Levinas on the Difference between Morality and Ethics – Lecture 7

August 29, 2016

Levinas-portraitFor Gaita the difference between ethics and morality is that the former is the relation to the other in their individuality, whereas the latter is conceptual. The psychiatrists, in the hospital he worked at, could speak of their patients in terms of rights and dignity, but their actions showed the opposite. Whereas the behaviour of the nun, in her love of them, showed Gaita what it meant to treat every human life as infinitely precious. It was actions that revealed this truth rather than words. Levinas makes the same fundamental distinction. He asks at the beginning of Totality and Infinity, ‘whether we are not duped by morality’ (1969, p. 21). This is not because he thinks that we live in a world without values, but like Gaita, there is relation to the other that transcends all values and norms. Ethics is the immediate response to the other human being who makes a demand on me without negotiation or legitimation on my part. Ethics is not decided by me thinking whether I have an obligation or not, but through my response to the suffering and vulnerability of others. The opposite to this, which can sometime be justified by a morality without ethics, is a violence against the other human being.

Gaita, as we have seen, comes from a wittgensteinian tradition, whereas Levinas’s background is phenomenology, so it would be worth looking at this first before we go onto explain Levinas’s ethics in any detail. Phenomenology, through the teaching and writings of Husserl, is return to the roots and beginnings of philosophy. He sees it as a recommencement and reminder of what philosophy is meant to be. Within the modern context, this is an argument against naturalism, which is the belief that science is the only discourse that can make sense of the world. Just as philosophy freed itself from the shackles of theology it then subordinated itself to science, but even science is dependent on the original presentation of the world, for if the world did not present itself to us how would we begin to explain it? This original presentation of the world through perception is the basis of any scientific explanation and is the task of philosophy to describe it. The fundamental basis of the presentation is intentionality. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. I never just see something before me, but always ‘something as something’, the tree as a tree, the car as a car and so on.

One way to think of the difference between ethics and morality is through the phenomenological presentation of the world. The question is, does the other appear to me differently from other objects in the world, and if the other does appear differently, then can this difference be explained ethically? When Levinas speaks of the presence of the other, he does so in terms of the face, but he does not mean by the face some kind of objective property that another person might have, like the colour of their hair or the shape of their eyes. No doubt we can relate to other people like that, and for the most part we do so. Others just belong to the rest of the furniture of the world and I hardly notice them. Yet in this way, Levinas would argue, I am not having an ethical relation to them at all. I am like the psychiatrists in Gaita’s example. I can speak about the patients using words like ‘rights’, ‘dignity’, and ‘respect’, but I don’t really ‘see’ them at all in their individuality and singularity.

Levinas speaks of this radical difference between the ethical relation to the other and the relation to others through categories and concepts as the impossibility of murder. This sounds strange and peculiar because we know that murder is not impossible. Levinas’s point is not that we do not kill and harm others, but that it is only possible because we already have robbed them of a human face. We remember Reznikoff’s poem in the previous lecture. The S.S. officer can brutally murder the mother and child because he does not see their faces. They are only things, ‘vermin’, obstacles that need to be eliminated. They are less worthy of sympathy than a stray dog.

In several interviews in the 1980s, Levinas refers to an incident in Vassily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, whose subject matter is German siege of Stalingrad and the Soviet defeat of the Nazi’s, as a way of explaining what he means by ethics (2001, pp. 80–1).[1] The book is about the terrible and horrific events of the 20th century, battles, massacres and genocide, but it is the little human events one remembers after reading it. One such event happens at the end of the book, when the battle of Stalingrad is over. German prisoners are being used to bury the dead who are found everywhere. There is crowd watching them. One prisoner is a German officer who is tormented by what he is doing. He seemed to be the only one who was affected, but for this reason attracted the scorn and anger of the little crowd. One corpse they picked up was a child. Someone in the crowd shouted out as though they recognised her, as though they were her mother. The crowd was on edge and was ready to visit the worst violence against the German officer. She picked up a brick and was ready to assault him, but as she strode to him she did something that was perfectly senseless in the situation. She felt for a piece of bread in her pocket and gave it to him, saying ‘There, have something to eat’ (Grossman, 2006, pp. 395–6). Levinas says of this incident and the rest of the book, ‘there are acts of stupid, senseless goodness. Grossman shows is this throughout the whole book.’ (2001, p. 89). Why describe such actions as ‘stupid’? They are not legitimised by any political, or moral system. Indeed, they are the very opposite of systems of morality and work in opposition to them. They are the direct response to the human being who stands before me beyond ideology, creed or dogma. The woman recognises the German officer as a human being and gives to him her last bread, even she can’t even explain or understand why she did so. You could see this scene against the one portrayed in Reznikoff’s poem. He did not see the mother or child as human beings because of a system of morals, however perverted and hostile to human life it was, whereas she saw the humanity and suffering in the German officer, despite dogma and ideology that would have made him an object of hatred and violence.

Levinas describes this ethical relation in detail in his book Totality and Infinity (1969). It is the relation of the self to the other outside of any conceptual or categorical system. Levinas describes it as a concrete event. Not the ‘I’ as it is thought, but lived. Not the ‘other’ as someone I think or theorise about, but other that stands before in their singular presence. The ethical relation, as Levinas describes it, is asymmetrical. He means by that, that the relation of the other to me is not the same as my relation to them. The ethical moment of this relation is when the other’s presence makes a demand upon me and calls into question my possession of the world. There is no reciprocal demand. Subjectivity, as concretely experienced, is egoism. I enjoy and possess my world, and in this enjoyment others are of no concern to me at all. Ethics is only possible because the other’s presence calls into question my self-centred happiness. The other interrupts my world and demands justice from me. I do so of them.

The way that Levinas describes this ethical relation of transcendence is through the primacy of speech. The theoretical relation to the world, including other people, is one of vision. I perceive and see things and then subsequently label them. The relation of ethics, where the other calls me into question, happens in the relation of speech. The other speaks to me and only then do they have a ‘face’ and I respond to them. The face, then, for Levinas is not physiognomy, but the presence of the other in the words they speak. In Grossman’s story, the woman sees the German officer and hates him. He represents for her all the terrible events of the war and the dreadful acts of the Nazis. She does not see him. He just represents for her the category ‘Nazi’ or ‘German’. It is only when she speaks to him, when she says to him ‘have something to eat’ does she respond to him as one human being facing another. He does not represent anything. He is only this suffering being in front of her that she responds to with kindness and generosity, however senseless it might be in that situation. Speech is the experience of the other as other.

If Levinas were to criticise Gaita, he would probably say two things. First of all, the way that he describes ethical relation is as though it came from the side of the self rather than the other. It is up to me whether I love the other or not and reveal them in the common humanity. It is the nun who reveals the humanity of the patients and only then is this revealed to Gaita as though at third hand. In some sense, therefore, the difference between ethics and morality is only a different kind of thought, how Gaita thinks about ethics once he understands the actions of the nun. For Levinas, on the contrary, ethics comes from the side of the other, who makes a demand upon me, and then I act. This is why the end of Grossman’s story is so different. The woman doesn’t not understand why she gave the German officer the bread and never does. ‘Lying on her bed, full of bitterness, she was to remember that winter morning outside the cellar and think: “I was a fool then, and I’s still a fool now.”’ (Grossman, 2006, p. 394). Secondly, perhaps because Gaita is describing the ethical relation from the outside, it is a relation of vision rather than speech. The nun is speaking and responding to each patient she meets as ‘infinitely precious’, but Gaita only looks. His remorse is subsequent to this event, but in some sense he still keeps at a distance from it.

If there is a difference between ethics and morality, this does not mean that for Levinas we are duped by morality. We are only fooled if we place morality or systems higher than the ethical moment. Our moralities, as we have seen throughout human history, can betray our humanity rather than elevate it, for what better way to justify violence, murder and death, than through a morality. In fact, it is probably impossible to commit just dreadful acts without a belief system to support them so that one does not have to experience the humanity of one’s victim. We are not deceived if our morality is constantly held in check by ethics , like a scepticism, as Levinas compares it, that constantly haunts the pretension of reason’s having the last word, (1991, pp. 165–71).

When we observe the political justification of violence and indifference (think of the casual way that we speak of refugees and immigrants, as though they were not human beings like us), we might think Levinas’s and Gaita’s ethics is sentimental. This is Badiou’s accusation against this kind of ethics (2001). Rather than solving or changing the state of the world in which we live, it lives of this suffering, since in my response to it I can assuage my conscience without having done anything at all. This ethics is just a ‘pious discourse’ but does nothing at all to change the world, or even worse feeds of the world that it fails to transform. The more victims there are the more I can feel good about myself for defeating evil in the world. If there were no victims what could I do. So just as much as ethics must call into question our politics, so too must our ethics be translated into discourse. It not sufficient to simply respond to the other. You have to have in mind the others too who aren’t present there.[2]

Works Cited

Badiou, A., 2001. Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil. Verso, London; New York.

Critchley, S., 2004. Five Problems in Levinas’s View of Politics and the Sketch of a Solution to Them. Political Theory 32, 172–185.

Grossman, V.(, 2006. Life and fate. Vintage, London.

Lévinas, E., 2001. Is it righteous to be?: interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.

Lévinas, E., 1991. Otherwise than being, or, Beyond essence. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht; Boston.

Levinas, E., 1969. Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority. Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Morgan, M.L., 2011. The Cambridge introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York.


[1] For an excellent explanation of Grossman’s importance to Levinas, see (Morgan, 2011, pp. 16–29).

[2] For an important discussion of politics in Levinas, see (Critchley, 2004).

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An Ethics of Love and a Common Humanity: Gaita – Lecture 6

August 22, 2016

470_prof_raimond,0So far we have investigated the critique of morality from Spinoza to Foucault. What is common between all these writers is the view that morality is a smokescreen for power. This does not mean that morality does not exist, since it is clear that morality is very real, but to understand morality, and especially its justification, you have to examine the social logic that underpins it. This social logic, of course is not itself inherently moral, but is the legitimization of power as its changes contingently through human history. This is why we see different moralities through time and in different cultures. Moral discourse, from a Foucauldian perspective, is a kind of knowledge or discourse that attempts to fix and stratify power through apparatuses that can be as diverse as institutions, scientific statements, and moral and philosophical propositions (Foucault and Gordon, 1980, p. 194).

It is wrong, however, to think that Foucault is only interested in the relation between power and knowledge, as we suggested in the previous lecture, because just as much as knowledge attempts to capture power, power, as a relation of forces, also constantly escapes knowledge. If we think of morality as the control of life, then we can also think of life as continuously escaping this order and regulation. So although his work mostly describes how life is captured in apparatuses, anything that shapes or moulds human behaviour, of which morality would be one, he is also interested in the way that life resists capture, and of course must do so, otherwise knowledge and power would have no object.

One way to think about this is through subjectification. In Foucault’s later work, he is not so much interested in the relation of the self to apparatuses as such, but of the relation of the self to itself, a process of individuation produced not by power relations as such, but a subtraction from them. In the example that Foucault looked at, which was the formation of Athenian city, the rivalry between free men was internalised as self-mastery, for only in that way could one free man command another. Such a relation of the self to itself, Foucault called ethics, which was different from morality as an apparatus of external relation of power to knowledge. As Deleuze argues, this analysis was cruelly interrupted by Foucault’s death, but there is nothing stopping us expanding it to other kinds of subjectification, one of which could be the ‘marginalised existence of the outsider’ (Deleuze, 1992, p. 161). This could suggest an even different way of thinking about ethics, which is not the relation of the self to itself, but to the other.

Although Gaita comes from a completely dissimilar way of doing philosophy than either Foucault and Deleuze, this is how he differentiates morality from ethics in his work.[1] Morality has to with rules and principles in which we make judgements and rationalisations, whereas ethics is the relation to the other who I feel an obligation towards that cannot be negotiated away without denying their humanity. His work repeatedly aims at making us see that there is a difference between morality and ethics, because my recognition of the singular obligation I feel for the other is not the same as my rational justification of my actions or my own virtues.

We might be willing, after the critique of Spinoza, Nietzsche and Foucault, to accept that morality is relative, but ethics is not when we think of the harm and dehumanisation of the victim. Take for example the eighth poem from Reznikoff’s Holocaust:

One of the S.S. men caught a woman with a baby in her arms
She began asking for mercy: if she were shot
the baby should live.
She was near a fence between the ghetto and where Poles lived
and behind the fence were Poles ready to catch the baby
and she was about to hand it over when caught.
The S.S. man took the baby from her arms
and shot her twice,
and then held the baby in his hands.
The mother, bleeding but still alive, crawled up to his feet.
The S.S. man laughed
and tore the baby apart as one would tear a rag.
Just then a stray dog passed
and the S.S man stopped to pat it
and took a lump of sugar out of his pocket
and gave it to the dog. (Reznikoff, 2010)

It seems almost a betrayal to write any explanation of this. The words are enough of a testimony without commentary, but surely it would be strange to think that the S.S. man’s only failure is that he hadn’t rationalised his behaviour, or that it is sufficient to explain this action as an expression of his will to power. No doubt you could, but is this the last word we would want to say about his victims?

One way of thinking about the difference between morality and ethics, and whether there is a possibility of an absolute demand of ethics that would transcend any historical or culture context, is the existence of evil. We have already seen from Spinoza’s perspective that evil can only be a relative term, since one person’s good might be another person’s bad. It is difficult to imagine Foucault supporting such a concept.[2] But can we imagine evil not so much in terms of the act or the agent, but action visited on the victim. One striking aspect of Reznikoff’s poem is that as he brutally murders the mother and her child, he seems capable of kindness to a stray dog.

We have to be very careful here of not falling into sentimentality and mawkishness when defending the existence of evil, especially when such a word has religious and theological connotations for us, so it is worth looking at the opening of chapter of Gaita’s book A Common Humanity in some detail to precisely understand what he thinks the difference between ethics and morality might be, and why he can both claim that evil exists and is not a moral concept, but an absolute demand the other person makes upon me when I respond to their singularity without reserve (2000). What is lacking in the S.S. officer is not an absence of thought, but of feeling and sensibility. He does not see the Jewish mother and child as human beings because of a surfeit of intelligibility, and not because he lacks it. His objectivity has consigned them to less respect than the stray dog, but only because he does not experience their humanity in the first instance. They have already become mutilated by his language and discourse, which is the condition for the evil visited upon them.

In the preface to The Common Humanity, Gaita tell us what is central to his understanding of ethics is that every single individual is precious. What does it mean to treat a human being in this way? It means to love them. Our attachment to other human beings is not revealed to us in the language of rights or morality, but love. Yet we wont to think of love as sentimental and emotional, as though love were less than morality. Do we not only love those who are close to us, whereas morality is about the rights of everyone? To show us what he means by this emotion, and why he thinks it is deeper and more fundamental than morality, he recounts an early experience of his youth when he worked in a psychiatric hospital. It reminded him of a zoo and the patients were treated as though they were animals. They had lost everything and their lives had become meaningless. What they had lost above all was the respect from others who might have loved them, and for this reason they were treated ‘brutally by the psychiatrists and nurses (17-18).

What does respect mean in this context? We might think of the counter position, if the patients had been treated properly, as one of dignity and there were some psychiatrists, Gaita tells us, that did speak of the dignity of the patients. We speak of rights and dignity as inalienable, but what we discover like the Jewish mother and child in Reznikoff’s poem that it can quite easily be lost. When someone has lost it, then it needs more than just the law to regain it. They need the ‘love of saints’ (18). One day, Gaita, writes, a nun came to the hospital and he saw what this might mean. In her eyes the patients regained their humanity that they had lost in the eyes of others, even when they spoke of dignity and respect.

Is what was revealed in this encounter dependent on the religious beliefs of the nun? Is this a religious experience the unqualified love of another human being? But this would miss something about the experience, since it turns everything the wrong way around. It is not the nun’s beliefs that determine her behaviour, but her behaviour her beliefs and this behaviour reveals something true about our relation to others independent of any belief, even if these beliefs sustained the nun herself, for it is perfectly possible for someone with the same beliefs would not have behaved in that way, and their actions would not have revealed anything to the young Gaita.

What is particular about the relation of love, which makes it more than just a matter of belief is that what is revealed, the humanity of the other, is dependent on the relation itself. It has nothing to do with a property or attribute of something, or a particular aspect of reality, since that is not why the S.S. brutally murders the Jewish mother and child, or the nurses and the psychiatrists treat the mental patients like animals in a zoo. It is because they already lack love that they do so, not because an attribute or property forces them to do so. This is what it means to say that the love the nun’s behaviour expresses is unconditional. Because philosophy takes concepts and rationality as primary, and feelings and sensibility as secondary, it claims that former is more important than latter, but Gaita wants to argue that without love our morality can become the opposite of justice, for we can fail to see others as human at all.

Such unconditional love is commanded from the other. This is not an attribute but our response to others. To love another is to experience this unconditional love. It exists in the relation, not in the terms of the relation. It seems very close to when Kant says in the Groundwork that every human being is an end rather than means, but this respect for Kant is rational belief rather than an emotion or feeling. In fact, he is critical of the very possibility of resting morality of feelings, since by definition they can come and go dependent on the person who is the object of it. But equally, we might say to Kant, that whether an individual standing before me falls under the concept of end in itself can also come and go, depending on how I define humanity (considering again our example from the previous lecture of Kant’s how clear racism). What Kant lacked was not reason, but love.

Common humanity does not just mean having attributes that are universal to human beings. It is not a definition. Nakedness and vulnerability, suffering and pain, is an appeal to something basic, but it not the same as the expression of a common definition, because we can change the definition so that certain individuals can fall out of it, or because we can still think and speak of human rights and morality, but nonetheless treat individuals cruelly and indifferently who stand before us, because we do not respond to their humanity. I do not have a definition or concept of humanity and then apply it to them, rather my attitude or behaviour to them reveals their humanity to myself and others. Ethics is a response to a ‘living human body’ (272) first of all, before it is reflection on abstract concepts like person and rights that belong to a philosophical and moral discourse. ‘It is,’ Gaita writes, ‘astonishment at alterity, at otherness, at how other than, and other to oneself another human being can be’ (272. Italics in original).

This why racism, the example from Reznikoff’s poem being such an extreme form so that we can see what is lost, is such an important counter instance of what the absence of love might mean for Gaita. For we might think that racism is an illustration of an empirical generalisation. If that were the case, then it would be possible to rationally demonstrate to someone that they should not be a racist, since rational differences are only phenotypical. The only reason that white people are white is because of a colder climate, where white skin was advantageous since it allowed for the maximisation of vitamin D synthesis. Such external traits, like eye shape and colour, tell us little of significant interest about another individual. Yet to think that one could convince a racist in this way is to see the situation the wrong way around, much in the same way as with the nun. It is to think that the racist is a racist because they entertain certain beliefs, which they then subsequently put into practise, whereas it is because they are already racist that such traits are examples of sub-humanity, which in the worse cases could lead to murder and genocide. You already treat others as sub-human, an object of hate rather than love, and it is relation that leads you to stereotype them through an ensuing pseudo rationalisation.

For someone to be treated as an equal, to grant them full humanity as ourselves, already demands an immediate relation to them that recognises their humanity through absolute unconditional love. Without this relation, our morality can end up justifying evil rather than being outraged by it. ‘Our talk of rights,’ Gaita writes, ‘is dependent on the works of love’ (26).

Works Cited

Connolly, W.E., 1993. Beyond Good and Evil: The Ethical Sensibility of Michel Foucault. Political Theory 21, 365–389.

Deleuze, G., 1992. What is a dispositif. Michel Foucault: Philosopher 159–168.

Foucault, M., 1977. Revolutionary action: “Until now,” in: Bouchard, D.F. (Ed.), Bouchard, D.F., Simon, S. (Trans.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., pp. 218–23.

Foucault, M., Gordon, C., 1980. Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Pantheon Books, New York.

Gaita, R., 2000. A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice. Routledge, London.

Reznikoff, C., 2010. Holocaust. Five Leaves Publ., Nottingham.


[1] If we were to characterise his work, then we might say that it is Wittgensteinian. Philosophy is an activity of clarification and critique. The difference between morality and ethics is neither semantic nor logical but descriptive.

[2] Morality is a part of the intelligible, how we make sense of the world, and for Foucault is never necessary but always historically contingent. There can never be an absolute evil, since ‘evil’ and ‘good’ are moral concepts. Ethics, then, for Foucault would precisely be the recognition of the contingency of morality and to leave a space open for other ‘moralities’. This is one version of subjectification as the ‘aesthetics of the self’. The question that Gaita and Levinas would ask of Foucault is whether the relation of the self to the other is the same as the relation to the self to apparatuses, or the self to itself, as described in his later work. The ethical relation to the other they describe has nothing at all to do with the intelligible or virtual spaces of possibilities within the contingency of reason, but an absolute demand without context. I suspect Foucault would be sceptical about such an appeal. See Foucault’s interview ‘Revolutionary Action: “Until Now”, for his own suspicion of the language of humanism and absolute values (1977). For an excellent explanation of Foucault’s ethics, see Connolly’s article (1993).


On the Difference between Ethics and Morality – Lecture 2

February 11, 2015

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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

Work Cited

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].


[1] For the Liddell and Scott entry for φύσις, see http://tinyurl.com/3a4fsaf, and for νομός, http://tinyurl.com/3yxavgo.

[2] See Liddell and Scott, http://tinyurl.com/39sveq6.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.


On the Difference Between Ethics and Morality – Lecture 2

October 21, 2012

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.[1] 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.[2]

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 values? Even Hitler, Blackburn argues had his values, the purity of a race, for example, 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 a 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.[3]

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 to be responsibility. 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.

Morality is the codes and values which 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 justify 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 through out human history, both in our distant and immediate past, and in other cultures than our own.

It is this ethics, as opposed to morality, which is described by Raimond Gaita in his book A Common Humanity (Gaita 2000, pp.17–28). 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.

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 which is capitalism. This we just accept that 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 were 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 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 which 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 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.

Work Cited

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].


[1] For the Liddell and Scott entry for φύσις, see http://tinyurl.com/3a4fsaf, and for νομός, http://tinyurl.com/3yxavgo.

[2] See Liddell and Scott, http://tinyurl.com/39sveq6.

[3] There is a 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.