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Beyond good and evil: Towards an a-moral youth work practice

Hans Skott-Myhre

In his book on the systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, Moeller (2006) gives a brief overview and explication of Luhmann’s thinking regarding morality. In this discussion he suggests that morality, far from being a coherent and overarching set of beliefs and practices by which we can live our lives and know ourselves to be good people, may well be instead quite problematic. Since much of the discourse within the field of child and youth care, youth work, and child and youth studies is comprised of discussions surrounding such things as sexual activity, substance use, abortion, birth control, corporal punishment and professional ethics it is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid the introduction of a morality-based system of values into our professional discourse. This being the case, a critical analysis of the effects and practices of moral discourse in child and youth care might well be in order.

Luhmann begins his examination of moral discourse with the relationship between ethics and morality. He suggests that this relationship may be more dubious than we generally assume in common parlance. Indeed he states that, “Ethics do not provide a suitable description of the function of morality in our present society” (p. 110). In this, he challenges the usual definition of ethics as moral philosophy. While he maintains that ethics is concerned with examining and proposing the grounds out of which what is good might arise, he is in keeping with philosophers such as Spinoza who see ethics as the field of practical action. In other words, as he states, “What is good shows itself in practice” (p. 114).

Good practice, or what we call best practices or professional ethics in child and youth care, is usually presumed to be based both on its beneficial effects and its correlations with societal norms that regulate right and wrong conduct. Our standards of professional care traditionally involve delineating our proposed behavior as a set of good habits, duties and the consequences of our behavior on others. We usually assume that ethical behavior can have a predictable and beneficial effect on our social relations. Luhmann denies this and as a radical constructivist suggests that we cannot know the effect of our behavior in advance; we can only know the effect of our behavior after we have performed it.

In other words, we can reasonably guarantee that by restricting behavior we assume will have negative consequences, no direct negative effects will arise from our lack of action. We, of course, cannot guarantee unintended negative consequences nor can we guarantee that positive ethical behavior such as the care and nurturance of a child will guarantee positive consequences. Similarly, we cannot guarantee that unethical behavior will inevitably result in harm. There is, of course a reasonable probability but not a certainty.

Ethics, in this sense, is not predictive of outcome and the good can only be seen in its effects which cannot be predicted with any certainty. In this sense, the most ethical behavior is to only act in direct accordance with what is required in every circumstance. That, of course, is extremely difficult for most of us to determine and so we turn towards theories and general standards of what is good, such as morality.

Luhmann says that one of the problems with the current state of morality in our contemporary society is that there “exists no single source in our time for moral semantics” (p. 111). Instead, we have a multiplicity of moral discourses, most of which have a number of contexts in which they don’t apply. For example, killing people is considered morally wrong in most places in the world unless you are a soldier, an officer of the law, a revolutionary, a morally outraged patriarch whose family honor has been besmirched, or someone defending their person, home and family. These contextual exceptions are highly controversial and provide for significant conflict and disagreement over what constitutes morality or moral behavior. Morality, in this sense is more of an ongoing set of contested social communications about what is and what is not permissible than a set code for right and wrong behavior.

Luhmann suggest that indeed “All social operations are communicative operations and, consequently the phenomenon of morality also has to be understood within the operations of the communication system” (p.111). Certainly the field of social services and child and youth care in particular can be seen as a field of social communication. After all, what we do for a living is largely talk to and about young people. Granted, we often act as well but our actions are often also intended as communication designed to elicit a certain set of responses from the young people we engage in our daily work. For a number of us, this work is about moral communication. We believe that our discussions with youth and our behavioral interventions communicate information to young people about good and bad behavior or moral and immoral lifestyles. Sometimes this is overt, as in some religiously or faith based programming, and sometimes it is implied through what we perceive as the task of producing morally upright young people who will improve society.

Luhmann challenges the assumption that moral discourse can improve society. Further, given the field of conflicting moral imperatives regarding everything from abortion to terrorism and torture, he questions whether morality functions in society as any sort of discourse regarding a common standard of good or bad that might be applied across contexts.

Instead, he defines morality as “the specific type of communication for processing information on esteem or disesteem”(p. 111). What he means by this is that morality instead of being a clear guide to behavior which will result in “goodness,” morality becomes a criterion by which we judge the social esteem of our fellows. This is stronger than approval or disapproval and Luhmann distinguishes between “approval” and “esteem” by following Talcott Parsons’ usage of these terms. While approval is distributed according to achievements in limited contexts ... esteem concerns the acceptance of the whole person as a communicative agent (p. 111).

Luhmann argues that in contemporary society, morality moves from being concerned with ethical care or behavior to a set of distinctions based on judging whether or not a person can be accepted within society or whether they should be excluded. In this sense, Luhmann points out that the various social subsystems that we as child and youth care workers engage in on a daily basis are not functionally designated as moral sites. Schools, shelters, governmental agencies or child and youth studies programs are, within secular society, designed as a-moral systems designed to provide a social function free of moral mandate.

For example, a shelter should not deny housing to a young person or family based on their violation of moral codes. In practice, of course we know that these social systems do in fact operate on moral codes of exclusion such as when a youth shelter or school kicks out a young person for having sex in the program, using drugs, or being violent. Such youth indeed may be known, at least covertly, among the staff, as bad kids. If their parents are engaging in similar behavior they may be known as bad parents. In other words the staff may equate good or bad behavior with the “good/bad person distinction” (p.112).

However, such distinctions are not without contestation and one staff’s “bad kid” is another staff’s exemplar of appropriate rebellious spirit. Indeed, many a staff meeting has degenerated into endless squabbling over such distinctions with staff championing some youth and denigrating others. Of course, our professional ethics are supposed to prevent such judgmental interchanges between staff, but this is difficult to sustain in a moralistic environment of esteem and disesteem. As Moeller points out in regard to Luhmann’s thinking,

Empirically speaking, moral communication is closely related to conflict and force; it polarizes. Communication on the esteem or disesteem of social agents leads to a sort of “over engagement”, to a kind of communicational fundamentalism. (p. 112)

We can certainly see this over engagement or communicational fundamentalism in recent political discourse in which the terms evil and the devil are attributed to one’s political opponents. However, as I have pointed out above, such discourse also affects the fields of practice and theory in child and youth work. This can happen in overt ways such as the relatively recent deployment of the term “super-predator” to describe certain groups of young people as a theoretical construct or it can be more subtle as in the programmatic exclusion of rap music and subcultural dress from youth work programs.

In both cases, a logic of inclusion and exclusion is functioning along the moral axis of esteem/disesteem. Similarly, the subtle refusal of engagement with youth or families whose behavior staff may find morally objectionable operates on a similar logic. In another register, the moral proselytizing by staff regarding the behavior of youth in their care also suggests to young people standards of what may be required for full inclusion in the program. Certainly young people read these communications as mandates on their “acceptance as a whole person as a communicative agent.”

Under conditions in which a moral discourse has taken sway within a child and youth care site it is incredibly difficult for staff not to become engaged at a personal level regarding their own inclusion or exclusion.

As Moeller points out:

Once engaged in moral discourse, one cannot but identify oneself with the positive side of the esteem/disesteem distinction. As soon as one starts to argue morally – by holding others in disesteem – one brings one’s own self esteem into play. One exposes oneself through morality, one connects one’s viewpoints with moral conditions, one introduces self esteem and the estimation of others into social discourse and once this has happened it is hard to step back. “In this way”, Luhmann says, “wildfires can be started.” History attests to the fact that wars and crimes against humanity were often accompanied by moral communication. (p. 113)

This engagement with morality, Moeller points out, has a tendency to lead to a hardening of positions and an unwarranted certainty of the correctness of one’s position. Interactions between staff, staff and youth or parents/community members in youth work programs where morality becomes a significant discourse overtly or covertly become extremely risky. Conflict premised on moral disagreement holds high stakes for the esteem or disesteem of the young people and staff involved. This can lead to actual effects of inclusion or exclusion in the ongoing program or field of study.

Given the set of circumstances surrounding the discourse of morality in contemporary society Luhmann “advocates an ethical theory that would ‘warn of morality’” (p. 113). In this he suggests that ethics does have a role to play vis-à-vis morality and that this role has to do with managing morality so that it doesn’t get out of control.

Moeller delineates Luhmann’s position thusly,

Morality ... infects social discourse like bacteria infect the human body. He concedes that just as bacteria have a certain function in the human body, so too does morality in society. However, ethical philosophy, like medical science, should always keep an eye on these “bacteria” to prevent them from causing inordinate sickness and pain. One should, Luhmann says, be very cautious with morality and “only touch it with the most sterile instruments” since it is a “highly contagious substance” that easily infects communication. (p. 113)

Such a position has significant implications for the professional ethics of child and youth care. It suggests that our ethical imperative ought to include the restraint and monitoring of moral discourse within our educational and practice based settings. Within this ethical imperative is the mandate to avoid at all costs the hardening of moral positions and the resultant relations of esteem/disesteem and inclusion/exclusion. Luhmann does not suggest the elimination of morality. Instead, he suggests that it be used with extreme care and judicious application.

In a world in which many youth workers feel that young people have lost all sense of morality this is an extreme challenge to our field. However, we should note that such perception is flawed. Indeed, we do not suffer from a lack of morality, but from a profusion of competing moral codes. It isn’t that young people have no morals. Indeed, if we talk to them, we find that they have many moral codes of conduct that regulate relationships between themselves and the adults in their lives. Many of these codes are at odds with more traditional codes of morality. To impose or attempt to impose one set of moral codes on young people is not only a project doomed from the beginning, it is a fascist and totalitarian exercise of power. Our professional ethics as a field must categorically reject such efforts in favor of a plurality of moral codes judiciously monitored so that they do not result in what Luhmannn has called “wildfires.”

As Luhmann points out in the end:

What is good shows itself in practice and there is no direct correspondence between good theory and good practice. . . We cannot simply do without morality – but it might be advisable to use it with caution. (p. 114)

Such a position calls for a basis of practice that goes beyond good and evil; beyond morality. It isn’t that we can abandon morality; it’s that we must go beyond it to a new praxis premised in the realm of action and non-action. Such a praxis might well be investigated in the non-moral philosophies of Taoism, Spinoza, Foucault, or Deleuze. However, that discussion is beyond our scope here and will have to await another writing. For now, let us simply end on a note generally unfamiliar to me, that of moderation and caution.



Moeller, H.G. (2006) Luhmann Explained. Chicago: Open Court, 2006.