Andy Blunden. March 2008
If an ethical claim is not to be either dogmatic or empty, it must be intelligible as uttered from a particular subject position, that is, in terms of who utters it, and some definite relationship of the speaker to the addressee, direct or indirect, upon whom it is to be binding, in some real, historical society. I take ‘subject position’ as inclusive of both the speaker and who the speaker addresses. A set of words taken in abstraction from who utters them to whom, is just that, a set of words, and nothing more, until “picked up” by some subject who meaningfully utters them. Discussions about ethical claims in abstraction from subject position have their place, but so long as they remain in abstracto they cannot constitute ethical claims. Only to the extent that words mediate a relation between living human beings, do they become practical. Leaving aside the question of blame, as well as calling upon a response from some subject, an ethical utterance must also respond to the suffering of some subject.
If an ethical claim which is not situated as the claim of a particular subject position is to have any practical validity at all, then the only logical possibilities are that it has universal validity, or it is an entirely individual claim. For a claim to have universal validity, independent of the social position of the speaker and addressee in some real historical society, it’s source would have to be extramundane: God, Nature, or pure reason, but in conditions of modernity, such extramundane sources are excluded. The only universality is that emanating from a community constituted as a subject, with a state capable of expressing a universal will. But in modern society such universality is always relative. I will return to this issue of a state’s claim to universality later. On the other hand, an ethical principle which is absolutely individual is of concern only for the given individual and has no force for anyone else. So a valid ethical claim must emanate from some particular subject position.
As to the relation of the speaker to the addressee, ethical imperatives are intelligible only in one of the following modes:
(1) I demand of myself that I shall ... ;
(2) I demand of you that you should ... (in some common project);
(3) I demand of some corporation (to which I belong) shall ... .
All three of these relations invoke a ‘we-perspective’ in some sense, which I call a ‘common project’ or ‘collaboration’. (1) is a special case of (2), as ethical demands I place upon myself I derive by consenting to demands actually or potentially, directly or indirectly placed on me by particular others with whom I participate in some common project, in relation to our joint or mutual activity. Thus the ethical relations between people involved in some form of collaboration (I take collaboration as inclusive of both conflict and cooperation, as conflict and cooperation each imply one another.) is actually or potentially worked out between them in the light of the conditions and practices pertaining to that project. As I said in For Ethical Politics: ‘What we do is decided by us.’ There are a range of issues as to what constitutes a ‘project’ and what constitutes participation in a project and the issue of projects into which one is born and projects which you leave or join voluntarily. I will return to these problems later. Ethical claims may be uttered by or on behalf of strangers, i.e., others with whom there is not yet any relevant common project, but this raises the issue of solidarity which I will return to later as well.
(3) raises the issue of a larger ‘we’ of members of some polity, beyond those people who are known to us and recognisable as associates of some kind, for which there exists an executive mandated to act on behalf of everyone (the ‘universal will’), for example a state. However, it is by no means assured that a state enjoys such legitimacy or that the state has the capacity to execute the universal will, should it be formulated. Ethical claims may arise if I seek to use the corporate subject to mediate my relation to another person or group of people; at issue here is the validity of this mediation. A state may not necessarily be the appropriate agent.
(3) may take the form that such-and-such a situation brings about an injustice and that to rectify the injustice the state ought to take such-and-such an action. This is an instance where a subject or group of subjects demands that the state mediate on their behalf. The subject making the demand could have acted differently however. Instead of demanding that the state increase a welfare payment, they could appeal to philanthropic sources, demand that a local business cease laying-off staff or that a foreign power cease its actions in blocking the state from acting, or leave the problem to the family or provide assistance personally. The subject to which people turn to remedy a suffering is very much an ethical question. Who suffered and how? Who is to blame for it? Who ought to do what to rectify it? The conception of evil is as fundamental to an ethos as is the conception of the good.
If I get skittled by a bicycle while walking along a shared path, I might laugh, decide to be more careful next time, sue the bicyclist, help the bicyclist with her injuries, sue the council for failure to provide a segregated path, or attend confession the next Sunday. This is the semiotic construction of the suffering. The conception of subject position is part of this semiotic construction, which is in turn a part of the conception of good and evil within which the relevant subjects are associated.
How does a demand for relief of suffering come to impose an ethical obligation? If a call for assistance were to be accepted on the basis of particularity, then justice and right are not entailed. Only if the suffering subject appeals on the basis of some principle of justice or right, can the demand be ethical. A great deal of discussion about ethics is involved in generating such principles, which can be “picked up” and used to express a claim which will be heard and understood by the subject to whom it is addressed. Such principles are precisely the universal principles which are “just words” mentioned above; ideally they become law and are enforced by the public political power. A set of words in themselves carry no force, but when uttered meaningfully by a subject, addressed to another subject, then they may constitute an ethical claim.
Thus, ethical principles are artefacts, inscribed in the construction of a subject, and in some measure constituting that subject, and endowed with meaning by people giving recognition to them in their collaboration with others. By placing an ethical utterance before a certain group, the speaker contributes towards the constitution of that group as a subject and well as seeking to modify its ethos. In doing so they may contribute to rectifying an injustice or advance the pursuit of a conception of the good. It is not that there is no justice or injustice, but that justice characterises a complex set of relationships, not simply suffering, and not any absolute state of affairs.
In general, the promotion of an ethical claim in the public sphere can be interpreted as an effort to change the ethical disposition of other people. I characterise this as ‘ethical politics’. I see ‘ethical politics’ as taking up the subject position of advising a social movement, rather than advising the state, although the state may be seen as an instrument for changing social dispositions as well. But to place demands on the state as if the speaker were an influential government adviser and as if the government were able to fix the problem is legitimate only if it corresponds to the real relationship, but this is often not the case.
Mikhail Bakhtin worked out some of the semiotic categories at work here. What I have called an “ethical claim” is an utterance and in particular an utterance which belongs to a certain genre by means of which it not only betrays that fact that it is an ethical claim (rather than a theory or an emotional or intellectually persuasive utterance), but also the subject position along which it is uttered. It is therefore possible, in Bakhtin’s terms, to test whether the genre in which it is spoken is appropriate to the social situation in which it is uttered, and to ask to what it is a rejoinder, and in what way and by whom an active response might be made.
I would like to illustrate this by means of the hijab affair. Let us suppose, as some have argued (and for the purposes of illustrating the point let us assume that this point of fact is true), that an initial compromise that was worked out between the three girls and the school was overthrown when the girls came under pressure from religious figures to press their right to wear the hijab to a public school; about 1/3 of girls who used to wear a hijab to school left the secular state education system as a result of social pressure from within their own community. Given the state’s upholding of the ban on wearing the hijab, these girls were then faced with a choice between being treated with contempt in their own community or leaving the public education system. The state was in fact powerless to remedy this situation by overriding the authority of the religious leaders in the community, and the ban on the hijab only consolidated the hold of the religious leaders over women in their community by ensuring that women would not receive the public secular education they would need to enjoy the benefits of modern French society.
I do not think it is valid to say something like: “Well the state was right to ban the hijab in a public school, but has no responsibility for the exclusion of the girls from secular education by their community.” The fact is that the state was a relatively ineffective mediator in this matter. To be consistent, having banned the wearing of the hijab in public schools, the state ought to have placed all young females in the immigrant Muslim communities into protective custody so that they could attend public school without wearing the hijab. The state responded politically to the opinions of the majority French population, and the unintended consequences which flowed from the demand more than negated the original intention.
But is this not the normal state of affairs? In a society in which so much is organised by the market, the reversal of equity measures by the market is very common. For example, the Australian Aboriginal stockmen who got the sack as soon as they achieved equal pay, the same fate which has been suffered by many female professionals.
Isn’t it one of the lessons that the Left ought to have learnt from the 20th century, that the state is not an effective mediator for ethical demands that have not already been gained by social movements. All the more so in an electoral democracy where governments stand or fall by popular opinion. The role of the state is a practical one: to objectify the outcome of past struggles. The state does have a capacity to act on behalf of the whole community, but such a capacity depends on the community being of one mind on a matter. This is obviously not the case where ethical dilemmas and cultural differences within the nation are at issue, and it is precisely this situation which is at issue.
But the whole public debate about the hijab affair was conducted in terms of what action the state should take. Meanwhile, in the housing estates where the poor immigrant communities lived, a quite different discussion was taking place about how the girls would be treated should they comply.
Now it is not my claim that an ethical demand cannot be mediated. On the contrary. The first thing is to recognise that all ethical demands are mediated. The question of who is to be addressed with an ethical demand is that of subject position, and many different subject positions are possible and legitimate. What is wrong is making claims from the point of view of God, or taking up a subject position of adviser to God. No consideration was given to the fact that the French state was unable to regulate the attitudes of members of the immigrant communities, but only the policies of the state entities, and the possibility that other parties or circumstances will subvert the actions of the state, and that there may be other parties capable of doing what the state cannot, particularly social movements. If there was any sense in the campaign for the läité laws, it was to create and strengthen a secularist social movement. I doubt that the secularist cause was furthered by the läité laws.
Let us suppose you are a citizen of a society which has a state which through some democratic process is able to express the universal will. Let us accept for the moment that the parliamentary government of a capitalist nation can hear and respond to the universal popular will, an assumption which would have to be highly qualified. If you perceived some evil, then you could rightly call upon the state to mitigate that evil.
Let us take the following cases:
(1) The citizen expresses what turns out to be the universal will, or
(2) The citizen fails politically to mobilise or reflect wide public support.
(3) The state is able to respond positively to the problems, or
(4) The state cannot effectively respond to the problem.
(1) Everyone agrees that it is down to the state to fix the problem, but state intervention is not necessarily an effective response, even though it is an ethically legitimate response. Possibly inappropriate state remedies include the application of censorship to offensive literature, the banning of political parties with unsavoury policies, the bail-out of bankrupt firms, taking criminal action against poorly qualified professionals, the “war on drugs,” the “war of terror,” or aggressive acts against other nations. In each case, by acting with popular support against a genuine evil, the state may only make matters worse. People concerned with the relevant evil might think twice before demanding that the state act on their behalf. Even where a state enjoys the legitimate support of general opinion on a matter, it may be more appropriate to seek alternative means of mediation, with or without the state support.
The problem for the Left here is that we would tend to favour public, collective solutions, rather than private, individualised solutions to problems, but we would also favour resolution of problems through consent, education, mutuality and negotiation rather than government sanctions, but acting from on high, the state may have no other course of action than sanctions. Further, the state is an objectification of the universal will, but also a force unto itself; the state acts for the community, but also acts against it at one and the same time. So the state will not necessarily act upon the universal will even if such a universal will exists. So the state must be recognised as a subject in its own right and cannot be simply reduced to the universal will, even when it is a valid expression of the universal will.
By placing an ethical demand before the state we strengthen the moral authority of the state and effectively opt for the ethos of a governed society. Unless there are mediating social organisations upon which the state rests, and which can take responsibility for problems relevant to sections of social life, then in most instances, citizens will not have a genuine opportunity to participate in formation of the universal will or in implementing its directives. When the labour movement handed over responsibility for provision of welfare benefits to the state, it also handed over its power and self-consciousness to the state. Welfare payments which cannot be made universal, ought to be administered by entities as close to the beneficiaries as possible.
When we decide that the industry should regulate itself rather than be subject to state control, we take up a subject position which addresses itself to the profession and treats the profession as a subject in itself, which may be only a relative truth, but a truth which is supported by addressing the position as if it were a subject.
Whenever we advocate a turn to education of demand rather than state control of supply, we treat the individual users as if they were subjects, and individuals can only be subjects to a limited degree; an individual is a limiting case of “subject,” but insofar as a person makes their own decisions, they are of course subjects, and the motto of “education not legislation” recognises this.
So even when the there is widespread agreement, a universal will, and a state willing to act upon that will, it is often the case that the appropriate subject position is not to addresses the state, but to address the demand elsewhere, because the responsibility lies elsewhere.
(2) is however the more usual situation; most ethical problems are perceived as such only by a minority of people, at least to begin with. Were it the case that the major moral problems of our time were universally recognised, even within the limitations of the system of parliamentary democracy, a way would be found to resolve them. But in fact, the combination of electoral systems based on large, geographical electorates with the ability of capital to manipulate popular consciousness, ensures that moral problems are obscured or mystified, and most elected governments are controlled by capital not in spite of popular consciousness but more likely in and through popular consciousness.
Putting an ethical demand to the state in spite of popular consciousness, reinforces the conception of the state as the sole arbiter of justice and ethics and master of popular consciousness when in fact the reverse is the case, as if we lived in the days when hereditary monarchs and generals ruled nations. For a minority to call upon the state to do what it cannot, amounts to demanding that the state, as a social subject in its own right, take it upon itself to manage popular consciousness. The state can go against the stream of public consciousness; the courts in particular, and the public service to a lesser extent, provide buffer against popular consciousness, and give the state the chance to lead the public. Public health measures are often implemented in this way, but it is unlikely that social justice demands which cut against the interests of capital would be allowed to escape media-inspired moral panics. In those cases where there is no real prospect of the state responding to a social justice claim then it is wrong to act as if there were.
Not only have all successful campaigns in support of an unpopular moral claim succeeded because they addressed themselves to popular consciousness via some kind of social movement, such an orientation is ethically consistent. As soon as the prospect of popular support appears, the issues raised under (1) above become relevant.
(3) If the state is in a position to rectify what is widely seen to be an evil then of course it ought to, but (4) is frequently the case. That is, social injustices arise through the action of the market or as a result of irresolvable conflicts or deep seated prejudices in the population or suffering that arise from the unevenness with which different sections of the population are able to access the benefits of modernity, often as a result of past injustices. This is exactly the situation which really concerns us, problems of social justice which arise from the social conditions of our times and which a state cannot of itself resolve without losing the support of social forces they rely upon to stay in power. The state is not in fact a representative of the universal will, but rather the expression of some kind of social arrangement or modus vivendi. What is the proper form for an ethical demand which actually entails deep social change? This is the point.
It might be objected that the above considerations may be relevant to practical political strategy, but do not affect what is right or wrong. But this cannot be sustained. Ethical claims made in abstraction from a conception of who is responsible are meaningless, and conceptions of responsibility which are abstracted from real possibility of agency are unsustainable.
Ethical obligations arise only in relation to other persons; the question is: what kind of relationship can imply what kind of ethical obligation? The general rule has to be that we all have an obligation to decide what we should do together with those others who with whom we are doing it.
There must be a proviso, however, that the others are capable of forming a rational will and communicating that will. Others may participate in an activity or project without being able to participate in deciding upon relevant matters. Such others are dependents, such as children, or patients who do not have the medical knowledge to make a rational decision about their health treatment, or may be unconscious at the time. As human beings they have rights, and therefore participants in the project have obligations towards them, but it is irrational to treat as participants those who do not have the wherewithal to participate. Nevertheless, the anomaly that a human being is an object and not a subject of their own welfare, places an obligation on the participants to raise all persons acting in the project to consciousness of the project, so as to participate in deciding on the project. Thus parents must make decisions for their children, but carry an obligation to bring their dependent children to an understanding of family activity as effectively as possible. Doctors must treat patients in the interests of the patients, but have an obligation to do every possible to bring the patient to a condition of being able to participate in the treatment planning. All the same obligations apply in relation to inequality of technical knowledge or access to knowledge or material resources amongst participants in a common project.
“All participants” is a more precise specification than “all those affected,” because in the first place, we define the others as fellow participants, as subjects, rather than defining them as passively affected objects. Rather than dividing the world into actors on one hand, and on the other hand, those who are acted upon, but who then, as a result of being acted upon, are to be given a say, we accept everyone as participants who claims to be a participant, all equally to decide on what the project is.
A participant defines themself as a participant. A person who defines themself as “affected,” ipso facto places a claim for recognition as “participant.” The “all those affected” criterion raises the problem of who is to decide who is affected and who is not? Deciding on who are the participants in the project are to be, is the most crucial decision made in any project, a decision usually made at the highest level. For example, government may appoint participants in a project team or board of enquiry, or the CEO of a company; by nominating members of Parliament, the people exercise the highest authority over their own affairs. So if the “all those affected” criterion is to have any meaning at all, the claim to be affected must be tantamount to a claim for participation.
This question needs to be clarified by consideration of those who participate whilst sharing the aims of the project, from inside so to speak, and those who participate by opposing the aims or methods of the project, from the outside, perhaps. I see no basis for making a distinction at this level between what is deemed to be cooperation and what is deemed to be conflict. In so far as there is a working relation between subjects in doing something in which the labour of all participants is inextricably linked in the outcome, there must always be both cooperation and conflict – cooperation by means of reciprocal critique, and conflict by means of shared determination of the outcome.
So were someone to claim that they are affected by a project and are consequently opposed to it, then they are in fact declaring nothing more nor less than that they will participate, but negatively. Whilst mutuality and reciprocity in general apply to participants in a project, how someone is affected may determine the manner and degree of their participation. Genuine collaboration implies that even though the participants share an objective, they will criticise one another and conflict over any aspect of the work or its product.
The problem really comes in the case of the subject who is believed to be affected, but is unaware of or denies it – the classic case of the people leaving nearby the polluting factory, unwittingly playing the role of guinea pig for medical experimentation. If they knew what was being done to them, they most certainly would define themselves as participants, but no-one has told them.
Participants in the project have a moral responsibility not to affect, or at least adversely affect, other people who are non-participants. If someone makes a claim that they are affected, then they have become participants; it’s a fait acompli. At the same time, people may be affected by the project, but have no wish to participate. But they have to know. Being one of “all those affected” is a matter of opting in on the basis of publicity. The only universal obligation is disclosure of anything you might be doing which could conceivably have an adverse effect on someone else. This does not mean that if you are in a conflict with another party, you have signal everything you do in advance, and the injunction is not meant personally – it applies to social subjects.
So we end up with two universal imperatives:
(1) Participants in a project decide amongst themselves what they will do. (Participation is decided by opting in opting out, and participation includes conflict and opposition.)
(2) It is wrong to conduct any project in secrecy from anyone who could be affected, or without reasonable measures to give anyone who could be affected the ability to make relevant judgments about the project.
Moral discourse which is based around events, dilemmas or relationships in which the participants in the discourse are not participants in a relevant common project, is meaningless. What should the French government do about the hijab? What position should a socialist take in Iraq today? How can there be sensible answers to these questions for someone who is not French or not in Iraq?
The above ethical obligations arise solely from the dictum: “What we do is decided by us.”
It is impossible to determine justice and rights in isolation from conceptions of virtue, good and evil, social causality, blame and responsibility. In fact, every determination of justice, rights and duties, already include conceptions of virtue, good and social responsibility. Rights, justice and duties flow from conceptions of how we should live and how the world works, and it is difficult to see how agreement on rights and justice could be achieved whilst people disagree on what it means to lead a good life. This is the basic reason why it has never been possible to settle major ethical disputes in modern society, where rival semiotic constructions of good and evil coexist. If liberalism triumphed, it is not because of the priority of right over good, but the triumph of capital over labour.
Determination of justice, right and duty depends on the semiotic construction given to the relevant events and the conceptions of virtue, good and evil. But the reverse does not necessarily apply.
Let us suppose that something happens which is interpreted as a bad thing, that someone may have suffered. For example, a pedestrian child is injured by a car. There is no doubt that someone has suffered, and a factual investigation would be launched to determine who is to blame and whether an injustice has been done. Since adherence to the highway code would preclude such a happening, the point is: who went outside the highway code? Did the pedestrian step in front of the car or did the car run down the pedestrian? But the child cannot be blamed even if it did walk in front of the car: perhaps the parents are to blame for not properly training the child in use of the road? But residents in a quiet back road which becomes popular as a shortcut bypassing a new tollway during morning peak hour will not be satisfied with this. The fact that the driver was travelling within the speed limit does not mitigate the fact that amongst thousands of such cars it was inevitable that a child would eventually be hit, however vigilant the parents might be. So blame might fall on the driver, who, although driving within the law failed to use additional care, or blame might fall upon all car drivers, it being considered that it was only a matter of time and the driver who happened to be the one to hit the child was just unlucky so guilt should be shared. But in that instance, if there was such a likelihood of an accident, perhaps the parents should be blamed for choosing the live in that street, or perhaps the local council should be blamed for not implementing traffic management and blocking access to the shortcut. The council might in turn object that demands for reduction in rates had brought the council to such a pass that traffic management works were no longer affordable and if residents wanted traffic controlled they should not have voted for a reduction in rates, putting the blame back on to a majority of voters. And the council might claim that they opposed the tollway, but were overridden by Federal government support for the infrastructure company. Indeed, it could be argued that such accidents, as well as carbon-monoxide poisoning, obesity, environmental pollution and climate change are all the outcome of a car culture for which the population at large is responsible, although an argument could be run instead that the car culture is the result of the activity of the automotive industry which had systematically undermined pubic transport and promoted car ownership and tollways. This would lend support to the argument that the leaders of one industry can hardly be blamed, for after all they were only doing what is necessary in a capitalist economy whose wheels are oiled by the profit motive, and ultimately, given that capitalism is an historically evolved social formation, that there is no-one to blame at all, and in general all those evils that are ultimately caused by the market are not problems of justice at all, but simply the way things are.
So the question of the ultimate cause and who is to blame for some injury depends on the whole semiotic construction of the event. These matters are decided by the courts either by way of enforcing the law, or in response to civil claims which over time may bring about a change in the law.
The dominant semiotic construction is reflected in the law and in the whole range of institutional and other social practices. For example, adverse outcomes of medical procedures were formerly regarded simply as bad luck, and responsibility for the welfare of the victim would fall to the community or the family. But nowadays surgeons carry insurance against adverse outcomes because the current ethos is inclined to make them personally responsible. Institutions protect themselves by public liability insurance and procedures which make their employees personally responsible for what cannot be insured against. So while blame is being largely privatised it is still distributed from the victim: things are almost always someone else’s fault. A drunk falls off a bridge and sues the publican for serving him beer. People who suffer injury look for an institutional cause for their injury, and an insurance pay-out by way of compensation. Moral responsibility is simply factored into the costs of production. Pity help the victim who cannot find an institution to blame.
Nothing expresses the mentality of the times so starkly as the semiotic construction of good and evil. No-one questions the fact that the child hurt in the above hypothetical accident suffered an injury, everyone would agree that she has a right to some kind of aid, and most would agree that someone was to blame. But there will be little agreement moral responsibility in this case.
The great injustices of our times are not necessarily seen as injustices at all: – mainly the extreme inequality of wealth in a society where wealth means power, the exploitation of developing countries by developed countries, the destruction of the world’s resources and the wilful destruction of the social fabric of whole countries by war, sabotage and economic blockade in the interests of a few powerful families. The difference between the conception of these relations, on the one hand as injustices, but on the other hand as simply the way things are, is the difference in the semiotic construction. I call this semiotic construction because the process involves the formation of perceived collectivities and agencies by means of communicative action; a construction is put on every event and every relation by means of contested semiotic processes, drawing on available narratives and characters to stitch together lines and nodes of moral responsibility into an ethical representation of reality.
The ethical principles worked out earlier, lead to conclusions which are not particularly controversial. It is the semiotic construction of the moral reality which is contested.
The semiotic construction of moral responsibility is not simply relative or “subjective.” A semiotic construction of moral responsibility is normative for a given social formation, but there is room for differences of opinion, and any given construction can be tested against the social reality. Like the conception of justice, a semiotic construction of moral responsibility ought to be reflected in law, but it is nonetheless dynamic and open to contestation.
The validity of a semiotic construction of the moral reality can be tested against the actuality of the construction of subjectivity (including identity, self-consciousness and agency) in a given society.
The most celebrated recent case of such contest was the issue of the Apology. John Howard was proud of the exploits of the ANZACs at Gallipoli in 1915 and the Australian Cricket team, but he swore no responsibility for the Stolen Generation, either personally or as a government. This impossibly self-contradictory position was eventually resolved once for all by Rudd: states bear responsibility for their acts irrespective of changes of government and individual office-holders. Indeed, much still hinges on the supposed incapacity of states to do anything alongside the supposedly extramundane force of the market.
The moral responsibility of tobacco manufacturers for the early deaths of cigarette smokers was fought through the courts for decades, as was the responsibility of James Hardy for the deaths of victims of mesothelioma. The first line of defence is the facts (tobacco does not cause cancer), then ignorance (it does but we didn’t know it) and then liberalism – our cigarettes cause cancer but we don’t force people to smoke them.
Even the harm itself is a semiotic construction. Some parents feel so morally outraged by the prospect of paedophiles kidnapping their children on the way to school, they would rather drive the children to school than let them walk, keep them indoors and isolated from contact with the wider society. Evils which excite moral outrage loom much larger in calculations of risk and moral responsibility than humdrum dangers.
This is the real ground of ethical politics: contesting the semiotic construction of good and evil, principally the forms of collective identity and responsibility.