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).

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).

Genealogy and the Will to Power, Nietzsche and Foucault – Lecture 5

August 11, 2016

panopticonFrom one so dismissive and critical of much of philosophy, Nietzsche is unhesitating in his admiration of Spinoza. He writes in a postcard to this friend Overbeck:

I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted. I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: that I should have turned to him just now, was inspired by ‘instinct.’ Not only is his over-all tendency like mine – making all knowledge the most powerful affect – but in five main points of his doctrine I recognize myself: this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil.[1]

What does the death of God mean in Nietzsche? It isn’t merely a matter of demonstrating once and for all that God does not exist, since in some sense Kant had already achieved this, but that with the death of God Man also ceases to exist. We forget, in the famous scene of the madman in the Gay Science, the crowd who are laughing at the man searching for God and who declares we have all killed God, are themselves atheists. No one believes in God anymore, at least not serious people, and no-one is the least worried about whether God exists or not. What is really disturbing is what happens after God dies, for it there is no longer any transcendent order to the universe. ‘Are we not straying,’ the madman cries, ‘as through an infinite nothing’ (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 181).

God is a symptom not a cause. It is the sign of a desire to uncover an ultimate purpose or goal of the universe, as though all of this meant something more than the fact that it exists. This purpose or goal is a reflection of human interests and desires projected upon the universe. As though the universe only existed for the sake of human beings. God is just a sign of the ridiculous over weaning pride of a highly evolved chimpanzee who imagines that the universe is a reflection of itself.

In the preface to the third part of the Ethics, Spinoza argues that human beings are not a special being separate from the rest of nature, but a part of nature like anything else. Human beings are no more sinful or evil than any other being. The right way of living is not to be referred to some mysterious human power that takes us outside of nature, but to active and passive affects and how the mind can moderate them that are immanent to nature. It is not enough to curse and laugh at our affects and actions, rather it is important to understand them, just as we understand any other animal behaviour. What is good and best for us. Just as it would be absurd to morally judge the actions of lion or a volcano, then it is ridiculous to morally judge our affects. Anger, for example, is a natural affect of human beings. It would be wrong to label it therefore as a defect or evil. We might come to see that in certain circumstances anger is a not beneficial, and then we might come to moderate it, but we do so because we understand and rationalise it, not because we have given it a moral label. Nature operates by rules, and if human nature is part of nature, then it too must operate by rules. To understand our behaviour means to understand what causes us to act or respond in a certain way and what would be most beneficial to our lives (in the same way that we understand what benefits a plant or animal, too much water and sun it will die, or it if it is not fed the right kind of food). This means that we treat human actions ‘just as it were a question of line, planes and bodies’ (de lineis, planis aut de corporibus) (Ethics 3 pref.).

This is not to argue that values, morals and religions do not exist, because we can look around the world and see that they do, but that the origin of values, morals and religion cannot not itself be moral or religious. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is about the non-moral or non-religious origin of morality or religion. This origin is power. Thus, although morality and religion present themselves as the opposite of power, as though they were objective rather than subjective, they are disguised forms of power, or the way in which power organises and distributes affects. What better way to control and dominate others than to cause them to control and subjugate themselves? Religion, before it is a metaphysical doctrine of the origin of the universe, is a legitimisation of political authority. God the King is a justification of the King as God.

Value judgements, like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are immanent to a form of life. What is good for me is bad for you or vice versa, just as the gazelles are good for lions, but lions are bad for gazelles. That the gazelles construct a universe in which lions are intrinsically evil is retrospective justification of their hatred of lions. The universe, of course, is indifferent to them both. The language we use to justify ourselves has its origin in history. It is just that we have forgotten this history. For Nietzsche morality has it origin as the expression of power. Those who have power see themselves as good against those they see as different from themselves. Morality is the expression of a rank society. If we were equal, then there would be no moral judgements. The antithesis of this aristocratic instinct is herd morality. How do the weak impose their own values? ‘By inverting, disfiguring the meaning attributed to the strong’ (Kofman and Large, 1993, p. 87). Our values, rather than expressing a separate hidden order of the universe, are nothing but the forgotten etymological transformations of the result of the historical changes in power and the social logic that maintained them.

In the past, what was called good was the expression of the power of those who had aristocratic values. The was still the case when priests took power, since divine authority (the pure and the impure) was there to maintain aristocratic values. The emergence of kingdoms in human history was the result of military conquest. The function of religion subsequently was to legitimate social stratification. We are the pure, they are the impure. We are pure because we are powerful. They are impure, because they are weak. The emergence of a kingdom from a rank society always follows the same logic:

Eventually the aggressive leader of one rank society (often a highly motivated usurper) gained an unforeseen advantage over his neighbours. He pressed his advantage relentlessly until he had subdued all his rivals. He turned their chiefdoms into the provinces of a society larger than any previously seen in the region. To consolidate power, he broke down the old loyalties of each province and replaced them with an ideology stressing loyalty to him. He rewarded priests who were willing to verify his genealogical credentials and revise his group’s cosmology, ensuring his divine right to rule. (Flannery and Marcus, 2012, p. 347).

It is not morality and religion that explain social stratification, but the other way around; social stratification explains the origin of different moralities and religions. This is the major and perhaps only lesson of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, even if you disagree with the details of his argument.

The final social logic we observe is the internalisation of the priestly type. Here the priest does not exist for the sake of the power of the king, but for himself. This is the history of Judeo-Christianity and the domination of a slave morality and the inversion of the moral order. What had hitherto been seen as worthy and good, the aristocracy, is now seen as a base and evil. All that is powerful is evil and all that is weak is good. But not only do we get a reverse of the terms of the relation but the type of relation. The first form is active, whereas the second is reactive. The noble morality first of all experiences itself as good and then judges what is different from it as bad, whereas the second form of power, slave morality, has to judge first what is bad to be able to feel good about itself. Thus the noble spirit cannot take its enemies seriously for long. It does not have the spirit for revenge. It forgets. And for this very reason it loves its enemies for how else is it to prove itself. For the slave, on the contrary, the enemy, the noble spirit, is the wicked and evil one. The thought of evil is the first thought, and only secondarily does it come up with the idea of the good.

It is in the triumph of slave morality that Nietzsche believes morality as ideals and thereby judgement is born. Weakness is turned into an ideal, as though it were something that one had to choose to be rather than what one is. Thus patience and obedience to a higher power (God) is seen as a virtue. Be submissive! They are no doubt miserable and hate life, but they believe that they will be rewarded in the future, in heaven. They see themselves better than the noble, even though they have to obey them, and obey all authority, because their God has told them to do so. But they comfort themselves that they, the nobles, will punished in the future, whereas, the slaves they will see their reward. Or own morality is a residuum of this triumph of reactive will to power. The only difference is that there no nobles, but only the values of the slave, and thus we do not even see ourselves as slaves anymore.

Even though Foucault’s story will be very different from Nietzsche’s, there are many things, in terms of methodology, that they share in common, and Foucault himself is transparent about this.[2] History is not made up of a necessary evolution that somehow ends up with us, as though the whole of history had this intention in mind from the beginning, or that there was an internal logic to its development like ripening of a fruit. On the contrary, history is contingent and we only discover its meaning after the fact. Thus Nietzsche’s story of the origin of our morality is not necessary. Things could have happened differently and our morality could be totally different. There is no necessity that slave morality would have triumphed or that slave morality had taken the form of Judeo-Christianity, and thus we could be living totally different lives with totally different values, as there is no necessity that the universe itself came into existence.

Rather than human history being made up of chain of historical events that are linked together necessarily, it is made up of singular contingent events that are rare and exceptional. What we discover, in the archaeological and anthropological evidence, is changes in social logic are sporadic and intermittent, and nothing changes for 1,000 of years or hundreds of generations, if not at all. What is interesting about human history is not how many things happen, but how little different kinds of things happen, and thus is because of course power is essentially conservative. Why change something when things have always worked.[3] If revolutions in social logic are rare, then they are also discontinuous. Thus a society that works with one logic that stresses equality and sharing, for example, in which hoarding and wealth is seen as shameful and dishonourable, like the Hadza, will be completely different from a society in which inequality is hereditary and stratified, like the Tongans. They will speak a completely different social logic, and their religions and moral values will therefore be completely different. Societies with different social logics are discontinuous and incommensurate and there is no universal language that can translate one into the other. There is no such thing as truth, but only truths (the Hadza truth, the Tongan truth and so on).

It is for this reason that we have to understand power historically rather than metaphysically. There is no essence of power, only different social forms of power that are expressed historically. If we look to our most recent past, rather than the long stretch of our human history from 200,000 years ago, then we can say that Europe has undergone a transformation of political power. In the first instance, power is justified, as in most kingdoms, through divine right. Sovereignty is the authority of the king justified through religion as is the case in all kingdoms. From the 16th century, Foucault discerned a new kind of power, which he called disciplinary power, and which was latter transformed into new form in the 18th and 19th centuries, which he called biopolitics. In the first case, power has as it object individuals, in the second, the population as a whole.

The justification of society is no longer transcendent, in the sense of sovereign power, but immanent, in the sense of a contract. The key distinction is no longer between the people and the sovereign, as it is in an aristocratic kingdom, but between the people and the multitude. The question of power is how can we transform the multitude, which represents chaos and disorder, into the people, which represents stability and order. Disciplinary societies do so through controlling individuals through institutions (prisons, barracks, schools and hospitals), biopolitical societies through the production of populations through norms and standardisation. Each society would require its own discourse and moralities, which would be very different in their meanings and effects, even if they were to use the same language and terms. This new form of power is the power of the market:

The market determines that good government is no longer simply government that functions according to justice. The market determines that a good government is no longer quite simply one that is just. The market now means that to be good government, government has to function according to truth. (Foucault et al., 2008, p. 32).

Thus it is the change in the nature of power that determines the rise of utilitarianism as the dominant form of moral rationality, because utilitarianism can now be expressed in language of the market, cost-benefit analysis and rational choice theory, rather than whether utilitarianism is the best expression of an objective universal ethics, as opposed, for example, to deontology. Morality is not external to power relations. It is just one more discourse amongst many used to justify and legitimate them.

If power is the explanation of morality and not morality power, then how do we explain power? Power names actions or practices. Promising, judging, loving, and governing are all practices. History is nothing less than the history of changing practices and the social logic that underpins them. When it comes to practices there is always a relation between forces, one which is active and one which is passive or reactive. So there is the loving and the being loved, the judging and the being judged, governing and the being governed. A practice is the encounter between these two forces. This encounter Is not causal. In other words, the active force does not cause the passive one, rather there is an encounter between an active and passive force. Nor is the difference between the passive and active force one of quantity. It is not necessarily the case the active force is stronger or tougher than the passive force.

When Deleuze explains Foucault’s work he distinguishes between pure matter and pure functions (Deleuze, 2006). The pure matter of force is power to be affected, and the pure function of power is the power to affect. It is important not to confuse this with the actualisation of power, which is formed matter and formed function. The actualisation of power are actual historical institutions and practices. Foucault’s genealogy is the description of virtual relations of power and not actual relations. These virtual relations of power are diagrams. The example of a diagram that Deleuze gives is the Panopticon. Foucault is not interested in actual Panopticon nor the fact that Bentham’s plan was never actually built, but rather what the idealisation of Bentham’s plan says about how power has been changed or transformed.

There is always a relation between power and knowledge. Power always attracts knowledge, but that does not mean that knowledge and power are the same. Knowledge has to do with formed matter and formed functions rather than pure matters or functions. Knowledge concerns the actualisation of virtual relations of power in institutions. When we come to think about morality, then, it concerns knowledge. How virtual relations of power are actualised. These actualisations are always subsequent to the practices themselves. Knowledge is always the attempt to fix and stratify relations of power so they repeat invariantly through techniques of power and the human sciences (what Deleuze calls ‘dispositif’, but is variously translated as ‘device’, ‘apparatus’, ‘construction’, ‘machinery’, and so on). On the other side, however, because power and knowledge are not the same, even though power attracts knowledge, and knowledge falls back onto power and ‘miraculates’ it, as though it were the origin of power, the virtual relations of power are always escaping their stratification. The virtual relations of love are infinite, even within a given field, whereas actual relations of love are finite (only these relations of love are permitted and none other).

There are two possible confusions. First of all, we can think that the relation between active and reactive forces is dialectical and that the one causes the other. In this sense, we might think that power is transcendent and sovereign. There is never a substance or essence to power (we cannot define outside of situation in which we find power operating). This means that wherever there is power there is always resistance because there cannot be an active power without resistance. Secondly, we should not confuse actual relations of power with virtual relations of power. Rather than thinking of power as homogenous and regularised, outside forces are constantly escaping it. In one of the last papers Deleuze wrote, ‘Postscript of the Societies of Control’, he speaks of the new form of power as permanent training and perpetual audit, but he also imagines, even now, in ways that we have never visualised, the young are conceiving of new ways of escaping and new lines of flight.

Many young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated’; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they’re being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficulty, the telos of the disciplines. The coils of a serpent are even more complex that the burrows of a molehill. (Deleuze, 1992).

Works Cited

Deleuze, G., 2006. Foucault. Continuum, London.

Deleuze, G., 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59, 3–7.

Flannery, K.V., Marcus, J., 2012. The creation of inequality: how our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.

Foucault, M., Bouchard, D.F., Simon, S., 1977. Language, counter-memory, practice: selected essays and interviews. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

Foucault, M., Senellart, M., Collège de France, 2008. The birth of biopolitics: lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke [England]; New York.

Kofman, S., Large, D., 1993. Nietzsche and Metaphor. Stanford University Press.

Nietzsche, F.W., 1974. The Gay Science : with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Vintage Books, New York.

Yovel, Y., 1991. Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Adventures of Immanence. Princeton University Press.

[1] As quoted by Yovel in ‘Spinoza and Nietzsche: Amor Dei and Amor fati’ (1991, p. 105).

[2] See his essay, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (Foucault et al., 1977).

[3] It is usually external contingent events that causes revolutions in social logic, like climate change, agriculture and domestication, or the Europeans turning up on your doorstep.

Natural Rights and Virtue – Lecture 4

August 7, 2016

SpinozaSo far in this course we have looked at the traditional philosophical arguments for morality: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue theory. We have seen that the first two, though at first glance might appear to totally oppose one another, have, as their object, actions. Morality is a subset of rational activity. We are moral because we are rational. In the first case, consequentialism looks at, as the name implies, the consequences of an action, and in the second, deontology, the intentions behind an action. Virtue theory is different because it does not examine moral activity itself, deciding which action is moral or not, but the character of the moral agent themselves over a life time. The question is not whether such an action is honest, but what does it mean for me to be honest, which might differ in different situations.

There is, however, a more fundamental question, which we shall examine over the course of the next two lectures, whether the philosophical justification of morality is itself an illusion. Levinas asks at the beginning of Totality and Infinity, whether we are ‘not duped by morality?’ (1969, p. 21) The aim of this question is to make us think about the status of moral justification. When we observe people’s behaviour we might think the last thing we observe is morality. Is not the world exactly the opposite of the one described by philosophers? Deeper than this suspicion, we might also wonder whether the morality of philosophers themselves is as universal and rational as they portray. At one and the same time as Kant is defending the universality of the categorical imperative, he is declaring in his lectures on anthropology that Black people and Native Americans are congenitally lazy and incapable of real work.[1]

One way to respond to these criticisms is to say that Kant is merely repeating the prejudices of his age and that it is possible to salvage a rational core, but another response might be that morality is really a secondary phenomenon of a more fundamental aspect of human history, which is power. Kant conceives of Native Americans and Blacks as secondary human beings because of colonialism. The moral abrogation of their status as human beings is secondary consequence of this fact. What better way to justify slavery and genocide than a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of human races, but also we might notice how neatly this pseudo theory fits the actual actions of the European powers at the time in their systematic plundering of wealth and resources, which was fundamental to the rise of capitalism.

Morality, then, is not a subset of rationality but of power and we ought to be more critical of its supposed claim to universality that merely acts as screen concealing its true ideological function. There is a whole other history of philosophy, however, which is far more realistic about morality and power, and that is the theory of natural rights which has its source in ancient philosophy but has its modern form in the writings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza.[2] Before we come to this tradition, let us describe how we normally think about rights (and this too has its own long history). We normally think of rights in terms of the essence or definition of something. We define what it is to be human being, for example, and then from that follows certain rights, which might be different from the rights of animals. Indeed, we have seen from our own history that how we consider the definition of people will change how we think about their rights (if we define women to be equal to men, then what we mean by this is that they have the same rights).

This way of thinking about rights goes back to antiquity. The Roman philosopher Cicero would argue that a thing is defined by its essence, which is the law of its nature.[3] Natural right does not refer to a state prior to nature but what conforms to an essence in a good society. A good society is one in which a man might realise his essence, which is his true nature. What is first is one’s duty. One only has rights to the extent that one has obligations, since it is these obligations or offices that allow me to fulfil my essence. It is the philosopher or sage who knows what essence is, what the best society would be to fulfil this essence, and what offices or duties, therefore, that would bring this realisation about.

Christianity repeats this doctrine of natural rights. The difference between the Christian version and the ancient theory is who has the authority to define what essence is, what the best society would be, and the offices and duties therein. It is no longer the philosopher who does so, but the church. How does one reverse this account of natural rights? Not by coming up with a different definition but by completely rethinking what we mean by ‘right’ altogether, and the first philosopher to do so is Hobbes. What he is doing is also saying that morality has to do with politics, which is not that different from Cicero, who is appropriated by Christianity, but he adds that when it comes to politics we need to think of power not essences. Not what is something, but what can that thing do, what is it capable of. Thus it is within the right of a small fish to eat the larger one (Spinoza, 1951, p. 200). This sounds abhorrent to us because we still think of rights in terms of schema of antiquity and Christianity, where a moral action conforms to an essence.

If natural right is defined in terms of power, then the state of nature precedes society. This means for Hobbes that human beings are not born social but have to become so. This is directly against the Christian tradition where Adam existed without sin prior to the fall. Without sin, he conformed to the natural essence of man and it was the adventures of existence that caused him to lose it. In Hobbes’ eyes it is the other way around. One is not born social and reasonable, rather one has to achieve it. What is first is not obligations or duties but rights. One limits rights in order that one can become social and responsible, but it is rights that are first. At the level of rights everyone is equal. Everyone does what they can in terms of their power. Difference arises at the level of the social, which limits people’s rights. What is important here is that it is not at the level of natural rights that we can speak of the differences between people. This means that there is no competent authority who can say what anyone is capable of or what their essence might be (it is up to them to decide what they are capable of and not an external authority). If rights come before obligation or duties that are decided in advance by an authority, then the question becomes why should I limit my rights in order to become social. In other words, what are the benefits of society to me? If a society does form, then it does so as an agreement of persons of equal rights because as a collective each increases the power of the other that would be less if they existed alone. It is we who decide to come together because it is in our best interests to do so and not because of any external authority. Here we have two very different conceptions of politics. The Antiquity-Christian model, which is juridical, and this new theory of politics that is based on power.

Just as much as we can view rights in terms of power, then so too can we redefine virtue, which would give a different meaning to virtue theory. In Machiavelli’s The Prince, virtue (virtù) does not necessarily mean moral virtue, as we might mean it, but strength or power. Thus he speaks of skill of an archer who can hit the target of from a long distance because they know the ‘strength’ of their bow.[4] The word that he uses in this context is virtù. In this way, when he speaks of the virtue of the prince, he is not listing their moral qualities, but their power to influence events and their ‘fortune’.

Spinoza, who read both Hobbes and Machiavelli, too thinks of ethics in terms of power. ‘By virtue and power,’ he writes, I understand the same thing (E4 D8). At the heart of Spinoza’s ontology is conatus. What determines the singularity of a being is not its conformity to a universal essence, whereby we might claim it is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, such that we might say of someone that they are not rational enough once we have defined all human beings as ‘rational animals’, but its power to exist. Every individual thing, be it a stone, plant or animal, strives to preserve its existence and will continue to exist as long as something more powerful does not prevent it from so doing. I am nothing more than my power to exist, as you are, and our power to exist, conatus, is individual to each one of us. Universals, like ‘humanity’ are only abstractions that do not exist as such. I can have an encounter with you on the street, but I cannot encounter ‘humanity’.

When we normally think of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ we do so through moral values. So we might think of ‘good’ as morally good, and ‘bad’ as morally evil, but for Spinoza these are retrospective justifications for something much deeper. What is good is everything that I find useful for me; that is, what increases my power to exist. What is bad is everything I find not useful to me; that is, everything that decreases my power to exist. What is good or bad for me will be determined by my nature. Thus what is good or bad for a stone, is not going to be good or bad for me, what is good or bad for a plant is not what is going to be good or bad for me, and what is good or bad for a lion is not going to be good or bad for me, and equally, since being is singular for Spinoza, each of us are an individual expression of the power to exist, what is good or bad for me is not necessarily going to be good or bad for you. ‘We do not desire,’ Spinoza writes, something because we say it is good; rather it is good because we desire it’ (E3 P9sch.). Thus, it is not bad for the lion to eat the gazelle, since that is what lions do, but it is not good for gazelles to be eaten by lions, so generally gazelles try to avoid lions. What Spinoza would say is that we don’t need to add a moral language to understand it. Moral judgements, as we might suspect are irrelevant.

Now we might say that is alright for lions and gazelles but not for beings like us, since we, as consequentialists and deontologists would say are special and unique within the animal kingdom because of our capacity to make moral judgements. It is at this point that Spinoza’s ontology meets his ethics (and that there is no difference between them is central point of his thought, unlike Kant, for example, who saves ethics by separating them into two distinct worlds). For Spinoza, all beings, stones, plants, animals and human beings are expression of one and the same being to a certain degree. There are no exceptions, or as Spinoza says, human beings are not ‘a dominion within a dominion’ (E3 Pref.). No doubt a plant is more complex than a stone, and animal more complex than a plant, and a human being more complex than a lion, but this does not mean, ontological speaking, that human beings are a completely different kind of being. No doubt because we can speak we can confuse words with ontological reality. So because we have the word ‘evil’ we think there are evil things that transcend our own interests, but this does not mean that evil exists as such exterior to these interests. Human beings act just as lions do, the only difference is that they try and convince the gazelle that they are good for them as well. It might be true that I would lock the serial killer in prison, because such an encounter would seriously undermine by power to exist, but why, as with the example of lions and gazelles, do I need to add a moral language of judgement on top of this to justify it?

Ethics is ethnology. Just as I can study the behaviour of a lion, then I can study the behaviour of human beings. We can just as much talk about an ethics of fleas as we can of human beings, though of course the life of a flea is simpler. How is this different from the normal way that we talk about morals? Normally we talk about morality in terms of norms and values. We say that if you want to be a good person you should behave in such and such a way. ‘Ought’ is not the same as ‘is’. This brings us back to essences that we discussed before, because you can’t have a norm without an essence. I can’t act in the right way if you don’t tell me what it is to be such a person. Thus if there are norms about what it is to be a woman then this follows from the definition of woman. This essence of course is an ideal. In this way no individual woman could ever live up to what it would be to be a woman. All women would fail from the beginning.

Spinoza’s ethics has nothing at all to do with norms because he understands essence in a completely different way. An essence is not an abstraction or definition, but the individual existence of a singular being. We can speak of the essence of ‘William’ as the individual existence of someone called ‘William’, but there is no essence of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ as such. Ethics is a way of being, rather than a norm. When I speak about my ethics (and there can only be an individual ethics for Spinoza), then I am speaking about my individual way of being.

Throughout my life this essence is to be understood as a variation. Sometimes my power to exist increases and at other times it decreases. This is because my body is always in contact with other bodies, and since I have a very complex body, then this means that these relations are numerous and complex. If this contact increases my power to exist, then I experience it as joyful, and if it decreases my power to exist, then I experience it as sadness. These are the two primary affects of existence for Spinoza, which correspond to my conatus. Ethics, then, for Spinoza, is understanding those encounters that bring you joy and those that bring you sadness, and learning to avoid the latter. I know that coffee increases my power to exist in the morning, but drinking too much gives me eczema, so I shouldn’t drink too much. I know speaking to Paul makes me happy, but Peter really depresses me (perhaps it is the other way around for someone else), so I should avoid him. What really surprises Spinoza is that people seem to go out of the way to make themselves sad, and moreover we appear to live in societies whose only function seems to be to make the vast majority of people unhappy and miserable (the two source of this are the two great normative tyrannies, which are religion and politics).

It might appear on first sight that Spinoza’s ethics is egotistical and individualistic. If all that matters is my own power to exist why should I care about others? This would be to ignore human nature, though. Human beings are by nature social beings. The more I compose my power to exist with others, then my own power to exists increases. It would belong to my own interests to create a society in which the greatest amount of people would be capable of expressing their own power to exist. What best serves my purpose is another person who increases my power to exist and this would be the same for them, and so on to the next person. This is why he will argue, in the Tractatus Politicus, that democracy is the best form of government (Spinoza, 1951, pp. 385–7). ‘Nothing,’ he writes in the Ethics, is more advantageous to man than man’ (E4 P18 Sch.).

Works Cited

Deleuze: Spinoza: 09/12/1980 [WWW Document], n.d. URL http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=20&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 (accessed 4.9.16).

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

Machiavelli, N., Mansfield, H.C., 1998. The prince. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill.

Mikkelsen, J.M., Kant, I., 2013. Kant and the concept of race: late eighteenth-century writings. SUNY Press, Albany.

Spinoza, B. de, 1951. A theologico-political treatise and a political treatise. Dover, New York.

Ward, J.K., Lott, T.L., 2008. Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays. John Wiley & Sons.

[1] Kant writes in his unpublished notes, Reflexionen, that ‘Americans and Negroes cannot govern themselves. Thus are only good as slaves’ (Mikkelsen and Kant, 2013, p. 8). See also Bernasconi’s essay ‘Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Racism’ (Ward and Lott, 2008, pp. 145–66).

[2] An excellent and concise of this history can be found in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza (“Deleuze: Spinoza: 09/12/1980,” n.d.).

[3] Cicero is useful for us, because he sums up the ancient Greek tradition of ethical thought in Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, but also his own work was influential on the ethical theory of Christianity and especially Aquinas.

[4] ‘He should do as prudent archers do when the place they plan to hit appears too distant, and know how far the strength of their bow carries, they set their aim much higher than the place intended’ (Machiavelli and Mansfield, 1998, p. 22). It is interesting to note that the translator, Mansfield, feels that he cannot leave virtù translated as ‘virtue’ in this context, since it has such a moral overtone for us.

Kant’s Ethics – Lecture 2

May 9, 2016

Last week immanuel-kantwe looked at Bentham’s and Mill’s utilitarianism, which is a version of consequentialism. This week we are going to investigate Kant’s ethics, which is a kind of deontology. In the former, what is of moral worth is the consequences of the act, and the criteria is whether the outcome of an act contributes to happiness of the greatest number. In the latter, moral value is ascribed to the intention of the agent, rather than the consequence of the act. What matters to both, however, and which they hold in common, is ethics is a matter of moral deliberation that begins with the rational self. It is this assumption that we will question is the last part of this module. First of all, as Gaita writes, ethics is not accessed through an ‘epistemic route’ (Gaita, 2000, p. 22), but through feeling and sensibility (in some way Kant will recognise this, but still it is not the major motivating force for his morality), and secondly, that such an ethics does not first begin with the rational self, who makes a decision about the limits or extent of its moral responsibility, but with suffering of others, who make a demand on the self and its self-satisfaction and egotism, as though the language of rights and responsibility were not one and the same.

At the heart of Kant’s ethics is autonomy and reason. Why are we moral beings? Not because, Kant would answer, of some mysterious attribute of our natural being, though like animals we feel sympathy for our kind, but because we can deliberate about our actions and choose them. If, like natural beings, our actions were only the result or our desires and appetites, then we would be held morally responsible. No one blames the lion for hunting the gazelle, though the gazelle probably does not like being eaten by the lion, for it is in the nature of the lion to eat gazelles. Human beings too are animals, but not just animals, because we can used ideas to guide our concepts, and these ideas, concepts, or principles are freely chosen by us.[1]

In other words, we are moral because we are rational, and we are rational because we are free. Freedom is at the heart of Kant’s ethics. He is saying to you that if you are willing to give up freedom, then you will live in an amoral universe. Just as no one blames the lion who eats the gazelle, since it is the nature of lions to do so, then no one blames, the asteroid that kills or life on earth, for it that is what asteroids do. So you can’t blame the murderer for killing, the robber for robbing, the rich man for exploiting the poor, and the liar for lying, and so. So Kant is saying to you do you really want to live in a world like that. It might be fun imagining yourself a nihilist, but it really isn’t a world anyone would want to live in for long. Equally, if you do want to live in a moral world, where people are held responsible for their actions, and people act morally, then you have to accept that people are free, otherwise that isn’t any reason for you to expect them to be moral at all

It is important to realise that Kant does not think that freedom is a real property of the universe. That we are free in the way that asteroids are determined by gravity, for example. For in this case, asteroids are not free at all, since they do not choose to be determined by gravity. Freedom isn’t a property of something, still less a mysterious property of human beings, that make them different from lions or asteroids. Rather freedom is an idea, and in that sense, one might say it is a necessary fiction. The sciences tell us about what asteroids do, and so to speak, why they do it (though there isn’t really a ‘why’ here at all, since they have no intentions), whereas morality is the explanation of why human beings behave in the way they do (and there really is a ‘why’ here, because human beings have ideas). Now it is true to say that you can give a naturalist explanation of why human beings have ideas (because we have large brains, which give us ideas and so on), but it is absurd to say that brains have ideas, as it is to say that they open doors, since that would be a very messy business indeed. The meaning of an idea is not reducible to physical state, otherwise the origin of ideas would be the same as the causal relation between physical things. Again Kant would say to you if you are going to accept such naturalist explanations, then you would have to forgo any kind of moral responsibility whatsoever for the murder would claim that it was her brain (perhaps through some kind of chemical reaction) that caused her to kill her victim she was not to blame (can one even speak of a ‘she’ here), and so would the concentration camp guard.

Freedom is not just the necessary condition of morality; it is a sufficient one as well. For it alone shows that what it means to be moral is to choose to be moral, and then only morality that could be freely chosen is a universal one. This is because a universally valid moral law would be the one that a free rationality would choose if it were free. The only reason it would not choose this law is if it were not free, in other words, there were some external constraint (desires, and inclination, that were causing me to choose this action against by reason). Another way of thinking this is that Kant is saying that a reason for an action cannot an individual or particular reason, because this reason would always be self-interested, and such a self-interested action would have another origin rather than a rational one, and it is only rationality that is compatible with freedom. A rational law is one that is freely chosen; not one that is forced upon you if you understand it (a child might not lie because they fear the anger of their parents, but I don’t lie, because I understand that it is wrong to. It would be absurd to say that in the latter case I am being forced not to lie, since I actively choose not to so through my reason.

The reciprocal determination of freedom and morality is a philosophical problem, but Kant would argue that what he is putting forward in the Groundwork, is common sense. He says that everyone knows the difference between acting morally and not so. To act morally is to act on principle (or duty), whereas to act self-interestedly (by inclination and desire), is not to. This distinction is only valid when at the level of intentions, and not outcomes of acts; that is to say internally, rather than externally. This is the point of the example of the grocer. Externally, in terms of outcomes, we cannot distinguish between the grocer who acts honestly because he wants more customers and thus to make more profit, and the grocer that acts honestly on principle, since the outcome is exactly the same. Only the second grocer, however, Kant thinks, anyone would say was truly moral. To act morally is act from principle as a rational agent and not in terms of consequences, which would always be self-interested, and therefore objectively and subjectively motivated by desires.

Let us say that we accept Kant’s description of morality. How would we actually put this in practice? Kant’s answer is the categorical imperative. Only act on those maxims that can universally applied. The key here is universality, for universality shows that at I am acting rationally, and only in acting rationally, on principle, can I be truly free (otherwise, as we have seen, I am the mercy of my desires and inclinations, and am thrown this way and that, like boat tossed about on a stormy sea).

There are three forms of the categorical imperative that Kant describes in the Groundwork: act in accordance with a universal law; treat people as ends rather than as means; act in harmony with a kingdom of ends. Usually when people explain Kant’s morality they only discuss in any depth the first version of the categorical imperative, and forget the other two, but all three versions are equally important.

Kant makes a distinction between two kinds of rational action: hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical rational action is both technical and pragmatic and is related to the self-interests of the agent. I am thirsty. I need a cup of tea. In order to assuage my thirst I will need to leave my desk go down to the kitchen and boil the kettle. Categorical imperatives are different. This is technical end for Kant. The pragmatic end is happiness. So I might say that I need food, water, clothing and shelter for a happy life and all human beings do. Utilitarianism is therefore a pragmatic hypothetical imperative for Kant. This does not mean that it insignificant for Kant, since of course everyone desires to be happy, but this in itself does not make it categorical.

What is unique to a categorical imperative is that they are unconditional and are not dependent on ends but principles. He has to prove to us that such imperative exist, since we are likely to think that there are only hypothetical ends. To act on principle means to act through a law which is universal to everyone. I ought never to conduct myself except so that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law (ich auch wollen können, meine Maxime solle ein allgemeines Gesetz werden).

So I have to show that it makes sense to speak of morality is that way. Do we act through laws that are universal to every rational being? The test for universality here is consistency and coherence, and this is what Kant’s examples demonstrate. To universal lying is to be incoherent, because one cannot at the same time thing that one can benefit from lying and at the same time make it universal, because if everyone one lied, then there would be no self-interest to lie. This is not the case with keeping promises, because one can universal it. Let us imagine that there is a rich man who decides that he doesn’t wish to give money to beggars and he universalises this as a maxim that we should never help others who are in need, then the rich man is being inconsistent, because he does would not wish to live in a world where he too would not be helped if he were in need because some disaster was to befall him. We can see that his desire not to help others is not a moral imperative at all but merely an expression of his own selfish greed.

Objects are relative to my desires. I am hungry so I consume food. Food is a means to an end for me. But persons are rational beings like me, so they could never be merely means. To treat a human being as end is to treat them as a thing, rather than as a free being. The second formulation of the categorical imperative, therefore, is to treat other human beings as ends in themselves, which is tantamount to saying treat others as you would wish to be treated, since we both are members of the same rational moral universe. ‘Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as a means’ (Handle so, daß du die Menschheit, sowohl in deiner Person, als in der Person eines jeden andern, jederzeit zugleich als Zweck, niemals bloß als Mittel brauchest). To lie to another, then, is to use them for one’s own means, even if it some context that might mean you do not wish to hurt them, since their happiness is of course something that you benefit from.

Rather than promoting my happiness, I ought to promote the happiness of others. The end of the moral law, then, is the promotion of ‘kingdom of ends’, where each lives in accordance or harmony with others. We can see, if each of us act morally, how this must necessarily be the case, since the moral law would be the same for us all, and we could see that it would benefit us all. A rational free society is the best for everyone. It is clear also that Kant does not rid his moral theory of ends, as though the happiness of all, were of no importance, but that it obtains that end through universal moral law rather than through the outcomes of actions in the first place.[2]

We might ask ourselves why Kant needs different formulations of the categorical imperative. I think it is because it is perfectly possible in the first case (universal laws) to think of exceptions. So for example if a murderer were to come my door and I would think that it would be permissible to lie, which seems to contradict principle of universality, whereas if I were to apply the principle of humanity and kingdom of ends, it would not be, because here I am not universalising a particular situation (should I not lie in this situation), but what is it to be a human being and does it mean to belong to an ethical community. To treat someone as a means, is not only to use them, but also to deprive them of their humanity.

What Kant’s argument sets out are ideals that guide our actions. He is well aware that in the ‘real world’ things might not be as that easy, but if we were to give up our ideals altogether, then there would world would in chaos. We might readily agree that if everyone acted morally, then the world would be better, but the problem is that the world we live in isn’t like that at all. Not only is the world full of evil, even those who are evil, do not get punished. It seems grotesque to say that in telling the truth to the murderer I have done the moral thing, but the consequences of the act are of no interest. Kant gets out this problem by supplementing a religious argument for a moral one. If the kingdom of ends is only ideal in this world, then it will be real in the next one, but we might find this religious supplement in a secular world not comforting at all, and might even have the suspicion that Kant’s morality is only possible because of his religious beliefs and not the other way around.

Works Cited

Franks, P.W., 2005. All Or Nothing: Systematicity, Transcendental Arguments, and Skepticism in German Idealism. Harvard University Press.

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

[1] Even if Kant shows that freedom and morality are reciprocal, this does not prove that anything like freedom exists as an empirical possibility, and in fact cannot do so. On freedoms as a fact of reason, see (Franks, 2005, pp. 278–84).

[2] It is for this reason that the difference between rule utilitarianism and deontology can be slight indeed. It is certainly the way that Mill understood Kant.

Utilitarianism – Lecture 1

April 24, 2016

John_Stuart_Mill_by_London_Stereoscopic_Company,_c1870In this course I am making a distinction between morality and ethics. Morality is the application of reason to moral decisions. Ethics, on contrary, is not about procedures but how I respond, or fail to respond to the sufferings of others. This isn’t a matter of reason, but of sensibility, since it is perfectly possible to ‘reason’ oneself out of ethics simply by refusing the status of humanity to others.

In Western philosophy, at least, there are 3 standard form of moral rationality (though the third is really a critique of the other 2): utilitarianism, deontology and virtue theory. Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of acts, whereas deontology emphasises the intentions of the agent. What is common to them both, however, is that they begin with the self and the self is primarily understood as a rational agent. It is this presupposition that will be questioned to some extent by the third theory, virtue theory, and fundamentally by ethics. In virtue theory, will still begin with the self, but the self is interpreted as existing in a concrete situation (a given community, society and history) whose values are embedded rather than deduced rationally, and what matter is not just the intentions or consequences of actions, but character and authenticity. Ethics, as we shall later in the course, goes even further than this, because it questions whether we should begin with the self at all, but rather with others, and that our commitment to others is first about sensibility, rather than rationality (in other words that the relation to other is different from the relation of the self to itself in moral reflection).

In this lecture, we are going to focus on utilitarianism, which is perhaps the most popular and well known, but also the one moral theory that pervades our everyday lives because it is the basis of public policy and government decisions that generally are taken on a utility basis. There are two version of utilitarianism. One by Bentham and the other by Mill, whose version can be seen as a correction of the formers. The basis of Bentham’s utilitarianism is the ‘happiness principle’. A policy or decision is moral if it contributes to the general happiness of everyone. Happiness, here, is a psychological category, and for Bentham is a quantifiable and calculable in terms of its intensity and duration. What is good is what gives us pleasure, what is bad, is what causes us pain. All moral arguments come down to the maximisation of happiness as opposed to personal preference or dogma.

An example of Bentham’s utilitarianism in action would be the planned creation of workhouses in England in the 19th Century, which luckily for the poor were never fully implemented.[1] Bentham’s argument was that encountering the poor on the street was a public nuisance that lead to a decrease in the happiness of the majority so it would be better for them to be incarcerated in workhouses against their will. Moreover, it was better for society as whole if the poor were forced to work rather than being unproductive parasites, as he saw it, on society. By putting the poor to work they would in fact pay for the cost of the workhouses, and therefore not be a burden on the taxpayer. Although these ideas where never fully put into action, we can still here them loud and clear today.

Why might some find Bentham’s ideas morally dubious however unpractical they turned out to be? The fundamental problem is it sacrifices the freedom of the individual for the sake of society as a whole.[2] The workhouse was repressive and cruel system that destroyed the lives of those who were incarcerated, as the novels of Dickens portray, and it seems hardly justifiable to argue that destroying a human life is justifiable for the sake of the happiness of the majority. If this were the case, as Sandel argues, why wouldn’t we justify the throwing of the Christians to the lions, since the majority obviously gained pleasure from this spectacle (2010, p. 37)? Can the pleasure of one, justify the pain of another? Doesn’t this go against our moral intuitions?

As Sandel goes onto write, some people have used this argument to justify torture. We might think that the suffering of an individual is not as important as the social good gained by torture.[3] We could think of good utilitarian arguments, he adds, about why torture is wrong: that in the end you don’t gain much information from torturing people; that society itself, in the long run, would be undermined if we let systematic torture happen (what would be the difference between us and our enemies?); that our own soldiers and agents would be tortured. Yet there is also an argument on principle that torture is wrong. The dignity of the individual outweighs any utility (this is the same critique of Bentham’s workhouses and prisons).

One way that people justify torture is the ‘ticking time bomb’. The argument goes that if a nuclear device were to go off and we had a terrorist in our hands, then all of us would tortures the terrorist to find out the information and stop the bomb. The problem with this scenario, as Sandel points out, is that we are not describing like with like. It implies that the person being tortured is innocent like us and therefore we are willing to sacrifice one life for another, but of course the terrorist is not the same as us. The real example to see whether you think there could be a utilitarian defence of torture would be whether you think it would be worth sacrificing the innocent daughter of the terrorist to find out why the bomb is. Would the happiness of the majority justify the suffering and death of a child?

Our worries about utilitarianism, at least in the crude form that it put forward by Bentham and public policy, is that it isn’t a moral philosophy at all but just a moral calculation, which reduced every human life to a common denominator. Sandel alludes to the famous example of the exploding gas tanks in the Ford Pinto (which was the basis of the scene in the film The Fight Club) (2010, p. 43). When Ford did a cost benefit analysis if found that the cost of fixing the fault was higher than the costs of people burning or dying. Is there not something morally repugnant about putting a value on someone’s life in this way, in the same way that Bentham only saw the lives of the poor in terms of an economic value?

It is for these reasons that Mill sought to improve Bentham’s utilitarianism. First of all he makes a distinction, though it is not always clear in his text, between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. In act utilitarianism, a utility calculus is performed for every situation. Thus it is perfectly possible, that in a particular situation, the best cause of action would be to tell a lie since this promote the happiness of the greatest number. Rule utilitarianism does not focus on the consequence of an action, but a rule. The argument then would be about whether telling lies would benefit society as whole, as opposed to keeping promises. Rule utilitarianism would not justify, therefore the telling of lies in any situation, because constantly making exceptions to the rule would undermine social relations confidence and trust.

Mill’s fundamental reform of Bentham, however, is at the level of the psychology of pain and pleasure. For Bentham, this was a matter merely of quantity, intensity and duration. Every rational creature would seek pleasure and avoid pain. Mill’s argument is that it is psychological incorrect to reduce pain and pleasure to sensation and everyone knows this through introspection. We do not merely speak of quantity of a feeling but also the quality of one. Even when we speak of pain, we can think of a dull or a sharp pain. We can think of dull pain being more or less painful and the same with a share one, but the difference between them is qualitative not quantitative. As rational beings we are capable of ordering our desires qualitatively as well as quantitatively.

Everyone knows Mill’s famous statement ‘It is better to be human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’. When it comes to individual acts, this might be difficult to defend. It is really true that reading book is more pleasurable than sex? Even those who like reading books would hardly defend that. Moreover, is it true to say that in having sex I don’t use my mind at all? Mill’s dictum makes no sense if we think about it in this way, and is hardly convincing psychologically. When Mill is thinking about the quality of pleasure he is thinking about life lived as whole (this again is the important difference between act and rule utilitarianism). Would a life that was dedicated wholly to sex be better than a life that was not? Mill’s argument would be that it wouldn’t be if we thought about society as whole, for the one reason that person who dedicated their lives solely to sensual pleasures would essentially be selfish and egotistical. It is only through education that I would realise that society exists only because of the selfless acts of others who are willing to sacrifice their own advantage.

In some sense Mill could be seen as a utopian socialist, as opposed to the reactionary views of Bentham, and the revolutionary socialism of Marx.[4] His utilitarianism is about social progress, which the major theme of his work On Liberty, and which should be seen as the context of his moral theory. What would benefit the majority rather than the minority? A morality that has its source in intuition or tradition tends to be authoritarian, reactionary and conservative. We ought to change the world so as make it better for the vast majority of people, and the two great wants in our word are poverty and disease, so we should change the world to rid ourselves from them. The problem is that we can certainly imagine a despotic society that could achieve these ends rationality without individual rights. Do we think this sacrifice is worth it, or does it undermine human dignity and respects for others beyond calculation for a future good? It seems the only way to save utilitarianism is through the idea of dignity, but the latter cannot be determined by a calculus. It is a principle.

Works Cited

Bahmueller, C.F., 1981. The National Charity Company: Jeremy Bentham’s silent revolution. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Kurer, O., 1992. J.S. Mill and Utopian Socialism. Economic Record 68, 222–32.

Sandel, M.J., 2010. Justice what’s the right thing to do ? Penguin books, London.

Schiemann, J.W., 2016. Does torture work? Oxford University Press, New York.

[1] For a full historical account of Bentham’s ideas and implementation of Poor Law reform in England, see (Bahmueller, 1981).

[2] A separate and equally important issue is whether poverty is the fault of the individual. The real cause of poverty in England that the time was not the idleness of the working classes, but the Corn Laws, and industrialisation. Bentham’s incarceration of the poor stems from a fear of revolution not a concern with their welfare.

[3] This moral argument is different from the argument whether torture works or not, which it does not. The moral argument would be that even if torture did work, it would still be wrong. For an account of whether torture actually works, using game theory, see (Schiemann, 2016).

[4] For a detailed account of why Mill should be considered a utopian socialist, see (Kurer, 1992)

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.