The International Journal of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Winter 2010)
Towards a Democratic Liberatory Ethics: A restatement
In this article, I will try, 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 and, finally, 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.
Introduction: What is liberatory ethics?
A good starting point in discussing liberatory ethics is to attempt to define it. We may define liberatory ethics as those approaches to ethics proposed by radical theorists of the “antisystemic” Left, which aim to assess —from a radical viewpoint explicitly challenging the present form of socio-economic organisation based on the market economy and representative “democracy”— the ethics of various societies in the past and present and suggest the normative ethics of a future liberatory society. As such, liberatory ethics is a branch of moral philosophy, an alternative ethics to “orthodox” moral philosophy, i.e. those approaches to ethics proposed by theorists who, explicitly or implicitly, take for granted the socio-economic system and the set of values justifying it.
But, before we begin our investigation on the various approaches to liberatory ethics it may be useful to see the main divisions within this field. As it is well known, the central issue around which all of Western ethics has revolved since classical Greek times is the one arising out of the debate between ethical relativism and ethical objectivism. The former was adopted by the Sophists, who based their philosophy on the principle that goodness and justice are relative to the customs of each society, if not merely a disguise for the interests of the stronger. On the other hand, the main proponent of the latter was, Plato, who adopted a stand, according to which it was possible to know an objective form or idea of goodness.
A similar division exists today, not just among “orthodox” moral philosophers, but also among supporters of liberatory ethics. Thus, the main division in liberatory ethics is the one between what we may call “objective liberatory ethics” and the various forms of liberatory ethical relativism. The former is that type of “objectively” grounded liberatory ethics, which proposes a set of ethical values on the basis of an assumed social evolution that is supposedly the outcome of a historical process (Marxist ethics) or, alternatively, of a process of natural evolution (Kropotkin, Bookchin et al). The latter is the type of liberatory ethics that has been developed in the aftermath of the serious crisis of “objective” ethics that was marked by the rise of postmodernism.
It should be made clear however that I do not classify under liberatory ethics the ethics proposed by communitarians like Etzioni, as well as postmodern ethics, Habermas’ “communicative ethics,” Rawls’ theory of justice, and environmental ethics. The reason for this exclusion is that none of these approaches might be characterised, on the basis of the definition given above, as liberatory ethics, since all of them take for granted the present socio-economic system. On the other hand, the approach to ethics that is implied by the approach developed here, does meet the criteria set by the above definition of liberatory ethics, as it explicitly challenges the present socio-economic framework. Furthermore, this approach may be seen as an alternative to the “objective” type of liberatory ethics that was developed in the past, or today (e. g. Bookchin), whilst at the same time it does not fall to the usual traps of the present era: the unbounded moral relativism of postmodern ethics and the various forms of irrationalist ethics —either the latter is based on traditional religions or on the various forms of rampant spiritualism.
In the next section, I will assess the “objective” approaches to liberatory ethics, with particular reference to the Marxist and the libertarian approaches. Then, I will examine the present crisis of “objective” ethics with particular reference to the criticisms raised against it by postmodernists and Castoriadis. Finally, in the last part, I will attempt to outline a democratic ethics based on the Inclusive Democracy project (ID).
1. “Objective” approaches to liberatory ethics
“Objective” liberatory ethics emerged in the nineteenth century as an alternative to the orthodox Enlightenment ethics, which had become the dominant ethics in the West after the decline of the religion-based ethics of the precapitalist era. The common characteristic of the approaches that we may classify under this heading is that they are all based on the hypothesis of some kind of social evolution that is either determined by the historical process (Marxists) or the process of natural evolution (Kropotkin, Bookchin et al). Although they all agree that the content of ethics, i.e. ethical judgments, change through definite causes in historical development, they also insist that the only sound basis for analysing the evolution of ethics can be found in scientific analyses of nature, man, and his social relations. As both Marxists and anarchists maintain, it is only in the historical or natural process respectively, that the unity of ethical judgments and “objective/scientific” analyses can be found.
The Marxist approach to liberatory ethics: one-dimensional ethical relativism
Marx, Engels, and Lenin wrote little that could constitute a theory of liberatory ethics, particularly as regards its normative aspects, i.e. the ethics of a future society. Marxists in general concentrated on what we may call “positive ethics,