Conclusion: From Ethical Practice to the Practice of Ethics - Narrative Ethics

Narrative Psychology: Identity, Transformation and Ethics - Julia Vassilieva 2016

Conclusion: From Ethical Practice to the Practice of Ethics
Narrative Ethics

While McAdams”s and Hermans”s approaches to the relationship between ethics and narrative differ considerably, they both rely on general normative principles that are located externally and, as such, separate from narrative processes involved in constructing the sense of identity and self.

Yet, contemporary debates on philosophy and ethics suggest the possibility of a more radical implementation of an ethical approach grounded in narrative itself, such as the ethics sensitive to temporality emphasized by Ricœur, the ethics based on continuous evaluation and re-evaluation as proposed by Taylor, the notion of quest introduced by MacIntyre, and finally the ethics grounded in singularity and the Other as suggested by Bakhtin and Levinas—the models that are occasionally mentioned in relation to narrative psychology but not utilized fully. Such models make possible a departure from definitive pre-outlined ethics brought from without, towards articulating the ethics from within—as a vector of an autopoietic unfolding of life encompassing the very logic of narrative development.

Claire Colebrook argues that from a narrative perspective ethics is inextricably linked with the pursuit of meaning through an autopoietic (self making) unfolding of life:

[H]uman life makes sense of itself, gives form to itself and engages in a style of praxis whereby its ends are internal to itself. From this image of life one thereby passes to an ethics. There ought to be no techne that is disengaged from life, and life”s proper techne — the art of life — is nothing other than making meaning of, or narrating of, one”s life. Literature would, therefore, not be one praxis among others that is added on to life. Rather, life in all its forms is self-creation, while human life renders this self-creation explicit to itself through narrative; human life is that one praxis that discloses the logic of praxis in general. (Colebrook 2006)

Such an understanding encompasses Ricœur”s engagement with the question of narrative identity that places “narrativity on the broader trajectory of an anthropology of human action and, more precisely, at the point where the theory of action and ethical theory are joined” (Kemp 1995: 375). In Oneself as Another Ricœur unpacks the ethical implications of narrative, which, as he puts it, “mainly concern the fact that the capacity of the moral subject to impute his own actions to himself is based on his capacity to assume narratively the story of his own life”, and suggests that there is thus no “break between the narrative component and the ethical component of the self” (Ricœur 1995: 397). These considerations demonstrate that the process of narrative is inextricably bound up with ethics, and narrative psychology thus has an ethical basis.

Ethics and narrative have been linked even more strongly by Charles Taylor (1989: 47), who argues that:

[…] in order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative discrimination, of the incomparably higher. […] this sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story. But this is to state another basic condition of making sense of ourselves, that we grasp our lives in a narrative.

There are certain significant parallels between Taylor”s articulation of the link between narrative and identity and McAdams”s model of identity as a life story: both argue for the importance of coherent narrative as a foundation of identity. There are, however, some differences as well. It appears that for McAdams the narrative unfolding of life can take place separately from the ethical dimension, which is brought from outside as a prescriptive moral system that contains a definition of what is good—for example, as in the myth of redemption. For Taylor, the ethical dimension is always already present in the narrative rendering of life experience, as it can only take place in relation to a certain understanding of the good. Taylor provides a broader framework for McAdams”s model of life story, enriching the possibility of the latter for engagement with the whole range of unpredictable life scenarios and explicating their ethical orientation and potential. Within this framework two processes would be addressed simultaneously: the plotting of one”s own life, and continuous re-evaluation of the actual events of one”s life vis-à-vis a continuous re-examination of the notion of the good.

An emphasis on the re-examination of the notion of the good life also marks MacIntyre”s powerful engagement with ethics and narrativity. In his work MacIntyre (1981) turns to Aristotelian as opposed to Kantian ethics and suggests addressing ethics not through substantive conceptions of the good life but through the notion of the narratability of a consistent life:

In what does the unity of an individual life consist? The answer is that its unity is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life. To ask “What is the good for me?” is to ask how best I might live out that unity and bring it to completion. To ask “What is the good for man?” is to ask what all answers to the former question must have in common. But now it is important to emphasize that it is the systematic asking of these two questions and the attempt to answer them in deed as well as in word which provide the moral life with its unity. The unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest. (MacIntyre 1981: 219)

MacIntyre defines narrative quest as a circular teleology. Life is lived with a goal, but the most important aspect of life is the formulation and re-formulation of that goal, which is a life-long process: “We have then arrived at a provisional conclusion about the good life for man: the good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is” (MacIntyre 1981: 219). As Rüdiger Bender (1998) notes, the questioning of what is good itself hence turns into a virtue. In searching for a narratable unity, I discover what represents for me the good life. The understanding of what the good life is cannot be captured in static terms: it is a process rather than an outcome. Narrative inquiry thus takes on a value of good itself and functions as a process as well as the goal (Bender 1998).

Such privileging of the process is critical if life story is to retain the quality of quest—the quality that, I would argue, grounds ethical dimension within life story as such and not externally as it is articulated in McAdams”s model. McAdams”s theory runs into problems by defining virtue through universal statements about human nature (Is the ideal of redemptive universally shared? Does it have to be universally shared?), rather than in terms of questioning of what is good. If, following MacIntyre”s proposal, the dimension of quest is incorporated into an analysis of life story as proposed by McAdams, the latter will be able to address a multitude of practices of the good life.

Furthermore, “narratability” allows MacIntyre to ground ethics in singularity without declaring one way of life to be better than others. A story can only be rendered through references to concrete experiences, special circumstances, purposes, aims and emotions as well as the historical conditions of those involved. The narrating self does not refer to an abstract identity but to its individual life story developed in concrete social and historical circumstances (Bender 1998). These considerations can be also incorporated into the model of identity as a life story.

While MacIntyre”s approach to ethics can address some deficiencies in the ethics implied by narrative psychology, Paul Patton (1986) suggests that MacIntyre”s system has its own serious limitations in addressing contemporary ethical challenges. Patton argues that MacIntyre”s account of narrative is rooted in modern assumptions and as such does not address the postmodern condition of subjects that are “fragmented and dispersed across the range of social categories and institutional sites; male, female; sick, healthy; school, workplace, and so on” (Patton 1986: 139). According to Patton, MacIntyre”s “undifferentiated and global notion of the modern self” prevents him from engaging with specific challenges of postmodern ethics. By contrast, as Zygmunt Bauman maintains, these challenges are most adequately met by the ethical systems that are grounded in the encounter with the Other, and in which, as in Levinas”s theorizing, ethics precedes ontology. In some fundamental ways, however, such a position was anticipated by Bakhtin”s engagement with ethics earlier in the twentieth century.

As Terry Eagleton comments regarding Bakhtin”s unique perspective on language, “If communication is what makes us human, linguistics can never be entirely distinguished from ethics” (Eagleton 2007: 13). Indeed, at the core of Bakhtin”s understanding of discourse is a conviction that “verbal expression is never just a reflection of something existent beyond it that is given and “finished off”. It always creates something absolutely new and unique, something that is always related to life values such as truth, goodness and beauty” (Bakhtin 1979: 299). Bakhtin further introduces the notion of “my non-alibi in being” to reinforce his emphasis on personal responsibility for ethical actions, which cannot be regulated by already predetermined rules or norms: “I occupy a place in once-occurent Being that is unique and never repeatable, a place that cannot be taken by anyone else and is impenetrable for anyone else. In the given once-occurent point where I am now located, no one else has ever been located in the once-occurent Being” (Bakhtin 1993: 40). From here Bakhtin goes on to define an answerable deed as one grounded in this unique position: “An answerable act or deed is precisely that act which is performed on the basis of an acknowledgement of my obligative uniqueness […] this affirmation of my non-alibi in being […] to be in life, to be actually, is to act” (Bakhtin 1993: 42).

The logic linking act, uniqueness and non-alibi in being that defines Bakhtin”s ethics can provide an invaluable insight for psychology. Bakhtin develops this perspective specifically as an alternative to theoretism, which implies reliance on prescriptive substantive ethics, and empathy, which implies reliance on emotional regulation as a basis of ethical behaviour. Despite Hermans”s declared attempt to use Bakhtin”s theorizing as an inspiration for his own work, precisely these two approaches are uncritically utilized by Hermans in addressing ethics. According to Bakhtin, theoretism is fraught with problems in approaching human acts as it fails to recognize the value of the singular individual agent. But reliance on empathy that tries to understand an act from inside is equally insufficient as a basis for ethical behaviour. The danger here is that empathy requires total identification with the Other and the abandonment by the self of its unique position in life. According to Bakhtin, this collapse of two distinct subjective positions does not expand, but rather delimits, the understanding of one human being by another: “If I actually lost myself in the other, instead of two participants there would be one — an impoverishment of Being” (Bakhtin 1993: 16). Morson and Emerson (1989: 11) poignantly summarize these Bakhtinian considerations: “Systematic ethics respects no person, empathy one person”. Both empathy and theoretical abstraction represent reductionist, and as such, “unethical” positions for Bakhtin.

Bakhtin”s concern with ethics and its grounding in otherness (and later dialogue) are congruent with the emphasis on the primacy of the Other as a basis of an ethical system that underpins the work of Emmanuel Levinas. As Nealon (1997: 133) notes, “It is Bakhtin”s and Levinas”s mutual insistence on the subject”s irreducible engagement with otherness that has brought them so centrally into the contemporary dialogue concerning ethical subjectivity”. The encounter with the Other becomes foundational for the theorizing of ethics for both thinkers encompassing Bakhtin”s “answerability” and Levinas”s “responsibility”. More specifically, both thinkers ground ethics in otherness not only by virtue of the latter being distinct from the self but, more importantly, as something that cannot be assimilated by the self in principle. As Augusto Ponzio (1987: 6) elaborates and expands, “What unites especially Bakhtin and Levinas is their both having identified otherness within the sphere of the self, which does not lead to its assimilation, but quite on the contrary, gives rise to a constitutive impediment to the integrity and closure of self”.

According to Bauman (1993), Levinas”s ethics responds to the unique challenges of postmodernism, informed by the decentralization of the subject and insistence on moral agency. Bauman proclaims (1993: 84) that “Levinas”s is the postmodern ethics” par excellence because “[a] postmodern ethics would be one that readmits the Other as the neighbour, […] an ethics that recasts the Other as the crucial character in the process through which the moral self comes into its own”. But while Levinas urges us most radically to look outside the self for the conditions of agency, responsibility and ethical subjectivity, narrative and dialogue can provide useful mid-level concepts that align subject and ethics within a single philosophical system allowing us not only to posit but also to address human being in a variety of practices in a way that is internally ethically informed.

Such a view finds further support in constructivist quarters. Most passionately it has been advocated by Kenneth Gergen. Pointing to the phenomenon described as “the death of self by technology”, Gergen argues that as a result of the ever-increasing insinuations of the technologies of socialization, encompassing the polyvocality, plasticity, repetition and transience of the self, the intelligibility of the individual self as an originary source of moral action has been dramatically undermined. In a similar way, postmodern changes undermine the viability of community as a moral touchstone. Given the fact that social organization cannot be separated from the technological context that has been erasing old forms of face-to-face community organization, substituting them with various forms of virtual association, communalism in a traditional sense can no longer sustain ethics. For Gergen, theorizing the moral project in the twenty-first century involves an attempt to subsume both self and community within a broader reality of relatedness, and this offers a meaningful alternative to individualism and communalism. Refuting the potential accusation of “moral relativism” Gergen defends a relational account born of a constructionist sensibility, as moral resources for the future, in the following way:

Yet, it is precisely within its groundlessness that we locate the moral potential of constructionism for the postmodern world. There is no attempt within constructionism to ground its suppositions in a foundation or first philosophy, nor simultaneously to suppress any ethic or ideology. Rather, from the constructionist perspective, all moral discourses are resources for creating meaning making — which is to say, resources essential for creating any sense of the good (worth, value, ideals). (Gergen 2001: 195)

Gergen further argues that the moral project requires no foundational rationality, but rather “is always already in motion” as “normal human interchange will yield up standards of the good”. The realization of such an inductive and contingent approach to ethics is found in White and Epston”s narrative practice. Unlike McAdams and Hermans, White and Epston do not seek “moral refuge in a rational set of universal [ethical] principles” (Parker 1990: 32), but rather mobilize the intrinsic potential for “doing ethics” inherent in narrative itself.

To summarize: the understanding of ethics within a broad narrative and dialogical framework allows us to address not only modern but also postmodern conditions, and its implications for conceptualization of the subject. The unique features of a narrative and dialogical understanding of ethics are encapsulated in two principles: the primacy of the particular over the general, and a systematic examination of the notion of the good. Narrative understanding of ethics is non-ontological and is not grounded in substantive conceptions of the good life. Rather, it assumes, as Colebrook highlights in a passage cited earlier, that “there ought to be no techne that is disengaged from life, and life”s proper techne — the art of life — is nothing other than making meaning of, or narrating of, one”s life” (Colebrook 2006). Virtue therefore turns from a principle into a quest, a quest urging us to examine and re-examine the ongoing unfolding of life vis-à-vis a re-examination of the notion of good. This questioning can only become fully meaningful in the field of tension created by the presence of the human Other—and is thus always already dialogical by its very nature. In this way, as has been suggested by Stewart-Sicking (2008), the narrative understanding of ethics can allow psychology to move beyond merely providing rules for ethical practice to consider the practice of psychology itself as an exercise in virtue ethics.

If the appropriation of the notion of narrative proves to be constructive with regards to such crucial issues for psychology as the conceptualization of the subject, the subject”s transformation and methodology, its greatest promise lies, no doubt, in foregrounding the ethical dimension in all of the above-mentioned areas. Understood as open, contingent, embodied and addressed to the dialogical partner, narrative in itself provides a new paradigm in ethics, making possible a departure from prescriptive normative ethics brought from without, and instead articulating the ethics from within. In this, narrative perspective has a unique potential that makes possible the integration of an ethical dimension as a fundamental axis of theory, methodology and practice.