Month: August 2014

What does it mean to ‘do’ ethics?

As I’ve mentioned before, my job at Chichester is to design a BA in Philosophy and Ethics. In the past I’ve been a TA on ethics modules at Durham. I’ve also taught modules that deal with ethics at Roehampton. ‘Human Rights and Religion’ isn’t an ethics course, but there is a strong ethics component (discussions of otherness, end of life issues, etc.). The same could be said for ‘Religion and Violence’ in which we spent a third of the term effectively discussing whether or not one could ever ethically engage in violent actions.

But I’ve never really stopped to consider the nature of ethics as such. I was unpacking my office the other day and came across Badiou’s Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. I haven’t read Badiou since the beginning of my PhD (2009) and I had forgotten how seductive he could be.

For Badiou, we do not have ‘an’ ethic. There are always ‘ethics’. Or, put another way, we always have an ethic of truths. Ethics are not an end in themselves, but describe a relation to truth. As Peter Hallward summarises in the introduction:

An ethic of truths, then, is designed to cultivate: a sense of discernment (do not confuse the true and the false); courage and endurance (do not betray the true); moderation and restraint (resist the idea of total or ‘substantial’ truth).

Badiou’s analysis of contemporary ethics continues to be compelling, particularly his point about ethics privileging evil over good. He’s more or less restating the difference between positive and negative freedom – too much of our analysis of rights and cultural difference (the two dominant themes of contemporary ethics in Badiou’s mind) focuses on minimising evil rather than maximising good.

In the course of this small book, two things stand out. First, ethics are a process or mode of deliberation, rather than a set of established values. Ethics rooted in natural law, for example, are insufficient for they always reinscribe the ‘state of the situation’. Here, Badiou articulates a view close to the way I want to read Hegel. There is a fundamentally contingent and tenuous process which we can observe and describe, but remains uncontrollable. There is a persistent and disruptive negativity which unsettles any attempt to cease the process.

Second, Badiou argues that ethics must proceed with the aim of being indifferent to difference. This point is at the heart of his dismissal of multiculturalism. Badiou is more less in agreement with one of Zizek’s more controversial points – the critique of identity politics (an excellent rebuttal to Zizek can be found here). In the rush to identify a universal political project, both Badiou and Zizek conflate identity politics and recognition, which only further confuses the issue. Leaving Zizek to the side for the moment, I want to briefly try to redeem part of Badiou’s argument.

Badiou seems to argue that differences are inconsequential. An alternative way of reading his argument would be to claim that differences are either inconsequential or identifications of truths. Take homosexuality – debates focusing on sexual difference/sameness would seem to indulge in the ethics of multiculturalism that Badiou dismisses. There are three ways of reacting to these debates:

  1. There are no such differences – we are all the same (liberal response)
  2. These differences are inconsequential (obvious Badiou reading)
  3. These differences are indicative of truths

If we follow Badiou’s truth procedures, it seems clear that debates about homosexuality indicate something about the nature of love. Indeed, a common complaint about gay political action over the past few years is that it has eclipsed important queer critiques of the nuclear family, monogamy, gender roles and so on. So the identity politics arising from LGBTQ are an ethic of truths of love. Put in a more Badiouian fashion, queer politics expresses something presently inexpressible in the state of the erotic situation.

The same could be said of the post-colonial critiques Badiou dismisses. If these critiques are attempts at gaining recognition, Badiou has a point (though is wanting to be recognised such a terrible goal? I understand Badiou’s frustration with ethics aimed at gaining a place within the existing state of the situation, but it’s easy to lob criticisms at such ethics when you occupy a place of relative privilege). If post-colonial critiques are instead rejections of the political and economic systems motivating and living off of colonial relations (and the resultant relations of dependency and control), then post-colonialism is indicative of truths. Put another way, why does Badiou choose Spivak as the face of post-colonialism rather than someone like Fanon?


The problem with this argument is that the truth event of love is not, strictly speaking, political for Badiou. This is one of my long standing critiques of Badiou – I fail to see how any truth is not ultimately political. To reorder or destroy a situation in order to give voice to that which cannot be expressed is always political.

Problem of Evil Syllabus

Here’s my finalised schedule. I’ll say a bit more about my reasoning at the bottom. The module meets once a week for 2 hours.

Week 1 – Introduction

In class reading, selection from Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Week 2 – Augustine and Plantinga

Augustine, Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope and Love, chapter 4, ‘The Problem of Evil’ 

Augustine, City of God, Book XI, chapters 16-18, 22; Book XII, chapters 2-3

Platinga, The Nature of Necessity, 164-190

Week 3 – Irenaeaus and Hick

John Hick, ‘An Irenaean Theodicy’ in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, 39-69.

Week 4 – Hume and Pike

David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Parts 10-11

Nelson Pike, ‘Hume on Evil’, The Philosophical Review 72:2 (1963): 180-197

Formative Assessment 1 – Summarise one classical response to the problem of evil. Include references to one contemporary version or critique. This may not be a pair that we have discussed in class.

Week 5 – Surin

Theology and the Problem of Evil, Introduction, pp. 1-37

Week 6 – Surin

Theology and the Problem of Evil, Theodicies with a ‘Practical Emphasis’, 112-142

Week 7 – Reading Week

Formative Assessment 2 – Summarise a theodicy with a practical emphasis. This may not be one mentioned in Surin’s book.

Week 8 – Zygmunt Baumann

‘Sociology after the Holocaust’, Modernity and the Holocaust

Week 9 – Gender and the Problem of Evil 

Robin May Schott, ‘Evil, Terrorism and Gender’, Feminist Philosophy and the Problem of Evil

Week 10 – Race and the Problem of Evil

W.E.B. Dubois, ‘A Litany at Atlanta’

James Cone, ‘God in Black Theology’ in A Black Theology of Liberation, 55-82

Week 11– Concluding discussion

Meillassoux, ‘The Spectral Dilemma’

I had hoped to include a straightforwardly post-colonial analysis of the problem of evil, but wasn’t able to find one. Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion includes an essay that discusses this a bit (‘What is the “Subaltern” of Philosophy of Religion?’), but it only amounts to a 1/3 or so of the essay. I was surprised by my inability to find a straightforward essay/chapter to fill this need in the module. It may be that I’m just not looking in the right places. Searching for theodicy or the problem of evil combined with Fanon, Said, Bhabha, postcolonialism and subaltern all produced occasional references, but not sustained critiques.

I think Cone will help students think through related problems. The problem with teaching black theologies of liberation is that they tend to be very culturally specific to the US. I think many of these issues resonate with concerns here in the UK, but it adds an extra layer of excuses (‘we don’t have those problems here’). Even though that’s not the case, it means that you have to spend doing extra work demonstrating that the UK is not a post-racial society. I’m happy to do that work, but post-colonial analyses tend to hit closer to home (at least for white students).

I’m uncertain of the Schott essay. The book hasn’t arrived, so I’m working off of reviews and snippets of her other writings. Someone like Rosemary Radford Ruether would be an alternative (and would challenge students), but I want to avoid the class being focused entirely on the problem of evil as a problem for theology or philosophy of religion (which is really philosophy of theism). I’ll have time to change the reading if I’m unsatisfied after the book has been delivered.

Each of the weeks will include supplemental resources including other academic works, things taken from the news and the occasional film or television reference. For instance, in the last week I’ll ask students to also read Peter Thompson’s two columns in the Guardian on confronting terminal illness as an atheist. Badiou has a chapter in his Ethics that talks about the problem of evil in a way which resonates with Baumann. I was tempted to just assign the Badiou reading, but I think it would be a little much. Students won’t have been introduced to ‘continental’ philosophy yet and I think they would be thrown by all the talk of the state of the situation and sets.

Each week I’ll provide 3-4 questions to guide their reading. Students will be required to come to class with a question to pose to the rest of the group and our session will begin by working through these issues.

There are already things I would like to change for future years, but I’m not sure if the module will continue in this form. For now, I think it strikes a good balance between what they expect (Plantinga and Hick) and pushing them to think about evil in new and interesting ways. Feel free to correct me though – if I’ve left anything out or am otherwise ruining the education of my students let me know in the comments.


I picked up Badiou’s Ethics yesterday and came across this great footnote. It’s in reference to Hegel’s division of morals and ethics, in which ‘the ethical order essentially consists in the immediate firmness of decision’:

The whole of this section of the Phenomenology is difficult, but very suggestive.

That should be the tagline of the Phenomenology in general – difficult, but very suggestive.


In defense of the apocalyptic

Due to some ill advised twitter link following, I found myself reading a couple of posts (1 and 2) on Faith and Theology. Ben Myers was detailing his shift away from his earlier endorsement of apocalypticism:

It’s hard to say exactly why I first got interested in apocalyptic ideas. In part, I suppose, it was ordinary youthful iconoclasm. All young people, young men in particular, feel a certain resentment towards the status quo and a certain seething desire to imprint their own will on to the order of things. Call it a rage against mortality. Anyway, when you allow that kind of resentment to guide your thinking, you easily end up with what Augustine called the libido dominandi, the lust to master reality and to make it conform to your own ideals.
It seems to me that quite a lot of what passes for philosophy and theology in our time is really an expression of such enraged libido. Marxist ideology, which I cherished for the first decade of my adult life, seems an especially insidious version of the lust to dominate. It is an ideology of resentment against the way things are, mixed with gnostic-magical beliefs that human nature is capable of transfiguration. In its consistent forms this ideology shows itself to be more than willing to destroy human society first so that the transfigured human being can arise like a phoenix from the ashes.
Of course he’s right in pointing out the common pattern of youthful Marxist exuberance giving way to acceptance of the world as it is. I’m not really sure why that amounts to a criticism of Marxism, though. Nor am I sure how ‘Marxist ideology’, whatever that means, amounts to an ‘insidious version of the lust to dominate’. Surely if anything it is a ‘lust’ not to be dominated.
It makes sense that an undergraduate would outgrow a fascination with the apocalyptic. I don’t know much about Ben Myers, but I gather that he is a lecturer in systematic theology. Apocalypticism does not appeal, primarily, to those in positions of relative security. Indeed, as Alberto Toscano shows in his Fanaticism, apocalypticism is both pre- and ultra-political. Groups animated by apocalyptic ideas (or who develop new forms of apocalypticism) tend to be amongst the most marginalised communities (Yonina Talmon wrote a couple of articles back in the 1960s compiling much of the sociological research on apocalyptic movements). From a variety of perspectives, Toscano along with Karl Mannheim, Ernst Bloch and Jacob Taubes show how apocalypticism appeals to those whose demands cannot be articulated within current discourse. As Taubes emphasises, the apocalyptic marks the decision that the world as it is is insufficient. This does not equal a willingness ‘to destroy human society’, especially not in the sense of Marxism/utopian political projects = totalitarianism. Rather it is a beginning – a refusal of the world as it is. Put another way, the apocalyptic does not operate with the confidence of assured liberation, but with a persistent resistance. This resistance does not assume liberation, but opens up the possibility of forms of liberation we have yet to imagine.
In short, Myers comes offers the serenity prayer in theological trappings. Sure bad things are happening and we should be charitable and care for the poor, but we’re consigned to the way things are as we await the eschaton.

The Religion of the Future

The NDPR has up a review of Unger’s new The Religion of the Future. Unger is someone I’m only vaguely aware of – he comes up in relation to Enrique Dussel and Eduardo Mendieta. This new book sounds interesting though. Here are some choice bits of the review:

Why do we need religious talk now to focus our freedom? Unger’s argument depends on the case he can make for religion’s privileged relationship to freedom. That he tries to make such a case distinguishes his project from many others concerning freedom that accept broadly humanistic assumptions. The core of the book can be seen as Unger’s attempt to free religion enough from its traditional connotations that he can work out the relationship. What he seems to maintain is the utopian moment in the religiousness of, say, Paul (281-82), converted to his activist vision: “the form of the world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31) — only if we make it so.

This freedom must be marshalled in the face of a set of anxieties. These anxieties amount to a constant belittlement. Humanity must confront its role in fashioning itself in the face of this situation.

The common thread among the needs Unger assumes is our critical subjectivity. It is only because it is up to us to think about how we should live that we do not accept a fixed way to live, i.e., that the sense of life is open to revision constantly. It is not because existence is groundless that we are self-conscious, but because we are self-conscious, deciding what seems best, that existence must be given grounds, constantly.

The review is fairly critical, but it would be interesting to see someone outside the continental tradition toying with the concept of religion in this way.

Teaching the problem of evil

I imagine most lecturers have a handful of topics (or modules) that they would really rather not teach. I have two main ones (so far): proofs for the existence of God and the problem of evil. The former because it mostly consists of endlessly rehashing tired arguments. Any developments require greater knowledge of mathematics, formal logic or physics than I or the average undergraduate possess. The trick, of course, is to shift the question from ‘can one prove the existence of God’ to ‘what role do attempts to prove the existence of God play in religious discourse’ or ‘what forms of knowledge are privileged by the attempts to prove the existence of God’. The problem is that these important questions require you spend a bit of time reading through the proofs for the existence of God.

My lack of love for the problem of evil stems from the same kinds of problems. I also don’t enjoy having to spend time talking about the depths of human depravity – I’m not an overly optimistic person to begin with and spending a semester talking about the Holocaust or sexual abuse of children makes me feel even more nihilistic than usual. The problem of evil, though, does drive home the implications of deeply held beliefs about God and the sources of evil.

This year, I’m trying to structure my module on the problem of evil in a way that encourages students to think about how ideas of evil are invoked in discussions of gender, cultural difference, class, race, etc. In short why is it that some groups seem to suffer more than others? And why are certain groups more easily cast as evil?

Since most students will be familiar with the basic contours of the debate, I’m only going to spend the first two weeks on the traditional responses (Augustine and Plantinga, Irenaeaus and Hick). To help make the critical turn, we’re going to look at Kenneth Surin’s Theology and the Problem of Evil. The class will mostly focus on philosophy of religion, but Surin’s book is still one of the best challenges to standard theodicy. The chapter on theodicies with a ‘practical emphasis’ introduces people like Dorothe Söelle, who will be unfamiliar to most students. I’ll follow this with Baumann’s essay on modernity and the Holocaust, which I have found to be very affecting in the past.

I’m still searching for the best texts to help students consider the problem of evil in the wider contexts of gender, race, class, etc. I considered using Nel Noddings’ Women and Evil, but couldn’t fit in into the structure of the module (it would require more than one week and I’m struggling to fit everything in as it is). I have an edited collection of essays on post-colonial philosophy of religion and Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought on the way, which may shake things up a bit. I’d love to have the class read William Jones’ Is God a White Racist? (per Marika Rose’s suggestion), but I think I’d struggle to get a copy in the library before the start of term.

I’ll be finishing the syllabus in the next few days. Once I’ve nailed everything down I’ll post it. In the meanwhile, if anyone has suggestions, please let me know.


Slate just ran a story about ‘robo-readers’, services that provide automated feedback on students’ writing. Generally, I don’t like the encroachment of technology on the classroom (particularly in the humanities). There are some situations (courses with large numbers of students) where technology might help address problems, but I still hold that there is no replacement for face to face engagement with students. My teaching experience has been at smaller universities where this is possible, so I’ve been able to rely primarily on tutorials for giving students feedback.

The services discussed in the Slate piece seem worthwhile, however, for two reasons. First, students may be more likely to seek out feedback if it is not coming from a lecturer. Particularly if a student feels marginalised at university (for whatever reason), being able to turn to an impersonal service may make them feel more comfortable.

Second, even at a smaller university there is only so much time you can spend with any student. Whether I have half an hour or an hour with a student, I want to focus on the ideas at the centre of an essay. Helping students anticipate objections, examine concepts from other perspectives, seek out new resources – these are the key objectives of my tutorials. Going through grammatical problems not only takes time away from engaging in these important discussions, it can often leave students feeling discouraged. This discouragement than distracts them from our conversation about the main ideas of the essay. So, while effectively expressing your perspective is an important part of studying in the humanities, I usually discuss essay structure in person and leave the finer points of writing for written feedback. If a student’s writing is particularly poor I direct them to academic support or suggest that they spend extra time proofreading. Unfortunately, not all students find their way to academic support and students often don’t thoroughly read the feedback they receive on their work.

All that to say, it seems like these services could have some role to play as part of the undergraduate writing process.