“Eine prinzipielle Moral ist mithin ein System, das nur allgemeine Normen zulässt (d.h. Normen ohne Ausnahmen, ohne Privilegierungen und ohne Einschränkung des Geltungsbereichs). (..) Formalität heisst, dass keine konkreten Verpflichtungen (wie im traditionellen Naturrecht oder in der Ethik), sondern nur abstrakte Erlaubnisse rechtlich normierbar sind (Handlungen dürfen nicht geboten, sondern nur freigestellt oder verboten werden).” Jürgen
Habermas, Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus, edition suhrkamp, 1973.
[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 14/10/2008. I will be restricted to re-posting the old material for lack of inspiration and motivation. It should get a little bit better post after post. At least that’s what I hope.]
[Amateuristic English translation: ” A principled morality is therefore a system that only allows general norms (i.e. norms without any exceptions, privileges or limts on its applicability). (..) Formalness means that there are no concrete obligations (like in natural law or in ethics) but only abstract permissions which are rightfully put as norms (actions cannot be ordered but only allowed or forbidden).”]
Not what I wanted to quote; I would have preferred something non-political, in English and preferably something linguistic. But this is what I came across, and my old fascination with the subject outweighs the less-than-lyrical Habermasian style.
So, here goes: morality and ethics or, cross-wise, content and form.
I have long been obsessed with the difference between morality and ethics. It still strikes me that in ethics we have something merely instrumental and rather contingent whilst morality is, or better: should be, more universal and basic. I associate ethics with lots of paper, back and forth on interpretations, codes, … It’s not just that we need something more stable and pure than that but that we would not be our human selves without such purity and stability.
Maybe it is a mere contingent wish to want to be human but this contingency is qualitatively distinct from what instrumentally needs to be put in the body of law (and its many derivatives in group rules, custom, tradition and the like).
The argument for this is Habermasian. It is foundational for us to communicate (take any linguistic quought from this site and it will probably be about that). Communication can only be achieved if there is a common shared thing that can be discussed, however imperfectly. Human progress is such that one is bound to engage, potentially, in discussion with anybody else whether we like it or not.
Hence, universality can’t be avoided and the positive expression of it is morality (the negative is fear from it: xenophobia). The distinction with contingent legal codes and ethics is very marked in principle as in the latter stability is the prime goal, not progress (not that it’s bad; it’s practical – practicality should not be brushed away too rapidly).
The turn of phrase ‘to moralize’ and its pejorative connotation could well be the reflection of all of this. People react negatively to moralizing on this view not so much because they want less morality but because something as essential as morality is put in the everyday dirt and made to do slave labour to the benefit of something or someone in particular.
My favourite example of it would be the 20th century myth that ‘one needs to work hard to earn one’s way’. This is real moralizing, it may well have been true in the 20th century and for some time to come but it still is contingent.
It is not essential to work, it is essential to communicate. It may be unethical to be a lazy bastard, but it is not by definition immoral. Morality can only consist in very few claims; claims which are indeed formal, not in a legalistic sense but in a logical/dynamical sense (the same logic/dynamic one will find in natural languages to make a little bridge to linguistics). Obviously this does not mean that morality allows you to be unethical as in most cases the unethical or illegal (and maybe there is something between ethical and legal as there is between moral and ethical) will be the best practical way to make moral sense of specific cases (at least when the ethics and the laws have evolved in a moral way i.e. via due process preserving due process).
Just like etiquette does not translate into ethics, we should not take a moralizing and maximizing approach of having ethics translate into morality. Morality needs to be light; not burdened with all the things that happen to be important here and now to keep the beasts in all of us from breaking out.
I believe (but have time nor motivation) that taking the details of the quote, with a lot of hard work, one can make logical connections between my quought and this quote.
Oh well, another time. Maybe …
[Whilst writing this I was listening to Ozric Tentacles, Swirly Termination.]