Making Sense of Morality: Introduction to Postmodernism

Various ethics terms
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Introduction to Postmodernism

Postmodernism is the last major kind of ethical views I will survey. Since it is post-modern, we will need to survey the modern era’s traits to which postmoderns are responding. In this essay, I will explore some of the historical and sociological factors leading to postmodernity, along with some key philosophical positions, too.

Historical, Sociological Influences

People date modernity’s beginning differently, but we can point to the rise of the Scientific Revolution with Gassendi’s and Hobbes’s influences in the 16th century, and the related scientific shifts then and in the 17th century. As a first trait, modernity was marked by a tendency to believe in the inevitability of progress from scientific discoveries, particularly from the theory of evolution. Due to this progress, humankind could get better and better.

In sharp contrast, in postmodernity, people are far less trusting of science’s inherent goodness. They have witnessed the 20th century, with two world wars, concentration camps, genocides, and mass murders. (Indeed, some mark the end of modernity with World War II.) Nazis used medical science to perpetrate gross experiments upon Jewish and other subjects. Science also provided the most destructive weapon yet developed, the nuclear bomb. So, people therefore are far less trusting that science and scientists are working just for peoples’ good.

Second, moderns had confidence in human reason, apart from divine revelation, to know universal truths. For example, witness Descartes’s (d. 1650) view of having certainty as a foundation for our beliefs. But, postmoderns stress the fallibility of human reason and its biases, and how all too often people use it to oppress others. Further, they reject knowledge of universal truths; we know truths from our particular standpoints (such as a community and its formative narrative).

Third, in modernity, people tended to trust their political and religious leaders. Yet, there have been many political scandals and cover-ups which have eroded that trust. Scandals also surfaced amongst religious leaders, such as accusations of molestation by Catholic priests. Many assume televangelists simply want money. In postmodernity, people have grown suspicious from the fallout of these betrayals of trust.

Fourth, moderns tend to think we can find objective, universal truths that apply to everyone. There are normative ways for all cultures to live. However, to postmoderns, that idea seems oppressive and imperialistic.

Philosophical Influences

We already have seen major shifts in western history from universals to nominalism; from mind-body dualism to materialism, and with both of these, a turn to empiricism; and from the view that we can know reality directly to historicism. But, postmodernity is not a complete rejection of what developed during modernity. Even though we have seen the above mentioned sociological and historical shifts in mindsets in postmodernity, postmoderns continue the modern focus on nominalism with its rejection of universals with their essences. For instance, they focus on knowledge being tied to particular “forms of life” (or communities, social groups). We are so shaped by our situatedness (the various social, familial, historical, cultural factors that shape how we interpret and understand life) that we cannot gaze directly into reality from a universal standpoint. Moreover, they tend to reject an essential nature to all humans, leading some toward materialism.

A key factor in postmodern thought is the turn to interpretation. This reflects a further turn than just the “turn to language.” We already have seen how Nietzsche placed much stress on how we use our words. Often, in modernity, the focus was on individual sentences that could be understood by anyone due to their universal meaning. However, for postmoderns, the focus is on holism: meaning is found in a whole — a form of life — which cannot be separated from its language and formative story, or narrative. And, we all speak different languages. Meanings then are a matter of how we use language (i.e., verbal and nonverbal behavior) in a given form of life, according to the “grammar” of that community.

Next, I will explore the views of a particular ethicist, Alasdair MacIntyre, who writes in light of the postmodern turn.

For Further Reading

R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge, ch. 8

Professor of ethics, philosophy of religion @ Biola's MA Christian Apologetics. Interests: ethics, knowledge, nominalism, & how Christians have been naturalized