Beyond Postmodernity: Grounding Ethics in Spirit
***** PYM ***** EJC/REC, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1997 ***************
BEYOND POSTMODERNITY: GROUNDING ETHICS IN SPIRIT
California State University, Hayward
Abstract. This essay contends that
postmodernity has upset the hopes of modernity for
rational consensus, ethical universalism, and
autonomous moral agency. Instead, the essay
argues that ethics should be grounded in Spirit.
Resume. L'auteur de cet article pretend que la
postmodernite a detruit l'espoir qu'avait la
modernite de trouver un consensus rationnel, un
universalisme ethique et un intermediaire
moralement autonome. Au lieu de cela, l'auteur
soutient que la science ethique devrait trouver sa
source dans l'esprit.
"We're in a shift from the mechanistic
conception of Descartes and Newton to a more
holistic and ecological view of the intricate
systems that sustain our life on the planet"
"If the individual is not truly regenerated in
spirit, society cannot be either; for society is
the sum total of individuals in need of
redemption" (Jung, p. 32).
Two years ago, at this Conference, I argued that we
need to open ethics up to the draft, to an-archical view of
ethics that remembers our obligation to the "withered hand"
and avoids floating too high in principled space. While I
do not recant my ethics of particularity, I have refined
and, hopefully, extended my thinking a little -- not too
much -- beyond an-arche.
Addressing our panel directive to consider how
postmodernism has upset modernity's hopes for "rational
consensus, ethical universalism, and autonomous moral
agency," I will argue that each of these hopes are
problematic, as is postmodernism's critique of them. I will
then offer the alternative of grounding ethics in Spirit.
In "Power, Other, and Spirit in Cultural Texts," Janice
Rushing develops what she refers to as the hidden narrative
that accounts for the tension between modernity as Power and
postmod- ernity as Other and Spirit's cooptation by both.
"The central core of Power," Rushing writes, "is what its
adversaries call the `sovereign rational subject' -- that
autonomous, disembodied, individualistic self whose goal is
ahistorical certainty, whose method is rational thought and
sensory observation, and whose logic produces binary
oppositions" (p. 160). Given the excesses of Power,
postmodernity offers a welcome oasis in a world that has in
many -- but not all -- ways become a technological wasteland
(we enjoy many benefits of Power, from medicine to
separation of church and state). "Postmodernism," writes
Rushing, "decenters the conscious, rational subject by
historicizing it, tends toward hermeneutics rather than
science, and legitimates the oppositions to Power by naming
them as forms of `Other.' Other, then, is the shadowy flip
side of Power: the cosmic abyss, the body, the working
classes, the unconscious, the feminine, the dark races, the
mythos, and the simulacrum" (p. 160).
Postmodern critique upsets the excesses of Power in its
forms of rational consensus, ethical universalism, and
autonomous moral agency. It reminds us that there are other
ways of knowing and talking with one another than just
rationality. Further, particularity and differance 
disrupt consensus as a goal  and possibilities for
ethical universalism. Finally, the focus upon material
conditions and historicality upset sugary visions of
autonomous moral agency.
The Other is, however, also embedded in what Condit
calls the "totalistic formulism," a "leftist critique [that]
now turns only outward -- toward the mythic oppressor -- and
never inward, toward our selves and our formulations" (p.
178). In their reactionary stance, many postmodernists
abnegate the very reflexivity they advocate and which allows
us to upset the excesses of Power (and Other). In addition,
while laudably historicizing the subject, they also
discount, largely through silence, the very condition of
possibility for moral agency (which makes the abnegation of
reflexivity even more unsurprising). How does a subject
position act as a moral agent? Further, while upsetting
universalizing dogmas that deny particularity in their
deconstructive critique, postmodernists offer no ways of
creating any grounds for moral action in cooperation, good
will, trust, and civitas.[4:] As Chantal Mouffe notes,
"postmodern politics that emphasize heterogeneity and
incommenserability and refuse any attempt at constructing a
`we,' and at creating a common political identity... makes
it impossible to distinguish between differences that exist
but should not exist and differences that do not exist but
should exist" (p. 39).
The most significant attack on possibilities of moral
agency lies in postmodernism's materialistic, other-centered
world view. As postmodernists emphasize, life happens in
the here and now of historicality, within real, material
conditions, not in some mythical autonomous other. But, to
focus upon materiality at the expense of Soul is to further
alienate us from life and from possibilities for moral
action. As Jung attests, "The consciousness of modern man
still clings so much to external objects that he makes them
exclusively responsible, as if it were on them that the
decision depended" (p. 47). However, it is we (not some
external other) who are responsible, within conditions.
Despite modernity's and postmodernity's attempts to upset
excesses of power we still lack adequate guidance for
ethics. We still find (or lose) ourselves in the abyss, in
the (still) Powerized and Otherized wasteland of too much
and too little power, too little connection with self and
with other, too little Spirit. Spirit, writes Rushing, has
been historically coopted by both Power and Other as
"modernist Power substituted Thinking Man...for the fullness
of Spirit" becoming the "slave of reason" (p. 161), and as
postmodernist Other doomed it "to the margins of
consciousness." (p. 162) Both attempt to entrap Spirit"
within its own domain while coopting Spirit's power in their
struggle against one another (p. 165). We all hope that the
many truly thoughtful contributions to communication ethics
will resolve our dilemma. Yet, neither attention to
particular others or the primacy of the person,"
"civilizing values," care,  moral role taking,  nor
the principles of "universal moral respect" or "egalitarian
reciprocity,"  to name a few, offer us sufficient insight
into the consciousness from which ethical action stems. To
the degree that moral actors lack the consciousness that
validates such values and standards in both self and
community, thought and experience, they too easily work like
imposed rules that an increasingly skeptical populace
largely discount. Without consciousness of Spirit  in
particular, a truly moral -- caring, responsive -- ethics
will continue to elude us.
However, as Rushing argues, Spirit gets displaced by
both Power and Other. Projection seems to play a key role
in that process. Projection, according to Jung, is a
function of dissociation, of splitting away from parts of
oneself, whether from idolizing reason over intuition,
feeling, instinct or from suppressing experiences that then
pass into the personal unconscious. It is what happens when
one fails to address that which one suppresses, that which
one fails to integrate into conscious experience.
Projection is evidenced, Jung writes, in the individual's
(or group's) "ineradicable tendency to get rid of everything
he does not know and does not want to know about himself by
foisting it off on somebody else" (p. 55). Yet, "Nothing,"
writes Jung, "has a more divisive and alienating effect upon
society than this moral complacency and lack of
responsibility, and nothing promotes understanding and
rapprochement more than the mutual withdrawal of
projections" (p. 55). To the degree that adherents of Power
blamed the church and adherents of Other blame modernity,
both may be projecting. Certainly, the drive of
postmodernists to find evil in oppressor others suggests
projection. Similarly, when people use ethical standards or
principles to denounce other persons, they may be projecting
their own internal shadows of separation from within. In
each case power is displaced onto the other.
Spirit, on the other hand, calls one to look within and
to recognize our interconnectedness, our oneness with ALL of
being -- with the earth, rocks, plants, trees, animals,
mountains, sky, persons. Human beings are not superior to
other life forms -- each is part of the whole, thus, the
earth is not a backdrop for human beings to exploit
(Stepanich, p. 11). Yet, Alan Watts notes, "Most people
feel separate from everything that surrounds them" (p. 107).
Nevertheless, he writes, "the physical reality is that my
body exists only in relation to this universe, and in fact I
am as attached to it and dependent on it as a leaf on a
tree. I feel cut off only because I am split within myself,
because I try to be divided from my own feelings and
sensations" (pp. 107-8). That feeling "that we stand
face-to-face with the world, cut off and set apart, has the
greatest influence on thought and action" (pp. 113-14). How
can we develop other than a moralistic ethics when we
separate ourselves from others, feeling that we must place
control on others so they will act the way we think they
should? Spirit reminds us that when any part of one's self
becomes dissociated from the whole self, the self and thus
all of being suffers, that when any being suffers, we all
suffer, and when any being heals, we all heal. As Watts
attests: "All the qualities which we admire or loathe in
the world around us are reflections from within..." (p.
111). We act, perhaps heroically or perhaps not, and the
planet dances or groans as each thought, word, and act
creates the world in terms of which all beings live out
The most profound evidence I know of our
interconnection comes from our physical experience. Just as
animals kill animals and plants to live and plants kill
organisms and minerals to live, so persons kill plants and
animals to live. "Whatever you do is evil for somebody"
(Campbell and Moyers, p. 65). Another way of understanding
our killing nature is to see it in terms of the universal
theme of birth, death, and rebirth. Microbes become
transformed into plants, which become transformed into
animals, which become transformed into human beings, just as
projection, when viewed as a mirror, or all of life's
happenings when viewed as possibilities, can become
transformed into consciousness. Within such consciousness,
Spirit calls us to deep regard for the beings that give
their lives that we may live, and regard for others that we
might use their acts to become more conscious and live more
fully, to live in what Campbell calls bliss.
But what, you may ask, is one to do about the lack of
ethics, the hate, crime, incivility, and so on? Campbell,
in his interview with Bill Moyers, says "Only death is no
trouble. People ask me, "Do you have optimism about the
world?' And I say, `Yes, it's great just the way it is.
And you are not going to fix it up. Nobody has ever made it
any better. It is never going to be any better. This is
it, so take it or leave it. You are not going to correct or
improve it" (p. 65). Not surprisingly, Moyers queries:
"Doesn't that lead to a rather passive attitude in the face
of evil?" (p. 65). Campbell responds: "You yourself are
participating in the evil, or you are not alive....What is
good for one is evil for the other. And you play your part,
not withdrawing from the world when you realize how horrible
it is, but seeing that this horror is simply the foreground
of a wonder: a mysterium tremendum et fascinans" (p. 65).
We participate in the game of misery and miracle. We go to
war, teach our classes, and steal from our neighbors. We
cannot say yes to persons if they follow our ethical rules
and yes to life when it conforms to our expectations of
well-being and feel any peace of mind, sister/brotherhood,
In fact, as Thomas Moore suggests, our tendency to fix
what we think is wrong inside us or others may not be
particularly healing. He suggests instead that we stop
trying to eradicate and fix problems and look at the
problem, respecting what is there, taking an intense
interest in it (p. 14). Spirit suggests recovering the
sense of sacredness of each individual life (p. 18). In
recognition of the sacred, we find respect for self and
other as we walk our unique paths on the earth. Allowing
ourselves to exist truly and fully, Moore writes, "we sting
the world with our vision and challenge it with our own ways
of being" (p. 127). We act, and we cannot control the
Ethics is not fundamentally about doing the right or
wrong, the good or bad thing. Surely, we can say yes or no
from wherever it is we stand in time and place. But, as the
postmodernists query, who can decide what is right or wrong,
good or bad? Ethics is created intersubjectively as we
think, talk, and act; as we create destruction and harmony,
love and hate, peace and revolution. In fact, our
responsibility is at least as huge as Sartre attested when
he said that we are responsible not only for our selves but
for all of mankind (p. 18). What if we were to take our
responsibility seriously, to withdraw our projections, to
acknowledge that as we think, talk, and act we actually
create the world in which all being lives? What if we were
to give up on getting control over ourselves and others and
believing that if we could just change the world everything
would be a lot better? As Jung writes, "Environment cannot
give the individual what only he can transform. A favorable
environment merely strengthens the dangerous tendency to
expect everything from outside--even that metamorphosis
which external reality cannot provide" (p. 32). Regardless
of what we choose, we are responsible, we create the world
within our interconnection with all of being. With
consciousness of our ontological interconnection and
responsibility, we ground ourselves in a truly caring
practice of ethics, one responsive to self and other.
1. See Lyotard's discussion of narrative, Foucault's
statement, and Hall's ideology, for examples.
2. For particularity, see Caputo and Mouffe; for
differance see Derrida.
3. See Benhabib for problems with consensus as a goal
4. Such forms of civility are, in fact, often critiqued
as ways of reproducing "oppressive" power over the
5. See Held (p. 118), Meyers (p. 164), Caputo (pp.
226-227), and Arneson (p. 91).
6. See Johannesen (p. 55).
7. See Gilligan.
8. See Higgins (p. 199).
9. See Benhabib (p. 29).
10. To the question of "What is Spirit?" I have no
answer. It was not an act of hyper-sanctity for the Hebrews
to forbid speaking the name of Yahweh; Spirit is unnameable.
To shackle Spirit in words is hubris. As Joseph Campbell
says, one cannot understand Spirit with the mind; one can
only experience it. Or, in Jung's words: "Knowledge of God
is a transcendental problem," one of experience, not
knowledge (p. 49). Yet, to gain some sense, let me offer
some metaphors: "the God within us," "the guide toward
wholeness," interrelationship among all things," (Rushing,
pp. 160-61); "tribal or whole mind;" (Colorado);
"transcendence" (Jung); or that which cannot be named (Tao),
"higher wisdom" (Shaeffer, p. 20) or that which is in all
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Anne Pym is in the Department of Speech Communication
University of California, Hayward Hayward, CA 94542-3071
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