Why we have ethical questions but not answers

As so many do, this post started as a reply to another post elsenet where a writer was quoted about something like the impossibility of an ethics of narrative or what is commonly thought of as postmodernity’s most glaring problem: that of the relativism of its moral arguments, when it has any.

Usually when I read the phrase “post-modern ‘anything goes'” it is being written by someone in a field in which postmodern theory does not figure very large–often a science-y type or sometimes a social science-y type; I suspect that in the social sciences postmodernism does get airplay but it is something like an AM radio broadcast of what needs to be auditioned live and in person.

Yes, the author is a fiction in most postmodern theory, and yes, it is difficult to make any claims to objective reality from within a postmodern critique of metaphysics. We do live in a discursively constituted, culturally mediated environment as postmodern Westerners and narrative does tend to be where one looks when one is trying to discern the grounds of classical Western metaphysics.

But “narrative” does not equal “not real” or “not binding” or even “voluntary” or “at somebody’s whim.”

That is a larger argument, but the question that I was looking at when I wrote what follows was about narrative and ethics, and some claim that the two terms are somehow mutually exclusive, which follows fairly quickly from assuming that narrative is unreal or whimsical. There is, in fact, an ethics of narrative that has been under investigation and exposition for quite some time, but maybe not in those circles where postmodernism is seen as a code word for absolute relativism.

Postmodernism’s critique has always been that it may be impossible to critique any given narrative from an objective point of view, but what is little spoken of is that this does not leave us with “only” subjective points of view; rather it questions such dualisms as objective/subjective as metaphysical assumptions and thus, implicitly in some cases, critiques both objective truth and subjective relativism, as well as the metaphysical order that relies on binary constructions.

What that leaves us with can vary depending on whom one talks to, but among other things, it is possible to critique cultural constructions from within their very constructedness without having to appeal to an objective standard. In fact it is the constructions themselves that are critiqued: arguments and their consequences are not without consequences simply because they are not objective. The real does not dissolve when dualism is questioned but becomes a part of discursive practices that have real effects on real beings whose discursive aspects do not render them less real or less prone to suffering.

There are still choices to be made in narrative constructivism, and consequences for making them. There may not be any externally applicable rules, but there are internal effects whose originating arguments can be questioned without appeal to external rules.

What results is a kind of argumentative analysis where used to appear moral debates. Instead of marshaling objective standards and decrees behind a particular position, one must instead construct a narrative that can withstand challenges that are also narrative. It may, ultimately, be true that the grounding assumptions of any given piece of discourse must simply be agreed upon by the group adhering to that discourse, but that those assumptions can always be questioned does not mean that they have no purchase, be it narrative or ethical or pathetic or logical. It simply means that they cannot be assumed to ground every possible discourse.

That any given assumption cannot ground every possible discourse does not render all assumptions equal. We can make still make ethical judgments about the consequences that obtain from following out a set of assumptions, for instance, and we can decide, as a community, upon what sorts of grounds our ethical practice will rest. That these grounds may not be universal renders them no less real and no less consequential in the world of discourse itself–that is, our world. We may have to do a bit of extra work in explaining why we hold a certain ethical principle as operational and necessary, but is this a bad thing? Principles that must answer for themselves may in fact be more humane than those that feel they can claim universal objectivity–for who can question the latter with mere words?

Ultimately, though, the narrative situation itself implies an ethical relationship between speakers, or between teachers of language and learners of language, or between those with voices in a given context and those without, and in other discursive situations that might occur under various circumstances. There remains at the heart of narrative itself an ethical relation, and one which is only beginning to be articulated as such. How we approach this relation without falling back on the distinction between subjective and objective–for it turns out that this relation appears before either of those concepts can be defined–may be where the ethical question of postmodernity lies.

The ethical relation that obtains prior to the metaphysical split between subject and object is the ethical problem that we in our discursive constitution inhabit. It is something of a rather strange event, for it marks the very possibility of language, as language’s inaugural gesture, while it eludes the grasp of that language which it realizes. This does not make it universal, or relative, or objective, or subjective–it is not situated at all within the domain of discursive conceptions that arise between speakers, for at that point language has already begun; its inaugural gesture might be said to be adhering illegibly to the far side of that language, where language itself cannot speak about it.

To say much more would be to open a book-length work on how this event or relation or situation might be the most consequential event or relation or situation in which we ever find ourselves, and thus be the most ethically relevant. An ethics that arises prior to conceptual discourse is necessarily one that cannot be codified discursively even though it is bound to language much like something resembling an unconscious is bound to our everyday thought and speech. The postmodern situation–the discursive situation–emerges from ethics, from an infinite series of ethical relations or events, in which speakers approach one another under circumstances that vary from one narrative event to the next.

What can one take away from this, given that it is only a beginning of an approach to postmodern ethics? For one, discourse is conseqential: it has effects, and those effects are realized in a world where beings are in always shifting relations to one another. Those consequences can be analyzed discursively and ethically and they are subject to ethical judgment within the particular situations in which the living approaches the living. At a discursive level, values can be held in community and they can be argued for and against. The absence of objective standards does not make this less so or even less necessary–if anything, such an absence makes deliberation one of the most consequential acts we undertake.

This is perhaps our provisional situation, the one in which we work within discourse and within relation to each other and relation to creatures with varying linguistic abilities: discursive principles are always open to interpretation and reinterpretation as well as to critique and recapitulation. Just prior to this situation is that in which another who speaks approaches us with what will be the gift–both promise and poison–of language itself. That relationship is the ever-unfolding event in which discursive practice arises and is something like our ethical unconscious every time we speak. The consequence of this event are enormous for we who live under the regime of speech and those who are subject to our actions and words. The ethical question at the heart of this relation is both the possibility and necessity of the question itself. That it may not have a discursive answer is not something we need to mourn, as we sometimes do those times when we could assume a universal relevance for our ethical decrees. That it is a question may be the motive behind ethics: to be open to question, to be prone to deliberation, may well be the only possible condition in which we can approach one another without rendering ourselves ethically bereft.

There is nothing new about any of this; it has been said elsewhere both more interestingly and better. However, this particular inquiry does not get much airplay in popular conceptions of what it means to be postmodern or to live in a time characterized as postmodern. Regardless of how much we might like to go back to where truth was grounded in something besides our own speech, that time is over–the variety of human experience cannot be pared back once it has made itself manifest. But we do not need universality or to salvage the objective in order to answer the question of ethics in postmodern thought. We need only to arrive at some partial conception of the question itself to understand that we stand before one another in a state of disarmament and undress, and that this moment is the ethical question for which no answer is adequate–and this could be a fortunate situation for those who have labored under answers whose adequacy was assumed to be a universal given, but only if we continue to resist precisely those types of answers.

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