Zygmunt Bauman, University of Leeds/ University of Warsaw

"Moral Challenges of Liquid-Modern Life"

September 14th 2005
Auditorium 1, Georg Sverdrups Hus , 18.15 20.00

(12.02.08) Emeritus Professor of Sociology Zygmunt Bauman (Leeds/Warsaw) held this year's Oslo Lecture in Moral Philosophy, on 14th September, to a packed Auditorium 1, Georg Sverdrups Hus. What moral challenges are posed by this liquid-modern climate of uncertainty, constant change, and insecurity? Is it possible, in a liquid society, to break the cycle of fear and mistrust? Can a climate be created that is conducive to tackling contemporary ethical issues in a cool and measured way?.


In this year's Oslo Lecture, Emeritus Professor of Sociology Zygmunt Bauman (Leeds/Warsaw) will discuss the socio/political setting in which contemporary ethical issues are shaped and confronted.

According to Bauman, the present time can be characterized as the time of "fluid" or "liquid modernity", since 'fluidity' or 'liquidity' are metaphors which can help us grasp the nature of what he views to be a novel phase in the history of modernity. Although modernity from the outset can be claimed to have been a process of 'liquefaction' (for instance, the notion of 'melting the solids' was central to the Communist and Marxist agenda, i.e., dissolving the residual remains of frozen, rigid, stagnant or outdated rules and structures in society - leftovers from an old, defective order which impeded progress), the aim at that time was nevertheless to discover or create new solids, a new order of lasting solidity, which would make the world predictable, and therefore manageable.

In the contemporary era of liquid modernity, however, solidity is no longer sought after; the task of constructing a new and better order is no longer on the agenda. Ideology has given way to a multiplicity of competing ideologies, none of which can legitimately claim 'self-evident' status. In this way, the 'melting of the solids' has acquired new meaning. The solids which are now being thrown into the melting pot are the bonds which tie individuals' choices and life policies to the projects and politics of human collectivities.

Liquid-Modern life, with its melted bonds between individual life choices and the norms and rules of the collectivity, can be seen as creating emancipated individuals. But this emancipation comes at a price, and has a profound effect on the human condition. In this individualized, privatized modernity, there are no longer any 'given' or 'self-evident' rules, codes and patterns to conform to. Stable points to use as guiding posts are few and far between; the systemic structures are remote. Increasingly, individuals are expected to shape their own life choices; they no longer fall into a clearly-defined, pre-allocated reference group with its own patterns and expectations. Now the sky is the limit, and universal comparison is possible.

However, this increased "freedom" also means that responsibility for failure rests on the individual's shoulders. In addition, individuals must navigate through fluid terrain - their immediate life setting is characterized by constant uncertainty on numerous fronts, not least in the realms of work and human relationships. Liquid life is shot through with contradictions; on the one hand it offers a potentially unending series of new beginnings, but such new beginnings are unthinkable without swift and painless endings. How such endings can be achieved is an additional source of anxiety. Transience is now valued above durability, there is no 'job for life' anymore, and human bonds are frail, with family structures constantly open to change and revision. Instead of predictability, everything is 'until further notice'.

Liquid-modern life is a precarious life, which cannot stay on course, because liquid-modern society cannot keep its shape for long. Living under such conditions means that existential tremors, fear and insecurities have now become a defining feature of individuals' everyday reality.

Paradoxically, in the developed countries we now live in some of the most secure societies in the history of humankind, but we feel more insecure, threatened and frightened than ever before. Through technological advancement, the modern promise of banishing insecurity has been achieved, to a large extent, in two of the three areas of insecurity which have haunted people since pre-modern times: the superior powers of nature and the frailty of the human body. But in the third area, that of inter-human enmities and ill will, security eludes our grasp.

The modern form of insecurity is therefore marked by fear of other human beings, their intentions, and the evil deeds they may commit. In the individualized liquid-modern world, these fears acquire their own momentum, and lead to defensive actions, which in turn create self-fulfilling prophecies which sustain the spiral of fear. Suspicion, hatred, and prejudice become commonplace.

In addition, the speed of change is beyond our control, and 'progress' no longer brings sweet dreams, but rather nightmares of getting left behind or missing the boat. These existential fears lead people to focus on trying to control whatever can be controlled, and the quest for personal safety, securing oneself against possible dangers, takes centre stage and gives life meaning. Those who can afford it protect themselves against diffuse but ubiquitous dangers in any way they can, making the quest for personal security big business. States seek legitimacy by aspiring to become 'security states' and promising to fight crime, or in the case of the US and UK, wage war on terror.

What moral challenges are posed by this liquid-modern climate of uncertainty, constant change, and insecurity? Is it possible, in a liquid society, to break the cycle of fear and mistrust? Will individuals inevitably retain a thick layer of protective suspicion towards others? How can members of an increasingly individualized and atomized society address the existential tremors and fears they experience in a morally acceptable way? Can a climate be created that is conducive to tackling contemporary ethical issues in a cool and measured way?


An English profile of Zygmunt Bauman can be found here; for a profile in Danish, click here. In 1997 Zygmunt Bauman was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Oslo. Click here for details (in Norwegian).

There was an introductory seminar on Bauman's work on 13th September, with Professor Arne Johan Vetlesen (IFIKK, philosophy) and postdoc Jens Erik Paulsen (The Ethics Programme).