A recent piece in the Atlantic by Jonathan Merritt declares the “death of moral relativism.” It echoes observations made by other pundits that there seems to have been a shift in cultural attitudes concerning morality. In the United States, subjectivist, relativist, and “postmodernist” stances are said to have been replaced by robust commitments to social justice, tolerance, and inclusion. David Brooks also, for example, discusses the rise of a veritable “shame culture,” particularly evident on American college campuses and social media, ready to condemn and ostracize those who fail to acknowledge the importance of upholding these new, powerful norms of respect and recognition for the marginalized and oppressed. Indeed, the trend is so omnipresent that there has been significant backlash—critics decry the policing efforts of “social justice warriors” and the scourge of “political correctness.”
Taking a longer view, this cultural phenomenon is not all that recent, and an examination of it immediately complicates the narrative of how a new, heightened moral sensibility, particularly among the youth, is replacing a “squishy, flimsy” relativism. References to “PC” discourse, both positive and pejorative, hail back at least to the late 80s and early 90s, where observers discerned a new militancy to demands for sexual, racial, and ethnic equality, particularly on college campuses. Yet, both Merritt and Brooks note that the moral relativism in question had during the same period achieved a kind of apex, again particularly on college campuses. (Allan Bloom famously documented and critiqued this phenomenon in The Closing of the American Mind.) Which impression is right? To assume that either we are for the most part moral relativists or that we are morally committed perhaps betrays a misplaced faith in the logical coherence of cultural attitudes. The incoherence of our fundamental moral stances and commitments—oscillating between postures of extreme moral skepticism and principled moral commitment—is arguably a characteristic of cultural modernity itself. But this situation should not merely confirm the existence of a pluralistic, heterogeneous modern society, where there is room for various contrasting and competing viewpoints. The situation is more paradoxical than the image of multiple or seesawing moral attitudes suggests: theoretically and practically we are both moral skeptics and moral dogmatists, at the same time.
My own anecdotal offering as a teacher is the observation that in Ethics class after Ethics class, I typically have students who are committed to “social justice,” and who, as if suffering from a nervous tick or a case of hiccups, repeatedly assert, “It’s all subjective” or “It’s all relative.” (As a corollary, I am also advised that all social phenomena are “constructed.”)
How do we account for this situation? I think we would do well to remember Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a book published shortly before Bloom’s. MacIntyre offers some clues to the nature of our moral incoherence in his discussion of the characteristic standpoint from which we make moral claims, what he calls the “emotivist self.” The term is derived from emotivism, a philosophical doctrine that has been variously articulated by philosophers since the seventeenth century. David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Charles Stevenson are three particularly influential exponents. In broad strokes, it is the idea that all evaluative judgments, and in particular moral judgments, are merely expressions of attitude or feeling. As such, they do not enjoy any rational basis. Thus, no moral judgment is any more valid than any other, for there are no criteria available to determine such validity. It follows that moral debate is interminable, since there can be in principle no rationally arrived at conclusion.
MacIntyre contends that this distinctively modern moral theory is embodied in a peculiarly modern type of human being, the “emotivist self,” which inhabits a modern, emotivist culture. The emotivist self has implicitly adopted the theory that rational criteria for adjudicating the validity of moral judgments are unavailable, and this theory is reflected in her practice. MacIntyre says,
The specifically modern self, the self that I have called emotivist, finds no limits set to that on which it may pass judgment for such limits could only derive from rational criteria for evaluation and, as we have seen, the emotivist self lacks any such criteria. Everything may be criticized from whatever standpoint the self has adopted, including the self’s choice of standpoint to adopt. It . . evade[s] any necessary self identification with any particular contingent state of affairs. . . [It] has no necessary social content and no necessary social identity. . . [It] can then be anything, can assume any role or take any point of view, because it is in and for itself nothing.
He further notes that the self as thus described may seem to have a certain abstract and ghostly character. This is not the result of any “lingering Cartesian dualism,” but rather issues “from the degree of contrast, indeed the degree of loss, that comes into view if we compare the emotivist self with its historical predecessors.” This is a self that has been stripped of any necessary social identity, a “criterionless” self bereft of any “telos.” Traditional sources of social identity were also sources of ethical determinacy, where an individual is a “brother, cousin, grandson, member of this household, that village, this tribe,” where these roles define the substance of one’s duties and obligations. The loss of this kind of ethical determinacy has generally been celebrated as a “self-congratulatory gain, as the emergence of the individual freed on the one hand from the social bonds of those constraining hierarchies which the modern world rejected at its birth and on the other hand from what modernity has taken to be the superstitions of teleology.”
The emancipatory arc of modernity has come with a cost. The emotivist self, criterionless and set adrift from the determinacy conferring powers of tradition, is not a self devoid of ethical intuitions, but a self bereft of anywhere to put them, as it were. Strong ethical claims appear to be as groundless as the self that advances them, arbitrary and increasingly “shrill.” If MacIntyre’s analysis is roughly correct, it explains how one can act to advance the cause of “social justice” and be a moral relativist or skeptic at the same time. Questions of validity are rendered moot and ethics becomes the ethics of mere conviction or commitment, or, to put it more directly in the “emotivist” language of Nietzsche, ethics becomes a matter of mere will.
Is moral incoherence and the rejection of the very idea of ethical validity the terminal state of the modern age? I think that one may with some justification look hopefully toward the philosophy of Hegel for an answer in the negative. Although we cannot here do justice to Hegel’s arguments, we can get an idea of his solution to a diagnosis that he shares to some degree with MacIntyre. MacIntyre was a student of Hegel’s philosophy, and one detects that the lessons learned about the modern “criterionless,” emotivist self are at least partly the result of a sustained meditation on the subject matter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, reflective “consciousness.” Reflective consciousness cuts a tragic figure, always armed with one or another “criterion” (Masstab) by which to ground the objective truth of its epistemic and moral claims. But it is always doomed to discover the ineliminable operation of its own subjectivity in such attempts, that is, consciousness discovers that it itself is the source of its criterion, not the world. It is thus set adrift, headed toward a “thoroughgoing skepticism” about the possibility of any sort of grounding whatsoever.
However, one of Hegel’s central insights, captured in the memorable observation that “consciousness suffers violence at its own hands,” is that consciousness itself is the source of its own problematic relation to the ethical world. Hegel points to a certain sort of self-understanding of consciousness, a representation of itself as an isolated, self-standing “subject” that situates itself problematically in relation to an “objective” ethical world. Consciousness burdens itself with producing the criterion that will render the ethical world and its relationship to that world intelligible. Typically such attempts involve a universalizing move that either masks or represses some dimension of particularity, or that simply misconceives it. It is this criteriological approach that renders essential features of an always already standing objective ethical world hidden, a world where multi-functional, multi-dimensional human individuals are always already actualizing distinctive human potentials amongst one another within ethical-political structures that make such actualization possible. Due to consciousness’s own reflective tendencies, consciousness’s embeddedness within these structures remains invisible to it. Reflective consciousness selectively posits and universalizes some or another moral criterion—duty, faith, family, personhood, citizenship, etc.—to account for the universal dimension of ethical life, and comes to grief when it is inevitably discovered that its criterion fails.
MacIntyre notes that there is a distinctively modern pseudo-debate between “individualism” and “collectivism,” which appear to the emotivist self to be the only two ethical-political alternatives available. The Hegelian analysis shows how and why this is indeed a false disjunction: consciousness always distorts the relationship between universality and particularity in trying to make sense of the ethical world. For example, from the standpoint of consciousness either it is true that the principle of “duty” and the related concept of “personhood” are the master moral concepts, or it is false. If it is true, ethical universality collapses into the determinations of a particular subject’s will. This results in an emphatic moral individualism that problematizes the universality immanent in community. Conversely, criteriological emphasis on some sort of membership in the community as ethically prior risks minimizing the autonomy and integrity of particular individuals, drifting in the direction of oppression. Commitment to either alternative renders invisible the actual, always already standing character of the ethical world that more or less embeds the dimensions of universality and particularity in a distinctively modern arrangement that includes real familial, economic, and political spheres, distinct ethical spheres that ground different sorts of duties, obligations, and moral identities.
The sort of pressure consciousness or the emotivist self puts on itself to be the source of moral norms and commitment easily devolves into skepticism or nihilism about the existence of any ground for ethical validity. My “values” can seem to be grounded in nothing more than my will. They are a matter of shrill commitment, a matter of shouting down those with allegedly different values. But our reflective self-understanding of who we are and how we come to have the moral attitudes and commitments we have entails a certain kind of blindness to how any sort of ethical life is possible at all. It is easy to forget, for example, that my “respect for persons” comes primarily from actually being one, a particular human individual related to other particular human individuals, not qua member of some clan, tribe, or race, but simply qua person. The mode of particularity is one of the concrete ways multi-functional, multi-dimensional human individuals actualize their potential amongst one another. It is in an actual civil society where I have learned to recognize other individuals as particular persons, not merely in the “abstract mode,” as it were, but concretely, and who, because they are persons, are deserving of my ethical recognition. Thus “personhood” is not primarily an abstract, reflective concept derived from moral philosophy to be problematically injected into praxis. We do not walk amongst each other rationally willing our actions in accordance with reason, or failing to. Rather, “respect for persons” arises as a result of a distinctive kind of ethical formation, an education and habituation cultivated through customarily engaging in certain practices with others, for example, pursuing work according to one’s particular talents and interests amongst others who are doing the same.
Thus, our ethical judgments and the grounds for them are formed through a kind of habituation and practice within implicitly universal structures and institutions that make up the modern world. It is through engagement in the practices of a pluralistic and heterogeneous civil society where multi-functional human individuals develop the capacity to recognize themselves and others as free, particular persons. The development of such capacities is made possible by the historical emergence and growth of distinctively modern structures and institutions that support a dizzying array of functions, activities, and forms of communication. A strong, deepening sense of ethical universality practically, not merely theoretically, emerges: a solidarity among human beings, not qua race, culture, region, or sex, but qua human. What we might refer to as a cosmopolitan paideia constitutes a crucial aspect of ethical individuality in the modern world, one that supplements rather than replaces more local solidarities, one that is the implicit emancipatory alternative to traditions that have taken oppressive or otherwise destructive turns toward dehumanization. For example, if I, along with young Afghan activist Malala Yousafzai, support a right to female access to education, this does not reflect the arbitrary commitment of a “criterionless” social justice warrior, a timeless, rootless entity from nowhere in particular. It rather reflects my embeddedness in implicitly global, civilizing structures that emphasize the recognition of free human particularity. This is the ground of any “value” placed on human “personhood,” not my arbitrary, criterionless, rootless, subjective self. From a Hegelian perspective such support is ethically intelligible and valid, because education is one of the essential institutions of civil society, an institution that provides the emancipatory conditions and modes of habituation for the possibility of pursuing one’s fortunes as a free, particular person, and not having one’s destiny wholly determined by an accident of natural determinacy, namely, one’s sex.
Thus, a critical emphasis on personhood need not mean that we have gone spiraling out of control into vicious abstraction and indeterminacy, that we are in danger of violating the sanctity of community and the wholeness of solidarity. A human being immersed in ethical life is said in many ways. In addition to, for example, my concrete ethical roles as caring father, brother, or citizen, I am conscious of myself as a free, particular person. I however may not be conscious that there are objective ethical structures and practices in place that support my view, that in fact have allowed me to develop it. The temptation to view oneself as a rootless, abstract, indeterminate self, armed with an arbitrary arsenal of ungrounded “values,” is one of the perennial moral perils of the modern age.
1. Jonathan Merritt, “The Death of Moral Relativism,” Atlantic, March 25, 2016.
2. David Brooks, “The Shame Culture,” New York Times, March 15, 2016.
3. Robert D. McFadden, “Political Correctness: New Bias Test?” New York Times, May 5, 1991.
4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 31.
5. Ibid., p. 33.
6. Ibid., p. 34.
7. G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), p. 50.
8. Ibid., p. 51.
9. Hegel’s argument applies to both epistemic and moral judgments, but here we are focusing on the ethical dimension.
10. MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 34–35.
11. It is worth noting at this juncture that Hegel’s ethical theory is to be found in the Philosophy of Right, not in the Phenomenology, which should properly be regarded as Hegel’s “critical” theory.
12. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), §182.