In art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications, fashion and philosophy there is a contrast between "the modern" and "the post-modern.
Toward the end of last Sunday’s broadcast of Philosophy Talk, a caller asked whether the “moral relativism” supposedly rampant in our time was part of postmodernism. While I would certainly agree that the current hysteria over moral relativism is a postmodern phenomenon, I don’t agree that postmodern thought takes an “anything goes” view of politics or ethics, or that it prevents us from saying that the terrorists of 9/11 committed mass murder. Instead, I see postmodern thought as a kind of moral humility, a humility that prevents us from assuming that the world divides neatly into “us” and “them” or that “others” are simply evil while “we,” by mere opposition, are assured to be in the right. Such absolutism, after all, has the same structure as the ideology of the terrorists. Several figures associated with philosophical postmodernism emphasize our obligation to the other as an other, that is, not as “one of us” but as one who marks the limit of our own identity or community. It is an obligation to receive the other as such and not to silence or eliminate her. We can agree that the 9/11 terrorists violated this obligation and that they are responsible for their actions, but it also forces us to examine our own sense of victimization. Nietzsche warned us against the moral righteousness of the victim; it is dangerous because it seeks to annihilate the other and tolerates no dissent.
The alarms against moral relativism we hear around us are, I think, the latest bellowings of the morality of ressentiment, a morality that looks for someone or something to blame for the insecurities and uncertainties of our age. Postmodern thought did not create this situation, but tries to explore its structures and its limits. It also upholds certain Enlightenment values, such as the freedom to dissent, social and political emancipation, the rights of individuals and minorities, etc., but it does so without claiming to know, once and for all, who individuals are or what ultimately constitutes a right. That these identities must remain open is itself a moral imperative, and one that obliges us to be humble in our judgments. Moral humility, not moral relativism, is the lesson of postmodern thinking.