Presented at the panel:

Methodological worldviews as influential in the study of morality:

The cases of hermeneutics and objectivism

At the 19th annual meeting of 
the Association for Moral Education
Tallahassee, FL, November 13, 1993

Martin Packer
Department of Psychology
Duquesne University

(412) 396-4852

The position I want to sketch this afternoon is as follows. Our study of morality rests upon a contradiction if we hold, at one and the same time, the following assumptions: first, that morality is a human construction, the product of human activity, and second, that there is a single objective morality that is fully adequate and complete. The first of these assumptions is the assumption of constructivism, and I do not intend to challenge it, at least in the general form in which I have stated it. The second assumption is the assumption of moral objectivism, and I want to suggest that it is time we recognized its inadequacies.

The contradiction that operates if one holds both these assumptions simultaneously is the contradiction that the product of human activity, presumably something contingent whose form could be otherwise, is at the same time the only possible way things could have turned out, the only logical, rational, adequate outcome. This is a ubiquitous contradiction: it appears in our debates over education, I think, as the dilemma of wanting our children to be themselves, to create freely, and at the same time to learn the ways of our society. The belief that these two amount to the same thing - that our rationality, our morality, is the only way things can be, so that our children will inevitably rediscover it for themselves, amounts surely to wish-fulfillment rather than resolution of the dilemma.

For at least 50 years developmental psychology has held as self-evident the two assumptions I have mentioned. The story has been that development is a movement through a sequence of stages of increasing rationality, that this movement is universal, inevitable, and that the outcome is an autonomous, rational individual human agent.

This story has in fact been the dominant one for over 300 years. It is the story of human enlightenment: of the replacement of irrational faith and superstition with rational knowledge claims, of the replacement of prejudice with universal ethical principles, of a human nature out of which inevitably grows an autonomous individual, transcending the mere customs and conventions of human society, achieving objectivity and detachment, thereby fulfilling the human potential. It is a story of inevitable progress and development, of expanding scientific knowledge and increasing technological control.

Unfortunately it is a story without a happy ending. It began to unravel around the time of the first world war, when the notion that Europe was on a path to ever-increasing prosperity, equality, and peace started to become hard to swallow. Newton's conception of the universe as rationally organized and completely predictable started to be questioned. Discovery of alternative geometries showed that even mathematics rests upon the shifting sands of custom and convention, rather than on an a priori logical bedrock. And one ethical philosopher after another abandoned as futile the project to ground human values in universally compelling principals, each announcing their recognition of an unavoidable arbitrariness in the determination of human conduct.

Since Kant and Hume (if not before), morality has been seen as needing to take the form of rational, universal principles that would guide the autonomous individual, principles which would of necessity transcend the varieties of dictates of specific societies and cultures, for these were obviously contingent while morality and the good must be universally compelling - for all people at all times in all places. Just as genuine knowledge cannot be contingent, or so was the view in those times (as it still is for many in our own time), neither can the genuinely ethical be contingent. Achieving this ethical necessity required transcending the customs, habits, routines and accepted norms of society, and the autonomous individual seemed to be just the right kind of ethical agent to accomplish this.

But the autonomy of the individual agent turns out on closer examination to have been the accomplishment of a small elite of, typically, white males, and it was an accomplishment achieved on the backs of other white males, on the backs of women, and on the backs of people of color. Viewed closely, it can scarcely be called autonomy, since it required the dependent servitude of large masses who were generally quite unfree to determine the course of their own actions. Since their dependence guaranteed the freedom of the elite, in a real sense that freedom was an illusion, being just as dependent in turn on them and their accommodation. Viewed closely, it can scarcely be called individual either, since the freedom of a small elite rested upon the social organization of the whole.

What story shall we now tell, now that this happy tale of human progress and human autonomy can now longer ring true? To begin with, I believe, we must modify the tale to include the elements - the agents and the actions - that were systematically omitted, repressed, from this happy tale. We need to explore how the autonomy of a few rests upon the enslavement of the many. And we need to come to understand morality or moralities as contingent accomplishments - something that seems at first a contradiction in terms.

The notion that morality is not timeless, ahistorical and universal seems shocking at first. But consider this - we have come to accept that our sense of what counts as knowledge -- scientific truth, for instance -- will go through periodic upheavals. The sciences go through periodic qualitative reorganizations - paradigm shifts. Phlogiston is a thing of the past; so is gravity, understood as a mysterious action-at-a-distance. Why should we expect our understanding of the good, of the ethical, not to change over time?

And so we find number of people who have been exploring the notion that moral systems are grounded in material forms of life, and so can and must change as these forms of life are transformed. Jane Jacobs, for example, has recently examined the two moral syndromes that have grown up around commerce and political guardianship.

But in a very real sense, what moral development researchers have been doing all along has been to expand our understanding of the contingencies of morality. Zigmund Bauman puts this well:

"In one respect," he writes, "the social sciences born in the age of the Enlightenment have not failed," and he quotes Agnes Heller: "they have provided self-knowledge, and they have never ceased providing self-knowledge of modern society, of a contingent society, of one social among many, our society." "And yet," continues Bauman, "let us observe, this partial success was itself a failure, if judged by the standards of the social sciences' ambition. Whatever modern social sciences did, they did not deliver on their promise; instead, with no knowing and even less intending, they were delivering a reasonable product all along under the false pretences of supplying something altogether else... they informed of contingency while believing themselves to narrate necessity, of particular locality while believing themselves to narrate universality, of tradition-bound interpretation while believing themselves to narrate the extraterritorial and extratemporal truth, of undecidability while believing themselves to narrate transparency, of the provisionality of the human condition while believing themselves to narrate the certainty of the world, of the ambivalence of man-made design while believing themselves to narrate the order of nature" (Bauman, 1993).

It might seem that the account of morality I have sketched here is an account of a state of relativism. The axiological issue here has its cousin in epistemology: if we abandon the attempt to ground knowledge claims in interpretation-free, indubitable data, does this mean that objective knowledge is impossible; that all knowledge claims are subjective, just the expression of personal opinion with no real evidentiary basis? This worry is what Richard Bernstein, in his book "Beyond objectivism and relativism," calls "Cartesian anxiety": it is the fear that the loss of a foundational objectivity can only plunge us into the vertigo of relativism.

But this is not the case: what we understand instead is that knowledge claims are born and live in the shared ways of operating of communities of practice. What was left out of the picture in the search for an interpretation-free foundation is the social world, the culture, in which knowledge claims are made and in which they function. The scientific paradigms described by Thomas Kuhn, the forms of life philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein came to see were an essential part of the way language is used - these concrete, material ways of living, these social practices, are what provide us with our ways of understanding and interpreting the world, and these are what ensure that the distinction between valid and invalid knowledge claims can be made.

They are also what ensure that distinctions between right and wrong can continue to be made. This is not to deny that disagreements will occur; on the contrary, this account provides us with a clearer understanding of why there are as many disagreements over moral issues as we find every day. These moral arguments arise because forms of life cannot exist independently of one another these days. Advances in transportation, in communication, increases in global bureaucracy - all these have brought fundamentalist and liberal, Hindu and Muslim into close contact with one another - and made all of us much more aware than we used to be of what happens when they meet.

It seems to me that it would be incorrect to claim that as researchers we can view these clashes in a value-neutral manner - none of us can stand entirely outside our own community, or step entirely away from our upbringing.

What implication does relinquishing the fairytale of inevitable and universal progress have for the way we conduct our research? What does it say in other words, for our choice of "method"? It seems that what is needed is a method of inquiry that is in accord with the changed way we view the phenomena of morality. That is to say, a method that does not view morality as the construction of the isolated individual, the epistemic subject - that does not view morality as a cognitive system whose genesis and operation is detached from the concrete circumstances of the person and group in which it is found.

What kind of method would this be? It would be one that locates the human agent in a social world, in the sense that a part is located in the whole. Society is reproduced in and through human activity, as humans develop in and through participation in the social order. Interpretation is necessary because the reasons people give in explanation and justification of their actions, to pick just one example, need to be considered and analyzed in the contexts of activity, institution, and culture which define the terms on which they operate. The elements upon which human reasoning operates are semiotic elements, defined and picked out in forms of life that go unexamined by methodologies that focus only on individual cognitive activity.

More importantly perhaps, what does the loss of the story of enlightenment mean for our identities as researchers? What is our role? Are we still the experts on morality: the ones who conduct objective studies to determine the adequacy of various persons' moral functioning? Are we the ones who can read the signposts that point towards moral progress, towards fairness and equity and caring and responsibility? Do we really have the answers? Can we really prescribe forms of moral education, as though teaching morality were not too different from teaching math, or grammar? When there is a moral conflict, whose side are we on, and why? Where do we choose to apply the weight of our authority, as academics and as scientists?

And these questions can only be answered, I believe, on the local level. They are decisions that have to be made in the light of the local, particular circumstances. But they are, I believe, on the local level. They are decisions that have to be made in the light of lthe local, particular circumstances. But they are, I believe, questions that must be asked.

Relevant Texts:

Bauman, Z. (1992.). Intimations of postmodernity. London: Routledge.

Bauman, Z. (1993). Postmodernity, or living with ambivalence. In J. Natoli & L. Hutcheon (Eds.), A postmodern reader (pp. 9-24). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Bernstein, R. (1983). Beyond objecivism and relativism: Science, hermeneutics, and praxis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Jacobs, J. (1992). Systems of survival: A dialogue on the moral foundations of commerce and politics. New York: Random House.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacIntyre, A. (1984). After virtue: A study in moral theory (2 ed.). South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Packer, M. J. (1985a). Concealment and uncovering in moral philosophy and moral practice. Human Development, 28, 108-112.

Packer, M. J. (1985b). Hermeneutic inquiry in the study of human conduct. American Psychologist, 40, 1081-1093.

Packer, M. J. (1985c). The structure of moral action: A hermeneutic study of moral conflict. Basel: Karger.

Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical investigations (2 ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.