The de-ontologized moral code

In the seventeenth century, there were increasing signs that the moral code was being de-ontologized and coming to be seen as a unity [of a difference]. Without vice, there can be no virtues. Moral judgments were themselves judged. The cosmic struggle in Paradise Lost in which God attempts to make something good of evil, and the devil, threatened as a principle, seeks in response to discover something evil in good, in fact takes place in human souls–and ends in a draw. At approximately the same time, morality was released from the custody of religion . . .

(Luhmann. Theory of Society, vol 1. p.240)

What does it mean to say that morality was de-ontologized? It means morality was observed as a two-sided form. Evil was no longer seen as a thing-in-itself; it wasn’t some force or essence that could inhabit a person or cause things to happen. It didn’t need to be exorcised from people, and illness or criminality wasn’t blamed on things like demons.

As a two-sided form, human conduct or goals can cross the boundary from morality (or good, respectable behavior) to immorality (bad, disreputable behavior). The crossing is conditioned, but it must be possible to cross back and forth. We can also call morality a schema of observation. Luhmann argues that the moral code of good/bad (or reputable, respectable versus disreputable) behavior is likely universal but the criteria or conditional programs for making these attributions vary according to time and place; that is, the programs are culturally relative.

But this is not just a matter of the history of ideas. We have to look at functional differentiation, such as how the economy, politics, art, and science became autonomous systems. Machiavelli showed that there was no necessary connection between goodness and political power, and economists showed that moral disputes need not get in the way of economic exchanges. Art became about art, not about moral guidance or exemplum.

We need to look at the distinction between medium and form. According to Luhmann,

The both specific and universal medium of morality is provided by the coded distinction between respect and disrespect. Its elements are communications that express whether certain persons are to be respected or disrespected.  (Theory of Society, 241)

Persons, in this case, are topics of communication. The moral communications (elements) are loosely coupled because there is no essence of evil or goodness. These are differences not essences, which means that a person crosses over from being respected to being disparaged. People are not generally considered bad; rather they are just people who have made mistakes or “bad choices,” and they can regain the community’s respect.

Both reference to individual persons (one cannot respect or disrespect humankind) and the formality of the code difference guarantee the loose coupling of medium elements. The highly individualized reference to persons in modern society strengthens this loose coupling. We cannot disrespect a whole family because one member is in prison or the daughter has had a child out of wedlock. Owing to this loose coupling, the medium itself is highly stable. It would therefore be a mistake to claim that the importance of morality is diminishing in modern society (emphasis added). The medium of morality is and remains available, both in face-to-face interaction and in communication by the mass media. Television, in particular, has led to the conspicuous everyday topicality of moral communication.  (Theory of Society, 241)

So the importance of moral communication has not diminished, but now individuals rather than whole families are the topics of moral communication. Good and evil are also not essences.

The respect/disrespect code is stable; it has an invariant structure,  which implies that it is context-free. The positive or negative values of the moral code cannot be glued to the positive or negative values of another code. For instance, a successful business person or athlete does not have to be morally respectable; they are generally expected to abide by laws, however.

Modern moral communication also looks for explanations for immoral behavior. Rather than simply judging, we ask, for example, what makes a person commit a horrible crime or why someone is a pathological liar. Is it nature or nurture or a mixture of both? We assume that a “bad person” can learn to be good, and vice-versa. In other words, we assume that the boundary of the distinction is crossable. Modern society also considers intent–that is to say, it considers consciousness and motives. Did the person intend to act immorally? Was there a good reason to behave immorally?

Decisive changes are to be found in the relationship between the medial substratum and the forms developed with the aid of the medium and that regenerate it. Whereas the medium is stable and available for all possible communications, the conditions for respect and disrespect–the rules for the forms developed in the medium–tend to be unstable and are in any case no longer fully amenable to consensus. . . . The difference between medial substratum (loose coupling) and medial forms (strict coupling) is thus fully exploited, and this leads in moral communication to the simultaneity of consensus and dissent, stability and instability, necessity and contingency. (Theory of Society, 242)

Moral communication (as a medium) remains available today, just as money remains available in the economy. Persons (as topics of communication) can be respected or disrespected, and some behavior can be judged as better than other behavior,

When we accept a payment we trust that we can reuse that money. Trust is necessary for any form of communication. We need to trust that the communication media can be reused. But the precise forms of any communication are contingent; selections must be made. Moral communication has a medial substratum out of which forms of moral communication are selected, or temporarily actualized, just as payments are temporarily actualized.

Trust allows improbable communication to cross an improbability threshold. Violations of trust are taken seriously because trust is necessary for communication to continue. For Luhmann, trust is a central issue in all communication. He argues that

a society that uses language and signs gives rise to the problem of error and deception, of the unintentional and intentional abuse of signs. It is not only that communication occasionally miscarries, goes astray, or takes the wrong track. The problem, since it can occur at any time, is always present–a sort of universal problem of the type discovered by Hobbes with his example of violence. With this in mind, it is understandable that society morally appreciates sincerity, truthfulness, and the like, and in the communication process it has to rely on trust. (Theory of Society, vol 1, 135)

In order to be respected (or morally esteemed), a person must be trustworthy. In a sense, to be worthy of respect means to be trustworthy. Trust reduces complexity by relieving the social system of the task of verifying every bit of information. If the social system has to verify everything before communication happens (e.g., Did my doctor actually graduate from medical school?), then communication will never happen.


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