Postmodern Ethics/The Morality of Pluralism

Postmodern Ethics by Zygmunt Bauman; Blackwell, Oxford, U.K., and Cambridge, U.S. , 1993; hardcover, paper, 253 pages.

The Morality of Pluralism by John Kekes; Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1993; hardcover, 227 pages.

Moral issues, that is to say. personal moral issues, have dominated the news in recent years to a remark able degree, often obscuring consideration of larger (presumably boring) issues. And given the proliferation of polls-daily, even hourly-measuring our attitudes (up? down? who's in? who's out?) on matters of public policy-making, what can one say but that we the body politic are... well, ambivalent.

As Zygmunt Bauman declares in his new book Postmodern Ethics," Human reality is messy and ambiguous- and so moral decisions, unlike abstract ethical principles, are ambivalent" (Bauman, 32). Moral decisions are made personally and intuitively, while the impact of those decisions is so removed from our view as to render moral surety an absurdity.

And John Kekes, at the outset in his new book. The Morality of Pluralism, asserts that "The sea of moral conflicts threatens to drown us," but quickly adds that the moral confusion of our time "is not caused by the shrinking of morality" (Kekes, 6).

Indeed both liberals and conservatives are morally engaged , according to Kekes, though their moral concerns tend to be different. "Liberals tend to be morally concerned about equality. sexual freedom, capital punishment, and commercialism; conservatives tend to direct moral attention to the family, social order. and the free market. " But Kekes worries that "informed moral debate is disappearing from our society. In its place. we have cynical or despairing indifference or an assertive shrillness masquerading as moral indignation" (Kekes, 7).

Zygmunt Bauman is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds. John Kekes is Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at the State University of New York. Their books, read in tandem. are a bracing antidote to the odd combination of moral judgment and cynicism to which we are subjected by 1990s "newsmagazines" and television.

What makes moral decision-making so troubling in our time is that "The scale of consequences our actions may have dwarfs such moral imagination as we may possess. It also renders impotent the few, but tested and trustworthy ethical rules we have inherited from the past and are taught to obey" (Bauman, 18).

We can, as Bauman notes, do harm by inadvertence, by ignorance rather than design. Our moral rules of thumb are no longer adequate. If ethicists in the past have sought to discover universal values, that surely is no longer the case. An aside: when I wrote my doctoral dissertation some fifteen years ago. I was unable to find more than one or perhaps two working ethicists who had any confidence in the idea of fixed rules of what is right or wrong capable of being applied to all situations. Pretty much everyone in the field of moral philosophy had become, whether they liked the term or not (and often they didn't), a "situation ethicist.” Yet to day we seem to be overwhelmed in public conversation by the anger of those who are convinced they know, absolutely, what is right and what is wrong.

Against those who preach universalism today we have what Bauman calls the "communitarians" who find the "retreat from the cold and abstract territory of universal moral values into the cosy and homely shelter of 'native community' exceedingly tempting; many would find the seduction irresistible" (p. 43). Everywhere in the world we see ethnic conflict rising in the dissolution of the "two great powers" view of the world , and the United Nations is challenged as never before in dozens of theaters around the world.

Morality is not universalizable, Bauman asserts, because it does not possess purpose, or reciprocity, or contractual characteristics - and it is "endemically and irredeemably non -rational" (Bauman, 60). Morality at its foundation is an impulse non-rational and not calculable. Indeed, Bauman says, "I am moral before I think" (Bauman, 61).

Asserting the solitude of the moral subject, Bauman says that morality is antithetical to society's rules and laws. "Philosophers and the administrators of order alike" distrust the moral impulse as too unreliable, too uncertain . a situation in which "everything may happen" (Bauman, 62 ff).

Because of this solitude, saints, as Bauman notes, are unique; that is, they do things others shirk. They act out of conscience, beyond sheer decency and the call of duty. And , perhaps most import ant, they do these things because they demand them of themselves, while not demanding them of others.

Love, the basis for all moral consideration, is chronically uncertain. Baum an says. This uncertainty leads to two basic human strategies- fixation and flotation. Fixation substitutes rules and routines for love, considering love, sympathy and other sentiments "too unreliable and costly to ground a secure relationship" (Bauman, 98). Flotation, on the other hand, is "the medicine against love's undependability" in which a relationship is entered for its own sake and continues so long as both parties feel it delivers enough satisfaction to stay (Bauman, 104).

Ultimately, life's only certainty is death, for ".. . only death is unambiguous, and escape from ambivalence is the temptation of Thanatos" (Bauman, 109).

In a chapter titled "Private Morals, Public Risks," Bauman considers what really is the central problem for moral thinking today - that our morality is inherited from pre-modern times, and is a "morality of proximity," and therefore "woefully inadequate in a society in which all important action is an action on distance" (Bauman, 217).

In the end , as in the beginning, Bauman asserts the ambiguity of moral decision making  and the futility of imagining a universal morality. "Moral responsibility is the most personal and inalienable of human possession s, and the most precious of human rights." It is "unconditional and infinite, and it manifests itself in the constant anguish of not manifesting itself enough" (Bauman, 250). We must place our bet, he says, on "that conscience which, however wan, alone can instill the responsibility for disobeying the command to do evil."

Kekes begins his book with an analysis of "six theses of pluralism" : (I ) the plurality and conditionality of values; (2) the unavoidability of conflicts; (3) the approach to reasonable conflict-resolution; (4) the possibilities of life; (5) the need for limits; (6) the prospect s for moral progress. Then he devote s a chapter to each, and follows with considerations of moral, person al, and political implications of pluralism.

His conviction is that "good lives require a balance among a plurality of values, and that the balance depend s on resolving conflicts among them." Furthermore, it is the state 's job "to protect all the procedural and substantive values necessary for all good lives and . second, make it possible for citizens to pursue, within appropriate limits, such secondary values as they may require" (Kekes, 213).

If Bauman leaves us with the insecurity of knowing that we are destined to grapple with moral ambiguity throughout any but utopian time, then Kekes attempts to show how we can bring the desire to live good lives into the public arena, ambiguity or not. These are both outstanding books that bear close reading and considerable reflection.


Winter 1994