CEPA eprint 3896

Constructivism and ethical justification

Fourez G. (1998) Constructivism and ethical justification. In: Larochelle M., Bednarz N. & Garrison J. (eds.) Constructivism in education. Cambridge University Press, New York NY: 139–155. Available at http://cepa.info/3896
Table of Contents
From a constructivist epistemology to a constructed ethics
From moral debate to ethical paradigms
Boltanski and Thevenot: “on justification”
A study of justification without assumptions about the ultimate value of moral systems
A plurality of “orders” of justification
From the notion of “greatness” to the concept of “city”
Six cities
Each city comes bearing its own world
The conflict of worlds; compromises; and challenges to trials
Surpassing justification: from relativization to pardon
The starting and ending points of the justificatory dispute
Constructivism in science and ethics
From a constructivist epistemology to a constructed ethics
Several decades ago, most scientists believed that scientific results were the product of a rational, inescapable kind of logic that was central to the quest for ultimate scientific truth. In relatively recent times, the constructivist movement in philosophy and the sociology of science has given rise to a certain consensus which operates according to a different perspective. In this view, scientific theories are not conceived of as a reflection of reality itself or of some theory – derived idea existing in and of itself and governing the organization of the world. Science is increasingly perceived as a human production which occurs in history and which is pursued in accordance with certain finalities. This vision brings out the invented character of the construction of science, wherein the latter is conceived of as a body of representations which have been produced by human creativity in order to picture one’s place in space and time and to communicate and act in the world, society, and history. By virtue of this development, science has become demystified and secularized and yet has avoided falling prey to a sort of disillusioned relativism. Science continues to be an enchanting (but not enchanted) cultural and aesthetic enterprise because human beings see in it one of the greatest achievements in which the mind is free to develop and recognize itself in the world. Thus, scientific development is dissociated less and less from the rest of human history. Science not only has a history, science must also be seen as occurring in History.
The evolution of ethics presents a parallel with that of the sciences. For a long time it was believed that, as with the “laws governing the material world,” “moral laws” had been laid down by God, either directly or via the mediation of Nature. With the onset of secularization, moral law was viewed as an autonomous, imposed-from-without entity, which did not mean, however, that either God or Nature were invoked. Even among subcultures which have been heavily marked by free thought, there remains a vision according to which Law and, indeed, “duty” are given as categorical imperatives providing a structure to human action. Psychoanalysis has also set store in – that is, sanctified – the term Law. Furthermore, in everyday practice, ethics is still generally conceived of in terms of what is compulsory. Whether one is confronted with choosing a nursing home for one’s elderly parents or deciding on a career track, the standard question remains, as ever: What ought to be done? If the issue arises of what limits should be placed on action, as, for example, in the case of experiments on humans, the question is: What may be done (about it)? Even if most people no longer think of themselves as operating with a heteronomous moral framework, many continue to think as if the answers to their moral questions were inscribed somewhere in a heavenly constellation of ideas awaiting discovery.
It is possible to establish a parallel between a nonconstructivist conception of science and the usual way of reflecting on ethics: in both cases, it is assumed that the answers exist independently of our human means of reflecting on such issues.
In science, constructivist perspectives have made it possible to conceive of the types of logic underlying scientific invention in new terms. Historians and sociologists of science have taken up scientific controversy, examining the justificatory strategies of actors independently of the relationship which they entertain toward a so-called scientific truth that has supposedly been demonstrated.[Note 1] They have applied the principle of symmetry, wherein points of view that are held by scientists to be right are placed on equal footing with points of view which they hold (ultimately … or momentarily) to be wrong. From this perspective, the scientific basis of an argument does not derive from the argument’s being more logical or well founded in terms of some absolute. On the contrary, the very purpose of scientific discussion is, in an open society, to debate each person’s assertions and to do so according to criteria that are continually being subjected to challenge throughout history.
For constructivists, the rationality of scientific debates is based on a usually implicit kind of contract which, however, is consensually agreed upon in the context of scientific conferences or academic practice. By means of this contract, scientists establish an agreement as to the assumptions as well as to the principles and practices underlying research. Taken as a whole, these underlying principles and assumptions are generally termed a “paradigm” or “the matrix of a discipline.” It serves as a basis upon which to work out an agreement over what, in a scientific discussion, will be considered relevant as opposed to irrelevant. Thus, scientific observation can only undergo closure on the condition that a whole series of elements are ignored which, were they taken up for consideration, would lead to observations without end. The notion of paradigm refers to these agreements between practitioners of the same discipline by which they are able to develop similar protocols of observation, come to an understanding of what they are doing, and define a particular area of objectivity. In other words, scientific paradigms are what make it possible for scientific debates to take place in accordance with socially instituted forms of rationality.
A fertile approach for the study of how science is constructed, this perspective may also be put to use in the study of ethics, beginning with the notion of paradigm.
From moral debate to ethical paradigms
If scientific practices are held to include scientific debate, it may also be said that rational ethics are rooted in moral debate. We engage in this debate whenever we ask ourselves: What will be done (or what will I, or we, do?); what do we (or I) want to do? These questions give rise to a debate having a certain rationality, provided that there is sufficient agreement concerning the contexts, situations, values, and issues which are brought into play. Thus it is possible to view this set of assumptions, on which a certain consensus exists, as forming an “ethical paradigm” of the situation. Thus, in order to hold a debate bearing on the ethics of slavery, a minimum degree of agreement is required concerning notions relating to liberty, dependence, property, social institutions, humanity, and so forth. In order to debate organ transplants, some consensus should exist over notions such as the chances of survival, the psychological impact on the patient, the consequences for the family, the costs of the operation, health, the quality of life, and so forth. As in the case of science, the notions and values providing the basis of an ethical paradigm always remain somewhat hazy and are linked to the myths and founding narratives which structure our representations.
Just as it is possible to study the historical emergence of scientific paradigms (for example, in our time, the paradigms governing molecular genetics or cybernetics), so it is possible to identify the emergence of ethical paradigms such as have occurred in connection with slavery or organ transplants. In the case of organ transplants, in particular, one need only compare the “freewheeling” debates of the 1950s with the types of exchanges now occurring among hospital staffs. Forty years ago, it was primarily a doctor’s “best judgment” which held sway, in the almost total absence of any organized, critical reflection. Today, in a number of milieus at least, debate has taken on a decidedly interdisciplinary cast and draws on firmly established traditions. Participants know what types of questions are worth raising or not; in short, a new type of rationality has come into existence in accordance with an implicitly accepted paradigm.
The notion of an ethical paradigm enables us to adopt a constructivist angle in the study of moral debates. It is possible, in other words, for historians, epistemologists, and sociologists of ethics to examine the way in which modes of moral justification have been constructed at different times. Constructivist hypotheses have made it possible to investigate how scientists translate the situations they study in terms of the paradigms they are working under and to explore how scientists attempt to justify their position. Such investigation has been performed without regard to the ultimate value of the arguments advanced by these scientists (Latour and Woolgar, 1988; Latour, 1989) or concerning the truth of their theses. Similarly, we have been witness to an innovative development in ethics involving the study of justification which, on the basis of constructivist assumptions, has shown how moral justifications have developed historically. The recent model developed by Boltanski and Thevenot provides a groundbreaking basis for this approach which warrants further examination.
Boltanski and Thevenot: “on justification”
A study of justification without assumptions about the ultimate value of moral systems
Boltanski and Thevenot (1991) used an approach toward ethics which has become standard for the social study of science. Using a methodology familiar to anthropologists, they examined how ethicists work, without attaching too great an importance to the idea which the latter have formed of their own work.[Note 2] From this perspective, they consider the notion of justice not as a property in and of itself, but rather as the outcome of a process of moral justification. Instead of claiming that an action is morally right on account of a series of properties inherent to it, this point of view holds that an action is morally right when, in terms of a certain problematic, the actors involved agree to bring the debate over ethical considerations to a close.
In the constructivist perspective they adopt toward ethics, Boltanski and Thevenot inquire into the specific ways by which people arrive at an agreement as to what is right. The authors set out to “seriously consider the imperative of justification, on which the possibility of coordinating human behavior rests, and to examine the constraints which bear on an agreement over a common good” (Boltanski and Thevenot, 1991: 53). Such an approach does not lead to relativism. Instead it is concerned simply with looking into the way people justify their actions in a variety of contexts and with “pursuing all the consequences of the fact that people are confronted with the necessity of justifying their actions – not in the sense of inventing rationalizations, after the fact, in order to disguise hidden motives, as when one comes up with an alibi – but so as to perform deeds in a way that makes it possible to submit them to a justificatory trial (epreuve de justification)” (ibid: 54). Hence, it is a question of finding “under what conditions a principle of agreement is held to be legitimate” (ibid: 55). Such an endeavor is to be engaged in “without availing oneself of the facility afforded by a transcendental approach”: at issue, then, is not a “critical reflection concerning the categories of knowledge,” but instead “an analysis of disputes” (ibid: 427). Or, in other words, the authors aim at discovering how, and in what precise social and ideological contexts, arguments become acceptable – or, as Ricoeur (1979: 87) has stated, are capable of halting the search for “whys” in justificatory processes. Just as in the case of the sciences, where, within precise paradigms, arguments can be identified which make it possible to bring discussion to some form of closure and to produce scientific justification, agreement, and assent, so too Boltanski and Thevenot elucidate analogous procedures which occur in the case of moral justification.
A plurality of “orders” of justification
On the basis of their analysis of the ways by which judgments are legitimized in the political philosophy of the “commercial or merchant order,” Boltanski and Thevenot (1991) systematize such procedures into a kind of “political grammar” which they then confront with contexts other than that described in the case of a predominantly commercial society. They present half a dozen such “orders,” or spheres, of justification, with each one being viable in certain contexts. For the authors, these orders deserve the attention of our contemporaries because they convey expressions of the common good on which today’s society functions (ibid: 34). They do not claim, however, that “taken together, these orders cover all orders of society which could be constructed.” Thus, their analysis is in no way aimed at presenting all possible forms of ethical and political construction, but is instead meant to bring out a number of forms which, in our Western experience, serve to frame our justifications in the present time.
The orders to which attention is devoted are: commerce or trade; the home; industry; inspiration; opinion; and civic or public affairs. All six orders represent socially instituted legitimation structures[Note 3] to which ethical and political justifications refer. These structures are not necessarily compatible; as will be seen, our exercises in ethical reasoning are generally negotiated between and within these orders. Thus, for example, someone who possesses “greatness” in the commercial or merchant order will not necessarily be “legitimate” in another order, such as the inspirational order.
Thus, the commercial-merchant order brings together individuals via rare goods which are sought after by all. This order “rests on two pillars: the common identification of marketable goods, trade of which makes it possible to define the direction given to action; and, the common evaluation of these goods by means of prices, which makes it possible to adjust diverse actions” (ibid: 60). This order thus conveys “a principle of agreement and an analysis of human nature which is intended to explain the way by which everyone can adjust to this principle” (ibid: 61). This principle of agreement, in other words, “the fair price,” is linked to a vision of a human being who is free and who enjoys security, in a system in which the coveting of goods is presumed to lead to the cooperation of individuals (ibid: 67). According to these two authors, this order finds a typical expression in the philosophies of Adam Smith and David Hume.
From the notion of “greatness” to the concept of “city”
Thus, an order defines a conception of humanity and society which is based on what Boltanski and Thevenot call “states of greatness” (grandeurs) – that is, forms of the common good which are recognized as legitimate within that order. These states of greatness enable humans to distinguish between that which, with respect to this order, is legitimate or not, between that which is great and that which is abject. However, that which is considered “great” in the commercial order could prove destructive, occasionally at least, in the domestic order. And, empirically speaking, we discover that we do live in different orders. Sometimes, for example, a person will discover that he or she is pursuing objectives that have been defined by the commercial order while at other moments, that which in his or her estimation confers “greatness” on him- or herself will be family qualities originating in the domestic order.
Boltanski and Thevenot have thus devised a series of interpretative hypotheses concerning life in society which enable them to define what they have termed “models of the city.” Such models “are constructed upon an order of greatness, provide a foundation for various constructions of political philosophy, and offer guidelines for defining the ordinary meaning of the right and just” (ibid: 96). According to these authors, we may speak of a city when we accept a series of axioms which found a sociopolitical and moral order (ibid: 96–102). These axioms attempt to formalize the manner of functioning of discourse which responds to the imperative of “justification,” and they thus serve to found an ethic. They may be summarized as follows: (A1) the principle of “the common humanity” of a city’s members; (A2) a principle of “dissimilarity,” according to which some members may be considered as possessing more or less greatness depending on whether their actions are more or less legitimate in this city; (A3) the possibility of attaining various states of greatness, ensuring by the same token that members share a “common dignity”; (A4) the possibility of ordering states of greatness according to a “scale of values”; (A5) the existence of means by which “committing oneself” to the pursuit of a state of greatness may be accomplished, in acceptance of the costs and sacrifices implied therein; (A6) the belief that the pursuit of higher states serves the “common good” of the entire city. Such a definition of the city is not inclusive of every type of justification or every scale of values. “City” does not comprehend, for example, an order of justification advocating eugenism or one that would originate in the company of thieves, because the former does not satisfy (A3) (common dignity), and because the latter fails to satisfy (A6) (a common good).
These axioms give rise to justifications which often extend beyond the frame of reference to which ethicists are accustomed. Hence, in the commercial city: people are not goods (Al); differences in wealth distinguish states of greatness (A2), and these states are ordered (A4); every human being has the right to become rich (A3), but must, in exchange, accept sacrifices (A5); and, finally, the pursuit of wealth (at least as this is set forth by Adam Smith) is presumed to work to everyone’s advantage (A6).
Six cities
There are several cities; that is, there are several registers of justification, several spheres of justice, and several ways of specifying the common good. Moreover, we intuitively recognize that a person who acted in the domestic world according to a business ethic, or vice versa, would find him- or herself poorly justified.
Boltanksi and Thevenot provide definitions for six cities. We have already touched on the “commercial or merchant city.” The “inspirational city” (ibid: 107) – whose emblematic figure is, in their view, Saint Augustine – is characterized by a quest for total acceptance of grace. Grace may be understood in the classic Christian meaning of the word or, analogously, in connection with other kinds of inspiration or spiritual search, such as are to be found in art, poetry, and science. The “domestic city” (ibid: 116) is characterized by the placing of an individual within a social or familial body. That which confers greatness upon each individual in this body is a person’s capacity to hold his or her rank within a universe which, fundamentally, is organized into a hierarchy or system and which occasionally is viewed as the expression of a divine or cosmic plan. In the “city of opinion,” greatness depends solely on other people’s esteem (ibid: 126). It “is related to the constitution of conventional signs or marks, which, by condensing and manifesting the force generated by the esteem which people bear toward one another, makes it possible to establish an equivalence between different individuals and to calculate their worth” (ibid: 127). In Hobbes’s view, individuals hold power only by virtue of the authority invested in them by others. In accordance with this order, persons whose eminence is recognized by only the few possess little greatness. As for the “civic city,” which is related to the thought of Rousseau, it makes out excellence “when citizens renounce their singularity and detach themselves from their particular interests and thus concern themselves exclusively with the common good” (ibid: 138). In this sphere, “for morally right relationships to develop between people, human interactions must be mediated by a relationship to a second-level totality” (ibid: 240); interpersonal relationships must be mediated by the relation to the globality of the social body. Finally, the “industrial city” is founded, as with the world of engineers, on “the natural objectivity of things” (ibid: 152). In this scheme of things, an ethic is “conceived of as a system of functional rules which ensure harmonious relations between two types of beings, the individual and society” (ibid: 153). The notion of utility is related to work, the production of material goods, and the satisfaction of needs. The foremost political capacity of this city resides in the ability to administrate (as exemplified in the thought of Saint-Simon).
The denomination of city is appropriate for these approaches to social reality because a city is the institution which organizes the history of human beings. Each of the cities presented above constitutes a system of reference for ethical and political justifications. They are not necessarily compatible with one another, however. Indeed, one city may contradict another: what is right in one city may not necessarily be right in another. These moral systems and these cities are institutions which are created by human beings, for human beings, over the course of human history. It is possible to compare these moral orders, which can be viewed as being constructed, with scientific disciplines, which can also be considered as constructions of the world that are produced by humans, for humans.
These cities also provide a locus in which to conduct trials (within moral debate as within experimental science) of justifications which are put forward for action. In such trials, everyone will be forced to become involved.[Note 4]
Each city comes bearing its own world
The trial which is set in motion in the process of justification “cannot be reduced to a debate of ideas. The justificatory trial involves people – bodily – in a world of things serving as supports; indeed, in the absence of this world, there would be no basis for subjecting a dispute to a trial” (ibid: 166). It is in this way that each city calls forth its own world into existence:
That which enjoys existence within the purview of one city will be unknown within another: the world of inspiration comprehends demons and monsters for example, whereas the domestic world comprises household pets, which are unknown in the civic world, as are children, the elderly, etc. Objects, which in one order of nature, constitute instruments serving to set off the greatness of individuals are given no consideration in another world. (ibid: 166)[Note 5]
In ambiguous or obscure situations, people rely on the typical objects of the world in which they are located – for example, a testimonial for a loyal servant in the domestic world, a rigorous expert evaluation in the industrial world, a national assembly in the civic world, the tribute paid to an inventor in the world of opinion, and so forth (ibid: 173).
Each world is structured around a common higher principle which makes possible: a kind of equivalence between individuals; a definition of states of greatness; a notion of the dignity of persons; a repertory of the subjects, objects, and apparatuses relevant for a given city; a formula of adherence and commitment; a relationship to greatness; a set of relations which are said to be natural between individuals (obviously varying from city to city); a harmonious figure of the natural order; a typical testing procedure; a mode for the expression of judgment; a form for evidence or proof; a sense of both the normal and the moral; and a state of pettiness or abjectness in the city (ibid: 177-181).
In a parallel with the world of laboratories in experimental science,[Note 6] these worlds are the subject of presentation, use, and mobilization in our society. Boltanski and Thevenot have shown how this is so by means of their analyses of a number of contemporary publications, which were used as guides to these various worlds. For the world of inspiration, they took a textbook for businesses that was written by a counselor in creativity. In this work, the author draws a clear distinction between creative situations and those constructed in accordance with other worlds (by opposing, notably, creativity with school routines, which, according to Boltanski and Thevenot, fall within the scope of the industrial world). Given the genre of his work and its intended audience, the author is nevertheless forced to make a number of “compromises” with this selfsame world of industry.
Each of these worlds is quite specific and takes shape with its own cast of characters, objects, actions, and supporting frameworks. What is an individual to make of good manners, etiquette, rank, title, residence, introductions, signatures, formal announcements, gifts, and flowers in the industrial world, to take but this example? Instead, we are confronted with performance, the future, the functional, the reliable, breakdowns, energy, experts, specialists, superintendents, oper‑ators, tools, graphs, lists, plans, standards, mastery, cogs, commands, optimization, instrumental action upon things and people, realizations, and so forth (ibid: 200-262).
The conflict of worlds; compromises; and challenges to trials
Just as, practically speaking, no set of concrete phenomena can be explained entirely within the framework of a single scientific discipline, so also “in a differentiated society, each person must, on a daily basis, deal with situations belonging to various distinct worlds” (ibid: 266). Choices cannot be justified in terms of the coherence of one city or world alone.[Note 7] Whenever persons and things which belong to different worlds are brought together in the setting of a justificatory trial, different figures of criticism come to the fore.[Note 8] A universe in which several different worlds meet “offers actors the possibility of escaping one form of trial and of falling back on some outside principle in view of contesting the trial’s validity or even of reversing the situation by pursuing a valid trial in another world” (ibid: 267). Such a process may come to the fore when, for example, an employee on the verge of being laid off shows his employer the family photo sitting on his desktop. The possibility then arises of contesting the very principle of a trial and of invoking another world so as to turn the tables (ibid: 269). The model put forward by Boltanski and Thevenot “thereby allows for the possibility for criticism, which deterministic constructions are unable to account for” (ibid: 267). It is in this way that one world stands in criticism of or denounces another: Thus, “a person who is brimming with energy and ideas in the world of inspiration will be muddleheaded in the domestic world” (ibid: 289).
It is in this context that the notion of equity takes on meaning: “A judgment is deemed equitable whenever it takes into account the existence of worlds which are external to the nature of the trial” (ibid: 285). Criticism and equity presuppose a goal – that is, a common good reaching beyond specific worlds.[Note 9]
The multiplicity of worlds entails compromises in which “the actors agree to parley, that is, to suspend the disagreement, without settling the dispute by recourse to a trial in one world only” (ibid: 338). (This process can be compared to interdisciplinary work.)
The parties to a compromise renounce clarifying the principle of their agreement, concentrating only on maintaining a disposition that is oriented toward the common good…. Compromise holds out the possibility of a principle which is capable of making judgments compatible that are otherwise founded on objects belonging to different worlds. It aims at a common good which goes beyond the two opposed forms of greatness by encompassing them both. For example, promoting “techniques of creativity” presupposes reference to an unspecified principle which would place industrial routine and the tapping of inspirational resources at the service of the same common good. (ibid: 338)
Compromises, as with the results of most interdisciplinary research, are essentially fragile. However, they too may solidify – that is, become socially stabilized and entrenched (as in the case of some scientific concepts and interdisciplinary approaches – e.g., biochemistry or geography))[Note 10] “Whenever a compromise becomes entrenched, the objects or persons whom it has brought together become difficult to separate from one another” (ibid: 340), as in the case, for example, of “workers’ rights,” a notion falling within the confines of both the civic and industrial worlds. And in the same way that a well-stabilized interdisciplinary approach becomes a quasi discipline (Fourez, Englebert-Lecomte, and Mathy, 1997) possessing its own criteria (such as is the case with molecular biology), “a solidly entrenched compromise will evidence a form of trial which occasionally presents similarities with disputes occurring in a single world” (ibid: 340). Such is the case with “the rights of labor” since, as was stated by Saint-Simon, “economic interests form the unique substance of common existence, hence they must be organized on a social basis” involving a kind of civic-industrial society. In all likelihood, that is how new cities come into being.[Note 11]
Overlapping a number of worlds, figures of compromise indeed abound: the initiatory relation between master and disciple (inspirational-domestic); the act of protest (inspirational-civic); the passion for rigorously executed work (inspirational-industrial); inalienable property (commercial-domestic); the efficiency of good habits (industrial-domestic); the surveying of opinion (industrial-opinion); the effectiveness of public service (civic-industrial); methods of doing business (industrial-commercial); and so on (ibid: 356-407).
Surpassing justification: from relativization to pardon
Justification, a basis of rational dialogue and human communication, could eventually become locked within a most confining universe. In addition, attempts at stabilizing compromises often produce the opposite effect, creating discord, since exploring the bases of the agreement “causes compromise to be seen as a simple assemblage having no foundation – which amounts, in other words, to denouncing it” (ibid: 408). It is at this point that forms of agreement and social coexistence that surpass justification come into play.
Compromise has been characterized by the objective of a common good. There are other types of agreement, however, which do not satisfy this clause. They refer instead to a reciprocal arrangement: “You do that, and that suits me; I do that, and that suits you.” Boltanski and Thevenot term these private agreements “arrangements,” in the sense that they cannot be justified in relationship to a city (ibid: 408).
Arrangements are not the only means by which to extricate oneself from disagreements without becoming totally involved in the process of justification. It is also possible to “agree that nothing matters” (ibid: 412). This type of relativization may represent a response to the fear of undergoing the trial, “but may also be a means by which to quietly break a path toward another world by avoiding disagreements” (ibid: 422). “Relativization presupposes the active connivance of people in bringing contingency to the fore and focusing on it so as to avoid any generalization that might risk bringing back the tension occurring between incompatible principles” (ibid: 413). Relativization thus creates an unstable situation, and that is why “it is often a figure occurring in the interim between trials of different kinds” (ibid: 413).
Relativization is not relativism, even if the former can lead to the latter. Relativism is a situation in which, “by bracketing off the constraints of the city, actors adopt a position of exteriority on the basis of which the din and toil of earthly existence may be subordinated to a general equivalent that is not the common good” (ibid: 414).[Note 12] “Relativism is thus distinct from relativization in its claim to denouncing the common good from a general point of view…. It takes hold of the essential consideration in a given situation in order to undercut the common good, yet does so without deriving its basis from some alternative principle” (ibid: 414). Relativism denounces but does not elaborate the position from which denunciation is proffered; it assails the very possibility that a common good may exist, to the point of contesting the reality of any form of sacrifice and at the price of lapsing into a radical, self-destructive nihilism (ibid: 415-416).
Relativism “may attempt to develop an alliance with science” (ibid: 417), when the latter, in its positivist version, claims to free itself of values. This option cannot, however, represent the totality of the scientific enterprise, since in order for the latter to prove its validity, it must grapple with reality, make predictions, and be subordinated to some determination serving to specify its project. Thus, the tendency of technocracy is to indicate constraints which are treated “as a determination which acts upon individuals but which, however, remains indifferent to any role that the will of actors might play” (ibid: 417). The constraint of justification is thus externalized and deemed an “illusion or a deception, as is demonstrated for example by the most common uses of the term ‘ideology’ “ (ibid: 418). Thus, technocracy tends to leave less and less room “for the justifications that people give of their actions” (ibid: 420). It credits people with the capacity of losing their illusions with respect to their justifications and of developing awareness of a reality which science has supposedly revealed to them (ibid: 420).
In opposition to this, the constructivist model of Boltanski and Thevenot, with its focus on situations of trial and negotiation, makes it possible to “register new phenomena” which do not fit within the frameworks of technocrats and to “describe operations of justification, denunciation and compromise, while managing to avoid oscillating between an attitude of disillusioned relativism and grandstanding accusation” (ibid: 421).
The starting and ending points of the justificatory dispute
The preceding analysis has focused on the moments when the ethical or political debate becomes intense, that is, in situations of dispute or trial. But how does this debate get set in motion, either between individuals or in personal reflection? It is not possible to reflect on this question without examining the interconnections of affectivity and forms of rationality. Obviously, mention should be made here of experiences of failure, of foul-ups and suffering, all of which reveal an expectation which has gone unsatisfied and a need to identify the persons or objects who can be counted on to meet it. When a snag or foul-up is not corrected rapidly, “one may attempt to circumscribe it by forcing the course of action back on track, without examining the circumstances” (ibid: 428). This is what occurs during fits of rage and invective in response to some emotion, thus bringing out the dif‑ficulty of returning to reflection. At that point, the only way to avoid violence is to become involved in forming a shared or common judgment. However, this operation can only be had at a price: the reduction of divergent interpretations within a common framework (and it is the fear of this cost which makes such rage understandable). “The crisis is thus a paradoxical moment in which, in contrast with the moment of action, the question of the agreement on reality occupies all minds,” but in which, “in the absence of such an agreement, a sense of reality is lacking.” It is at this point that debate is opened, with its “rhetorical exigencies” and the demands that are entailed by the “scientific search for truth” (ibid: 430). “The dynamic of the process – with its criticisms, its trial mechanisms and the repeated impetus that it imparts to the inquiry – delineates situations and contributes to the objectivity of beings (persons and things) which have been invoked as proofs” (ibid: 431). The image and the model of the city is what makes it possible to analyze this process by means of reconciling two requirements: (1) the order necessary to performing an action in conjunction with others; and (2) the common humanity of the actors involved in the moral debate. This dual requirement is constructed in accordance with the objective of a common good.
Debate may undergo closure and stabilize – and must do so in order not to become pathological – around an accepted judgment (the ethical equivalent of scientific results). But this judgment may always be brought forward for debate whenever a party claims that the justification has unduly reduced the complexity of the situation. Hence, the judgment which is delivered has a “conventional character to it, in the sense that everyone knows that the accounts or descriptions can neither sum up past action in its totality nor encompass all of the potentialities contained in actions yet to come” (ibid: 433). The force of law will follow upon the judgment.
There is an alternative to the judgment, and that is “pardon” (ibid: 434). In this option, actors give up the evaluative process and “devote themselves to a process which focuses solely on the persons involved and which foregoes the placing in perspective and totalization of past actions” (ibid: 434). With its focus on unique individuals, pardon does not admit of generalization. “Thus, action recommences after pardon, although the consequences of the crisis have not been brought out and although the lessons to be drawn from the inquiry, or the judgment (as the case may be), have not been made use of” (ibid: 434-435).
Another way of leaving room for the human dimension of the re‑lationships involved in the quest for a common good consists in not treating every action as a trial, as is expressed in the notion of “tolerance.” It is tolerance which, “by putting off the moment of trial, sets aside the will to knowledge, which pushes for inquiries and brings judgment to bear” (ibid: 435). “Tolerance makes it possible to understand the position of actors who bear the weight of being right in isolation, without bringing it out into the open by a remark or an excuse” (ibid: 435). In addition, it accredits people’s demands that situations not be reduced to categories of analysis and legitimates their desire to keep their options for action open. Thus, “a pragmatics of reflection ought to account for the passage between, on the one hand, moments of involvement in action and slackening of reflection, which are manifested in tolerance or localized accommodation and, ultimately, the forgetting[Note 13] entailed by pardon, and, on the other hand, moments in which action is thrown into question (as occur in the crisis) and reality is fixed by means of the inquiry” (ibid: 434).
Constructivism in science and ethics
By way of concluding this foray into a constructivist perspective on justification and ethics, it is fair to claim that it is increasingly difficult to consider constructivist approaches in science and ethics in isolation from one another: “Crisis and judgment are moments during which actors make public, and verbally deploy, their action. It is during such moments that they attempt to use language to generalize and to piece together facts, and do so in a way which offers parallels with the approach taken by science” (ibid: 436). In both types of practice, “actors inquire into reality and put what is found to obtain to the test, and are thus able to discard contingent phenomena in favor of that which holds in general and, as a result, bring out the relationships which link the local to the global. By taking an objective distance toward action and by pursuing the objective of truth, they will bring descriptive languages into play” (ibid: 436).
That is why a constructivist approach to science teaching must consider the connections to be made with a constructivist approach to ethics. Therein lies, moreover, a theoretical basis for the perspectives which may be grouped under the heading of “Science, Technologies, and Societies.” In keeping with the orientations presented above, such a foundation would show: (1) how it is impossible to construct the sciences without having some awareness of the way in which they constitute a mediation in the social construction of a certain common good; and (2) how, whenever the goal is to construct a human city, the quest for such a common good is contingent upon agreement over the objectivity of a given world.
The perspective which has been outlined above also provides a conceptual framework by which to approach the teaching of ethics wherein the socially constructed character of ethics is delineated more clearly. Such a framework would also avoid the twin pitfalls of an overly psychologistic relativism and a dogmatism which fails to take into account the historical and social components of ethical discourse.
Boltanski L. & Thevenot L. (1991) De la justification, les économies de la grandeur. Paris: Gallimard.
Callon M. (1976) L’operation de traduction comme relation symbolique. In: C. Gruson P. Roqueplo, and P. Thuillier (eds.) Incidence des rapports sociaux sur le developpement scientifique et technique (pp. 105–42) Paris: Cordes-CNRS.
Fourez G. (1996) La construction des sciences (3rd ed.) Brussels: De Boeck.
Fourez G., Englebert-Lecomte V. & Mathy P. (1997) Nos savoirs sur nos savoirs. Un lexique d’epistemologie pour l’enseignement. Brussels/ Paris: De Boeck University.
Latour B. (1989) La science en action (M. Biezunski, trans.) Paris: La Découverte.
Latour B. & Woolgar S. (1988) La vie en laboratoire (M. Biezunski, trans.) Paris: La Découverte.
Lavelle L. (1957) Conduite a l’égard d’autrui. Paris: Albin Michel.
Ricceur P. (1979) La raison pratique. In: T. Geraets (ed.) La rationalite aujourd’hui. (pp. 225–41) Ottawa, Ontario: University d’Ottawa (also in P. Ricceur (1989) Du texte a l’action. Essais d’hermeneutique II. Paris: Seuil)
Stengers I. (ed.) (1987) D’une science a l’autre: Des concepts nomades. Paris: Seuil.
Walzer M. (1983) Spheres of justice: A defence of pluralism and equity. New York: Basic Books.
This is what Isabelle Stengers has called practicing the epistemology or history of science from an agnostic point of view with respect to the ultimate nature of scientific knowledge. On this subject, see Fourez (1996).
This method was used by Latour and Woolgar (1988), and by Callon (1976) as well, to study scientific practices. In so doing, they imitate anthropologists who, in their studies of sorcery, do not necessarily ascribe the same meanings to sorcery that sorcerers do. Thus, it is possible to study the ways by which people justify their ethical positions without necessarily subscribing to such ways.
Similar to the spheres of justice of Walzer (1983).
Although occasionally there may be “arrangements,” that is, situations in which the parties merely “halt the disagreement without exhausting it, without getting to the bottom of the matter,” and without “reaching back to some principle of justice” (Boltanski and Thevenot, 1991: 163).
Likewise: “To evaluate greatness in the domestic sphere, reference is not made to codes and criteria as is the case in the industrial world, but instead to the outstanding deeds of the great, and to the life of the illustrious” (Boltanski and Thevenot, 1991: 167). “In a domestic situation, lesser individuals are as important as the great … whereas a public collectivity (civic order) or a technician (industrial order) go unidentified” (ibid: 169) (actually, either entity does not exist in these worlds). Everywhere, “the forms of knowledge are adapted to the evaluation of states of greatness” (ibid: 167).
According to Latour and Woolgar (1988), a laboratory is a place where objects are defined in and by the paradigm of a discipline. See also Fourez (1996: 97-9).
To pursue the parallel with epistemology, a “world” can, according to Boltanski and Thevenot, be compared to the reality perceived by a particular discipline – e.g., the world of physics, the world of biology, of economics, etc. In either case, an instituting structure (paradigm or city) structures the real in the form of objects which have meaning in this context.
In the case of some worlds at least, these criticisms do not always appear in a rational light of the sort generally associated with a city, but are not irrational for all that. Consider, for example, certain forms of workers’ resistance, “which appear to be implacably opposed to a specifically industrial state of greatness and which are expressed in a coup brought off by the rank and file or in bodily violence and hence constitute to the same degree as exercises of mortification in classic ascetism, ways of increasing one’s greatness which relate to the inspirational order” (Boltanski and Thevenot, 1991: 267).
In the same way that interdisciplinary work presupposes the search for a type of discourse or truth which reaches beyond discipline-bound representations.
On the subject of the hardening or entrenching of scientific concepts, see Stengers (1987) and Fourez (1996).
In the same way that new disciplines are, generally speaking, interdisciplinary approaches that have “solidified” and become socially stabilized (see Fourez, 1996: 107).
A relativistic metaphysics would purport, generally speaking, that everything is equivalent, whereas a metaphysics of relativization would state merely that a point of view may be shown to be relative to a context and a project. For example, an engineer is quite capable of “relativizing” the worth of each technique, but would not be of the opinion, however, that all techniques work fairly much the same way or are of equal worth.
Are Boltanski and Thevenot correct in speaking of pardon as a type of forgetting? It is possible to pardon by deciding to forego measuring the totalization of past actions without, by the same token forgetting. On the contrary, when a person pardons without forgetting, the interpersonal link which was a source of hurt and which has not been forgotten also becomes a part of the new relationship. In other words, as Lavelle (1957) has brought out, the very offense which was committed against us by others creates a bodily relationship between ourselves and them, which pardon thus spiritualizes.
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