Without ethics we would not be human, everyone agrees with that. Blackburn calls this our ethical climate or environment, which is analogous with our physical one (Blackburn 2001, pp.1–6). Just as much as human beings need physical shelter so they also need an ethical one. Ethics describes the ways in which human beings, in any culture, value certain kinds of behaviour over others. The ancient Greeks, who were the first philosophers, would have described the difference between the physical and the ethical environment, as the separation between φύσις and νομός. Just as much as there are laws of nature, then there are ethical laws of every society. Again, Blackburn is probably alluding to the etymology of the word ‘ethics’, which comes from ancient Greek ἧθος, meaning, a place or customs.
But what is the difference between a natural and ethical law? We can understand the necessity of natural law. In nature, every event has its cause. Such a necessity is what we call law. But are there laws of ethics? Does not every culture have its own different values? Even Hitler, Blackburn argues, for example, had his values, the purity of a race; it is just that we do not value them. Are we right not to? What gives is the right to say that there are ethical laws, that there is an absolute difference between good and evil?
Is there a necessity to ethics? If there is then it cannot be the same as the necessity of nature. The laws of nature are intrinsic to the physical universe; they are indifferent to human beings. If there are laws of ethics (and maybe we should not use the expression ‘law’ to describe it), then they must belong to what we consider ourselves to be, what it is to live a human life, and not nature. Even the nature of human being is not important to ethics. It is not the fact that we are certain type of animal which makes us ethical, but what we value in ourselves and others, and the meaning of such a value does not belong to the natural world.
Philosophy has always, from the very beginning, tried to describe what this ethics is in terms of rationality. It is because human beings are rational that we are ethical, and not the other way around. Kant would argue that it is because I have to give reasons for my actions that I take responsibility for them, and expect others do so. Without reason, there would be no ethics. This is why we do not expect small children and animals to be ethical. Bentham and Mill, on the other hand, would argue that it not my intentions that count, but the consequences of my actions, which again can be measured rationally through the principle of utility of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
And yet is reason sufficient to explain ethics? Was not Ruolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, moral to his friends and family? Did he not keep promises and probably love his wife and children? How is it possible that at the same time he could send so many other human beings to the gas chamber (Rees 2011)? It is at this point, I believe, that we must make a difference between morality and ethics. Höss had his morality. Such a morality is precisely what allowed him to murder one million Jews and a hundred thousand other human beings, but what he lacked was ethics. It is morality that differs across cultures, whereas ethics does not.
Morality is the codes and values we live by. They have their origin in the societies in which we shelter, and they are the ways in which we judge one another. Such a morality is what Blackburn calls our ‘ethical environment’, but I do not think in and by itself it is ethical at all. It is morality that philosophy attempts to justify rationally, though we might like Nietzsche think that this is just a smokescreen to legitimate power. A morality without ethics, however, soon descends into murder and despair, for what it lacks is recognition of the humanity of the other. This is why Höss could go home every night to his wife and children and live a perfectly respectable middle class life (it is important to recognise that the Nazis were not on the whole mad men, like Amon Goeth played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List), because he did not see the Jews and the others he murdered in the gas chambers as human beings at all. It is precisely a morality without ethics which allows us to commit such crimes against humanity, and we see it again and again throughout human history, both in our distant and immediate past, and in other cultures than our own.
It is this ethics, as opposed to morality, described by Raimond Gaita in his book A Common Humanity (Gaita 2000, pp.17–28) and which I would claim is universal. He tells us of an event that happened in his own life when he was seventeen years old and was working in a psychiatric hospital. The patients there seemed to have lost any status as human beings. He writes that they were treated like animals by the staff in the hospital. Some of the more enlightened psychiatrists spoke of the ‘inalienable dignity’ of the patients, but others treated them sadistically. It was only when a nun arrived and behaved differently to them that the attitude of the staff was revealed to Gaita. They had ceased thinking of them as human beings. But what is important is that it is the behaviour the nun which reveals this. Humanity, then, is not a property of someone like green is a property of thing. Rather, humanity is revealed in the relation that one person has to another. It is because the nun loved the patients unconditionally that their humanity was revealed to him. Without this love, they were less than human.
Ethics, then, is not a moral code, but this unconditional love for other human beings, especially for those who have fallen out of what society might call humanity, the poor, the sick, the destitute and the mad. Our humanity, and the humanity of the society in which we live is measured by the love we have for others, and equally our inhumanity and inhumanity of the society in which we live is measured by the lack of love we have for others. Such a love is fragile, because it cannot be justified rationally, and our own moralities can work against it (in the sense that Blackburn speaks about ethics as an ethos). We can use morality to legitimate why we should not treat others as human beings, but not why we should love every human being equally. Such a love is both what makes us human and humanises others, but it is not rational, if one means by a rational, a belief or intention. This is why Gaita stresses that it is not the nun’s beliefs that justify her behaviour; rather her behaviour justifies her beliefs. The behaviour comes first. I act before I understand, and I do so because I am open to the humanity of the other. This is first of all an openness to the vulnerability and suffering of the other, before it is a thought about this vulnerability and suffering, and it is precisely because Höss can harden his heart to such vulnerability and suffering, because of his morality, his ethos, that he could have murdered so many human beings and then returned home to his wife and children every night believing himself to be a moral human being.
It is very important that this ethics of love does not slide into mawkish sentimentality. An ethics without morality or politics is just as dangerous as a morality or politics without ethics, because it makes no attempt to change the world in which there are millions of people who are suffering. This is what Badiou warns us of in his book Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Badiou 2002, pp.30–9). There is a subtle connection, Badiou, argues with our obsession with the suffering of others in our society and the moral nihilism of our consumer society. Their suffering has almost become a spectacle we enjoy so that we can feel good about ourselves. Yet we do nothing at all about the political situation, which is the real cause of this suffering, that is capitalism. We just accept this as an economic necessity. Badiou’s argument is that our obsession with ethics, whether it is a question of rights, or the sufferings of others, is just the opposite side of this necessity. ‘Children in Need’, the BBC’s charity, could happen every year for the rest of time, but it will never change the political situation in which there are children in need, because we live in a society where it is perfectly acceptable to give billions of pounds to the banks but to let the large majority of children live in poverty and misery. Every year, we can watch on our computer and TV screens some war or disaster, and we can feel the suffering of others, and many will generously send their own money, but we do nothing to change the unjust global economic system that is the real cause of this suffering. It is as though we need our yearly fix of ethical feeling, so that for the rest of the year we can ignore the fact that it is our empty consumer lives that are the real cause of poverty, starvation and death in this world. We cannot, therefore, separate politics from ethics. If our ethics does not change the world, then it is empty gesture; a beautiful sentiment, but without any real effect in this world.
To quote Kant’s famous phrase and change it slightly, morality (or politics) without ethics is blind, but ethics without morality (or politics) is empty
Badiou, A., 2002. Ethics: an Essay on the Understanding of Evil, London: Verso.
Blackburn, S., 2001. Being Good : an Introduction to Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gaita, R., 2000. A Common Humanity : Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice, London: Routledge.
Rees, L., 2011. BBC – History – World Wars: Rudolf Höss – Commandant of Auschwitz. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/genocide/hoss_commandant_auschwitz_01.shtml [Accessed October 21, 2012].
 There is naturalism in ethics that denies this and which would be represented by such philosophers as Spinoza and Nietzsche, but precisely for this reason they reject any morality.
 I am aware at the level of etymology that the difference between ethics and morality is non-existent, since morality (from mores) is just the Latin for the Greek ethos. It is not the words that matter here, but the different experience. Morality, in my definition, is always some kind of justification of human action, whereas what I mean by ethics is an immediate response to the suffering of others.