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Modernity and Irrationality

Paradoxes of Moral Modernization

Richard Münch


The negative phenomena accompanying modernization have been discussed often enough – poverty and hardship within the affluent society, egoism and ruthlessness, growing crime rates, social conflict, stress and mental illness, the destruction of natural and socio-cultural lifeworlds, and extreme technological hazards. The most common reaction to these negative elements is to see modernization as something that is incomplete. We then expect this Situation to improve as a result of its completion through moral modernization (Habermas 1980, 1984, 1992) or reflexive modernization (Beck 1992, 1993). The idea of putting modernity back onto the right track using moral or reflexive regulation is not, in principle, a bad one. Yet the realization of this idea not only produces the desired effects, it also constantly creates undesirable ones. An objective look at the course of modernization to date proves this point. We can see that moral modernization itself plays an already considerable, active part in producing the negative elements of modernity. And if reflexive modernization also means bringing a moral dimension into the modernization process then it too plays an active role in creating these negative elements. Even if we understand it in a wider sense still, the secondary, reflexive modernization of primary modernization cannot escape the dilemma of modernity. Whatever goals modernization may have and however moral or reflexive it may be, it continues nevertheless to produce paradoxical effects which are contrary to its intentions. Even reflexive modernization is modernization and thus subject to all of its paradoxes.

1 Morally Induced Negative Effects

We can only gain insight into the moral dilemma of modernity if morality itself is put on the teststand and its paradoxical effects are identified in an unbiased manner. In doing so, we will have to recognize the fact that a great deal of morally questionable phenomena are generated from moral goodness.

Creating and realizing equal opportunities for all until a world community has been achieved is for example something positive. However, one must also be aware of the fact that in doing so a competitive struggle is unleashed which extends from a local to a global level and which gets tougher all the time. Those who are not able to withstand this competition are pushed further into the sidelines than they would have been in any of the preceding hierarchically structured societies. The relationship between those at the top and those at the bottom in a hierarchical society is also one between the obligation to provide welfare (on the part of those at the top) and the obligation to provide a service (from those at the bottom). The relationship between centre and periphery in modern contemporary society however is one of exclusion. As the competitive struggle intensifies so does the desire for a better life and with it the inclination to break the rules of the game if a better life cannot be achieved by legitimate means, thus endowing Merton's theory of anomie with new significance (1949/1968). All the forms of deviating from the norm will therefore occur more frequently than ever before. We complain about the increasing violence of skinheads and young groups of neo-nazis. Yet, this violence is also the violence of fringe groups who have been excluded from society, whose prospects in life appear rather gloomy in comparison to those of the vast majority of their contemporaries and compared with the idea of wealth that generally prevails. Years ago, those pupils attending a Hauptschule were safely sheltered in the midst of average children. Today, Hauptschulen have become collecting points for all those who fail in the general competition for the good places in society. Who can wonder at their lack of desire to play the game of the successful so that they may spend the rest of their lives being good losers.

The competitive struggle will intensify in the future as a result of the globalization of the markets – especially the job market. The increase in price-cutters on the global market exerts a growing pressure on the economy of the previously unchallenged leading industrial nations. They are forced to reduce their costs and to practice a correspondingly new differentiation of income in accordance with the increase in value of economic achievements. The more jobs that are created by work that is done, the higher the renumeration will have to be and vice versa. This means simply that the differences in income will once again become greater and new distribution conflicts will flare up. This development is by no means due to the autopoiesis (Luhmann 1988) of an economy in the process of globalizing itself, rather it is due to the combination of moral standards with the laws of economics. The globalization of the markets is fed on the one hand by the legitimate claim of the countries which have remained underdeveloped up to now to participate in the material prosperity of world society and the highly industrialized industries' search for new, more cost-effective raw materials, offshoot products and jobs. Equalizing opportunities within the world society increases the competitive struggle on a global level in the same way that raising educational standards on a national level did before it.

The increase in moral demands on the modern life-style also has its more negative side. More and more people go through an education system which brings them closer to Lawrence Kohlberg's (1969, 1987) Step 6 of post-conventional moral consciousness and qualifies them to act in a responsible manner according to universally justifiable moral principles. These demands are also brought over to a growing extent into the working world. The result of this development is an increase in people's ability to free themselves from particularistic loyalties and to give the universal loyalties of the world community priority. We then get an increasing number of people who work on behalf of the suffering, the suppressed and those treated unjustly, and who engage themselves in development aid schemes and nature protection projects all over the world. They are ready without hesitation to protest against weapons production in their own countries, so that in other areas of the world less weapons are available for military conflicts. They consider preserving the collective good of peace in the developing countries to be more important than preserving jobs at home. Modern morality inevitably leads us onto this path to universalization and an increasing number of well-educated people have taken it. However, their universal solidarity restricts their ability to feel solidarity at home. They are no longer able to declare their solidarity for the workers in a weapons factory if in order to preserve the worker's jobs export restrictions are to be relaxed. Not everyone however is moving in step on the path to universal solidarity. Those that are left behind hold fast to familiar particularistic, national solidarities. As a result of the spread in universalism they are even thrown back onto particularistic national solidarities in order to combat the uncertainty of universalism. It is easy for well-educated, sophisticated businessmen, politicians, academics, journalists and artists to have friends all over the world. For these people the global market constitutes the circles in which they move confidently and with ease. For the unqualified laborer, the global market is a danger against which he tries to protect himself by mobilizing national solidarities. In the wake of the Mölln disaster, short TV broadcasts were shown in Germany in which prominent journalists and actors talked about their foreign friends from all over the world and film was shown of their friends' native countries in an attempt to combat hostile feelings toward foreigners. These „commercials“ must have seemed almost cynical to the average laborer as the famous flaunted their numerous friends abroad. Such well-meant moral appeals can even have the effect of adding fuel to the flames of the simmering aggression directed against the universalism of modernity. In this manner, the growing universalism of modern morality inevitably produces a particularistic, nationalistic counter-reaction from the social groups who have been pushed into the sidelines by this movement.

Furthermore, moral universalism also represents too great a strain for all those who only reach the lower levels of personality development and who get stuck at Kohlberg's conventional (or even pre-conventional) stage of moral consciousness. We have geared our societal life to the individual taking responsibility for his own actions. External Controls have been removed, however not everybody has developed the necessary degree of internal Controls. Thus a disproportionate relationship inevitably develops between the scope granted for taking responsible action and the ability to take responsibility for one's own actions. Instead of a sense of self-determination and responsibility, the result is crude egoism, a lack of regard for others, an inability to exercise self-control, brutality in achieving one's own interests and individuals who give free rein to the most elemental of drives. Vandalized telephone boxes and park benches, graffiti and ripped seats on the underground, and assaults on pensioners and children are the everyday manifestations of this incongruity between the moral demand for responsibility and the reality of a lack of self-control. Calling for a return to authority in children's upbringing would amount to throwing the baby out with the bath water, as it overlooks the fact that the considerable increase in ability to take responsibility for one's actions in a considerably increased proportion of the population is thanks to a change in methods of bringing up children – shifting the emphasis from learning to respect authority toward taking responsibility for one's actions. It would be absurd to undo these gains in moral universalism on the grounds of losses which are inevitable by a return to using respect for authority as an educational principle. Besides, this suggestion is doomed to failure, as once authority has lost its influence it cannot be revived. A two-tiered morality responsibility for those morally qualified, external Controls for those less qualified – can only be realized within certain limits, e.g. hierarchies within the working world. It is inconsistent with the principle of equal rights for everybody, which is why modern society will also have to live with the incongruity of the desire for morality and the reality of immorality in future.

The further removal of hierarchies in decision-making processes in commercial enterprises, public authorities and political procedures will also have to be adapted to the fact that not everyone possesses the necessary qualifications to the same degree. The expansion of democratic rights to participate always benefits those who are also able to take advantage of them due to their qualifications. This is why we cannot expect this expansion to even out inequalities by any means – the inequalities simply take on a different form. Hierarchy was replaced by the differentiation between centre and periphery, in which the centre tends to consider itself as the whole and either subsumes or excludes the periphery. The top of the hierarchy was more likely to be given the responsibility for the lower ranks. When everyone has the right to participate, those who do not take part cannot expect those that do to represent their interests for them. Thus the morally well-founded expansion of the right to participate in decision-making processes creates new, intensified inequalities between those included and those excluded.

Raising moral demands in the workplace has a similar exclusion effect. It gives more moral respect to all those who are able to exhibit a greater degree of responsibility in their professions whilst keeping universal contexts in mind. Occupations which do not display this characteristic are considered of less value. Thus the enforcement of moral universalism as something which is universally binding draws a sharp line between those who are more or less respected and those who are not. Besides, the rise in moral demands on work increasingly leads to a growing strain, so that a discrepancy between moral demands and immoral reality can be discovered even more frequently.

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