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Socially fragmented ethical individuals and powerful, self-interested networks

At the end of last century and the beginning of this one not a week went by but I would hear some public figure calling on community to address a particular proliferating socio-cultural, economic or ecological problem. This constant appeal was one factor that led me to do a PhD on constructing communities that could answer those appeals. However, as this new century continues to unfold, it seems leaders have become less enthusiastic about making calls on community. Instead they are beginning to call upon “the individual.” They say they expect this individual to be “ethical” and “responsible.”

The “ethical individual” most often appealed to is one who ought to behave and act “responsibly” based on their individual conscience. This kind of individual ethics has been expressed in Immanuel Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative in his second critique (1788). In terms of current discourse, this imperative can be loosely translated as individuals recognizing their duty to be socially responsible; their conscience will tell them how to act ethically in diverse, specific and changing situations.

Kant himself came to see the limitations of this categorical imperative. In his third critique (1790) and his What is Enlightenment article (1794), he developed the concept of reflective judgment as something that could be developed out of free discourse amongst a reading public, as distinct from more purely individual reflection or conscience.

Kant was, however, referring to a relatively limited community of educated and literate, socially discursive, mainly male, periodical readers before the age of free and universal education.  Nevertheless, his point evolved so that he came to see ethics not simply as something an individual can best work out by him or herself and whatever his or her conscience happens to say. He was striving to deal with more complex issues of judgment and application: How is the individual to make an ethical decision based on precedent when the particular circumstances have changed, and the same action could, for instance, even become destructive? What if the principles involved in making the decision have ambiguities about them? In such circumstances, how is one to find and settle on the appropriate rule to follow?

In spite of Kant’s move towards communication in community, another philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was critical of Kant’s ethics as still remaining too abstract, and wanted to ground ethical decision-making in real situations of shared community life, in particular, specific ethical communities. In other words, for action to be considered ethical, more attention needed to be given to the implementation of ethics, including the need for agency to live the ethical life.

A problem with relying on current democratic systems for a guide to how to have an ethical life in complex times is a belief that ethical individuals will elect an ethical leader. As Bob Dylan points out, (see Ladder Award) many leaders begin with good intentions and get elected on that basis, but they do not necessarily have the power that people who elected them believed them to have, to deliver on promised changes.

Another problem with the individualized approach is while many are encouraged to act as ethical and responsible individuals, certain groups are able to come together in powerful, self-interested networks which can and do act or wield influence with little regard for ethics or responsibility. To then insist on people being simply ethical and responsible individuals is to leave them all the more disarmed and defenseless in the face of these often well-networked groups.

The kind of question I would like to open up here is, can this kind of Kantian and Hegelian philosophizing help in thinking through and beyond the dangers of relying on a more individualized approach to our future development and the need, therefore, for more reflective, communication-based forms of development and agency?

I have drawn on Scott Lash (a social and cultural theorist) for his interpretation of Kant’s critiques (1994, 1999). I may have over-simplified the arguments. I welcome further discussion and clarification, on Kant, Hegel, Lash and other thinkers on situated, community-based ethics. Anyone with an interest who has studied the matter is invited to contribute to a Soap Box or Theory Café Blog or as a comment.

There are of course problems creating space and time to be reflective and there are issues such as constraints with various forms of conformist communitarian ethics which Scott Lash raises. I will address some of these issues in future Blogs. Of course anyone is welcome to raise anything which comes up in the meantime.

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1 Comment

  1. Jaycee says:

    I am more familiar with Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative than with his concept of reflective judgment, and not at all familiar with Hegelian theory. I would express the categorical imperative as ‘acting only on that policy which you could consistently will to be a universal law’; in other words, acting in such a way that the basis of your action could be recommended to everyone as an example to follow, without entailing a contradiction. I don’t see this as being an individualistic approach – rather the opposite: it is only by seeing the social implications of our choices and actions that we can come to make the correct decisions. Or at least, if it is individualistic in the sense of giving the individual a template for ethical decision-making, that is still compatible with collective decision-making.

    In fact one could argue that the higher the level of collective decision-making, the more obviously necessary it becomes to have such a template as the categorical imperative. Take something like a decision to ‘grow the economy’ in a world of finite resources; can a government will that the basis of this decision become a universal law, without entailing a contradiction? No, because if every government pursues economic growth, our finite resources (including the ‘sinks’ for our waste) will run out.

    I do agree that there is a need to develop ethical networks in order to empower individuals and communities who want to bring positive change in society, and that communication of the kind promoted by this website is a creative step in this direction.