Contemporary Ethics and Liberal Democracy

Susana de Castro

Traditionally, philosophy and religion exhausted the subject of moral values. In times past, lawmakers striving to establish proper rules for society sought philosophical or theological justifications for their theories. Both philosophy and religion believed in foundational kinds of moral values—the sort of values that ought to be valid for all societies, since, it was held, those moral values expressed the highest perfection a human creature could hope to attain. According to this view, all creatures are born with specific natures and ends, but spiritual and rational creatures like human beings are special, because only they can achieve a state similar to God if they struggle during their whole lives to be good. In order to be good, according to philosophy, people need only act in accordance with their rational, practical judgment; or, according to the Christian interpretation of goodness, people must practice piety, humility, temperance, circumspection, and so on. Moral thinkers on both sides traditionally asserted the existence of foundational rational morality, because they believed that all moral concepts were abstract. This view contends that whatever the concrete situation in which one is involved, there will be just one way that one can act properly. One should not follow instinctual feelings or private desires in the situation but rather the duty to respect and protect others.

This type of consciousness that looks first to the well-being of others is rare in present-day societies. We need only look at the types of stories that enjoy success in the film industry. The heroes of contemporary movies are not perfect persons untroubled by conflicts or doubts; quite the contrary, their first priority is to pursue their own happiness, and that pursuit involves plenty of conflicts and doubts. Does this mean that something is wrong with our society? Are we all immoral because we appear to have concluded that pursuing happiness is more important to us than our duties to others? In his 1989 book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, the American philosopher Richard Rorty said that we ought not to compare current times with other eras, since each period has its own core vocabulary for describing and evaluating society and humanity. The fact that we are tempted to make such comparisons anyway shows that we are still using an old-fashioned foundationalist vocabulary full of expressions like “The truth of this is . . .”; “He is more rational than she is”; or “Goodness is an eternal virtue.”

The culture has changed, but people are not getting the help they need from philosophy in order to free themselves from these useless expressions. Without this freedom, other more important political freedoms are not possible. The future of mass democracy around the world depends on our ability to replace the outdated foundationalist vocabulary with new, pluralistic ways of talking about happiness, morality, and rights.

There are many reasons that the foundationalist vocabulary of religion and foundational philosophy does not describe today’s peoples and societies. Consider the great changes wrought during the nineteenth century through the philosophical works of Hegel, the evolutionary biology of Darwin, and the psychological discoveries of Freud.

Hegel put philosophy within the temporal horizon of events and history. He showed us that there was no reason that philosophy should be taken as an autonomous and separate topic, privileged to look at the world from a transcendent point of view. Philosophers, as Rorty reads Hegel, should be in touch with the culture of their time, observing changes in society and searching out ways to rearrange their vocabularies to better fit the current reality, which is always in flux. After Hegel, one can no longer avoid the fact that philosophy operates in time, and things change in time.

The rationalistic moral world of Plato and Kant received further hard blows from Darwin and Freud. Darwin’s evolutionary biology showed that organisms do not have fixed essences that forever determine their destinies. There is no reason to think of human beings as special creatures, elevated above all other species, because we are capable of thought. According to Darwin’s theory, we are still animals but in a different evolutionary stage. So why should we still believe that we must conform to some human essence and must have access to perfect moral concepts if we are nothing but the product of a long, natural process of time and chance? As for Freud, he showed that the individual is not in full control of his or her mental life, since part of the mind is not always accessible to consciousness, and it influences consciousness in unexpected ways. Nobody needs to believe in the very controversial Freudian account of childhood sexual desires in order to accept that we do not have total control over our mental lives. It now seems obvious that very specific, unrepeatable events in our past are responsible for much in our personalities. Each of us has an idiosyncratic ego. Our psychological side, made up of memories, personality, emotions, and so on, is much more influential in our lives than our inheritance of the capacity for reason. Still, through self-reflection and remembering, people have the capability and strength to rebuild their characters.

The positive message of Darwin and Freud, emphasized anew by Rorty, is that we are not predetermined to conform to a fixed essence, we don’t have to be chained to our suffering, and we can be free from any image that others have of us. These freedoms have crucial consequences for our perspectives on morality and truth. The new democratic personality, the “ironist” in Rorty’s new vocabulary, never pretends to have the only right solution for any problem or an opinion more valuable than any other. The ironist is aware that no one has the right to present an opinion as the truth, since anyone can disagree with it. This ironist notion of the relativity of one’s own opinion is very important for ethical behavior today.

However, it is still widely held that moral philosophy is an inherently foundational and prescriptive discipline. This reflects continued reliance on old concepts that have little connection with the needs of contemporary life. For a foundationalist, the public and the private spheres are the same, so the pursuit of one’s own happiness must be the same thing as pursuing Truth or God. For that reason, most foundationalist philosophers have been interested in politics and have argued that individuals’ ambitions and desires should be subordinate to the roles they play within their societies. The kind of fundamentalist society this envisions, one in which the state decides the course of every individual’s desires, is still alive in so-called Muslim countries, where the state is not secular and fundamentalist religion largely determines people’s lives. By contrast, in secular, democratic, and liberal societies, each individual has the right to search for his or her own private happiness independent from public interests.

The gap between these two spheres of interest, private and public, is common in liberal societies, but this doesn’t imply that liberal individuals are absolutely selfish and unconcerned for the common good. Instead, Rorty explains that we use different kinds of vocabulary for each of these two spheres. The liberal democratic vocabulary promotes pluralistic and flexible positions in society. It is pluralistic because it promotes respect for different habits and cultures, and it is flexible because it assumes that we live in open societies that are not static but rather in motion, exhibiting continual cultural change. At least since Gandhi and Martin Luther King, citizens of a liberal, secular democratic society know that they have the right to civil disobedience if they feel that the law is not protecting them. No democratic laws are foundational and eternal—they can be changed whenever there is a strong feeling in society that a specific law, or group of laws, is injuring a person or social group.

Like the public vocabulary of liberal democracy, today’s private vocabulary is pluralistic and flexible, but it is also ironist. This vocabulary deals not with problems of the relation between individuals or groups and public institutions but the relations between individuals themselves. Here we leave the domain of politics and enter the domain of literature and psychoanalysis, where ironist relativism is important for ethics.

Before we start explaining the reasons that the perspective of relativism, or using Walter Riso’s terminology, the flexible mind, is a very important mental ability for contemporary ethical behavior, we have to distinguish the ironist kind of relativism from the skeptical one. The central point for the skeptical position is that we cannot really know anything; therefore, every individual opinion has equal weight since it is true for the individual who holds it. Under this radical skepticism, we have no reason to choose between opposite positions, since each one is equally right. This type of relativism destroys the possibility for proper ethical behavior by creating passivity, conformity, and laziness. This is captured in typical skeptical thinking: “Why should I do anything, if it makes no difference if I do or don’t?” Riso calls this view the liquid mind. The liquid mind takes no definite positions whatsoever; it flows together with anyone else’s opinion without really thinking about it or trying to build its own opinion. The liquid-minded person follows the popular consensus uncritically and is easily manipulated by anyone seeking supporters for an extreme or radical position. In direct contrast, extremely foundationalist and fundamentalist persons have rigid or dogmatic mindsets because they will not consider or accept any contrary opinion.

Between the extremes of the liquid and the rigid mind, we find the ironist attitude. Ironists feel no need to impose their views on others. They have a clear position, built up after detailed reflection about the issue in question, but they also have an open mind, which means that they are capable of paying attention to an opposing view and changing their minds if an opponent’s arguments are stronger than theirs. Ironists do not take themselves too seriously, as rigid or dogmatic people do. They are capable of laughing at themselves and do not feel diminished if another person has better arguments. Changing one’s mind does not represent a threat for ironists; quite the contrary, to change one’s view and redescribe oneself is a more intense way of living than to cling to an unchanging self-description. Ironists are pluralists—unthreatened by diversity, they prize comparing and sharing other cultures and attitudes.

This flexible type of mind—one displaying what we might call “ironical relativism”—should be the proper disposition for present-day ethical behavior. To have a flexible mind and to be an ironist constitutes the ethical ideal of liberal societies.

In reality, of course, there is no shortage of sectarianism. Across the world, certain segments of society still hold prejudices of all sorts: racism, sexism, discrimination against lower-class workers, and so on. As Rorty points out, despite these obstacles, people in liberal democratic societies are nevertheless often able to enlarge their solidarity and compassion for others, through literature and ethnographic narrative.

How can philosophy and democracy advance from here? One of the great changes of the past century has been the experience of real mass democracy in some countries, under which those affected by political decisions have the power to influence those decisions. This phenomenon has contributed to refuting by example the foundationalist conviction that mass movements of ethical protest should be viewed negatively, as symptoms of an uncontrollable agency and irrational passion arising among the people. Mass democracy has transformed the old prejudiced notion that an unbridgeable gap exists between an intelligent elite and the uncultivated masses. However, in too many countries around the world, the ideal of mass democracy is not yet a reality.

A realistic and worthy task for philosophy today, then, is to work toward the full realization of this ideal of a liberal mass democracy: a reasonable sort of political utopia, if you will. Philosophy can help us to teach the new vocabulary of ironist relativism to everyone. Until we completely eradicate the foundational vocabulary and the rigid mindset of fundamentalism, we will continue to grant to tyrants the ability to claim that mass pluralism makes democracy impossible.

Further Reading

  • Freud, Sigmund. Cinco LiçŌes de Psicanálise. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Imago, 2003.
  • ———. Esboço de Psicanálise. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Imago, 2001.
  • Riso, Walter. El Poder del Pensamiento Reflexible. Bogotá, Columbia: Norma, 2007.
  • Rorty, Richard. Contingência, Ironia e Solidariedade. São Paulo, Brazil: Martins Fontes, 2007 (originally Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.)
  • ———. “A Filosofia e o Futuro.” In Pragmatismo e Política. São Paulo, Brazil: Martins Fontes, 2005.


Susana de Castro

Susana de Castro is professor of philosophy and education in the College of Education of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Traditionally, philosophy and religion exhausted the subject of moral values. In times past, lawmakers striving to establish proper rules for society sought philosophical or theological justifications for their theories. Both philosophy and religion believed in foundational kinds of moral values—the sort of values that ought to be valid for all societies, since, it was held, …

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