For Ethical Politics by Andy Blunden, 2003

Part Four: The Fight for Justice in the 21st Century

If it be accepted that alliance politics is capable of carrying out agreed common actions, but incapable of formulating or implementing a new social principle, then the question is: how can progressive political struggle take place on the terrain of alliance politics?

The answer proposed here is: ethical politics. Ethical politics confronts the need to actively form a new political subjectivity and shape the cultural norms required to undermine and supplant the domination of right-wing populism and the anxiety of post-modern life.

Ordinarily, public political debate is conducted on the basis of arguing over which policy or which party is best able to further a given social good which is itself not the subject of public dispute. Values of course motivate political action and voters may prefer one party to another on the basis of placing one value above another. But values are not easily changed, and successful politics generally lies in perceiving the values underlying politics, and in being able to present oneself as effectively defending those values, rather than in attempting to change the values held by voters or other political actors.

In fact, changing voting patterns and the rise and fall of different political forces do result from shifts in social values, whose roots lie deep in social practice, but the political actors generally react to these shifts, rather than participating in changing them.

Alliance politics is no different in this respect.

Although each of the component parts of an alliance have their own ideal, when they participate in alliance-making, these ideals have to be left at the door step, so to speak. Consequently, alliance politics forbids any attempt to organise broadly around a whole shared program or historical ideal. However, the claim is that it is more than ordinarily amenable to the promotion of ethical politics. The relation between ideals and ethics is this: ordinarily, what is ethical is expressed by means of an ideal, a regulative ideal; the ideal expresses the way the world would be if everyone adhered to the given ethic or moral precept, i.e., if the ethical principle were to be universalised. On the basis of an agreed ideal, it is then possible to determine what is ethical: what are your rights, what is your duty and what is virtuous. In the broader terrain of postmodern multicultural society, and in the domain of ethical politics, no such agreement is possible. But what is relied upon are the ethical principles governing collaboration - these must be agreed. Collaboration aims at practical agreement; theoretical agreement is generally immaterial.

The fight for ethics generates new norms and rules of behaviour and almost inevitably eventually gives rise to values, ideals and principles because an ideal is nothing but the generalisation of an ethic and a social movement nothing other than the actuality of a principle.

Ethical politics is the process of generalisation of the experiences of alliance politics, which recognises that, despite itself, participation in alliances is a relation which reciprocally modifies all the ‘parties’ (agents) engaged in collaborative political action, and actively promotes that process towards the development of a new subjectivity.

While it is true to say that ethical politics opens up new possibilities, entering the domain of ethical political struggle also entails confronting resistance. There are several successive ethical arena, each of which goes a little deeper and each of which generates stronger resistance. The successive arena are as follows.


Rights is the base level of ethical struggle. The demand for recognition from, say, people with disabilities, or the demand for equality and liberty, take first of all the struggle for new rights. For centuries the arena of rights has been the legitimate place for ethical political struggle, and the dominance of liberalism has meant that proponents of new rights can expect to get a hearing. Even here though, barriers are going up.

The “communitarian” Amitai Etzioni has called for a “moratorium on the minting of new rights” on the basis that the proliferation of rights has undermined traditional community. The good old fashioned community doesn’t really have room for black, gay, female atheists who value their privacy.


Conservatives, however, don’t mind ethical rhetoric about duty, in fact they are the moralistic advocates of duty par excellence. Liberals on the other hand will resist any attempt to cross the boundary of ethical struggle from rights into duties, from what you are allowed to do, to what you ought to do. In the domain of duty, ethical politics is the opponent of liberalism. Ethical politics certainly aims at the use of peer pressure and the passing of new laws if necessary to further the progressive cause.

Constitutive Ideals

Inseparable from the struggle over the rights attached to this or that group (what that group is allowed to do), is the struggle to constitute a group (who is it that has these rights). Group or class consciousness, group or class rights, and group or class organisation are inextricably linked. The struggle for organisation and recognition is a form of ethical politics and draws on all the forms of struggle of ethical politics.


If an ethics of duty (what you should do) meets more resistance from liberals than an ethics of rights (what you are allowed to do), then an ethics of virtue (what you desire to do) is regarded by liberalism as beyond the pale. Virtue however constitutes a most important domain for ethical political struggle, inseparable from the struggle for consciousness, organisation and rights.


Discussion of values has already been proposed by others as a means of tackling the problems of alliance politics. The idea is that people involved in working together should disclose their values and give recognition to the values of others. Behind this also is the hope of discovering shared values which could underpin the notion of collectivity lacking in alliance politics, notions such as democracy and freedom. By the end of the shooting war in Iraq, the Victorian Peace Network arrived at Peace, Social Justice and Human Rights as their shared values. This was seen as important to facilitate the continued work of the Network as the work of the network entered a new phase.

Value-debate is the arena of choice for liberalism, for it is in values more than anywhere that individual choice flowers. Nevertheless, the fostering and interrogation of values is one of the domains of ethical politics, and insofar as it unites rather than divides it is valuable.

Regulative Ideals

Regulative ideals are the “utopian” images of society which allow us to make sense of ethical propositions. A regulative ideal is the abstract generalisation of an ethic, how the world would be if an ethical principle were to be generalised. Laissez faire, the idyllic village community, the socialist utopia, are examples which demonstrate that regulative ideals need to be used with care. Nevertheless, I believe they have an important place in ethical political struggle.

Ethical politics is not utopianism however. Ethical politics does not begin with carte blanche - a flight of the imagination counterposed to actuality, but is an articulation of existing norms and practices with new, resistant norms and practices emerging the process of political struggle, a struggle to extend or change of the scope of norms constituting social groups, which exclude or stigmatise some people for the benefit of others, the struggle against legal and bureaucratic hypocrisy, and so on.

Methods of Struggle

Ethical politics opens up possibilities for political struggle which have hitherto been under-utilised.

Opening up the political Arena

In the first place, politics today has become a profession, a profession which requires a considerable body of knowledge and skill in judgment, and the time and energy to pursue it. But even political experts can hardly lay claim to extraordinary levels of “scientific precision” in what they do, and very often the consequence of a given policy decision is an open question. The ordinary person may rightly feel that they have very little right to pass judgment on political matters. Public participation in politics is thus largely reduced to the right to vote for the winning team of experts. Radical politics has only made the situation worse. It is laughable sometimes to witness people who look like they’ve dropped down from Mars calling for “community” control or participation, usually code for amateurism. While people feel inclined to rule themselves ineligible for participation in politics, there is a tendency for manifest idiocy to be an attractive trait for conservative politicians.

The complexity and opacity of modern politics is an obstacle to emancipatory politics for which participation is a fundamental pre-requisite. But it is a problem for instrumental politics, for politics which bases itself on the question: “What are the consequences?” - a technical question, which can be answered only by the “expert” elite.

Ethical politics however, bases itself not so much on the consequences of an action, but primarily on the inherent (“deontological”) value of the policy or action itself.

The problem of public participation in politics is thereby transformed. Every person has an equal right to determine what is right and to govern their own activity according to what they believe to be right and to criticise the behaviour of other people on the same basis. You don’t have to be an expert to know right from wrong.

Ethical politics is absolutely non-elitist. It essentially rests in the day-to-day activity and values of masses of people and their moral common sense. The political activist can and should appeal to people to conduct themselves at work, in the street, at school or wherever according to what is claimed to be ethical - and vice versa.

The problem of organisation

In the second place, it is not at all necessary to “have the numbers,” set up a massive bureaucracy or to muster a sufficient number of people around an ethical principle in order get to work with it. It is in the domain of ethical action that one single individual can have the most profound effect even if they are absolutely alone.

There are thousands and thousands of people who have in the past been active in political parties and social movements who currently feel utterly isolated, demoralised and unable to make any contribution to progressive politics. Voting for the Greens or turning up at an Anti-War rally where no-one is bothering to listen to the speeches is all that is open to them. Ethical politics opens up a genuine avenue for political activism. Taking a stand on broad ethical issues within one’s profession can be transformed into something with profound political impact, for example. It is not necessary to go into the streets to practice civil disobedience or to be in possession of national secrets to be a whistle-blower. Being all alone can in fact create the aura of heroism which can be a catalyst for change.

Public Intellectuals

Thirdly, the scope for activity by artists and public intellectuals is profound. It is not necessary to join a party or social movement in order to intervene on the ethical political field.

For the public intellectual, the most vital kind of activity is the analysis of political speeches and programs and public life in general in order to discover the underlying values and ideals which are driving them. What are the values that John Howard appeals to? Mateship? Country? Safety? If the majority of people support these values, what is the way forward? Semiotic analysis is required to reveal the nature and identity of the values, constitutive and regulative ideals, prejudices and dichotomies structuring political debate.

I think Norman Mailer’s recent Commonwealth Club speech was insightful in many respects in a way which is relevant to our topic. He categorises American conservatives into two types: value conservatives [Pat Buchanan] and flag conservatives [George W.]:

“Old-line conservatives like Pat Buchanan believed that America should keep to itself and look to solve those of its problems that we were equipped to solve. Buchanan was the leader of what might be called old-value conservatives who believe in family, country, faith, tradition, home, hard and honest labor, duty, allegiance and a balanced budget. The ideas, notions and predilections of George W. Bush had to be, for the most part, not compatible with Buchanan’s conservatism”

Mailer explains Bush’s push for an American Empire as follows:

“From a militant Christian point of view, America is close to rotten. The entertainment media are loose. Bare belly buttons pop onto every TV screen, as open in their statement as wild animals’ eyes. The kids are getting to the point where they can’t read, but they sure can screw. So one perk for the White House, should America become an international military machine huge enough to conquer all commitments, is that American sexual freedom, all that gay, feminist, lesbian, transvestite hullabaloo, will be seen as too much of a luxury and will be put back into the closet again. ... To flag conservatives, war now looks to be the best possible solution.” [Only in America, Norman Mailer, 2003]

Whether Mailer is right on this, I don’t know, but the connection he makes between ethical concerns and big power politics is worth paying attention to.

It must be emphasised: even if we could successfully expose John Howard as a crook and a fool, all that would achieve is to open the door for his Deputy, Peter Costello, and even if the entire Liberal Party were to be exposed as a bunch of opportunists, this would only open the way for the Labor Party to carry out the Liberal Party program. And not only that, if it were to be shown that the policies of the liberal party will not achieve what they are claimed to achieve, we are still no further forward. It is necessary to aim our fire at the very social goods which both government parties claim to pursue and which condition the entire popular political discourse.

For artists, comedians, satirists, writers and so on, there is a dual project. Firstly, they must find how to depict the ethical principles (Mateship, My Country, etc.), so that they can be firmly grasped and understood by the population at large - identified explicitly as what a given politician or program promotes. Secondly, and most importantly, is the assault upon those commonly accepted values and constructs, their criticism, derision and parody. (The promotion of new values capable of inspiring social action, cannot be the object of political suggestion, being the preserve of art as such.) How can we bring about a situation where most people perceive that anyone arguing for country is advocating Balkanisation? Where “mateship” is seen by everyone as synonymous with tribalism? Where the obsession with security is seen as social agoraphobia and scaremongering?

The achievements of the populist right in subverting the language for their own political ends is extraordinary. Consider some of Dexter Pinion’s favourite epithets: “the chattering classes,” “political correctness,” “tree-huggers,” “bleeding heart,” “black armband version of history,” “latte-sipping, Chardonnay-swilling,” etc., etc. The ease with which populist imagery can be brought to bear in the service of social conservatism is frightening, but issues the challenge to ethical politics to find how to respond. “Economic rationalism” is one of the few terms which Left has coined which has succeeded in isolating a genuine social elite while connecting up with popular consciousness, but even this term was eagerly adopted by right-wing populists for their own purposes.

It is unfortunate that most political satire today serves only to comfort the disaffected, rather than serve to disable the support of reactionary ethical values, to undermine political leaders, policies and parties, without touching the values which cause people to continue supporting them. To portray John Howard as a frog-eyed idiot can only serve to make left-wing people feel a bit better about being on the outer, but is unlikely in itself to change anyone’s political persuasion.

On the other hand, individuals express and actualise values. So for example, a leader may at one moment express the spirit of their time and be a hero but times change, and when the spirit with which an individual is identified has passed, satire is hardly necessary because it can only imitate life. Contrariwise, a well aimed attack on a person may be the vehicle for attacking the value with which they are identified. But this means precisely attacking the very source of their fame and virtue, not their dark side.

There is a huge constituency for social justice. The idea that the majority of people are motivated by self-interest is nonsense now more than ever it was. And yet political people (themselves motivated by ethical notions) feel obliged to reframe ethical demands in the form of instrumental claims: Pauline Hansen’s racism is wrong, not because it unjustly stigmatises innocent people, but because it might damage relations with Australia’s Asian trading partners; sending refugees back to certain death is wrong not because it discounts them as human beings and violates all notions of justice, but because these people are diligent workers who could make a contribution to the economy. And so on.

Ethical politics is not sentimentality. Ethical politics does not just mean appealing to emotion and feeling as opposed to calculation and self-interest. Appeals to the heart are of course as old as politics, but ethics goes far further than empathy, solidarity and altruism. Most people understand that the very fabric of society rests on ethical foundations and the struggle over ethics is one of life and death for any society. So, it is OK to argue against interning refugees on the basis of the need to observe common humanity, but perhaps the group which calls itself “No-one Is Illegal” goes even deeper. After all, you can’t build a society on the maxim of “Love Thy Neighbour,” but no modern society can exist without a notion of rights and justice which extends to all human beings.

The Trade Unions

Trade unionists have a special challenge. This is not the place for a broad consideration of the trajectory of trade unions, but everyone knows that there are severe challenges in front of trade unions today. Even the best have become somewhat pragmatic about their strategies for wage and conditions bargaining. It is not enough to win wage increases or shorter hours if the means of doing so is manipulation of those who are the beneficiaries. It is better to take a setback if this is the unavoidable result of relying on people to gain control of their own working relationships. Unions need to challenge for the moral and intellectual leadership of their industry. (The custodianship of the Walkley Awards for excellence in journalism by the journalists’ union, the MAA, is an excellent move in this respect.)

Employees need to take the Nuremberg principle to heart and disobey orders that are not ethically sound.

The meaning of Left and Right, of what functions to support and what challenges the existing power relations, depends on circumstances and cannot be prescribed. However, any recourse to populism is bound to fail. Ethical politics has to be germinated within the relations formed in struggles of resistance, in the specific conditions defined by each such struggle.

The intersection Ethics & Politics:
An Arena of Struggle

This article makes the case that ethical politics offers a completely new way of doing politics, and that in the current juncture it may offer a focus for the convergence of a diverse range of political currents. While a case has been made here according to the author’s own understanding of the relevant issues, it is more a question of proving that there are urgent questions needing to be answered, than the claim to have answered any of them. Nevertheless, there is a lot of room for misunderstanding and the issue could perhaps be made a little clearer, by looking critically at some political practices which are not recommended, but which nevertheless exist somewhere in the contested space defined by the intersection of ethics and politics.


It is inconceivable that the current dominance of the Right over the political agenda can be reversed and a popular mood created conducive to progressive political change, genuinely capable giving support to a real challenge to the hegemony of corporate capital, without constructing a discourse which succeeds in isolating the ruling elite from “us” - the mass of the population, “the people.”

Any attempt to directly enter such a discourse, however, in the current juncture, sketched in the first part of this work, must draw on the imagery and meanings available in the public domain, which unavoidably joins up with or slides into a right wing form of populism. This is precisely what is meant by the concept of hegemony. In other circumstances, such as perhaps during the Great Depression or in the aftermath of a War, populism could connect up with progressive, democratic, egalitarian, socialist or broad communitarian tides, but this is not possible today.

The point of ethical politics is to take the first steps towards creating the conditions where a new, emancipatory kind of populism would become viable. In the meantime, efforts to muster popular sentiment against the ruling elite cannot draw on popular imagery and prejudice, but must rather draw on what we have described as “moral common sense” which pays respect to the equal moral worth of all persons. The task of developing such a discourse lies ahead of us.

The contradiction between popular prejudice and moral common sense is perhaps reflected in the anti-Semite who claims “some of my best friends are Jews.” Very confused social theory can co-exist with sound moral common sense, but once common sense steps outside of its own front yard, it is easily deceived. What we have referred to as “riding the tiger of popular moralism” is a dangerous business. But trying to flee the tiger may be even more dangerous.

Right-wing populism is very easy stuff though. For example, “political correctness” was easily co-opted by the right-wing as a term of derision because the implied skill in language-use required for “political correctness” could be used to separate the “chattering classes” from the “battlers” who weren’t lucky enough to get a University education.

This is the nature of the domain of ethical politics. Failure to understand the dynamics which operate in this domain can lead to right-wing populism transforming each and every move into a representation which defends actual elites at the expense of those whose lives are really on the line.


Moralism is a pejorative term. Robert K Fullinwider [Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics] cites Kant to suggest that “morality requires that we be strict toward ourselves and generous toward others” which is why we disapprove of those who are too quick to criticise the morals of others. In modernity, moral principles have been subject to critical devalidation, relativisation and reflexive tolerance. In this situation, then, moralism takes on a further meaning. A “moraliser” is nowadays someone who criticises the morals of others without any consideration of the problematic or even obsolete status of the moral code they claim to advocate for.

This process of devalidation of ethical and moral norms which has characterised modernity requires that anyone who makes moral criticism should be able to substantiate their claim on the basis of reason in such way that the person criticised should reasonably be expected to agree. The “moraliser,” on the other hand, is unable to convincingly justify their moral criticism.

A further dimension which ensures the opprobrium attached to “moralists” in modern society is “multiculturalism” and libertarianism in values and life-styles, which up to a point, rightly defend the autonomy of individuals and communities from outsider criticism.

But have we arrived at a moral vacuum? I don’t think such a claim could be substantiated. While most culturally determined moral codes have suffered relativisation, on the other hand, we have no qualms in condemning the financier who absconds with millions, leaving creditors in the lurch, the politician who manipulates planning regulations so as to profit selling real estate, or for that matter, the committee member who systematically disparages a less confident member or a unionist who divulges strike plans to the bosses.

Within the domain of everyday life, and within the separate functional domains created by the social division of labour, we still rely upon a moral code to sustain the social fabric.

Furthermore, it would be impossible to imagine how any politics, progressive politics included, could be conducted without shaming and/or punishing those who transgress relevant moral norms.

Over and above the requirement that “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone” [John 8:7], ethical politics is concerned not so much with distributing shame as with fostering the moral consciousness which would cause shame to be attached to those practices which express and maintain the hegemony of corporate capitalism.

Moralistic criticism which bases itself on premises which are patently not shared by others, even when formulated in the language of instrumental politics, is the hallmark of precisely the kind of bankrupt leftism which ethical politics distances itself from. For example, left-wing agitation is still inclined to call upon egalitarian sentiments to make a point against the ruling parties. But negative egalitarianism is not a widely-shared value nowadays, and hasn’t been for a long time. Social justice and welfare yes, but appeals to negative egalitarianism would today be a form of moralism.

Having dealt with the pitfalls of moralism and populism, let’s look at some proposals for addressing the ills of modern society from a moral or ethical point of view which have come from various quarters.

Re-moralisation of the public sphere

The Rev David Holloway of the Anglican Church in Britain claims that modernist tolerance has led to the withdrawal of moral discourse from the public arena, leading to indifference rather than tolerance of difference. Pointing to times when the great British humanists campaigned not only against slavery and religious intolerance, but gambling and homosexuality, Holloway has issued a call for the re-moralisation of the public sphere, aiming to enlist public figures and institutions in a campaign against whatever the Anglican Church deems sinful.

“For Ethical Politics” is not a call for the “re-moralisation of the public sphere.” The exclusion of this kind of moralism from the public sphere is one of the gains of modernity which must be defended.

“Cleaning up” the political landscape

Especially in countries still in the process of shaping western-style democracies there is frequently a call to “clean up the political landscape,” as recently in both Japan and Korea. Such calls could surface in the wake of corporate scandals in the U.S. and elsewhere. The point is that modern society does not suffer so much from corruption and bending of the rules as by their very application. While the perception of corruption and self-seeking among social elites can help create an opening for ethical politics, this is not its aim. Should ethical politics be channelled into “cleaning up the political landscape” this could only function to support the class interests which are vested in the current order.

Ethical politics is generally aimed not so much at failure to observe the norms of bourgeois society but at those very norms themselves.

Restoring the “Lost Balance”

There are a plethora of analyses of modernity stemming from opponents of modernity, which assert that there is a need to restore balance: “restore the lost balance between reason and revelation,” between “life and death,” “the material and the spiritual,” “nearness and distance,” “individuality and community” or “dependence and independence” to name but a few.

It is not the thesis of “For Ethical Politics” that there is a need to “restore the balance” in modern political life by introducing a more ethical element into the currently largely amoral political discourse, or any such formulation.

There may well be truth in one or many of the above claims, but what is proposed here is a new way of doing politics for the purpose of tipping the balance back from right-wing populism and mainstream conservatism in favour of the left, and by no means aims at “restoring the balance” in this effort.

Limiting Executive Powers

From the dawn of the bourgeois epoch, and indeed long before, people have sought to moderate the ills of bad government by erecting fences around the powers of government, the separation of powers and “checks and balances.” One of the modern forms of this endeavour is the creation of “ethics committees” attached to hospitals, research institutions and universities, arms of government and industry to monitor and discipline professionals in diverse spheres of activity.

“For Ethical Politics” is not such a proposal.

Libertarians claim that government is an inherently evil institution. Reflecting on the excesses of the French Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote:

“All these things have followed from the want of a constitution; for it is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent governing by party, by establishing a common principle that shall limit and control the power and impulse of party, and that says to all parties, thus far shalt thou go and no further. But in the absence of a constitution, men look entirely to party; and instead of principle governing party, party governs principle.” [Dissertation On First Principles of Government].

Describing the “science of government” as an “experimental science” capable of making irreversible mistakes Edmund Burke argued that “governments do things for ‘reasons of state’ which individuals could not justly do, basically because the state is founded on violence and is ‘contrary to nature’.”

Mikhail Bakunin argued (among many other things) that the State was immoral:

“... the entire history of ancient and modern states is merely a series of revolting crimes; why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries - statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors - if judged from the standpoint of simple morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labour or to the gallows. There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: ‘for reasons of state.’ ...

“Machiavelli was the first to use these words, or at least the first to give them their true meaning and the immense popularity they still enjoy among our rulers today. ... the first to understand that the great and powerful states could be founded and maintained by crime alone ...” [Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism, Bakunin, 1872]

Today, it appears to be a widely held view that not only states, but all institutions are intrinsically immoral, and the established means of combating this essential immorality of institutions and functional spheres of activity is the establishment of “checks and balances” in the form of statutory of self-regulatory bodies or other forms of bureaucracy such as ethics committees, which to a greater or lesser degree scrutinise and regulate the activity of professionals and constrain them within the bounds of socially accepted ethical practice.

While without a doubt ethics committees will become arenas of struggle for ethical politics, it is not the proposal of “For Ethical Politics” that such ethical committees, or any form of the separation of powers so beloved of bourgeois constitutionalism, constitute a viable mechanism for the cure of the social and ethical crisis manifested in modern society.

All these institutions have to be transformed. This article argues that the people working within them, who are also citizens of society at large with a conscience and the capacity to subject their own work to criticism, must be engaged for the purpose of an ethical-political struggle over the kind of transformation required.

The Sovereignty of “Public Values”

In Britain and other countries, a practice has developed whereby questionnaires, focus groups and other techniques drawn from the market research industry are mobilised to determine the scale of “pubic values” in relation to government services and priorities. Faced with ethical dilemmas, the government can then consult “public values”: for example, if 60% of the public value “quality of service” over “accessibility,” then the government is mandated to organise priorities for the health service accordingly, cutting equity and access budgets.

The cry that governments must act only in accordance with “public values” is the very opposite of what is proposed in “For Ethical Politics.” If this mentality had been consistently adhered to we would probably still be witnessing public executions and the stoning of adulterers.

The point is not to use appeals to “public values” to place limits around the scope of government action, but rather to actively join in the process of challenging “public values.” The inverted commas around “public values” are retained insofar as the concept remains connected to the impressionistic methodology of the market research industry.


Possibly relying on Marx’s famously derisory attitude towards ethical and moralistic rhetoric, and the association of such rhetoric with “utopian socialism,” “ethical politics” could be accused of “Utopianism.” Such a charge is misconceived, but it is certainly worthwhile exploring exactly what would constitute Utopianism in the field of ethical politics.

Karl-Otto Apel put it well:

“... ethics seems to be fundamentally distinguished from utopia in the following manner: ethics, like utopia commences from an ideal that is distinguished from existing reality; but it does not anticipate the ideal through the conception of an empirically possible alternative or counter-world; rather it views the ideal merely as a regulative idea, whose approximation to the conditions of reality - e.g. discourse consensus formation under the conditions of strategic self-assertion - can indeed be striven for but never completely assumed to be realizable.”

“... the most basic connection between ethics and utopia - and that also means, between reason and utopia ... is evidently one that is embedded in the “condition humaine” as unavoidable. Human beings, as linguistic beings who must share meaning and truth with fellow beings in order to be able to think in a valid form, must at all times anticipate counterfactually an ideal form of communication and hence of social interaction. This “assumption” is constitutive for the institution of argumentative discourse;” [Karl-Otto Apel: Is Ethics of the Ideal Communication Community a Utopia? ... in The Communicative Ethics Controversy, ed. Banhabib and Dallmayr]

In other words, the regulative ideals by means of which a person organises their norms and values ought not to be taken as a future state of the world at which history must one day arrive. One can be a Christian without believing in the Second Coming, a Communist without believing in a future world lacking in all social conflict and a liberal without believing in the end of history - that is in fact precisely what it means to be an “ethical Christian,” an “ethical communist” or an “ethical liberal.”

There does not yet exist a regulative ideal (Utopian idea) which answers to the multiple value contradictions posed in modernity: autonomy vs. community, freedom vs. equality, positive and negative freedom, virtue vs happiness, and so on. Nevertheless, actual collaboration and social action is necessarily determined by reference to norms and rules, norms and rules which are constantly changing and under challenge, and the values and maxims lying behind the norms and rules change accordingly. Inevitably the regulative ideal implicit in every such value and maxim is constantly brought into focus and counterposed to reality. This process of thinking ethically about what you are doing is an essential part of forming the social and spiritual conditions for a new life-world.

Ethical politics is not “Utopian.” The struggle over values and norms of behaviour is part and parcel not only of changing social conditions, but of testing and exploring what is and is not possible in the present situation, and how and by whom the present situation is supported and maintained. Any attempt to significantly change the current political alignment without an ethical political program which goes to the values and norms underpinning the status quo would indeed be Utopian.

Ethical politics does not mean that the power of the multi-national corporations and police-state machines can be confronted by moral pressure alone as an alternative to political action. All political action rests on conceptions which are properly speaking part of the ethical domain. Economic, social, political and ethical change are inextricably connected. The sense of social justice, empathy and moral outrage, solidarity and enmity are powerful motivating forces for political and social change. Politics drawing on them today is however always in danger of descending into populism or sentimentality.

Liberalism vs. “Communitarianism”

This brings us to some issues which come out of disputes in the academy in the domain of ethics. In particular there is the debate initiated by the liberal theorist John Rawls with A Theory of Justice (1971), in which liberal political dogma emphasising individual autonomy, laid claim to a kind of ahistorical validity, and the various critical responses, which were referred to collectively as “communitarianism,” emphasising anthropological notions of the primacy of community. If by “communitarianism” we mean that brand of conservative politics which harks back to the conformism of bygone days, flies the flag or appeals to parochialism, then we utterly reject the idea of a political or ethical field defined by the opposition between liberalism and “communitarianism.”

The identification of “moral common sense” as the embryo of a new universal consciousness arising on the basis of the world market and the modern division of labour, could mistakenly be taken to indicate siding with “liberalism” in this debate. Conversely, the identification of ethics as the site of a counterattack against the dominance of liberalism and the hegemony of corporate capitalism, might mistakenly be taken to indicate that “For Ethical Politics” sides with “communitarianism” against liberalism. Both suppositions would be wrong.

The abovementioned debate established the absurdity of any theory of society or of the individual, whether of modernity or otherwise, which sets out from one of these poles, being made the basis of the political struggle against neo-liberalism.

Ethical politics must develop an approach to understanding how regulative ideals condition social and interpersonal relations. How do Autonomy (self-determination of individuals and of communities, etc., difference, negative freedom, freedom of expression, association, etc.) and Community (nation, group and family; identity and belonging), structure ethical struggle and the search for the good life? How do these intersect with the other axis in this matrix: Equality (distributive justice, fairness, positive freedom) and Democracy (recognition, participation, representation)?

Each of these four ideals has its own utopia: ideal laissez-faire competitive capitalism, the insular, conformist village commune, the egalitarian Jacobin republic, and the ancient Greek polis respectively. All these regulative ideals (“Utopias”) are not only impossible in themselves but also mutually incompatible. Useless for the purpose of sociological or psychological analysis or as political objectives, they nevertheless mark out an ethical-political field which help people to make judgments and evaluate ethical norms and values.

What kind of social arrangements can give form to these ideals? This author is not able to answer such questions, but the development of ethical-political practice poses these questions nonetheless.


In Hegel’s very early System of Ethical Life (1802) recognition occupied a central place in the unfolding of Geist, in the form of respect for property rights especially, which constitute the basic conditions for community and ultimately the rule of law. The struggle for recognition occupied but one, albeit famous, section of the Phenomenology (1807) and in his mature social philosophy, the Philosophy of Right (1821), recognition appears as Property, and recognition, in the sense it has in the Subjective Spirit, plays a secondary role behind mediation. So when Alexandre Kojčve, in his 1937 lectures on Hegel, transformed the whole of Hegel’s system around the master-slave dialectic, this could be argued to be doing justice to the young Hegel, but it was certainly original. Kojčve introduced his Hegel to that generation of French philosophers among whom Simone de Beauvoir and Frantz Fanon formulated their ideas in the 1940s. So, via France, the young Hegel’s philosophical notion of recognition made its way into a world-wide movement for recognition.

During the first phase of development of radical subjectivity, recognition was not a significant axis; radicals mobilised for the overthrow of property, and for the freedom of the majority from the domination of a minority. Forms of decision-making emphasised the status of the propertyless as the majority, and had little regard for recognition of a minority. During the second phase of development of radical subjectivity, recognition came to the fore, and consensus decision-making was preferred to majority voting.

Recognition remains a primary value, but the post-world war two compromise which pacified the majority has collapsed. The majority, which lack property, have been atomised and stratified by modernity, and is also in need recognition. Majority rule, which requires forms of mediation which can expand the radius of trust mobilised by radical movements, has to be merged with the recognition of difference; not in property but in action.

The first phase established the “we”; the second phase established the “you” and the “me”; the third phase must reconstitute the “we” inseparably with the “you” and the “me.”

The “Priority of Right over Good”

Another liberal epithet which may be deemed to be relevant to the issues under discussion here is the so-called “priority of right over good.” Broadly, the position of ideological liberalism here is that since it is impossible to rationally justify the values deployed in intersubjective activity, any attempt to do so leads to infinite regression, circularity, or dogmatic assertion, and since it is formally impossible to know the social consequences of your action (a final Good), all those ethical theories which rest on a notion of the Good, utilitarianism included, must prove theoretically unsustainable. Consequently, the only consistent position which can be defended in ethics is the specification, or at least prioritisation, of rights; any attempt to place a concept of the Good at the ground of ethics must lead to dogmatism or inconsistency.

While a number of observations have already been made above about the impact of this liberal dogma and its political expressions, the author does not see any way through the theoretical problems facing us by means of the counterposition of Good to Right or of concepts of virtue to procedural justice.

While the Good Life has always been the ultimate aim of political struggle, political struggle has always had as its foundation the struggle for Rights, and ethical politics is unlikely to change that fact.

The Balance between Legality and Authority

With the growth of the complexity of modern forms of governance and regulation, and most particularly in the European Community, there has been growing debate about the question of “the balance between legality and authority.” That is to say, concern about the growth of the bureaucratic apparatuses and businesses which assume a decisive role in the control of daily life and national policy, but lack effective accountability or even operate outside the law.

The author does not believe that the restoration of “the balance between legality and authority” constitutes a viable way posing the dilemma, since the existing apparatuses of legislation and political participation are themselves already patently lacking in legitimacy. It is not the proposal of “For Ethical Politics” that bureaucratic and corporate responsibility needs to be reined back under the control of elected and judicial authority. All these apparatuses need to be transformed, and such transformations are far more likely to disperse and decentralise power, than to regulate and centralise it.

“Ethical Business” and Social Contracts

As a result of criticism from the anti-corporate movement, a number of corporations have developed policies to ensure that they can defend the ethical status of their brand. “Mission statements” and “Statements of Values” are now routine components of corporate restructure. There is also an “ethical business” movement including the “ethical investment” movement and a substantial environmental movement amongst small business people. All these movements constitute an arena of struggle for ethical politics, and concrete ethical-political analysis is required in each case. Suffice just to state the obvious, that the declarations of values which accompany corporate restructure are invariably nothing more than a combination of public relations and employee management instruments which should be treated with the contempt that they deserve.

Possibly the most sophisticated theory of business ethics is the social contract theory as outlined in Donaldson and Dunfee’s Ties that Bind. This theory is a simple extension of Rousseau’s contrat social which has long been discounted as a viable political conception, and it’s application to corporate behaviour fails to overcome the well-known defects of the theory.

Nevertheless, it is hardly tenable that anyone affected by corporate activity would distain to engage the corporation in negotiations if they had the chance. It seems that the “social contract” negotiated by, for example, indigenous landowners and a mining company, stand in relation to the abolition of corporate power in much the same relation as wage-bargaining stands to revolutionary socialism.

Consequently, “For Ethical Politics” rejects the adoption of binding “social contracts” as a transparent means of legitimising the exploitative and inequitable activity of large-scale businesses but sees efforts by corporations to legitimise their profiteering in this way as a welcome arena for ethical-political struggle.

Redistributive Justice and Recognition

The tension between calls for redistibutive justice and for recognition can only be resolved by transforming the contradictions within the social formations in which these struggles are located.

“Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically.” [Marx, Theses on Feuerbach 4]

Recently, the Latrobe University branch of the National Tertiary Education Union negotiated with its employer the creation of a Foundation to which members could donate a portion of their pre-tax salary, for the purpose of providing scholarships. Senior academic staff who are members of the union are often voices against high wage demands because they feel that they are well enough paid already, and that salary increases put pressure on University finances and therefore on services to students. At the same time, the union cannot unduly mess with salary relativities, and have to ask for high wage increases to achieve wage justice for low-paid members of staff. The criteria for allocation of scholarships are still to be set; indigenous students is one proposal. I believe that this gesture is an example of the kind of action which can square the circle defined by the tension between distributive justice and recognition.

Loyal Communist Party member and employee of the Meatworkers Union, Zelda D’Aprano, is famous for having, in 1969, chained herself to the doors of the Industrial Relations Commission, refusing to move until the Commission granted equal pay for women. She is perhaps less famous for the on-going struggle she fought within the Communist Party and the union for recognition for women. Caught in both movements, for distributive justice and recognition for women, Zelda expressed the pain and conflict in trying to square that circle.

In 1971, the powerful NSW Builders’ Labourers Union agreed to a request from a community group to ban demolition of valued heritage buildings in their area. The series of “Green Bans” that followed remains an icon for progressive social action by the organised working class. The bans did generate considerable tension inside the union and the campaign eventually faltered, but its effects will never die. Recently, a Committee called Earthworker was established within the Victoria Trades Hall Council. One of the projects of this group was to bring about a formal process of reconciliation between forestry workers and the Anti-logging activists. This campaign came close to fruition, but currently lies in the too-hard basket.

The Victorian Greens contested the recent Victorian elections on a social justice platform, de-prioritising their environmental platform. This coincided with a huge increase in their vote and an even greater influx of trade unionists into their ranks. They have become in fact a pole of attraction for militant trade unionists deserting the Labor Party. This process has generated considerable tensions within the Greens, but all the more is it a gesture of great significance.

Organisations like Medical Association for the Prevention of War and Lawyers for Peace, relatively small organisations which are engaged in ethical and social activism within important professional social bases offer great prospects for a very lively field of activity for ethical politics.

Right throughout the period since the rise of the social movements, women, indigenous people, environmental and peace activists have penetrated the union movement and pressed their demands in just the same way they have pressed their demands in every institution. The union movement has everywhere responded, for example, with special women’s committees or claims reflecting special needs. However, the unions are essentially self-help organisations for the under-paid. This kind of adaptation does not resolve the tension between distributive justice and recognition, but merely constitutes its intersection.

I think the Latrobe University initiative mentioned above, is a modest gesture, but one which comes closest to the kind of action that is required. There are other instances where unions have taken initiatives on issues of recognition, but they are fairly rare. (A building union which banned work on an office block where a gay man had been sacked is an example I have heard of). The point is that the creative resolution of the tension between redistributive justice and recognition is not a theoretical task but a practical one. The efforts of anti-corporate “brand” activists to coordinate with labour activists is certainly an important contribution as well.

The signs of equality and liberty, and of recognition and difference are constituted in the social formations which particularise and materialise them in social life. Initiatives taken from within these formations which go beyond accommodation of the claims of the others to the active and creative expression of the other, are what is required.

Such moves cause tensions, and the resolution of these tensions is ethical politics.

Hegelian, Kantian and Communicative Ethics

In this article, I have freely drawn on the ideas of communicative ethics in the tradition of Jürgen Habermas, Karl-Otto Appel, Axel Honneth, and of Agnes Heller and others in the Kantian tradition, as well as resting the analysis on a transparently Hegelian historical development with a Marxist flavour. This may have the appearance of a somewhat eclectic approach. The author has no interest in taking the part of this or that stream of moral philosophy against another, far less of choosing to “belong to” this or that tradition. However, ideas have a history, and if one is to draw on such ideas, one must be mindful of the criticisms and support that have been offered from this or that standpoint in their real history.

In particular, there is a basic conflict between the Hegelian and Kantian approaches to ethics, chiefly that Hegel situates ethical theory in the historical unfolding of the ethical life of a real community (Sittlichkeit), while Kant draws on transcendental, apodeictic reflection, “pure reason,” so to speak.

For example:

“The neo-Aristotlean and neo-Hegelian insistence on the centrality of a shared ethos or of a concrete Sittlichkeit in the conceptualisation and resolution of moral questions, has unavoidable implications in the domain of political action as well. If this shared ethos and this Sittlichkeit are viewed not primarily as the unavoidable hermeneutical horizon over and against which moral questions and problems can be formulated, but if they are considered the normative standard in light of which to assess individual actions, then morality becomes subordinated to the collective ethos of a community.” [Afterword by Seyla Benhabib in The Communicative Ethics Controversy]

An ethics which simply rested upon the ethical life of an empirical community would be hopelessly conservative and contingent. In any case, the Sittlichkeit of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right bears only a remote resemblance to the actual society of his time: it was an ideal.

What I have done is to trace the essential development of the form of emancipatory subjectivity which has unfolded throughout the period of modernity. It is this essential development that takes the place of the Sittlichkeit in my reasoning and which forms the real basis of the ethical politics which is my subject. It is from this standpoint that I perceive that ethical politics is posed.

Kant’s ethics reflected the spirit of his times. The emergence of Habermas’s communicative ethics in the 1980s has clear historical roots in the same genesis that I have taken as my source, marking the emergence of “networks” among the participants in social movements. The relevance of communicative ethics to the activity of alliance politics is self-evident. That is, the basis of these quasi-mathematical ethical theories has itself emerged historically alongside the elaboration of the theories themselves.

The Sittlichkeit of a real community which may give substance to the ethos in gestation in alliance politics is real to the extent that the multiplicity of the practical and theoretical critiques being brought forward really constitutes a new society in gestation within the present. Consequently, it makes perfect sense to base oneself critically upon that emergent ethos.

Far from being conservative or contingent, this ethos is revolutionary-critical and unfolding on a world-wide arena.

Ethical Politics and Theory

I have proposed above that the “golden rule” of ethics ought to be further modified as “What we do is decided by you and me,” in order to reflect what I claim as the genuinely human relation, collaboration, as opposed to the mutual instrumentalisation implied in economic theory and contemporary ethics. Whether such a move is sustainable is yet to be established. The main thrust of my criticism of the critical theory of Habermas, is that he takes an utterance as the basic unit of analysis for a theory of communicative action, abstracted from the practical activity within which the utterance is made, whereas I believe that activity must be the basic unit of analysis.

In The inclusion of the Other. Studies in Political Theory, Habermas goes some way in the direction I suggest:

“Under the pragmatic presuppositions of an inclusive and noncoercive rational discourse between free and equal participants, everyone is required to take the perspective of everyone else and thus to project herself into the understandings of self and world of all others; from this interlocking of perspectives there emerges an ideally extended ‘we-perspective’ from within which all can test in common their shared practice; and this should include mutual criticism of the appropriateness of the languages in terms of which situations and needs are interpreted. In the course of successively undertaken abstractions, the core of generalisable interests can then emerge step by step.” [Habermas, 1998, p. 58]

However, I remain of the view that an ethics which takes an utterance as its basic unit of analysis cannot resolve this problem. I also suggest that while communicative ethics has much to offer, it is insufficient to refer communications just to the agents’ values, as the interconnection of the regulative ideals involved in communication and collaboration in modern society - recognition, equality, community and autonomy, and their particularisation by different individual agents - cannot be adequately conceptualised in terms of values. It is a person’s conception of themselves as part of an historically articulated practice, as suggested by MacIntyre, which lies at the more fundamental level than values.

While the analysis of constitutive ideals from the standpoint of cognitive activity has been extensively studied, I am not aware of work on the structure of the regulative ideals involved in collaboration.

An urgent practical task is the creation of a decision-making procedure which sublates the conflict between formal (majority-voting) meeting procedure and consensus decision-making. All receive recognition in what we do together. I have suggested that “agreeing to differ” is something which has to be built into collaborative actions.

I have suggested that semiotics needs to be brought to bear in a systematic way to disclose the way in which values are articulated in political communications.

Theories of group dynamics suffer largely from the defect that they focus on task oriented groups (i.e., groups with a professional facilitator), and the issues posed in going beyond alliance politics raise the need to make a systematic study of the group dynamics at work in groups which do not have a facilitator and whose tasks are self-defined.

Freedom and democracy seem to be universally recognised values, but it may be that their content is too indeterminate to function in analysis alongside recognition, equality, community and autonomy.

The incompatibility between autonomy, community, equality and liberty, justice, freedom, democracy, stability and recognition have tortured the minds of social reformers and revolutionaries for centuries. Ethical politics is the practical field in which the tension between these ideals is played out.

There are many unanswered questions.