Postmodern Ethics – Introduction
Postmodern ethics is not based on universal or unchanging principles. Christians, Jews, and Muslims embrace ethical codes of moral absolutes based on God’s character or moral decree; Secular Humanists, Marxists, and Postmodernists ground their ethical systems in atheism, naturalism, and evolution. Despite springing from the same roots, however, Postmodern ethics differ significantly from Secular Humanist and Marxist ethics.
According to Adam Phillips, “[U]niversal moral principles must be eradicated and reverence for individual and cultural uniqueness inculcated.”1 Zygmunt Bauman continues, “I suggest that the novelty of the postmodern approach to ethics consists first and foremost in...the rejection of the typically modern ways of going about its moral problems (that is...the philosophical search for absolutes, universals and foundations in theory).”2
Postmodern Ethics – No Authority Beyond the Self
From a postmodern worldview perspective, ethics is the logical outgrowth of a prior commitment to a particular theology. Richard Rorty makes this connection in his work Achieving Our Country, where he denigrates the existence of God and God’s place in the moral scheme of the universe. To illustrate this perspective, Rorty calls upon the poetry of Walt Whitman, who expresses his view of God in the following lines: “And I call to mankind, Be not curious about God. For I who am curious about each am not curious about God.”3 Embracing Whitman’s idea, Rorty states: “Whitman thought there was no need to be curious about God because there is no standard, not even a divine one, against which the decisions of a free people can be measured. Americans, [Whitman] hoped, would spend the energy that past human societies had spent on discovering God’s desires on discovering one another’s desires.”4
Rorty insists that for both Whitman5 and John Dewey, there was “no room for obedience to a nonhuman authority [i.e., God].” In fact, creating the new conception of what it means to be human was “a matter of forgetting about eternity.”6 Rorty and his fellow Postmodernists construct the ethical portion of their worldview from this foundation of atheism.
Postmodern Ethics – Cultural Moral Relativism
After denying the existence of God, Rorty moves on to deny the existence of a universal moral reality “to which our moral judgments might hope to correspond, as our physical science supposedly corresponds to physical reality.”7 At this stage, we might ask, If there is no objective moral reality, why concern ourselves with ethical issues? While this seems a reasonable next step, Postmodernists are not comfortable with abandoning ethics completely and instead are driven to search within their worldview for a standard of right and wrong.
Vanhoozer reveals how Postmodernist Jean-François Lyotard “acknowledges that the central issue of Postmodernity is the possibility of ethics, that is, right action.”8 The next question becomes, How is right action determined? Vanhoozer explains, “Lyotard, for his part, is content to live with ‘little narratives.’”
If philosophical truth (what we can know about reality) resides in the local community, it follows that moral truth (how we should behave) resides in the same community. This is what Lyotard means when he says he is content to live with “little narratives.” Since there is no “grand narrative” telling us what is real and how to behave, each community develops its own “little narratives” to fulfill those needs. This is Lyotard’s way of expressing what is called cultural relativism.
However, Postmodernists are hesitant to use the term “relativism.” Rorty, for example, tries to soften the word ‘relative.’ He comments, “This view is often referred to as ‘cultural relativism.’ But it is not relativistic, if that means saying that every moral view is as good as every other. Our moral view is, I firmly believe, much better than any competing view, even though there are a lot of people whom you will never be able to convert to it. It is one thing to say, falsely, that there is nothing to choose between us and the Nazis. It is another thing to say, correctly, that there is no neutral, common ground to argue our differences. That Nazi and I will always strike one another as begging all the crucial questions, arguing in circles.”9
Here, Rorty says that while there is no objective basis for determining what is right, he still insists that his view is right when compared with Nazi morality. But while making this claim, he also admits there is no way to judge between the two views. Still, he will fight for his moral view. In the final analysis, each community places moral standards on its members’ actions. In other words, for a Postmodernist, the members of a particular community govern the moral choices its members are allowed to make. In that light, even Rorty insists that he can do whatever his particular community allows him to get away with.
Postmodern Ethics – Evolving Morality with a Push
In Postmodern ethics, community moral standards are decided by both coercion and consensus. Morality is not connected to God or dictated by any type of natural laws; rather, ethical systems are constructed within societies. Every culture, thus, has its own set of moral standards arising from the various influences within each particular group. Moreover, morality is not stagnant; it changes, adapts, and is constantly evolving according to the dictates of the group.10
To demonstrate that moral standards are both set by culture and evolve with society, consider the example of abortion. In the past, most civilized Western societies, under the influence of Christian persuasion, detested the practice of abortion. However, in our current society, secular government and its citizens are more comfortable with this practice.
Why do Postmodernists such as Richard Rorty speak and write about moral issues if morality does not actually exist? Quite simply, because Rorty is a consistent atheist and Darwinist. Since there is no God, no absolute morality, and ultimately no truth, then we get to construct the world in a way that best helps us survive. Rorty, therefore, advocates the subjective “ethical standards” that he prefers, standards he is personally comfortable with. For Rorty, words are merely “tools” of persuasion.11 There is no need to be logically consistent with words because words are instruments that, if used properly or creatively, invoke individuals to change. In the end, Rorty hopes that he will be able to persuade others (you) to view the world the way he does and even adopt his ideas and his moral standards.
In a very real sense, Rorty is trying to “push” the evolution of society’s moral standards into line with his own. In the end, morality and society operate like an unconscious negotiation—everyone in a community is presenting the beliefs he or she prefers; these ideas are considered, debated, and adapted; and in the end, consensus emerges—although the consensus is in a constant state of arbitration.
Think of it this way: Postmodern morality is like a reality TV show challenge. The contestants are forced to work together in order to obtain what they personally desire. Everyone must work together or else no one gets anywhere. However, along the way Rorty wants to persuade others to adopt his ethical principles, and if he can, he wins. However, if someone who has a different set of values can persuade the others in the group, then Rorty’s ideas will lose favor, and he will be sidelined or even kicked off the island!
Not all Postmodernists agree with Rorty’s assessment. Postmodern psychiatrist Adam Phillips insists any ethical boundaries are “a form of pontification and imperial self-aggrandizement....No adult can know what’s best for another adult; and, by the same token, no group or society can know what’s best for another group or society.”12 Phillips’ stance seems more in keeping with the overall Postmodern mindset, which does not allow anyone to be “right” on any particular issue, including ethics.
Postmodern Ethics – Conclusion
The following narrative poignantly illustrates the consequences of Postmodern ethics and the breakdown of ethical values and social obligations. What happens when people actually put into practice the Postmodern idea of “it’s right for me?”
For over 15 years, British physician and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple cared for the poorest of the poor in London’s slums. From that experience, Dalrymple notes that the intellectuals of the twentieth century “sought to free our sexual relations of all social, contractual or moral obligations and meaning whatsoever, so that henceforth only raw sexual desire itself would count in our decision making.” When these ideas are adopted “both literally and wholesale in the lowest and most vulnerable social class,” he illustrates the real-life results: “If anyone wants to see what sexual relations are like, freed of contractual and social obligations, let him look at the chaos of the personal lives of members of the underclass. Here are abortions procured by abdominal kung fu; children who have children, in numbers unknown before the advent of chemical contraception and sex education; women abandoned by the father of their child a month before or a month after delivery; insensate jealousy, the reverse of the coin of general promiscuity, that results in the most hideous oppression and violence; serial stepfatherhood that leads to sexual and physical abuse of children on a mass scale; and every kind of loosening of the distinction between the sexually permissible and the impermissible.13
While it may sound broadminded to argue that we should allow people to live as they please, the real world comes crashing in to reveal the consequences of flaunting the universal moral order. We know from Romans 1–2 that God clearly reveals not only His existence, but also His moral laws and the consequences we can expect when we disregard them. After reading Dalrymple’s graphic portrayal of the consequences of creating our own moral standards, we need to reevaluate the wisdom of the world in light of the wisdom of God in discovering the differences between right and wrong, good and evil.
God does not care what actions or philosophies any particular community or culture declare to be right and good if, according to His standards, they are wrong and evil. God does care that we know the truth He makes plain to us and that we understand the consequences of turning a blind eye to His standards of righteous thought and behavior.
Rendered with permission from the book, Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews (Rev. 2nd ed), David Noebel, Summit Press, 2006. Compliments of John Stonestreet, David Noebel, and the Christian Worldview Ministry at Summit Ministries. All rights reserved in the original.
1 The Weekly Standard, November 14, 2005, 41.
2 Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 3–4.
3 Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 16.
5 Richard J. Ellis, The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 79–80: “Whitman profoundly shaped a host of left-wing literary radicals of the early twentieth century, from Randolph Bourne and Van Wyck Brooks to John Reed and Max Eastman, who tellingly identified himself as an ‘American lyrical Socialist—a child of Walt Whitman reared by Karl Marx.’”
6 Rorty, Achieving Our Country, 18.
7 Robert B. Brandom, ed., Rorty and his Critics (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 4–5.
8 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Postmodern Theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 10.
9 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999), 15.
10 This concept of morality is explored in the essay “Ethics Without Principles” quoted in Ibid., 72–88.
11 A theme throughout Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope is the use of words, ideas, and philosophies as tools rather than true things, especially in chapters 22–26.
12 The Weekly Standard, 41.
13 Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2001), xi.
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