Ethical Contingency: Reflections on Morality as Context Bound*

*. This is a lecture from the National Conference in Military Ethics in Oslo, October 2002,
«Norm and Context.»

Introduction. Underlying issues

The notion of contingency in the title of this article is not arbitrary. Anyone working with ethics and moral philosophy should be aware that there are different kinds of contingencies involved in what we hold or develop as our ethical position. The awareness of contingency is important – it helps us keep in mind that things could be different, that there exists the possibility of thinking differently than we do. This is even more important when we reflect on the last part of the title: morality as context bound. Especially when we realize that morality in some way or another is context bound, we need to face the challenge that our position – the one recognized as context bound – could be otherwise. However, please note that this does not mean that it should be otherwise – that is a completely different issue.

Already these preliminary remarks give us an indication that there are a lot of issues involved in the topic I have been asked to address. Let me then first of all list some of them:

The realization of contingency by no means indicates that a moral position based on contingencies could be exchanged for any other. To face contingencies is not to exclude the reasons that we have for holding a moral position, rather, it situates the reasons we have in a certain context.

Moreover, this implies that both reasons and contexts could be different. Usually, we can exchange or develop the reasons we have for a position, but not the context in and for which we develop it. For instance, it has not much meaning for you to try to develop a military ethics that is related to the Afghan or Japanese context, but is has a lot of meaning if you try to develop it for and within the Norwegian context. However, the reasons you develop and the solutions you suggest to the tasks you identify, is closely related to the context within which you find yourself. That, however, does not exclude the possibility that a Japanese or Afghan moral philosopher would find many of your arguments relevant, illuminating, and good. But many of the conditions for his or her use or not use of this, would be related to the context and the problems he/she was facing.

To arrive to the conclusion that our moral position should be otherwise, usually presuppose either a) that we are not able to come to terms with present ethical problems on the terms existing for solving that problem, or b) that we are presented with reasons and/or opinions that shed new light on our hitherto held positions, challenging them. In the last instance, this usually follows from being faced with a position that transcends the context in which our hitherto held morality is situated and argued for.

I hold that the realization of the different contingencies implied behind the formation of our ethical positions should oblige us to expose our position to other contexts and reasons than those we are already familiar with. To expose our position to other contexts is a good way of identifying our own blind spots. It is also a way to de-familiarize our opinion is such a way that we do not immediately take it for granted. Hence the realization of contextually bound elements in our own ethics should not immediately lead us to the attempt to try to avoid or transcend anything that is contaminated by context. Rather it should mean that we strive for allowing several different and contextually based approaches to challenge our own. That would not only deepen our understanding of the reasons we have behind our position, but would also clarify our potential ignorance at points that we may not have given sufficiently attention to.

By saying this, I also want to argue that this does not imply that any position is just as good as anyone else, since everything is contextually situated anyway. The bottom line of such an argument would be that Osama bin Laden’s way of reasoning would be just as good as Kjell Magne Bondevik’s or Tony Blair’s, or at the same level as George Bush’s. However, also George Bush cannot simply state that his morality is better off because he is not a terrorist, as long as he is not able to face and defend himself against some of the challenges that the US are confronted with regarding their policy in the Middle East. We do not decide which morality is the best by comparing our merits with those of others, we are also obliged to state the reasons behind our morality and say on what basis we think that is also integrates the interests of those presenting themselves as our opponents.

The conclusion of this introduction would then be to say that surely, our morality is bound to contextual conditions. That however, is and can by no means provide us with a sufficient justification for a moral position. It is how we relate to those outside the context that proves the true content of our morality. However, all of this is another story. I am asked to talk about contingencies. But you should have a fair idea of where I stand as I now continue on that path. I am by no means a dedicated contextualist, but have learned a lot from people as different as Jürgen Habermas and Jeffery Stout on this. They combine the realization of how we are shaped by our life-world, with the necessity of being confronted with concrete others that are not of the same opinion as myself.

How are our moral positions contextually bound?

Let me start with one example1This is taken from my book, På grensen til Den andre, Oslo, 1999. of how morality is context bound. 10 years ago I lived in the western part of Norway, where you are very much dependent upon ferries for communication. One day I was in a hurry, and had to drive to the nearest ferry as rapid as possible. On the way there, just some 3 kilometers before arriving, I had to overtake a car driving very slowly. I reached the ferry just in time, – as did the car I had passed on the way. Later the same week I had lunch with some colleagues and told them what I had experienced with the slow driver, how I had to take a chance by overtaking the other car just after Barstadvik on my way to Festøy. Others had had the same experience. One of my colleagues, of local origin, turned very silent before he finally said: Here at Søre Sunnmøre it is considered to jump the queue to overtake a car after Barstadvik.

The example shows how you need to have knowledge of more than just a rule or norm to act in accordance with what is expected of you in that context. At the same time, it illustrates very well how this morality is context bound: you have to know the local customs as well as the local places in order to act accordingly. The rule «You shall not jump the queue» is without meaning unless you know where the queue starts. And how do you know? How do you know that it applies to anyone? How do you know if and when it is allowed for exceptions (for coaches, ambulances etc.)?

One could argue that what I experienced was just one way of giving the rule «you shall not jump the queue» an application. But there is more to it: I knew that rule, but did not know how it was applied. The content and practice that the rule prescribes is here given a very specific application. So in order to really know what the rules imply, you have to know the context as well.

The local application did serve another purpose as well: it put me very efficiently outside the group of those locals who knew the context, and accordingly, how to behave. Since the rule was given quite specific conditions related to that very place, is also served as a device for social demarcation. Those having their identities defined by a set or rules for behavior are very easily led to manifest and maintain their identity by promoting those rules. Contextual rules are thus not only there in order to make people do the right thing, but in order to manifest what it means to be a true Sunnmøring, Norwegian etc. This function, which I would propose to call the identity function, is necessary to differentiate from the moral function, but I think that we have to realize that this is an element often implied in the ethical way of practicing a rule is related to the local community for which it serves as an identity marker.

I want to pursue the example even further. If I wanted to be a good Sunnmøring that would be a motivation for me practicing the rule in the local version. Hence, the context would offer me the motivation (as well as the identity) for a specific way of behavior. To be brave is a good virtue being a soldier, but not necessarily when you are a medical doctor treating patients. Hence, virtues as well as motivations are context bound.

Summing up this so far, we can say that: Contextual ethical theories claims that ethical validity, content and motivation is dependent only upon its context, i.e., the social, cultural or religious context. Such theories need not in principle be relativistic in any other sense than that they claim that morality always is conditioned by social and/or religious suppositions and is relative to them. Often, however, moral contextualism is taken to be a support for normative ethical relativism, i.e., as a way of arguing that there is no ethics that is valid inter-culturally or inter-religiously. (Cf. Bexell, Grenholm: Teologisk Etik, 67).

What stuff is morality made of? Digging into the context.

As humans, we are not alone, and our morality is intrinsically shaped also by our relationship to other people. It is not like we first are humans, and then become moral humans, it is more like we are first related to others in the social world, and morality makes this relation human. Morality is not an option – it is something given with life itself, with the vulnerability and the challenges presented to us. You cannot think of any human being who has not in some way or another developed his/her moral skills and abilities to perceive the world in a human way without a social basis in the community with other people.

Hence we are well advised to think the human being as basically social when we address him/her as a moral being. The development of moral capacities are consequently intrinsically linked to the development of other emotional and mental abilities. During the process of socialization the child grows into a world of shared resources for understanding and dealing with the world. We call this shared word for the life-world of the subject.

The life-world is an undifferentiated web of language, customs and habits, patterns for action, practices and, tradition(s). It is obvious from this description that what is present here, is what we take for granted, that within, with and by which we are able to partake without questions and questioning in a world that we have in common with others. As long as everybody we know speaks the same language as us, we need neither to learn another nor to be aware of possible differences from the way other people speak. We do take the content of the life-world that we share with others for granted.

If we look a little bit more closely, this means that in a certain sense our life-world is the first context of morality. I speak here of morality as something practical and practiced, more than theoretical and reflected. However, we cannot identify context totally with life-world. The life-world offers us conditions for how we think and resources for how to approach moral issues, sometimes also practices with moral content or relevance. But it does not in itself give us an ability to act as ethically competent. Let me, in spite of the fact that it is a little daring, tell you why I think this is so:

As long as we act out of habit or custom, we act «because that is what we have learned», «because others do the same», even «because I was given orders to do so» etc. we have not turned the causes that we have into something that we question, but act merely on reflex. The moral content can be well enough, but there is a more or less causational link between life-world and action, so that we cannot really say that we act on principle or on reasons.

By describing the background of a potential moral action in this way, I play on the distinction between reasons and causes. Causes are external and not always transparent to us, while reasons are internal and something that we have made our own by our own way of thinking. Moral discussion is usually a discussion of reasons, and not of causes. As humans, we act freely (and, I would add, morally) when we act based on reasons. Then we are able to give others ethical reasons why we do what we do. We do not then do it because we have learned it, but because we have an insight into the goodness of that action of its outcome, we do not do it because others do it, but based on our own convictions and judgment, and we do not follow the order because someone told us to, but out of our own estimation of its moral content. Morality searches for moral reasons, and not for external causes.

This can be rephrased in another way as well: when we act morally, we address others and ourselves as individuals capable of developing a common understanding of what is at stake. When you order someone to do something, you do not see him or her as anything else than a strategic means to reach a desired end. But a genuinely moral point of view seeks to formulate a common understanding of why this goal should be reached, and forbids us to use another person just as a means (as many will know from knowledge about Immanuel Kant). So you can choose either to use the other as an external means for your cause, and hence cause him to do something, or you can seek to share your reasons with him in such a way that he does what you think is necessary out of his own will. Hence there is a parallel between understanding, reasons and freedom on the one hand, and strategic action, causation and neglect of human understanding on the other. Morality is shaped by the first, and is constantly threatened by the second.

In order to develop understanding you need language. Without language, morality as a reason-based activity would very soon die. It is as communicating individuals that we transmit insights into reasons, and offers each other insights into our reasons for acting like we do. It is also by means of language that we can challenge already given and/or taken-for-granted positions in our moral context. I will return to the later, but first of all address some of the ways in which language is giving our moral context its shape.

A very apparent way of learning the moral skills demanded of us in a certain context is to tell stories. Narratives give us the opportunity to both imagine a specific context, as well as engage fantasy, imagination, emotions and rationality in the situation they present us. If you want to know how narratives shape our moral perception, the story of the Good Samaritan present itself as an obvious example. Anyone who has heard that story perceives of the one in need as (a) one that is in need, and (b) one who he/she is obliged to help. Narratives are very important for the formation of our moral apparatus of perception, for good or for bad. If you have been told stories of heroism where the most important thing is to stand unaffected by the suffering of others, or not to engage in them with your own feelings, you are more worse off morally than if you were facing them with empathy and concern. You should note that this is not a position based on sheer contingency, but on a certain understanding of who we are as humans (independent and individually self-based, or relational, with lives interwoven).

One thing is that by way of narratives we learn how to perceive of the situation with a moral understanding of the world. Another is that narratives – since they in a certain way also involve us – also provide us with a specific self-understanding. This self-understanding is not morally neutral. It identifies who you are – often who you are in difference to others. If you are a Serb, the stories you have heard about Serbian history not only tells you how to understand yourself and your nation, but it also makes it harder for you to identify with e.g., Moslems who live in another part of town. One of the problems linked to these contingencies, is that they make it harder to establish a «we» (a common identity) that can overcome injustice, hatred and division. Such stories also contribute to the shaping of our conceptual patterns. It is not given (hence a contingency) how we should relate to “the other” – we can do that in a negative, or in a way recognizing the others human dignity.

We need not go to former Yugoslavia to find examples of this. Think about how former Norwegian generations had trouble in accepting Germans. The historical experiences linked to WW II have provided a lot of contextually informed material for developing moral positions, some good, others bad. One of those most important, I think, is the way the Holocaust made many people say: never again, and led to an active effort in order to overcome the conditions that could lead to that kind of terror.

But what seems a just cause in one instance need not legitimate any given moral position thereafter. I guess many have been puzzled by how former Norwegian freedomfighters, who really stood up for their country and fought to defeat Nazism, then turned very right-wing and some even defended a policy hostile to any kind of immigration. This is illuminating as to how what seems right in one context (to protect one’s country) can be done in ways that are to be judged utterly wrong in another time and under different circumstances. Have we, as moral philosophers, anything to say in order to solve such – at least apparent – contradictions in morality?

I have already partially presented one. Morality is best developed when it is based on an inclusive we, where no one is excluded from participating. It is exactly a non-exclusive we that made it necessary to fight Nazism (Jews and others were not included), and it is the very same attempts of shaping a social world that makes it necessary to address ethnic cleansing and some elements hostile to immigrating with moral criticism.

By establishing an inclusive «we», we transcend the boundaries of a certain context. We do not necessarily put every difference aside – it is still possible to recognize the other as different from me, even with different moral interests. But in order to establish a moral position that comprises both of us, the recognition of difference must interact with the recognition of the other as one who has the same rights and status as me when it comes to moral issues. Hence the context from which we come, be it different or not, is not in itself an argument for the quality in the content of the moral position. An American does not have any kind of moral privilege over an Iraqi per se.

This implies that although we take our point of departure morally in the context we come from, we cannot remain there if we are to have what can be qualified as a moral position. We have to defend that position in front of others, coming from other contexts. Contexts make clear for us a lot about what to look for, but not all. Hence there is an ethical demand that implies that you should take the point of view of the other into consideration. This does not exclude a contextually based position. Neither does it preclude us from returning to the context when it comes to the question of how we are to solve an ethical problem. We must start in context – and return to it if we are to fulfill our moral obligations. However, I will argue for the necessity of a universalistic purification as well as contextual application of a moral position. That is necessary in order to overcome the relativistic threats of contextuality. This purification is related to the «we» that we establish. The return to the context can then, however, also mean that after the purification some of the practices in that context, or some of the ways we see things of some of the narratives we tell, become different.

In a modern and pluralist context, we are challenged to develop a kind of double competence: that of self-criticism as well as the ability to take the position of the other (and not just make him into the same as yourself). Our relation to the given moral position that exists in the context within which we find ourselves cannot be one of immediate acceptance, but needs our own critical scrutiny. If this does not happen, the contingencies linked to that context and position remain unchecked. Critical reflection based on the perspectives of others is just as important as holding for true what you find as your own moral position. This willingness to stand for something and at the same time the willingness to let what you stand for be scrutinized by the perspectives of others, implies that we both recognize the contingencies of our own position, and recognize the right of others to have their saying as to what they think of our moral position. The lack of reconciliation is important to maintain in order to make sure that moral reflection does not turn into mere subjective expressions of faith or represents a totally arbitrary position.

I think this double reflexivity (about the contextuality of my own position as well as the right of the other to address my position) serves as a condition for facing the other as an other. Recognition of otherness implies a position where something transcends your own context, a stance that is not fully integrated with the person that relates to it. The conscious awareness of otherness then implies some kind of recognition of a position that is not my own – but this position is still a position that I am able to recognize, and notice the importance of, despite it not being my own, or coming from my context.

A morality based on contextual conditions is thus necessarily a morality with boundaries. We recognize these boundaries by looking past them, thereby also recognizing the contingency of our position. Contingencies in itself is not a problem – it is the stuff morality is made of. The problem is what happens if these contingencies are not recognized. Then they run the danger of being absolutized. When that happens, we run the risk of not seeing the other because our context has made us blind for the differences between him and ourselves. However, as I have tried to say, the recognition of differences, different contexts and different contingencies does not exclude the possibility of establishing a morality based on an inclusive, communal and communicative «we». But the development of such a morality demands work. However, there is not much of an alternative to such work if we are to take the other – and thus morality itself – seriously.

Fotnoter   [ + ]

1. This is taken from my book, På grensen til Den andre, Oslo, 1999.

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