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Meaning & Morality in Modernity

Andrew Brower Latz traces two core problems for the modern mind.

In Sam Lipsyte’s satirical novel The Ask, set in contemporary New York, the protagonist says, “We were stuck between meanings. Or we were the last dribbles of something. It was hard to figure. The fall of the Soviet Union, this was… The beginning of aggressively marketed nachos.”

Disquiet about the experience of modern life was already being expressed in the mid-nineteenth century by novelists such as Flaubert, philosophers such as Kierkegaard, and sociologists such as Weber. In this article we’ll consider a tradition, exemplified by Weber, of examining modernity’s problems by relating them to a way of thinking. (The reader should be warned: this is a completely one-sided presentation focused entirely on the problems of modernity and not its great achievements.)

A Sketch

Before we launch into the details, here is a broad sketch of the problem. In modern society we live with an ethical predicament: as our form of society has increased our material well-being, it has simultaneously leached the significance from our experience. Our intellectual life is dominated by scientific rationality, and our practical life by bureaucratic rationality (these two forms of reason are similar); and although they are very good at securing the means of life, they drain from the world the “sources of meaning and significance that traditionally anchored ethical practices”: God, community, nature. (The quotation is from J.M. Bernstein’s 2001 book Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, which I’ll follow here, as it is one of the best accounts of these issues). So the end result of these forms of rationality and their institutional expressions in our politics and societies, has been the undermining of both morality and meaning.

The foundational analysis of how this situation arose came from the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). He called it disenchantment or rationalisation. But the first person to articulate the unease with real force was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) in the late nineteenth century. His thought is sometimes formulaically expressed in these terms: the highest values devalue themselves, and there is no answer to ‘why?’. This loss of meaning and morality Nietzsche called ‘nihilism’ and ‘the death of God’ because the influence of traditional Christian morality on European society was waning. Nietzsche identified a society-wide condition with existential and intellectual ramifications: as society pursued scientific truth and rationality, people found that other values and ideals seemed increasingly less rational. As a result they began to doubt ethical values and ideals, which in turn lost their motivating force, and so our ability to understand and guide our lives with practical reason was undermined. This begins to threaten “the ethical meaningfulness of human existence” and “in so doing, undermine the conditions of rational agency, of goal-directed meaningful action as such” (Bernstein, p.6). Notice this is not simply a problem of ethics, but of reason itself: “Modern, secular reason is self-undermining” (p.5). Even reason and truth now seem suspect to us, and we do not know why we should value them.

This is a remarkable position to be in.

Meaning In Modernity
Meaning In Modernity by Federico De Cicco 2015
To see more of his art, please visit behance.net/zumar7

Some Remarks on the Birth of Modernity

What I am about to describe is not a criticism of science itself, but an observation about an unfortunate effect of science’s success. Over time science has developed a view of nature as devoid of meaning: valueless, merely a series of processes taking place according to physical laws. Mathematics and mathematical physics seem to describe this reality objectively, and so these disciplines were taken as the ideal for all knowledge and reason, simply because modern science had proven so successful and progressed so rapidly. Reason now comes to be seen as requiring the continual critique of myth and other prescientific thought. From the standpoint of Enlightened modern society, one can say, “Once I used to reason using myth, now I demythologise; once I used to be religious, now I am secular; once I used to regard nature as imbued with subjective values, now I see objectively.”

The problem with this view of reason is not its scepticism – scepticism is an essential and intrinsic aspect of reason. The problem is combining scepticism with a claim to self-sufficiency. Here reason denies that it requires anything except itself. The end result is to consider any distinctly human perspective a distortion of an objective picture of a physical universe that exists independently of humanity. And so reason begins to critique moral values as a failure of objectivity, as mere private or personal beliefs, as subjective opinion, not fact. We are now familiar with the suggestion that our moral beliefs should not be imposed on others. This is precisely because they are considered as private beliefs. Since values are private, lacking objectivity and therefore truth, it is difficult to insist that others must follow them. The whole enterprise of morality can come to seem a front for self-interested power-plays. If this is how we think about moral values, it is unsurprising that moral motivation has been weakened. We begin to see what is behind Weber’s observation that modernity is marked by an absence of the highest values from the public realm.

Weber called this kind of valueless rationality instrumental reason or disenchanted reason. Instrumental reason asks merely about the most efficient means to given ends; it does not decide ends for itself, nor evaluate them. Values, it is believed, are not open to rational adjudication. They are non-rational, simply personal preferences.

In parallel with instrumental scientific rationality in the intellectual sphere, our practical lives are shaped by instrumental bureaucratic reason. Now, this is a tendency, not an absolute, but it is a strong tendency. Recently I heard a talk by a former civil servant who now works in a policy think tank. She mentioned, in an offhand way, that a policy based on values is not open to questions of evidence. One either shares those values or not. In the policy-making community this is a truism.

To a certain extent forms of society do our thinking and feeling for us, insofar as they organise our experience, create our possibilities, define our expectations, present us with options. The nature of our experience of the world is shaped so profoundly by science, technology and the social organisations they generate, scientific instrumentality cannot but affect our very selves. We should not overstate this influence lest we ignore our ability to stand back from what happens to us, but it does help explain why it was that from the 1840s onwards boredom and fatigue became widespread experiences, as it is around this time that modern bureaucracy became firmly entrenched as a mode of governing both the state and private corporations, and science and technology started to dominate everyday life, particularly with railways and clock time. Before trains there was only human speed or horse speed, and travel involved a different relation to the environment. Now in place of the measured enjoyment of an unfolding scene, train passengers were faced with an immensely increased rate of experiential stimuli. The experience of space and time was profoundly changed; one observer spoke of their ‘annihilation’ (see Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey, 1986). Before the spread of clocks and watches, an ‘hour’ was a proportion of the period of daylight; accordingly, the length of an hour varied according to the season. In contrast, time measured by clocks is regular and linear, disconnected from any biological or seasonal rhythms. Even where clocks were used, there was no need to co-ordinate time between distant parts of the world. But, after the 1850s, as trains proliferated and logistics had to be organised, the need arose to standardise time across large distances. (Britain has had a standardised national time only since 1880). From here on, as society is increasingly pervaded by science and organised along bureaucratic lines, so scientific and bureaucratic rationality become more dominant, and so increasingly adopted as a perception of the world.

This social context creates a problem for the individual. What kind of commitment can I have to my morality if it lacks full-blooded truth? The more insistently I hold to it, the more dogmatic I must appear.

Notice what a fascinating thing has just happened: a form of reasoning has changed our emotional lives. A new way of thinking rearranges our experience and even identity, but then becomes normal, and invisible.

This disenchanted form of reason creates a kind of emotional scepticism, a motivational gap. Even when we think we know what we should do – for instance, most of us are confident that murder is wrong – we are not sure why, and that is not only an intellectual gap but an emotional one too. The sheer plurality of ethical views creates a hesitation, a provisionality, about our own views, even when they are central to who we take ourselves to be.

One of the enduring puzzles of modern moral philosophy is the problem of moral motivation and obligation. From what we know so far, this should not be surprising. The two dominant theories of modern ethics are utilitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism declares right whatever action produces the greatest net benefit. Put rather crudely, deontology defines right action as duty – that which still remains to be done once all selfish interests have been purged. Common to both is the requirement that individuals act in ways that discount their own subjective preferences, values and projects – ultimately their own self. In place of practical wisdom, of the moment of judgement required in action, the theories offer either the application of a calculation formula or a universal logic that is the same for everyone. In other words, in using instrumental reason, modern society creates a motivational gap between belief and action, and the very theories that have been developed by thinkers in the modern period to deal with the gap end up contributing to it because they use the form of reason that creates the problem in the first place.

Reasons & Motivations

This is such a remarkable idea it is worth pausing to consider. Can the way we have thought about ethics for the last two hundred years really have made morality more difficult for ourselves?

One can think of the situation this way. Moral reasoning faces two kinds of tests: logical coherence and acceptance. The first test requires that our views exhibit a measure of consistency; the second is the thought that for a moral reason to be a moral reason it must become part of my motivations. To see this, consider the alternative: a moral reason that is only logically binding. This is equivalent to saying, “this logically-binding moral rule ought to be part of your motivations.” But what is the force of that ‘ought’? It is still logical, not motivational. We are now in a regress, in which only logically coherent but never motivating reasons can be offered for action (see J M Bernstein, Recovering Ethical Life, 1995).

An example may clarify this. I used to work in a school for autistic teenagers. On one occasion I was talking to a lad who had refused to help his fellow students. I pointed out this was not ideal behaviour. “I don’t care,” he said, “I don’t want anything to do with them.” “Aha!” I thought, “Kant had an argument against this,” and so I put Kant’s argument to him (not in so many words) that he cannot consistently will that people never help each other, because he might himself need help one day. What if he needed to be rushed to hospital, for instance? “But I don’t want anybody’s help,” he replied, “I want people to leave me alone and I’ll leave them alone.” I had to admit this was logically consistent. The implication is, in short, that all the logic in the world won’t motivate if you just don’t care.

Well, what sort of reason is a motivating reason? One that engages not just the intellect but the affects, that is, the emotions, will, experience; a reason that is part of our identity, our narrative sense of self, essential to the most central projects in which we take ourselves to be engaged. Motivational rules derive from the tacit skills we learn from our culture and form of life. Let me take another example from my school setting. People with autism typically have difficulty understanding and navigating social situations, and they typically struggle with flexibility and generalisation. One day we were trying to teach our students about ‘stranger danger’. The first rule of thumb we taught them was: do not talk to strangers. But immediately we had to qualify it. You can talk to strangers in uniform; or for instance, if you need to ask a shop assistant for help. And you can reply to someone who politely wishes you good morning; but you do not then usually engage him or her in lengthy conversation. And so on. But we could not possibly create a list of all the rules for all eventualities. This shows we do not learn how to negotiate our way around people by applying a list of rules but because we imbibe these skills from life. This does not mean we cannot articulate certain rules, question them, bring aspects of our social life into focus, but it does mean that ethical experience is prior to ethical theory. Said differently, it means that our motivational reasons are dependent upon our form of life .

Moral theory is therefore faced with a choice: use seemingly self-sufficient scientific rationality, but be unable to connect morality with motivation; or make morality both rational and motivating, but then give up the view of rationality as objective and free-standing. On the whole, modern moral theory has adopted the first strategy. The result could be expressed thus: At the deepest level, only reason, not facts or experience, can have any significance for guiding behaviour. But there is something deeply troubling about denying reason’s dependence on the world, not least a denial of human mutuality.

There is another disturbing result of using instrumental reason in moral thinking, namely, the undermining of what it is to be an agent – a self capable of moral choices.

This is such a bold statement that I don’t feel comfortable making it without offering at least some justification. This involves an account of morality that sees moral insight – thinking about moral values – as having four moments. First, as we have just seen, in order to be action-guiding, moral reasoning has to involve individual acceptance and approval. For example, in deciding whether to join Amnesty International, deep personal motivations are at play; whereas in the deduction of the area of a circle, they are not. Second, moral consciousness is a form of insight or knowledge. It is not merely a belief, but is a response that imposes itself on us. Third, it follows that moral insight to some extent creates the self. Seeing the good is a form of self-understanding: to approve of the good as good, or to refuse it, is to recognise the moral nature of the good, and create the self in response to it. The self comes to be by making the choice, not by merely theoretically knowing the good: “Knowledge of the good, and hence the characteristic features of moral insight itself, become available only when performatively realised” (Adorno, p.28). Fourth, whereas for theoretical reasons the self recedes as irrelevant, in practical or moral reason the self is chosen.

If we adopt something like this view of morality an important conclusion emerges. If the self depends on responding to the good, and the good is obscured or lost, the self comes under pressure. Similarly, when the alternatives for morality are narrowed to private fancy or formal logic, the motivations of the self are often reduced to pleasure or material gain; a feature of society detailed with acid clarity by the novels of Michel Houellebecq. This is only one trajectory among others, but an important one: when the major goods of life are taken without further ado to be pleasure and wealth, the means-end nature of bureaucratic rationality seems entirely adequate to negotiating everyday life. And when bureaucratic rationality seems entirely adequate for life, our values have been chosen for us, and with them the selves they entail. By institutionalising bureaucratic rationality in its ethics and politics, modern society starts to replace practical reason with instrumental reason. Genuine practical reason, in which the good is seen and chosen in moments that found the self, is obscured.

This is all very gloomy, and it is of course entirely one-sided. Nevertheless, something like this assessment has underlain much of European philosophy and high culture for close to two centuries now, and the mentality of modernity remains a major context for much moral and political thought.

© Andrew Brower Latz 2015

Andrew Brower Latz is a PhD candidate at Durham University.

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