Poststructualism, ethics and values

The debate continues . . .

I have just finished reading: _Principled Positions: Postmodernism and the
Rediscovery of Value_, edited by Judith Squires (1993), Lawrence and
Wishart, London. In all I thought it a good book, and found it answered
some of my questions - or at least it provided me with a left-of-centre
framework in which I can at least feel moderately comfortable. (I must say
that in this thread I have been wondering if there has been a tension
between the more "purist" philosophers/theorists and those of us on the
"applied" social science side of the fence. As my interest is policy
studies, and as I work as a policy hack in the public sector, my interest is
on the "ought/doing/solutions" side of things rather than the
"is/being/critique" side of things).

The contributors to _Principled Positions_ want to reassert "value" without
relinquishing the critical gains of postmodernism; "A post-Enlightenment
defence of principled positions, without the transcendental illusions of
Enlightenment thought". (p2). They are concerned that the relativism of
postmodernism means there is no absolute truth, and therefore no action or
outcome which is essentially better or worse than another. If all
beliefs/outcomes are equally valid/invalid, then no action(s) can be argued
for (other than self interest?). Thus postmodernism can lead to political

Arguing against absolute realitivity, and avoiding the slippery slope of
nihilism, the contributors share the desire to retain both the critical
strengths of postmodernism and the strength of a "principled position".
However, their approaches to this probelm are varied. I will discuss a
couple which interested me, there are half a dozen others in the book.

A number of the contributors make a distinction between strong and week
forms of postmodernism, noting that only the strong form undermines the
possibility of normative criticism. A distinction between the tool of
deconstruction and postmodernism is also drawn. Deconstruction can be used
as tool to expose contradictions and assumptions within existing discourses
without paralysing the possibility of response. The rejection of absolutism
and essentialism, and an acceptance of relativeism does not have to lead to
moral or ethical paralysis. "When faced with famine, war poverty and
oppression we need not forsake a morally grounded response and simply engage
in ironic discursive games". (p4)

One contibutor argues that if we adopt the weak form of postmodernism, we
can argue without contradiction for social justice, democratic pluralism,
and a qualified humanism. While these values have a history, they are not
argued for on the basis of that history, but because of the desirable ends
that they might achieve: the enhancement of life chances and the
maximisation of human freedom.

Another approach is to look to the communities in which, and the processes
by which, values are socially constructed. While values are not absolute,
within a community there is the possiblity of a vocabulary of values in
which we can all share. "The extent to which these vocabularies are shared,
the degree of inclusion and commonality, thus becomes crusical in the
construction of ethical, aesthetic and epistemological criteria"(p7).
Within a community, "The creation of radical pluralism will involve
embracing solidarity and difference, a shift away from the concern with
equality and sameness towards justice and difference. We can accept that
cohesive communities are impossible ideals, abondon hope of a perfect
consensus and accept that dissent is inevitable, and yet also demand a
grammar of conduct - a minimum shared sense of belonging as a basis for
political co-existence"(p8).

Bryan Palmer
Canberra - Australia's National Capital


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