The posthuman philosopher Rosi Braidotti talks about the “ethical imperative” of finding new ways to challenge the world order, a drive that mirrors the ultimate aspiration of many. It certainly suggests that values must frame any political engagement that seeks to disrupt the status quo. Braidotti believes that genuine ethics work from the inside out; by individuals touching base with their own integrity and for her, as for her inspiration (the seventeenth century philosopher) Baruch Spinoza, that resonance is physical. As thinking humans, we also ‘feel’ when our integrity is provoked. We talk about being ‘unsettled’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘uneasy’. Our ethics are inescapably embodied, even when that means that our bodies betray our intellectual position and niggle us into reflection. Feelings are so often the trigger for rethinking situations.
Conventionally, ethics are externally imposed – particularly in schools and workplaces, where codes of conduct abound, but also in families, whether real or metaphorical. Certain behaviours are considered to be typically Christian, middle-class, female, Jamaican etc and there are sanctions for those who step outside. These are an ethics to be obeyed; passive in their nature on the whole, though brought into play by “doing good”, accepted not scrutinised, sometimes rebelled against, ultimately accountable outside the self to a higher power, whether that’s Mum, God or ‘tradition’.
An internally-guided ethical compass is less straightforward and arguably harder work. Climbing out from under our parents/teachers/managers/clerics/community leaders’ ethical expectations is precisely what maturity is about and it’s not easy. Developing a personal ethics takes humility and self-awareness, a commitment to testing yourself, to persistently travel to the sharp edges and dark corners of your psyche. It’s work that never ends; a daily walking of your own ethical boundaries to avoid sinking into complacent smugness: ‘knowing’ you’re a good person is not the same as enacting goodness in the world.
The difference is between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ (even ‘doing good’). Being loyal to a friend going through a hard time is not the same as showing solidarity with them when they are under attack from others. Recognising that an injustice has been done is not the same as speaking out about it. Braidotti’s ‘ethical imperative’ is concerned with enacting our ethics; of living a life which accommodates a consistent, mindful, embodied practice of values.
As a teacher educator, I would do ‘values work’ with every new cohort. We’d collectively define what a value was, then wordstorm values commonly found in teaching: equality, empathy, fairness, growth etc. I’d then ask each participant, including myself, to identify one value they hold dear and identify how it plays out in their practice. The intention of the exercise was to link practice principles with values as the first step on a journey to developing self-aware teacher identity. The shocker was how few people had ever thought explicitly about what their values were before – shocking because, in the main, these were people who were already teaching, in many cases for years and in most cases their ‘students’ were young people and adults from marginalised communities. Contrast this cultural lack of reflexivity with the centralised promotion of “British Values” – in the public sector, at least, and more implicitly in news media propaganda – and it’s easy to see the continued dominance of the externally-imposed ethical model.
If we agree that the work of the moment is finding new ways to challenge the world order, perhaps explicating the practice of values is one way of approaching that. Certainly for me it’s been a lightbulb moment and it’s a practice I’m going to continue to work on – and write about – in the days and weeks to come.
This piece was first published on the Campfire Convention website in 2017.