Arguing About the Ethics of Past Actions:
An Analysis of a Taped
Conversation About a Taped Conversation
Draft. Not for Publication.
Not for Quotation. All Rights Reserved.
The question to be addressed in this essay is whether the so-called crisis of postmodernity precludes the possibility of reasonable adjudication of disputes about the ethics of past actions. I take it that there is considerable skepticism these days as regards all foundationalisms, all totalizing schemes, all objectivisms, and certainly any and all ethical absolutisms (Gergen, 1991; Kontopoulos, 1991; Lyotard, 1984). With the general decline of the church, the school, and the family as sources of authoritative doctrine, there has been a widespread erosion of confidence in traditionally prescribed systems of ethics. Our age has also not been kind to the claims of our forefathers that this or that voice of authority ought to be heeded unquestioningly. And no claimant to a nonabsolutistic ethic--to Fletcher's (1966) situational ethic, for example--has been able to show by what rules or by whose interpretations such an ethic might be applied in any given case. Thus the questioning and the doubt persist. We are less inclined than in times past to declare that what is "right" for American culture, or Dutch culture, or Western culture is right for all other cultures, and many persons confess to a thoroughgoing relativism that rejects the possibility of reasonably developing and applying even community-wide standards.
Although it must be admitted that formal ethical theory has fallen upon hard times, it must also be acknowledged in the midst of our apparent crisis that people manage nonetheless to go about the business of self-formation and of society-formation--both projects requiring not just a personal sense of morality, but also community standards to which self and society can adhere (Gergen, 1991). Whatever their public declarations of opinion as regards the decidability or undecidability of ethical questions, the fact is that humans consistently hold each other to account and to betoken by their omnipresent attention to matters of impression management at least a superficial concern for the appearance of ethics. Moreover, it happens not infrequently that talk produces a coming together within communities about the morality or immorality of particular acts. Just what is involved in that talk is a matter of considerable controversy. But on at least one matter there appears to be a consensus: that the quality of ethical judgments about past actions depends in large measure on the quality of talk about those actions (e.g., White, 1984; MacIntyre, 1981). Thus, theories of ethics are increasingly addressing questions of argumentation and communication (Jonsen & Toulmin, 1988; Valesio, 1980; Apel, 1981; Rorty, 1979; Habermas, 1979).