Thinking sociologically

The circumstances of competition and self-preservation lead to two subsequent, related outcomes: A monopoly of resources by the ‘winners’ who then aim in vain to abolish competition altogether; and secondly the ‘permanent polarisation’ of resources and opportunity that mean differential treatment of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as they ‘solidify’ into permanent categories. Bauman here highlights, for me at least, a basic and primary mechanism by which those in control of, or at least with access to, resources necessary for the preservation of life are able to suppress the moral obligation believed to exist towards humans in need and avoid any condemnation from their peers or self-rebuke that would occur if, for instance, they denied any resources to a close relative or good friend. The notion that ‘they’ deserve what they get, and are ‘depraved, not deprived’ enables people with resources to legitimately assert that due to laziness, ignorance and other vices and corruption there is nothing owed by the ‘winners’.

Bauman could have developed this explanation even further and applied it not only to the poor but also other minority groups subject to racism or prejudice. It is the pejorative characteristics attributed to all out-groups that leads to dehumanisation which allows the justification of ‘winning’ while others lose. Any charity is then a reflection of the goodness of the giver, as opposed to the right of the receiver to posses such resources. Bauman goes on to say that: ‘Defamation of the victims of competition is one of the most powerful means of silencing the alternative motive of human conduct: moral duty’.This is a theory with definite roots in modern neo-liberal states, and possibly even a form of in-grouping and out-grouping that has been ingrained on the human psyche through millennia of evolutionary development. However, his notions of dehumanisation of the ‘losers’ and charity towards them merely as a salve on the conscience of national or global ‘winners’ only goes in part, I feel, to explaining the complex interrelation between moral obligation and other concepts of social justice.Rather than simply believing ‘losers’ are in their position through their own fault, most people simply have difficulty perceiving the overlapping yet invisible dichotomy between personal, dramatic violence perpetrated in the form of war, natural disaster or terrorism and the notion of structural violence manifested in institutional sexism, economic inequality of distribution and government oppression that is much harder to solve as the roots are systemic as opposed to deliberate or accidental devastation. We are conditioned to accept structural violence as it is ‘the way things are’, invisible and remote, we are told by Governments, from the reality of more tangible crime like rape or murder.

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Bauman does touch upon the nature of bureaucracy as an obstacle to fulfilment of moral duty. He sees them as an attempt to ‘adjust human action to the ideal requirements of rationality’ which naturally equates with the silencing of moral considerations. Every task is no longer a question of right or wrong and the shades of grey in between, instead it is simply a case of the bureaucrat obeying or disobeying.With echoes of Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil, Bauman sees the wider consequences invisible to, or at least denied visibility by, the actor who carries out small, unrelated tasks with no guilt whatsoever.

This bureaucracy was not limited to Nazi Germany where ‘ordinary’ Germans, who would probably not shoplift or vandalise in everyday life let alone massacre entire populations, were able to offer the defence ‘I was just following orders’ when confronted with the full abhorrent consequences of their impersonal, indirect action.In bureaucracies the human individual becomes a statistic, stripped of emotions and feelings and viewed as a dispensable commodity in the quest for rationality. Discipline substitutes moral responsibility in bureaucracies and Bauman even proposes the controversial idea that even the victims of inhuman bureaucracies are ‘psychological captives’: ‘…bewitched by the illusory prospects of benign treatment as a reward for compliance they often played into the hands of their oppressors…

they hoped against hope that something might still be saved…

Each successive step on the road to destruction had been presented to them as unpleasant, yet not terminal…[they believed] that cooperation would be rewarded’Thus the victims’ self-preservation is implicit in their own perdition. Whether this is true of all abusive bureaucracies and whether it can be applied also to the obedient subject of benign institutional bureaucracy is left unanswered by Bauman.

He fails to outline any ways in which bureaucracies might be overcome or eliminated, or injected with humanity but it is not unreasonable to assume that he is right in suggesting that the effects of such organisations on moral duty and the diffusion of responsibility extend far beyond the organisation itself. Bystanders are often silenced or brought into compliance through the high price of moral behaviour. ‘Quantitative calculation of survival’ are prioritised over moral quality of action.Bauman also sees crowd behaviour, while diametrically opposed to the cool rationality of bureaucracy, as similar in its ability to obliterate morality in individuals. The panicking crowd members who trample others in order to escape the situation or the brutal killing of a suspected ‘villain’ by crowd members in a high emotional state as examples of the relinquishing of moral responsibility in the face of self-preservation or conformity.Bauman concludes that moral duty and self-preservation are in complete opposition to each other, with humans gravitating along a spectrum between altruism and complete self-interest. This seems to contradict his earlier claim that they are far more closely linked in human relationships, more like two sides of a coin than completely different currencies. The chapter does little to investigate the role of the state in moral obligations, or in the nature of morality as a subjective concept.

The situation of international aid or charity in general may have furthered the discussion.One detects the sense that, much like John Stuart Mill or George Orwell, Bauman has an intrinsic grasp of what morality should encompass, without being able to apply it uniformly to all contexts. Exceptions and questions emerge like a many headed mythical hydra, three in the place of every one cut down. Yet in dismissing the fundamental principles because they are so loosely bound together with practical considerations is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Bauman asserts that the power of circumstances is never absolute and there is no inescapable, deterministic self-interest pushing towards an ever more isolated and selfish society. It is the individual’s capability to resist and make the moral choice in the most extreme of circumstances that ultimately defines us as humans, and Bauman recognises that a ‘universe of moral obligations’ is gradually, though not inevitably, expanding.R E F E R E N C E SZygmunt Bauman, Thinking sociologically, Oxford: Blackwell , 1990 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin Books, 1994 Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989 1 This is an overtly cynical view of human interaction, much more akin to the Selfish gene described by Richard Dawkins that sees all people not genetically related as a means to furthering the propagation of the genes.