Original Research - Special Collection: Morality in history

A critical consideration of Foucault’s conceptualisation of morality

Augusta B. Hofmeyr
Verbum et Ecclesia | Vol 45, No 1 | a2830 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v45i1.2830 | © 2024 Augusta B. Hofmeyr | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 19 February 2023 | Published: 22 January 2024

About the author(s)

Augusta B. Hofmeyr, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa


The background of this research is the status and significance of an ethics of care of the self in the history of morality. I followed the following methodology: I attempted to come to nuanced, critical understanding of the Foucault’s conceptualisation of morality in Volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality. In the ‘Ancients’, Foucault uncovered an ‘ethics-oriented’ as opposed to a ‘code-oriented’ morality in which the emphasis shifted to how an individual was supposed to constitute himself as an ethical subject of his own action without denying the importance of either the moral code or the actual behaviour of people. The main question was whether care of the self-sufficiently regulated an individual’s conduct towards others to prevent the self from lapsing into narcissism, substituting a generous responsiveness towards the other for a means-end rationale. I put this line of critique to test by confronting Foucault’s care of the self with Levinas’s primordial responsibility towards the other and put forward a case for the indispensability of aesthetics for ethics. In conclusion, I defended the claim that care of the self does indeed foster other responsiveness.

Intradisciplinary and interdisciplinary implications: Foucault’s ethics, understood as an ‘aesthetics of existence’ has profound intradisciplinary and interdisciplinary implications, as it challenges traditional ethical normative ethical theories and engages with various fields of philosophy, social sciences and humanities. Interdisciplinary fields greatly influenced by Foucault’s ethics include: psychology, literary, cultural, gender and sexuality studies, medical ethics, anthropology and history, among others.


Foucault; care of the self; ethics; morality; aesthetics of existence; Levinas; responsibility for the other

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