitional forms of society, in which people can
participate on a small scale in some of the processes that will
characterise the transformed society, and experience the benefits
of those processes.  Arguably, in a society based on the sort of
cooperative production that I will sketch out below, we could
expect the satisfactions of cooperative work and solidarity to
reappear, compensating for the loss of other pleasures.  Taking
the Trobriand Islanders of Western Melanesia as an example, Karl
Polanyi argued:

    The outstanding discovery of recent historical and
    anthropological research is that man's economy, as a rule, is
    submerged in his social relationships.  He does not act so as
    to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of
    material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social
    standing, his social claims, his social assets.  He values
    material goods only so far as they serve this end.  Neither
    the process of production nor that of distribution is linked
    to specific economic interests attached to the possession of
    goods; but every single step in that process is geared to a
    number of social interests which eventually ensure that the
    required step be taken.  These interests will be very
    different in a small hunting or fishing community from those
    in a vast despotic society, but in either case the economic
    system will be run on noneconomic motives....

    In this sketch of the general traits characteristic of a
    Western Melanesian community.... it is on this one negative
    point that modern ethnographers agree: the absence of the
    motive of gain; the absence of the principle of laboring for
    remuneration; the absence of the principle of least effort;
    and, especially, the absence of any separate and distinct
    institution based on economic motives.

    The answer is provided in the main by two principles of
    behavior not primarily associated with economics:
    _reciprocity_ and _redistribution_.[18]

Reciprocity means that one's social standing and reputation
depend on one's 'good behaviour', specifically on specific
obligatory acts of generosity.  The giver is indirectly
compensated for these acts because others fulfil their
obligations for the same reasons.  Redistribution means that,
similarly, a substantial portion of everything produced is given
to the village chief, who redistributes it as gifts, according to
the rules of etiquette, on ceremonial occasions which are the
focus of communal life.

    Reciprocity is enormously facilitated by the institutional
    pattern of symmetry, a frequent feature of social
    organization among nonliterate peoples.... each coastal
    village on the Trobriand Islands appears to have its
    counterpart in an inland village, so that the important
    exchange of breadfruits and fish, though disguised as a
    reciprocal distribution of gifts, and actually disjoint in
    time, can be organized smoothly.  In the Kula trade, too,
    each individual has his partner on another isle, thus
    personalizing to a remarkable extent the relationship of

If Polanyi is right, one goal of social transformation ought to
be to embed economic processes in social relationships based on
reciprocity and redistribution, whose satisfactions could replace
those of competitive acquisition.

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