The Status of Ethics in Society

Tinkara Tihelj, Gašper Pirc

Tinkara Tihelj

University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Address: Aškerčeva 2, 1000, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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Gašper Pirc

University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Address: Aškerčeva 2, 1000, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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Abstract: A review on the symposium “The Status of Ethics in Society” (Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 17, 2019) provided by Tinkara Tihelj and Gašper Pirc consists of two parts: a thematic introduction and a full report of discussions held. In the first text, one of the organizers and the moderator of the public discussion Gašper Pirc provides a foreword to the symposium, referencing the thematic horizon and the particular issues that the discussion intended to tackle. The text is the expanded version of his introductory speech at the symposium and relays the interpretation of contemporary society which was instrumental for the decision of the organizers to chart the said event. In the second part of the section, Tinkara Tihelj provides a full report of the discussion, including a short overview of the specific contribution of each participant. The report also reflects her views on the importance of such events in the current society, pervaded by the lack of rational communication and dialogue between different approaches to interpretation and different academic disciplines.

Key words: ethics, contemporary society, moral philosophy, philosophical symposium, public discussion, social and political philosophy.

Received at July 05, 2019.

How to cite: Tihelj, Tinkara; Pirc, Gašper (2019). The Status of Ethics in Society. Researcher. European Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences. 3 (2), 137–145.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.32777/r.2019.2.3.7

The Role of Philosophical Approach, Normative Standards, and Social Imagination in the Investigation of the Features of Contemporary Society: a Foreword to the Public Discussion The Status of Ethics in Society

In the past few decades, we witnessed a significant rise in the quantity of discussion upon the prevailing ethical issues, particularly in the encapsulated domains of medicine and law. The quantity and the level in the undertaking, the vast majority of acknowledgment regrettably refers to the particularities of applied ethics and specialized moral standards. While academic debates in philosophy usually transcend the hermetic contexts, characterized by the notion of immediacy, their practical import frequently remains negligible. Slovenian philosophical society attempted to challenge this by organizing a discussion on the status and the manners of approaching the research upon the role of ethics as a critical sphere of social existence.

As long as trivialization and formalization of communication in both politics and media allow the reproduction of the logic of objectivized relations in society, the formal structure of politics affects the social lifeworld, not only with the impingement of the possibility of positive freedom in Berlin’s sense of the term, but also via functioning as the alienation by the effect of which the concepts of political, freedom and recognition might be reduced to their merely formal equivalents in a superficial appropriation of the common-world presentation. The prospect of the devaluation of the standards in investigation of facts and in recognition of truth content[1] might lead to the state of misrecognition of healthy social relations where the objects, produced by power-based social imagination, become the cornerstone of investigation upon the properties of contemporary existence.

The important negative consequence of the lack of a complex understanding of the interpretative and possibly ideologically dissimulated nature of social and political reality lies in the potential of the distorted presentation of the normative structure of society which often accompanies mechanistic appropriation of applied ethics to the specific areas of interest. This is where philosophy can productively contribute to the otherwise interdisciplinary undertaking of the thorough investigation of the features of contemporary social existence. By taking into account different explanatory models and principles of understanding, a responsible philosophical approach to answering to the appeal of social normativity might a privileged way of doing justice in response to the critical issues by researching the practicability, evaluation and administration of general normative standards for the particular focal domains in the society in which the faceless alienation, instigated by the operative model of capitalism represents a constant threat of impingement of personal autonomy and the mutual recognition of the other in a common social world.

Nowadays, the prospect of universal moral norms might sound utopian, but it seems that even a utopian vision that strives towards non-exclusionary politics and communication which is not predominantly driven by strategic goals of self-interested physical and legal personas with malleable moral standards could still be productively utilized as a noble regulative idea, even if such an expression might retain some problematic metaphysical undertones. Ancient Greek had a meaningful term referring to the form of popular government: isēgoría, which expressed the notion of equality before the law but also entertained the demand that the individual voices should be heard in acknowledged in public discourse. Perhaps there is still a place for the ideals of rational communication in the contemporary world?

Is it not so that only ten years after the global economic crisis which disrupted the foundations of the self-referring economic world and revealed the illness of self-centered neoliberalism. And when it seems that the communicative patterns of socio-political realms have failed in the much-needed transformation the time has come for society and not only an individual to recognize the role of autonomy, which is nevertheless not without certain limitations and can be found within the dialectic between the acknowledgement of pre-set conditions and the ability of seeing more, operated by the responsible use of imagination?

In such times, the programs like critical hermeneutics inaugurated by Paul Ricoeur, and critical social philosophy may become revelatory since they might recognize the possibility of constructive dialectic of reproductive and productive imagination, particularly via the interplay of ideology and utopia where ideology ― the ways of the dominant ideological structure which confers legitimacy to society ― and utopia ― the plane of imaginary, ahistorical if merely virtual and, let us confess, frequently overly confident critique of ideology as well as the sphere of proposals for the expansion of the social opportunities and of the hope for a better future ― can co-exist in a mutually constructive and conditional relationship (Ricoeur 1986). And where does the need for the understanding of the properties of social interaction and optimal normative standards express itself more clearly than in the time and space where such a relationship is broken, utopia is repressed and ideology transforms, if one can use Hannah Arendt’s term, into logocracy, a society of pure processes and in which the ideas are reified and losing their meaning? (Arendt 1954, p. 134).

Does not something like that happen in a notoriously named postfactical era in which we are said to be now ― the age of the reified communicative relations?

The investigations on ethical reasoning and the considerations of the normative character of human action loom large over the discussions upon the properties of our common social world. In Slovenian Philosophical Society, presided by Dr. Tomaž Gruševnik, who was also the initiator of the event, we tried to answer to the challenge of the diverging ethical policies and manners of moral reasoning. It is thus why we intended to give the voice to the philosophers whose work concerns the status of ethics in contemporary society ― while philosophical approach to those critical issues may not be able to produce simple solutions and offer definite answers, the possibility of open discussion on the status of ethics in the understanding of society can be regarded as the task well worthy of being undertaken.

[1] The term was Theodor W. Adorno’s favored expression in the explication of the nature of truth in art in its performative and historical dimensions. One might also with certain amount of cautiousness compare the gist of the following text with the grim image of a suffering individual in a reified society, derided by the effects of culture industry and pervasive power of administration on social relations and physical self-presentation of individuals that the said German critical theorist showcased in Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press; and Adorno, T. W. (2005). Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life. London and New York: Verso.

The Report on the Public Discussion The Status of Ethics in Society

On Monday, 17th June 2019 the conference The Status of Ethics in Society took place in the hall of Slovenska matica. The event was organized by Slovensko filozofsko društvo (Slovenian Philosophical Society) in co-organization with Slovenska matica. The participants of the conference were numerous Slovenian philosophers, university professors and other invited speakers whose work is concerned with the understanding of ethics and the role of ethics in society: Borut Ošlaj, Jernej Pisk, Janez Juhant, Smiljana Gartner, Friderik Klampfer, Vojko Strahovnik, Luka Omladič, Igor Pribac, Cvetka Hedžet Tóth, Ignacija Fridl Jarc, Marjan Šimenc. The moderator of the conference was Gašper Pirc.

Introductory remarks were given by the editor of Slovenska matica Ignacija Fridl Jarc, the president of Slovenian Philosophical Society Tomaž Grušovnik, and the moderator Gašper Pirc.

Ignacija Fridl Jarc emphasized the fact that ethics as a discipline is not in crisis since it is discussed all around the world and that the conference’s purpose is in questioning about ethics in an affirmative way. Speaking on behalf of the hosts at Slovenska matica, she commended the selection of the venue for the discussion due to the publisher’s important role in the promotion of Slovenian philosophy, particularly by publishing many critical works of Slovenian philosophers.

The next introduction was made by another host, Tomaž Grušovnik, the president of Slovenian Philosophical Society. He said that the Society is trying to popularize philosophy and that the intention of the conference is to provide answers to two questions: “What can philosophers give to society?” and “What is the place of ethics in our society?” Because nowadays the world is flooded with discourses about ethics and many ethical codes are written, in the writing of which philosophers are not involved, another question should be posed: “Should the philosophers strive to protect ethics as the traditional philosophical discipline?” Such a line of questioning was already presented far in the past in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras where the role of the expert that would expose the social virtues is questioned upon.

The introduction part was closed by moderator Gašper Pirc who appealed to follow the ancient Greek word isēgoría, which represents both the freedom of speech as well as political equality, the possibility of an individual voice to be heard.

The conference was divided into three sections. In the first section, the first one to speak was Borut Ošlaj. The title of his talk was “Multitude of moralities and the absence of ethics”. He called for attention to the difference between morality and ethics, where he presented the concept of morality as referring to practical rules while ethics is concerned with the judgment of actions and thus ethics can be regarded as a theory of morality of actions and that’s why ethics is a theory of morality. He defended the thesis that the place of ethics is empty because there isn’t just one ethics that would prevail.

The next presenter was Jernej Pisk. He spoke about “The influence of sport on the status of ethics in contemporary society”. He represented the sport as a phenomenon which cannot avoid having ethical connotations because sporting behavior is always ethical behavior.

The title of conference contribution by Janez Juhant was “The necessity and the problems of the dialogue about ethics”. His thesis was that ethics is necessary because human is a being of dialogue. Dialogue means cooperation with other beings. In his opinion, a dialogue is limited in today’s (Slovenian) society and the virtue of truth is missing.

Smiljana Gartner talked about “Pprofessionals and experts for ethics”', starting with the question: “Can mathematics in school be taught by biology teacher?” and continuing with: “Can ethics be taught by whoever reads Wikipedia?” Both questions lead to another question: “What is that which makes someone an expert?” Her answer is that someone is an expert in a certain field if and only if he has higher insights from the same field, for example, if he is capable of recognizing specific patterns and is able to produce questions that are concerned with a specific field. She also mentioned the difference between the concepts of “being an expert” and “having the reputation of an expert”.

Commencing the second part of the conference was Friderik Klampfer with his talk “The real scope of philosophical ethics ― some bittersweet insights”. He pointed to the fact that rational argumentation ― which also should be ethical argumentation ― is in some cases ineffective.

Next was Vojko Strahovnik that spoke about “Ethics and school”. School is supposed to be the encouragement of virtues and, in his opinion, a teacher in school could also teach ethics [but not in the traditional way (by lecturing)]. For example, at Physical Education the sports teacher could rearrange basketball game in such way that some students would get instructions to violate the rules of the game and after the game, they would all get together and acknowledge that breaking the rules is morally wrong.

The thesis of Luka Omladič (“New developments in Ethics of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence”) was that when developing robotic technology, ethics should become an integral part of robotic engineering.

Igor Pribac tried to answer the question “If medical ethics belongs to the doctors, does business ethics belong to businessmen?” Since many ethical codes are written in our time, this is an important question. He was advocating the thesis that ethics is primarily a philosophical discipline; therefore the philosophers should protect it. The philosophers should also be involved in the process of writing and acknowledging ethical codes and as well as being present in committees. He emphasized the problem of the non-plural composition of the National Medical Ethics Committee, where two-thirds of the representatives come from the medical profession which is incompatible with UNESCO recommendations and also incompatible with the practice of other referential countries.

Cvetka Hedžet Tóth started the third part of the conference with “Ethics ― postmodern pathos”. She reminded us of the words of Jürgen Habermas who stated that solidarity is the other side of justice. And justice means ethics.

“The ethical foundations of democracy in antiquity and today” was the contribution of Ignacija Fridl Jarc. She focused on the illusion that justice [dikē] should express in legislation.

The last contribution of the conference was held by Marjan Šimenc with “Philosophy with children and moral education”. He concentrated on a branch of philosophy that is often neglected and that is the philosophy for children. It represents a break away from the traditional philosophical endeavor, which often claimed the children are not capable of philosophizing. Philosophy for children could proceed in the manner of the teacher’s examination of the values with his students through school lessons. Such could be easily realized in practice within the already existing class called Civil and homeland culture and ethics.

After individual presentations, the final discussion took place where organizers and participants tended to find the common language and come to some joint conclusions. All agreed that ethics is, in essence, philosophical and because of that the philosophers have the duty to protect it as such. In addition to that, the ethics should be lectured by the philosophers, because only philosophers possess suitable normative apparatus that the ethical discourse demands. Strahovnik in Pisk differed in that aspect. The first claimed that ethics can be learned as an addition to the original profession, and the latter spoke of the sportsmen in the role of ethicists (behavior in sports is ethical in nature). After all that was said above, we could get the impression that ethics is not capable of dialogue with other disciplines. That’s not exactly true. Ethics is compatible with other disciplines; the problem of incompatibility arises only when sciences try to make ethics as part of their own agenda. Ethics is independent but also fully capable of dialogue with different sciences/ disciplines/ language games.

The idea to initiate the prospect of integrating ethics into the educational process also attained general consensus (for example, seminars for doctors about medical ethics and the introduction of the ethical contents into the school subject of Civil and homeland culture and ethics).

What was so special about this conference? It managed to unite the philosophers from different philosophical traditions and institutions as well as the participants from non-philosophical professions.

 

References

Adorno, T. W. (2005). Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life. London and New York: Verso.

Arendt, H. (1954). Diskussionsbeitrag. In C. J. Friedrich (Ed.). Totalitarianism: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, March 1953. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1986). Lectures on Ideology and Utopia. New York: Columbia University Press.

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