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Possibilities for an ethics in (or after) postmodernism

Lawrence J. Hatab
Old Dominion University

I would like to suggest that the conference have a section on ethics. In the light of the "background" reading I have forwarded--"Ethics and Finitude: Heideggerian Contributions to Moral Philosophy" (abridged version published in International Philosophical Quarterly, December 1995)--I want to engage the possibilities for an ethics in (or after) postmodernism. Here I run counter to both critics of postmodernism who say that it cannot produce an ethics and proponents of postmodernism who say that it need not or should not produce an ethics.

For orientation I need to establish the following definitions: The premodern is that which sees ethics as adherence to a traditional pattern typically grounded in religious authority. The modern is that which sees ethics grounded in a rational theory typically implicated with a conception of the human person as a free rational individual. The postmodern questions all groundings, whether traditional or rational, and it especially questions the modern emphasis on subjectivity, independence, and mastery.

Herein lies an ambiguity. Postmodernism, in its challenge to the modern free rational individual, acknowledges the role that tradition and context play in shaping human life. Postmodernism, however, is not premodern; it recognizes tradition without being traditionalistic, without exclusive allegiance to a particular tradition or to a closed conception of tradition. Postmodernism, as I understand it, refuses to fix the human condition in any designation such as tradition, freedom, individuality, collectivity, etc., since none of these designations can hold up apart from the pull of its Other. Finitude and limits are guiding themes in postmodernism. This does not in any way rule out consideration of the above designations or of ethical contexts and traditions in human life; it simply problematizes them. We are shaped by these contexts and traditions, but mature reflection on them reveals their ambiguities, complexities, difficulties, ironies, and conflicts. The premodern misses the problematics of context. The modern aims to displace context in favor of detached reason. The postmodern acknowledges, even affirms, the problematics of context.

So it is possible to think about ethics in (or beyond) postmodernism. Why the "or beyond"? Because there is confusion in or about the postmodern movement. In some quarters, the postmodern is hyperbolic freedom and liberation from constraints, which would certainly suggest difficulties for an ethics. This is not the case, however, in the most important representatives of postmodern thought--among whom I would especially single out Nietzsche and Heidegger. But Nietzsche and Heidegger, and many followers of postmodern thought, shy away from or deliberately renounce talk of ethics. Given my discussion of context that seems to open up space for ethics, why should there be such renunciation? I think the reason is as follows. It seems that for postmodernists, any talk of ethics ushers in the rule of normalization, and such rule is especially a threat to the notion of creative, authentic individuals. So ethics is associated with mastery and control, modernist forces that need to be challenged.

I have two responses to this: 1) Ethics need not be equated with normalization. The very notion that "individuals should not be subjected to normalization" is an ethical claim. At the same time, the forces of socialization that antinormalists usually target are not dispensable (in fact they are necessarily implicated in conditions of creativity), and are not themselves unambiguous and free from conditions of finitude. 2) The paradigm of the "creative individual" is in most respects more modern that postmodern; true, it is not tied to modern rationalism, but it is still reflective of the myth of "independence" that links rationalism with romanticism. Independence from tradition or normalcy is a thoroughly modern concept that has been uncritically sustained in some postmodern writers.

My overall point is this: Postmodernism has in many respects been naive and uncritical about the question of ethics. Ethics can be affirmed-yet-problematized in the same way that other areas of life have been penetrated by postmodern analysis. Unfortunately, when postmodern writers have opened the question of ethics (or politics), usually there has been little if any attention to the concrete aspects of social life, the circumstances and situations and choices that face human beings when they consider how people should live together. In the light of my Heidegger essay, I want to move in this direction, which in some sense can be characterized as a dialogical-paralogical juxtaposition of Heidegger and Aristotle--with Heidegger radicalizing Aristotle and Aristotle concretizing Heidegger. I would like to talk about ethical education, ethical dispositions like honesty and courage, and perhaps explore the meaning of phronesis by way of these two thinkers. In thinking about ethics in a concrete way, I do not imply the "mastery" of rules and directives that can guide our actions, or the "control" of discourse by way of concrete affirmations; rather, I want to open up the finite environment in which we come to think about better and worse ways of living.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]