Frans Vosman, minima moralia and the institutional question

Editor Silke Jacobi reflects on the significance of Frans Vosman’s essential notion of ‘minima moralia’ for her master thesis on contemporary institutional aspects as well as in her professional practice.

The passing away of Frans Vosman last year entails an indescribable loss to me. Attempting to refer to parts of his intellectual heritage anew renders the pain and the loss palpable. Personal contact and contact by way of intellectual considerations: those two dimensions of interaction with a person may stem from totally different points of departure.

Congruency between a person and his intellectual work is a precious – and I presume, an even rarer – good. I experienced this congruency in the thesis-supervision and lectures from Frans Vosman as well as in work (as a member of the editorial board of this website) and encounters with him. This paves the way for reflections on elements of his care-ethical heritage without continuously stumbling upon discrepancies between idealized – ethical – statements and complex practices. We find them, for example, in late modernity with its contradictions between seductive (ethical) discourses and the problematic realization of the promises that lie beneath them.

Moral theory, practice and idea

And still a struggle is to be part of my reflections. This struggle then refers to the care-ethical balancing between avoiding to apply idealistic principles, too remote from concrete practices, and risking to generate new conclusions – even if by preferred qualitative, subject-orientated research – that are implicitly moralistic.

Frans Vosman’s awareness of these constraints moves me as a care ethical theorist and as a practitioner. Immediately the concerned remarks of Frans Vosman come to mind, telling to delineate carefully the function and aim of the scientific care-ethical research practice from the role and objective of social work.

Although this delineation would be advisable for obvious reasons, the two contrasting professional disciplines do share the same – moral – concerns. The professionals of the two disciplines, the scholar and the practitioner, are able to inform each other, notwithstanding the discrepancies in their societal positions.

With his specific view on the variety and consequences of societal positions, and, in addition, his focus on the wide contemporary context, Frans Vosman mentored the master thesis I wrote, concerning the impact of power dynamics on institutional care in late modernity. His approach paved the way for me to explore aspects of this era full of disguised contradictions in relation to care-issues.

The practitioner and moral theory

As a practitioner in the field of institutional support for socially distressed citizens, I fully appreciate the approach of Frans Vosman as it does not negate any tension occurring, as I will illustrate by the following example.

‘Being available’ is a core characteristic, contributing to my professionalism as a practitioner. However, ethical theory of all kind exposes social practitioners to (moral) judgement, with just as many useful as painful sides to it. The pain then, consists of the perception of being left to oneself with institutional, societal and eventually personal contradictions which are often not reflected in either moral theory or policy (the latter sometimes arising from the former).

The inquiry frame

In the empirical and theoretical research of Frans Vosman I find descriptions of feasible socio-ethical dispositions (‘real-time, here and now morality”, Vosman, 2018, p.13) beyond (implicit compelling) moral claims.

‘Minima moralia’ comprises one of the main premises of his work (2018). His alertness to obfuscating, implicitly morally laden terminology (of all kinds, care-ethical terminology in itself not excluded, Vosman, 2020) and a broad understanding of contextualization, offer me an anchor point. In itself not at all an intellectual home to rest peacefully. Rather a means to face contradictions in (moral) theory, epistemic questions and also practices, without disregarding the tensions that are thereby revealed.

This strongly hints at the heuristic significance of fields of tension for care-ethics (idem, 2018a), even if the primary aim could roughly be described as the opposite, namely to identify various forms of (caring) cohesions between citizens. Regarding this approach, the questioning of impeding, conflicting societal and political conditions may become a crucial part of the investigation with possibly confronting results. Frans Vosman was a proponent of longitudinal empirical studies because it is only in the long run that what is really at stake emerges.

After all, the qualitative skilled scientific investigator ‘undergoes’ an inquiry, namely in the sense referred to by Frans Vosman (2018a ). The investigators then stay in the field of inquiry ‘involved with skin and bones’ (Vosman, 2018b, p. 17) for an extended period of time, and therefore to a certain extent exposed also to the ‘raw’ aspects of knowledge to be acquired. On that point, I see a parallel with the social professional who stands with his “bare” feet in the middle of the sometimes harsh field of practice.

Contextualization, power and institutions

Then, finally a ‘moralistic’ way out of a confrontation with tensions could possibly be found, yet also a complicated epistemological one, where the latter yields more questions. It sheds light on epistemic problems with the ambition to explore the care-ethically preferred ‘pure’ first person perspective (Vosman, 2018, p. 68), brought forward through qualitative-empirically research. How about the real impact of– upon closer investigation – hidden and ambivalent messages on the ‘first-person-perspective’, so inherent to (Western) socio-political policy in late-modernity?

Political orders, policy-formulation, societal power distributions and the presence, absence or deforming of institutions are all interwoven. Therefore causalities are much more difficult to identify. The emphasis of Frans Vosman on societal and institutional complexity within the ambiguity and pitfalls of the late-modernity points in my view to the political dimension that characterizes his work in a specific way.

The scientific benefit of the care-ethically highlighted qualitative research-direction has the – to a certain extend intended – side-effect of ‘voicing’ the unheard powerless in society. At the same time, the meticulous inquiry of the societal and political context, as Frans Vosman introduced it to care ethics (informed by the sociological work of selected “fellow travelers”), prevents one from getting lost in simplifications. For instance, as in reducing the power-theme by focusing on the inadequateness of (care-)institutions without a wider politico-ethical contextualization.

Contested institutions, inquiry and theorizing the institutional question

Instead, burning societal issues are to be inquired by very careful differentiation: for example between the whether or not constructive intentions of care-workers, the ambiguities of the citizen in need themselves, obstructive (hierarchical) institutional positions and a nevertheless emancipatory (ethical) policy which is manifesting itself in a contradictory institutional practice.

In fact the complex late modernity causes fading possibilities for allocations of responsibility and power in society (Vosman & Niemeijer, 2017). The exploration of the ‘first-person-perspective’ requires embedding in this, at first sight, overwhelming context (Vosman, 2018). In this respect there are more ‘unheard powerless’ then it seems at first sight.

The ‘morally good’ care-taker with alleged absence of (inter-)personal struggling or the ‘morally failing’ care-taker who does not sufficiently align with the patient: both conclusions do not reflect the intertwining of external and internal aspects which could be at stake.

In line with this, Frans Vosman noted the lack of a care-ethical theorization of institutionalism. Again, he distinguishes between an – already existing – normative care-ethical conceptualization and a – yet to be elaborated – analytical theorizing of institutions (Vosman, 2016, p. 50). The former suggests institutional change by implementing new values, prior to an analysis of local, factual and ideological conditions. The latter should rely on precisely this profound contextual analysis as an operative contribution to a political ethical debate (ibid.).

From the inside of Dutch institutional residential youth care, he (and other authors) conducted a long-term qualitative-empirical study, containing precise observations of the interactions between social workers and the residential young persons with learning disabilities (Vosman, 2017).

Very briefly summarized, the results indicated that care-institutions have a specific capability to be societal inclusive, mediated through the social workers, while being framed by social-policy as exclusionary. The institutional worker had a complex range of tasks in a contested working environment, influenced by contradictory social policies.

To undergo the practice

As practitioner in the social field, as social worker on the work floor, I hold a position that catapults me towards the edge of a power play as above denoted. Yet at the same time it pulls me towards its gravitational center. The latter happens when it comes to the underlying dominant dynamics, that the social workers are, in the end, the ones who have to keep things running for the person in need of care.

Within this complexity and ambiguity one may catch a glimpse of ‘undergoing’ a personal stance that is not naturally related to ‘passivity’. Rather, if being receptive to this, to ‘heuristic exercises’ without avoiding a whole range of conflicting findings. In addition the own personal ambivalences come along. To a certain extent accepting to being pulled into a power play, but also resisting the gravity, directing again to the care-receiver.

Research on moral stress in the professional social sector acknowledges the involvement of these emotions through personal striking confrontations within an erratic and overwhelming context.

This all indicates an ‘undergoing’ that is intertwined with the enhancement of practical (social professional) wisdom (a term established by Frans Vosman & Andries Baart, 2008). Hence, the heuristic feature of ‘going through a situation’ before identifying the essential aspects of it can be inherent to both dimensions, the scientific (in the sense as outlined above) and the practical, albeit that the results vary of course.

Furthermore, those results are retrieved in different social positions. However, the clearness about the possible heuristic benefits of (sometimes confronting) ‘undergoing’ is one of the philosophical gifts I got from Frans Vosman.

The heuristic benefit and ‘minima moralia’

Undergoing (in both dimensions) whilst aiming at ‘minima moralia’ is basically – please also note the differences – a process equal to nuclear research which gets closer and closer to investigative goals to finally conclude that the atoms consist of again smaller components which exist in two or more states at the same time. But whereas the nuclear researcher can be fascinated by these confusing findings from a scientific distance, the qualitative empirical investigator remains in the field of investigation for a longer time with “skin and bones”.

I want to illustrate this with again a personal remembrance: not long ago I was exhausted as a result of institutional work in the midst of a social system which is supposed to be one of the most elaborated in the world. But even then, as a side-effect, it suffers from the various power dynamics as described above. It had affected me as a frontline social professional. Now I got offered a new job in an explicitly de-institutionalized, but also socio-political controversial setting. This job-offer caused me some worries against the background of my previous experience.

When I got the chance to talk about my hesitation with Frans Vosman, he said: “Yes, but it also can be interesting”. Firstly, I got stimulated to start myself a ‘non-normative inquiry’. Secondly, the word ‘yes’ I may confidently interpret as a respectful response with respect to my experiences as ‘social practitioner’.

The social professional as participant, the researcher and the institutional question

Finally, I will then add a possibly for the reader unexpected term which is, as far as I know, not worked out theoretically by Frans Vosman, even if I heard him using it in some context – please note: different from the context in which I locate the term now.

The term I am referring to is ‘solidarity’, and as I am applying this term carefully and hesitantly, I am also aware that this could lead to new moralistic, idealized claims, distorting the ‘minima moralia’ premises. But solidarity could also be the expression of an alertness to the consequences of the diversity and consequences of ‘undergone’ societal positions. This alertness would then be a ‘moral attitude’, or rather a political sensitivity acquired ‘with skin and bones’. This means referring to the similarities and differences with the whole, sometimes (self-)confronting spectrum of one’s own experiences.

In addition, prudence in empirical normative inquiry requires to bring the impact and wide contextualization of moral terminology into the field of vision. The social professional (in the field of institutional care and support practice) in late modernity might perceive this as a rapprochement to his or her own ambiguity, to the contradictory institutional position, to the contextual pitfalls and to his or her potential exposure to moral stress within institutional settings. Viewed in this way, this would be a kind of – given the scientific perspective also critical, but even then welcome – solidarity.

Other modes of solidarity, namely “institutionalized” solidarity, lead us back to the institutional question in a yet different way. This question shall not, as stated above, be sufficiently addressed by the demand for implementing a value, like for instance solidarity. Rather, an elaborated care-ethical concept of (social) institutions could benefit from the precise, analytic theorizing, quested through inquiry ‘from the inside’ (with the ‘skin and bones’). The recent alarming incidents around public distrust in institutions and public sector workers in for instance the US, Germany and the Netherlands point out the urgency.

Here you can find other contributions of staff members about the intellectual legacy of Frans Vosman.

Vosman, F. & Niemeijer, A. (2017). Rethinking critical reflection on care: late modern uncertainty and the implications for care ethics. DOI 10.1007/s11019-017-9766-1

Kolen, M., Vosman, F., Timmerman, G., Baart, A. (2017). Alledaagse omgang tussen zorgprofessionals en zorgontvangers als vindplaats voor goede (LVB) zorg. Journal of Social Intervention: Theory and Practice. Volume 26 -3, 28 – 49

Vosman, F. & Baart, A. (2008). Aannemelijke zorg. Over het uitzieden en verdringen van praktische wijsheid in de gezondheidszorg. Den Haag: Boom Lemma

Vosman, F.H.J. (2018a). The moral relevance of lived experience.

Vosman, F. (2018b). Overleven als levensvorm. Zorgethiek op het kritiek op het geslaagde leven. Uitgeverij Net aan Zet (Utrecht) English translation forthcoming.

Vosman, F. (2020). The disenchantment of care ethics: A critical cartography. In F. Vosman, A. Baart, & J. Hoffman (Eds.), The ethics of care: the state of the art (pp. 17-63). In Ethics of Care Series. Louvain: Peeters Publishers.

Vosman, F. & Baart, A. (2008). Aannemelijke zorg. Over het uitzieden en verdringen van praktische wijsheid in de gezondheidszorg. Den Haag: Boom Lemma

Vosman, F. (2016). Karthografie einer Ethik der Achtsamkeit. In: Conradi, E. & Vosman, F. (Eds.), Praxis der Achtsamkeit. Schlüsselbegriffe der Care-Ethik.(pp. 209 – 230). Frankfurt/New York: Campus

About the author: Silke Jacobi

Silke Jacobi

Silke Jacobi (1963) had her master’s degree in the Ethics of Care at the University of Humanistic Studies (Utrecht) in 2019. In her master thesis she investigated 'late modern', invisible power dynamics with seemingly subject-oriented, but equally neoliberal subtitles: this double-tingled, turbulent context influences the morally and critically concerned care-workers and has impact of institutional questions. Since 1990 she explores as a social worker the changes of the complex (institutional) care-praxis also from an inside-perspective. In addition, she worked as a supervisor for upcoming social workers at a university of applied sciences. The broad political-ethical context for care-ethical issues is one of her concerns.

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