Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Making Space for Ethics

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Making Space for Ethics

Article excerpt

We find little room for ethics in early childhood policy, practice and research, at least in the Anglo-American world. Most of the space is taken by discussions of early childhood services as technical and managerial issues, objective and value-free, to be determined by a `what works?' rationality which Cherryholmes refers to as `vulgar pragmatism':

   Vulgar pragmatism holds that a conception is to be tested by its practical
   effects ... what is true and valued is what works in terms of what exists.
   This is another face of instrumentalism in pursuit of production and
   efficiency ... Vulgar pragmatism tests ideas and practices by comparing
   them to traditional and conventional norms with little or no sense of
   crisis or criticism (1988, p. 151).

In this article, I shall outline three perspectives on ethics, then sketch some ways of making more space for the public and democratic practice of ethics. I make no claim to offer a comprehensive treatise on ethics and early childhood; that would require both a book and someone with a wider understanding of ethics. I have been selective, choosing ideas that interest and appeal to me. But there are many others, which could equally well be explored: to offer just a few examples, there is the Kantian view that universal ethical judgements can be determined `from the moral point of view', through the application of reason by the detached and autonomous moral actor, eschewing emotion, sensibility and concrete circumstance; or the Habermasian search for normative ethics through communicative procedures; or what Bauman refers to as `business ethics', which values an instrumental rationality--`means are to be used to the greatest possible effect'--and a finite, contractual honesty `mostly concerned with keeping promises and abiding by contractual obligations' (1995, p. 263).

Three ethical perspectives

The three perspectives might be labelled, to use the terms applied by leading exponents, `postmodern ethics', `the ethics of an encounter' or `the ethics of care', and `care of the self'. `Postmodern ethics' has been explored by the Polish thinker, Zygmunt Bauman (1993, 1995). In postmodern conditions, he argues that ethics exist, but without a foundational ethical code that can provide us with certain and universal answers. We are our own moral agents. We recognise that we have to make choices between good and bad without seeking shelter in a universal code, and that we must take responsibility for the choices we make. This, he says, is uncomfortable. Human reality is messy and ambiguous, so moral decisions are ambivalent and uncertain:

   Confronting the choice between good and evil means finding oneself in a
   situation of ambivalence ... Dilemmas have no ready-made solutions; the
   necessity to choose comes without a foolproof recipe for proper choice; the
   attempt to do good is undertaken without guarantee of goodness of either
   the intention or the results (Bauman, 1995, p. 2).

Yet, far from being pessimistic, Bauman is hopeful. People show moral competence--indeed, society is made possible by this competence. He welcomes a repersonalising of morality, and the release of morality from constructed ethical codes: `personal responsibility is morality's last hold and hope' (1993, p. 34).

Bauman believes that responsibility for the Other is the central challenge of postmodern morality: `to take a moral stance means to assume responsibility for the Other. We are, so to speak, ineluctably--existentially--moral beings: that is we are faced with the challenge of the Other, which is the challenge of responsibility for the Other' (1993, p. 1). In assuming this perspective, Bauman is strongly influenced by the Lithuanian philosopher Emanuel Levinas. Levinas questions the primacy philosophy has given to knowing, with its propensity to grasp and appropriate the otherness of the known: `in Western philosophy, when knowledge or theory comprehends the Other, the alterity of the latter vanishes as it becomes part of the same' (Young, 1990, p. …

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