Deontological versus Virtue-ethics Morality in Poststructuralism

*** Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from my book review of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for my Theories of Punishment class. I am posting this to show the end product to those who helped me with the antirepresentationalist theory and how it applied to poststructuralist moral-normative thought.


The most common criticism of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish – and, for that matter, poststructuralism as a theory – is that it fails to articulate moral norms. If Foucault had articulated norms, it would allow an individual the ability to distinguish acceptable from unacceptable forms of power. But without these norms, it would be difficult to answer the critical question of why domination from this power should be resisted. In other words, Foucault didn’t offer an ultimate goal or purpose for this struggle, and left several key questions that didn’t have answers: Why was being a true individual such a noble struggle? Why was submission to the conventions of society such a horrible thing? Foucault’s lack of a stance on moral norms was a severe limitation because there was no objective guide to criticize structures of domination or a way to bring about social change.

Still, it should be pointed out that although morality may be deeply rooted in a world that Foucault believes is entrenched in power, morality can still be our guiding light. Building a moral framework for poststructuralists begins with developing the concept of antirepresentationalism. This principle stands for the idea that people as well as the state shouldn’t make representations that certain “intentional lives” are better or worse than others. Foucault believed that, representationalism – comparing everybody to a norm – had dangerous disciplinary effects because once a norm had been articulated, everyone would be judged as compared to this norm, and this would take away from one’s individuality (which is the only true purpose in life, according to Foucault).

Foucault’s support of antirepresentationalism doesn’t necessarily deny all moral discourse. The key difference was distinguishing between telling someone how to act and then how to be. Although Foucault’s condemnation of representationalism rules out morality that tells one “how to be,” it can still include a morality that tells one “how to act.”

“How to be” falls in line with an Aristotelian virtue-based ethics system, which is framed in character traits. In other words, virtue ethics centers on what makes a good person, rather than what makes a good action. Foucault’s theory would seem to rule out virtue-based ethics under an antirepresentational scope because virtue ethics tells a person what sort of person one should be, which essentially is a comparative norms system.

On the other hand, “how to act” falls in line with Kantian deontological views. This normative ethical theory emphasizes duties or rules, giving someone who subscribes to this theory a system that provides guiding principles for actions that allow a person to decide how to behave in any given situation. While antirepresentationalism rules out the virtue-based view of “how to be,” the deontological moral system of “how to act” can still coexist with Foucault’s theory because deontology doesn’t use comparative norms. Kantian deontology can often tell one what is the proper course of action, but under this theory, it is not morality’s role to answer the question of how one should live. So while it is true that Foucault views the individual as a byproduct of power relations, and what results from this is social constructs, there can still be morality under a deontologist view.

The use of antirepresentationalism is not without some criticism. Although antirepresentationalism offers a moral grounding for poststructualism, it may not actually a defense of poststructualism in its strictest sense. To start, poststructualism itself cuts against the theories of poststructualism because some poststructualists aim not to give moral norms for their theory. Specifically, poststructualists believe that since morality is a product of this world, and is influenced by the power structure that Foucault discussed. In other words, morality cannot be separated from the hidden biases that characterize other social practices. Thus, a poststructualist might argue that you cannot appeal to these moral norms and use it to criticize other institutions and practices.

Furthermore, under the theory of antirepresentationalism, you cannot tell a person “how to be.” Taking this into consideration, how then can Foucault then talk about the respective merits of various lives, or evaluate people’s lives and tell them to struggle against discipline and domination? It would seem that the very purpose of Foucault’s book would violate the antirepresentationalist principle.

However, antirepresentationalism evaluates other people’s lives with aesthetic rather than moral-normative criterion. There is a distinct difference between telling someone he should reflect more upon his actions, and then telling someone to be a more reflective person. The latter would not be possible under antirepresentationalism, while the second would be possible. For example, take a man who sits at a bar every night and drinks until he has to stumble home in a drunken daze. In this case, a poststructuralist wouldn’t say that this man’s life was immoral because it would violate the antirepresentationalist rules. Rather, he would say that this man’s life was ugly, thereby avoiding telling him “how to be.”


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