Notes: Modernity and the Holocaust by Zygmunt Bauman

Chapter 7: Towards a Sociological Theory of Morality

- Durkheim (whose treatment of moral phenomena turned into the canon of sociological wisdom, and virtually defined the meaning of the specifically sociological approach to the study of morality) debunks all pretentions that there is substance in evil other than its rejection by a force powerful enough to make its will into a binding rule. But the warm patriot and devout believer in the superiority and progress of civilized life cannot but feel that what has been rejected is indeed evil, and that the rejection must have been an emancipating and dignifying act.

- The appearance of immoral conduct is understood as the manifestation of pre-social or a-social drives bursting out from their socially manufactured cages, or escaping enclosure in the first place. Immoral conduct is always a return to a pre-social state, or a failure to depart from it.

- This theory of morality concedes the right of society to impose its own substantive version of moral behaviour; and concurs with the practice in which social authority claims the monopoly of moral judgement. It tacitly accepts the theoretical illegitimacy of all judgements that are not grounded in the exercise of such monopoly; so that for all practical intents and purposes moral behaviour becomes synonymous with social conformity and obedience to the norms observed by the majority.

- In the aftermath of the Holocaust, legal practice, and thus also moral theory, faced the possibility that morality may manifest itself in insubordination towards socially upheld principles, and in an action openly defying social solidarity and consensus. For sociological theory, the very idea of pre-social grounds of moral behaviour augurs the necessity of a radical revision of traditional interpretations of the origins of the sources of moral norms and their obligatory power.

- Hannah Arendt had articulated the question of moral responsibility for resisting socialization. The moot issue of the social foundations of morality had been cast aside; whatever the solution offered to that issue, the authority and binding force of the distinction between good and evil cannot be legitimized by reference to social powers which sanction and enforce it. Even if condemned by the group--by all groups, as a matter of fact--individual conduct may still be moral; an action recommended by society--even by the whole of the society in unison--may still be immoral.

- The socially enforced moral systems are communally based and promoted--and hence in a pluralist, heterogeneous world, irreparably relative. This relativism, however, does not apply to human "ability to tell right from wrong". Such an ability must be grounded in something other than the conscience collective of society.

- The process of socialization consists in the manipulation of moral capacity--not in its production. And the moral capacity that is manipulated entails not only certain principles which later become a passive object of social processing; it includes as well the ability to resist, escape and survive the processing, so that at the end of the day the authority and the responsibility for moral choices rests where they resided at the start: with the human person. If this view of moral capacity is accepted, the apparently resolved and closed problems of the sociology of morality are thrown wide open again. The issue of morality must be relocated; from the problematics of socialization, education or civilization--in other words, from the realm of socially administered "humanizing processes"--it ought to be shifted to the area of repressive, pattern-maintaining and tension-managing processes and institutions, as one of the "problems" they are designed to handle and accommodate or transform. The moral capacity--the object, but not the product of such processes and institutions--would then have to disclose its alternative origin.

- Once the explanation of moral tendency as a conscious or unconscious drive towards the solution of the "Hobbesian problem" is rejected, the factors responsible for the presence of moral capacity must be sought in the social, but not societal sphere. Moral behaviour is conceivable only in the context of coexistence, of "being with others", that is, a social context; but it does not owe its appearance to the presence of supra-individual agencies of training and enforcement, that is, of a societal context.

- Emmanuel Levinas describes the existential condition of "being with others" with a quotation from Dostoyevsky: "We are all responsible for all and for all men before all, and I more than all the others."

- According to Levinas, responsibility is the essential, primary and fundamental structure of subjectivity. Responsibility, which means "responsibility for the Other", and hence a responsibility "for what is not my deed, or for what does not even matter to me". This existential responsibility, the only meaning of subjectivity, of being a subject, has nothing to do with contractual obligation. Because of what my responsibility is not, I do not bear it as a burden. I become responsible while I constitute myself into a subject. Becoming responsible is the constitution of me as a subject. Hence it is my affair, and mine only.

- Responsibility being the existential mode of the human subject, morality is the primary structure of intersubjective relation in its most pristine form, unaffected by any non-moral factors (like interest, calculation of benefit, rational search for optimal solutions, or surrender to coercion). The substance of morality being a duty towards the other (as distinct from an obligation), and a duty which precedes all interestedness--the roots of morality reach well beneath societal arrangements, like structures of domination or culture. Societal processes start when the structure of morality (tantamount to intersubjectivity) is already there. Morality is not a product of society. Morality is something society manipulates--exploits, redirects, jams.