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?

Updated:

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.

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