Care, Class and Singularistic Morality in Late Modernity

In his master’s thesis, Sylwin Gilles Cornielje has taken up care-ethicist Frans Vosman’s reflections on self-realisation as a class-bound normative ideal.


Within the field of care ethics, debate surrounding the theme of ‘class’ has recently been revived by Frans Vosman in his valedictory speech. Part of his argument illustrating the importance of class to care ethical research, is the impression that nowadays popular moral ideas of self-realisation and self-care may be class-bound.
Vosman illustrates his thoughts by invoking a theory of society which was recently developed the German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz in his book Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten. The latter points out that members of a new rising middle class are often heedless of how their pursuit of self-realisation contributes to cultural hegemony. As a result, the dominance of ideals of self-realisation in daily living may influence how care is organised and given in yet undetected and potentially hazardous ways.

In my master’s thesis, I have taken up Vosman’s reflections on self-realisation as a class-bound normative ideal. Specifically, I have delivered a socio-philosophical critique on the ethical program of social self-realisation as developed by the Dutch humanist Joep Dohmen. By making use of Reckwitz’ theory of late modern society, I have explored the social implications of Dohmen’s ethics.

Through the work of Vosman, I discovered that my discomfort with the haziness of the public, or social, dimension of contemporary notions of self-realisation could be critically addressed by learning from Reckwitz’ descriptive sociology. Throughout the years, especially Dohmen’s program of the ethical art of life – a ‘new morality’ or ‘new culture of self-realisation’ – has been inspiring the personal and intellectual aims of scholars and students including myself at the University of Humanistic Studies (see (Dohmen, 2007; 2012)). With the following text I have taken the opportunity to further engage in a critique surrounding self-realisation, thereby arguing for the central importance of cultural class.

Moral self-realisation

According to Dohmen himself, his work should be positioned in line with the philosophy of the art of life. In contrast to other protagonists of this philosophical movement such as Wilhelm Schmid, Pierre Hadot and Alain de Botton (of whom the latter founded the educational company of The School of Life which has gained worldwide popularity), Dohmen argues for self-realisation as a new public morality. That is, the individual project of an autonomous, authentic life should not be conceived of as an egocentric aim, but rather as a shared moral ideal ultimately leading to socially engaged citizens (Dohmen, 2012, 72, 77).

Dohmen thereby claims to progress on the work of thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Charles Taylor. For example, he illustrates that contemporary society is plagued by malaise, a cultural discomfort, or an absence of morality such as argued for by Taylor (see for example (Taylor, 1991, 6, 20-21). On the one hand, the modern liberal parting with (oppressive) traditions has resulted in an increase of individual rights and freedom of choice for many people within society. On the other hand, Dohmen rightfully argues with Anthony Giddens that tradition gave way to an aggressively expansive capitalist market without filling the emptied spot of morality. Rather, it promotes morally arid instrumental relations to the world, resulting in overconsumption, civic disengagement and meaninglessness (Giddens, 1991, 201).

According to Dohmen, it would be detrimental to the positive gains of liberalism if we would subject ourselves to some new morality that requires us to sacrifice our individual freedom, as it is – and according to Dohmen should be – highly valued. Rather, a public moral ideal should be made out of the concept of individual freedom. That is, we need a focus on what our freedom is for, and no longer where we are free from. Indeed, we ought to realise ourselves through self-care and become authentic – only then can individuals become truly autonomous and engaged with society, and live a meaningful life. However, the above brings us to the following question: what does ‘public’ refer to in Dohmen’s new public morality? And in what way(s) may Dohmen’s proposal contribute to combating the moral malaise of society he describes? First, I will focus on the former question.

The public sphere

Dohmen attempts to open up a conceptual apparatus of self-realisation, autonomy, authenticity and care of the self which at first sight appears highly individualistic. For example, the concept of self-care involves reflective and cognitive methods for reaching a deeper understanding of one’s own desires, ambitions, qualities as a means for authenticity. Although peers should assist the individual to perform activities of self-care, Dohmen nowhere explains practices, spaces or institutions that are constitutive for such social interaction between people as bodily creatures. As a result of the absence of such public or social categories, the myriad of social and material differences that de facto affect an individual’s chances and impediments for self-realisation – and broader: living a dignified life in society – remain simply unaccounted for. As such, Dohmen’s strategy testifies to what Vosman (2017, 37) calls ‘normativity first’: perceiving social realities according to one’s normative ideal while simultaneously wishing to transform those social realities into one ideal ‘reality’.

The absence of a clear form and substance of the public or the social indicates a lacuna in Dohmen’s program. Since Dohmen intensively draws from Taylor’s work regarding his use of key notions such as authenticity, I have chosen to clarify his vague suggestions of the public with Taylor’s observations of the modern public sphere. According to Charles Taylor, the public sphere refers to “a common space in which the members of society are deemed to meet through a variety of media: print, electronic, and also face-to-face encounters; to discuss matters of common interest; and thus to be able to form a common mind about these” (Taylor, 2004, 83). Public morality, then, refers to a possible outcome of deliberation in the public sphere. However, it is this modern concept of the public realm of social and political activity which we will use to argue that reaching a common mind in all kinds of issues – social, material-economic, political, cultural and moral – is deeply problematic in the context of late modernity. Tentatively, I will regard late modernity as a radical phase of modernity in which individual autonomy has become a societal expectation (see also Vosman and Niemeyer, 2017, 666). At this point, we should turn to Reckwitz’ edifying notion of singularisation.


In order to formulate the problem of the public sphere – a question that appears to be prior to what Dohmen understands as a moral malaise – I have gained insights from the theory of society of Reckwitz. According to Reckwitz, late modernity is not fundamentally defined by instrumental relations and a corresponding lack of morality, but by a process of “singularisation” (Reckwitz, 2017, 7). In contrast to past modes of modernity, late modern society develops itself through expectations of people and things to be unique, authentic, innovative, in short: singular. Singularisation occurs in the post-industrial economic system, labor market, politics, digital technology, and at the micro-level of individual lifestyles as well. The more singular a person or thing is, the more valued it becomes. The singular counts as the morally good and/or aesthetically beautiful, for it is attractive, worth pursuing, meaningful. Dohmen’s understanding of individual autonomy as authenticity – truly and sincerely being and acting according to one’s unique individuality as the ultimate good – refers to this rendition of singularity. The self-care activities which Dohmen describes, then, are prime examples of singularisation tactics on the micro-level of a singularistic lifestyle.

However, developing and maintaining a singular life – a ‘living work of art’ – presupposes incessant social processes which, as we have already seen above, touch upon the problematic social vacuum inherent to Dohmen’s individualistic vocabulary. After all, an individual needs things, recognition of people and institutions by which one can mobilise and realise oneself and whether or not become perceived as an authentic and morally good person. Yet, people do not simply possess things like good education, health, intelligence, money, a valued social network beforehand. Of course, one’s social, economic and cultural capital does not solely depend on one’s will, talents, competencies, discipline etcetera. Rather, they are contingent as well upon one’s cultural and material position within society, which in turn hinges on a plethora of societal structures, the volatility of the financial world, choices made by politicians, education policies, gender roles, aesthetic ideals and so forth. In other words: it is exactly that social-structural dimension which co-determines one’s orientations towards and capacities for self-realisation but which is ignored by Dohmen.

A new class-society

Not everyone is likely to succeed in being and becoming singular and attractive. Rather, within late modernity self-realisation has become the ideal of a new, highly educated middle class which Reckwitz refers to as the Akademikerklasse. Represented by dominant liberal-political agendas, it is generally them who advocate for and succeed in self-realisation by means of an attractive lifestyle: good education, a prestigious position in the growing cultural and knowledge economy, digital know-how, enticing homes in Old town districts, healthy (fusion) cooking, traveling, music, sports and a post-materialist long-term focus on life quality and meaning. This new middle class demonstrates a cosmopolitan orientation towards life in general. Its members seek for the singular in cultures worldwide in order to ‘curate’ and ‘perform’ their lives for ‘an audience’ of interested others. Their experiences of life’s quality and meaning seem to be proportional to the success of their performances.

The singularistic lifestyle stands in stark contrast to the ways of life of the new cultural underclass including the group of ‘survivors’ to which Vosman (2017, 26) draws attention: ‘muddling through’. Their economic and cultural positions are precarious and defined by unskilled work, poverty and uncertainty. Consequently, they lack the means, orientations and capacities for undertaking the long-term and intensive project of self-realisation. In addition, Reckwitz distinguishes an old middle class of people witnessing their ethos of ‘working hard’ and living a ‘normal’ life being devalued as mediocre and no longer relevant to a post-industrial economy obsessed with innovation. Such devaluations feed experiences of degradation, vulgarisation and neglect by the members of the singular middle class, the liberal political elite, and the mainstream media

The adjective cultural in ‘cultural class’ is important. It indicates that we are no longer dealing with hierarchical social strata that are formed exclusively on the basis of ancestry (pre-modern) or education, work and income (modern). Within the context of late modernity, members of different classes perceive and relate to each other through their disparate values and ways of living “for which the material resources are only one determining condition among others” (Reckwitz, 2019, 64). Reckwitz’ sociology, however, demonstrates that the cultural hegemony is located in the moral imperative to realise oneself in a singular way. This argument is diametrically opposed to Dohmen’s ethics, which, as we have seen, departs from the thesis that late modern society lacks morality per se. Yet, singularity depends on dynamic and unpredictable practices of valuation and recognition, a singular person may not be so lucky and become suddenly outpaced by someone else ‘deserving’ all the attention from the audience. That person may even originate from the slums of Bombay if his unique story or talent has been ‘discovered’, positively valued and disseminated by some social media influencer.


Although one might be inclined to think that people from the new middle class are more likely to enjoy success and happiness, it is not only the underclass that lives in conditions of precariousness. The latter notion refers to “the insecurity about one’s own position within the order of society, both in the present and in the time to come” (Vosman and Niemeyer, 2017, 672). After all, unpredictable valuations render one’s social position as unstable, wonky. Vosman and Niemeyer illustrate in their case of a Dutch hospital that it is also managers – typically new middle class people – that are “precaritised” through the uncertainty of their social position within an extremely dynamic environment (Vosman and Niemeyer, 2017, 673). As such, also new middle class people are rendered vulnerable to stress, letdown, burn-out and, ultimately, devaluation.

Thus, conditions of precariousness may abruptly pop up in anyone’s life, spanning across cultural classes and stories of either success, failure and the “life-never-lived” (Vosman, 2017, 40). For those focused upon living life in a singular way, precariousness may even find it’s way in a social and cultural production of disquietness: “in the end, does society really value my life as singular? Who can tell that I really did enough to realise myself?” Dohmen does not address such negative or ambivalent affects because his ethics emphasize tactics of singularisation, that is, enforce a discourse of positive experiences. I would therefore like to propose that feelings of insecurity and unease should be addressed in the public sphere and its organisations in order to understand how they are intertwined with socio-cultural dynamics and across cultural classes.. Before reaching our conclusion, I will now argue how the neglect of addressing precariousness within the public sphere may be connected to the leading problem of fragmented society.

Cultural class and polarisation

I have already mentioned that people from different cultural classes relate to each other throughout their daily lives. Within the contours of late modernity, the cultural and political dynamics between members of the high-educated middle class and members of the lower cultural classes take the shape of polarisation. That is, members of these different classes struggle for political and cultural power in the public sphere. This sphere, then, has become fragmented. The cultural hegemony of self-realisation, which has become actively adhered to by the new middle class, is being opposed to by what Reckwitz calls ‘Neogemeinschaften’. He refers to new groups of people – mainly originating from the old middle class and underclass – claiming a communal and exclusive form of autonomy accompanied by a set of values, extreme affects and even exclusive physical or digital spaces with which a narrative of singularity is construed. One may think of religious fundamentalist groups, right-wing populism as well as all kinds of identity politics demanding recognition for their authentic history, appearance, nation and so forth.

We should not give in to illusion: ‘Neogemeinschaften’ do not seek to promote a common good. They react to individualistic narratives for self-realisation and singularity which marginalise and exclude the devalued. Although many of their us-against-them-tactics are frequently means to peaceful consideration and debate in favour of their social group, some may (deliberately) result in resentful, hateful and even violent discharges within the public sphere. As a result, the problem of fragmentation causes society to be impeded from bridging social, economic and cultural oppositions that, especially in the periphery of society, often appear to be motivated by experiences of precariousness. Within late modern context, the common mind – the ‘gemeinsam Geteiltes’ according to Reckwitz – remains what it is: a goal that is simply incomprehensible when lacking sufficient common ground.

Concluding remarks

The malaise that Dohmen attempts to address and conquer should be reformulated with the help of the above insights. It does not consist of merely an absence of moral inspirations, but, on a deeper level, a struggle for recognition and power in the public sphere. The challenge lies in finding social, cultural and political gemeinsam Geteilte that transcend moral ideals of the Akademikerklasse which is characterised by Reckwitz. Dohmen’s proposal for self-realisation is merely an intensification of present-day polarisations between unequally valued social groups. Consequently, it is futile and may even adversely affect the ongoing task of working towards a general culture addressing precariousness through shared norms, goods and institutions in light of the huge challenges that lie among and ahead of us.

When it comes to ethics of care – and particularly: its sociopolitical focus –, future challenges involve the valuation, and accordingly, the organisation of care. Within fragmented late modernity we should not only ask how the popularity of singularistic lifestyles may affect society’s agreements on informal and formal care, but also our deeply rooted impulse to appreciate the unique and singular. For example: how is the extremely volatile process of singularisation related to the late modern focus of patient-centred care ‘arrangements’? And: in what way(s) can contemporary forms of care-ethics be diagnosed with a tendency toward the singularisation of subjects and their lifestyles in relation to care? The French political care-ethicist Fabienne Brugère (2019, 30, 41) indeed appears to hint at the need to “appreciate” singularities of ethical cases. However, from this perspective we should ask whether care-ethicists take heed of class dynamics that affect care-practices. Let us recall that Frans Vosman inspired us to bring this question to the fore again. For class-vigilance can help us further to learn about good care from those who do not ‘realise themselves’, but continue to muddle through day by day.

Brugère, F. (2019). Care ethics. The introduction of care as a political category. Leuven: Peeters.
Dohmen, J. (2012). Brief aan een middelmatige man. Pleidooi voor een nieuwe publieke moraal. Amsterdam: Ambo.
Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Reckwitz, A. (2017). Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten, Zum Strukturwandel der Moderne. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Reckwitz, A. (2019). Das Ende der Illusionen. Politik, Ökonomie und Kultur in der Spätmoderne. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Taylor, C. (1991). The ethics of authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Taylor, C. (2004). Modern Social Imaginaries. London: Duke University Press.
Vosman, F. (2018). Overleven als levensvorm, Zorgethiek als kritiek op het ideaal van het ‘geslaagde leven’ . Utrecht: Uitgeverij Net aan Zet.
Vosman, F. & Niemeyer, A. (2017). Rethinking critical reflection on care: late modern uncertainty and the implications for care ethics. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy. Volume 20-4, 465-476.

Photo by Raphael Brasileiro via Pexels

About the author: Sylwin Gilles Cornielje

Sylwin Gilles Cornielje

Sylwin Gilles Cornielje (1991) obtained two master’s degrees in Humanistic Studies in 2018 and Philosophy in 2019. During and after his studies, he worked as a garbage collector, home-carer, musician and teacher. His academic interest focuses on intersections of ethics, social theory, and fieldwork methodology. He is currently looking for available doctoral positions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.