The issue of the possibility and desirability of an objectively grounded ethics still remains a critical one with respect to both ‘orthodox’ and liberatory ethics. However, few doubt the serious crisis in which modern ‘objective’ ethics has entered in the last quarter of a century or so, despite the fact that the vast majority of the world population is still guided by various forms of pre-modern religion-based ethics. But, although the rise of neoliberal modernity was associated with the development of what some call a ‘postmodern morality’ and—correspondingly-- a postmodern ethics, as several contributors to this theme attempt to show, the postmodernist critique of modern ‘objective’ ethics, particularly of liberatory ethics, is also unsatisfactory for several reasons. Furthermore, postmodern ethics gas led to either unbounded moral relativism or irrational ethics. Yet, as two contributors show, it is possible to derive an alternative liberatory ethics, which can only come from within the autonomy-democracy tradition.
The object of my contribution (Takis Fotopoulos) is threefold. First, to critically assess the approaches to liberatory ethics particularly those developed in early modernity which aimed at deriving an ‘objectively’ grounded liberatory ethics. Second, to explore the reasons why today’s liberatory ethics should avoid both the Scylla of ‘objective’ ethics as well as the Charybdis of irrationalist ethics or unbounded moral relativism. Third, to show that a democratic liberatory ethics, which could only be derived through a process of democratic rationalism, should necessarily express those moral values which are intrinsically compatible to the democratic institutions themselves.
Chamsy Ojeili’s point of departure in his bright contribution to the ethics issue is the crisis of socialist values, which culminated with the decline of the socialist project, after the collapse of socialist statism in all its versions (‘actually existing socialism’ in the East and social democracy in the West). He rightly stresses that although most socialists have adopted nowadays liberal values (an inevitable by-product of the Left’s shift from an antisystemic discourse), liberalism has not achieved complete hegemony, nor could ever achieve such a hegemony with its individualism and its partial conception of freedom. Similarly, neither relativistic postmodernism with its withdrawal from universals, nor communitarianism with its inward-looking particularism and localism and its adoption of the market economy system, which would predispose any communitarian society to any number of dominations and exclusions, can provide a solution to the present deep crisis of values. His accurate conclusion is that the solution could only be found, as the Inclusive Democracy project also suggests, through ‘the establishment of a political community within which a solution to the current tensions between equality and freedom and community and individual might be found’.
Brian Morris offers an insightful contribution on the crucial issue of the basis of a libertarian ethics with reference to Kropotkin’s naturalistic approach to ethics. As the author points out, Kropotkin saw an ethic focussed around the basic moral concepts of sociality, justice and magnanimity, as a pre-requisite to the creation of an anarchist- communist society, and as an alternative to the dominant ethic of capitalism, which sanctioned self-interest, avarice, profit, and a disregarded for others. However, although Morris rightly stresses that Kropotkin never saw moral principles as conveying absolute truths but only as "guides" to help as to live an ethical life, still, the crucial issue remains whether such ‘guides’ can be derived unambiguously from the study of nature. Particularly so if one takes into account that the study of nature can also yield opposite conclusions like the ones derived by social Darwinists and others. This does not imply of course, as many assume today, that we have to resort to some kind of irrationalism (based on religion, or mysticism etc) in order to derive the moral guides on which an autonomous democratic society will be based. Instead, one may argue, that there is a need for a democratic rationalism, beyond the ‘objectivist’ rationalism of science, which will attempt to derive moral guides from the institutional framework of the liberatory society itself. This is particularly important if one takes into account the significance of the socialisation process in the internalisation of values—the main factor through which individualistic values are internalised and reproduced in today’s society. Of course, even if one follows this path, the question still remains which form of institutional framework is better suitable to ‘fit’ the traditional liberatory values.
As Steven Best and Douglas Kellner stress in their brilliant essay on the ethics of cloning, the validity of the cloning project is highly questionable within the context of a global capitalist economy and a Western sensibility organized around the concept of the domination of nature. The conclusion they draw is that ‘until science is recontextualized within a new holistic paradigm informed by a respect for living processes, by democratic decision making, and by a new ethic toward nature, the genetic sciences on the whole are in the hands of those governed by the imperatives of profit’. As the authors point out, this requires a postmodern metascience that grounds the production of knowledge in a social context of dialogue and communication with citizens, and of responsibility and accountability on the part of scientists, as well as of regulation by government and democratic debate and participation by the public. However, one may raise serious reservations as to whether a similar metascience and democratic accountability, as well as a democratic biopoliotics and reconstruction of education, are possible in the framework of a market economy and representative ‘democracy’ or even whether such a metascience could somehow evolve ‘from below’ within the existing institutional framework, which crucially conditions the scientific process and the corresponding culture. Although Best and Kellner advocate the contestation of dominant forms of science, culture, and education in order to provide more emancipatory and democratic alternatives, it is doubtful whether such an enterprise is feasible outside an antisystemic movement to replace the present institutional framework and dominant paradigm with one in which scientific research and technological innovations will not be constrained by the criteria that the system of the market economy imposes.
Finally, Steve Nwosu, in an insightful discussion from an Afrocentric viewpoint of the ethics of the traditional African society, aims to challenge the feasibility of liberal democracy as a veritable model for justice and good governance. In the process he shows why the individualistic liberal ethics on which Western liberal ‘democracy’ is based is incompatible with the community-based ethics of traditional African society.
Takis Fotopoulos, Editor