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Summary: Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil by Alain Badiou   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

Summary: Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil by Alain Badiou
(Verso, 2001)
ethics, good, evil
Monday, August 25, 2003 20:37 GMT

1. Does Man Exist?

According to current usage, the term "ethics" relates to the domain of human rights.

A universally recognisable human subject is proposed possessing rights that are in some sense natural.

"This return to the old doctrine of the natural rights of man is obviously linked to the collapse of revolutionary Marxism, and of all the forms of progressive engagement that it inspired. In the political domain, deprived of any collective political landmark, stripped of any notion of the 'meaning of History' and no longer able to hope for or expect a social revolution, many intellectuals, along with much of public opinion, have been won over to the logic of a capitalist economy and a parliamentary democracy. In the domain of 'philosophy', they have rediscovered the virtues of that ideology constantly defended by their former opponents: humanitarian individualism and the liberal defence of rights against the constraints imposed by organised political engagement. Rather than seek out the terms of a new politics of collective liberation, they have, in sum, adopted as their own the principles of the established 'Western' order." (5)

This has inspired a reaction against the thought of the 1960s when people such as Foucault, Althusser and Lacan rejected the idea of the universal subject essential to the notion of human rights and universal ethics. But for Badiou they were much more critical and engaged than those who uphold today's "ethics".

The foundation of the ethic of human rights is Kant. "What essentially is retained from Kant ... is the idea that there exist formally representable imperative demands that are to be subjected neither to empirical considerations nor to the examination of situations; hat these imperatives apply to cases of offence, of crime, of Evil; that these imperatives must be punished by national and international law; that, as a result, governments are obliged to include them in their legislation, and to accept the full legal range of their implications; that if they do not, we are justified in forcin their compliance. (8)

Ethics is conceived as an a prior ability to discern Evil. There is an assumed consensus about the nature of this Evil. Good is defined simply as that which intervenes visibly against this Evil. "Human rights" are rights to non-Evil.

The heart of this framework is the universal human subject. "Ethics subordinates the identification of this subject to the universal recognition of the evil that is done to him. Ethics thus defines man as a victim ... Man is the being who is capable of recognising himself as a victim." (10)

This is unacceptable, for three reasons:

1. It reduces man to the level of a living organism pure and simple. The rights of man need to be equated with the ability of man to think rather than the possibility that he might die. "If we equate Man with the simple reality of his living being, we are inevitably pushed to a conclusion quite opposite to the one that the principle of life seems to imply. For this 'living being' is in reality contemptible, and he will indeed be held in contempt. Who can fail to see that in our humanitarian expeditions ... the Subject presumed to be universal is split? On the side of the victims, the haggard animal exposed on television screens. On the side of the benefactors, conscience and the imperative to intervene. And why does this splitting always assign the same roles to the same sides? Who cannot see that this ethics which rests on the misery of the world hides, behind its victim-Man, the good-Man, the white-Man? Since the barbarity of the situation is considered only in terms of 'human rights' - whereas in fact we are always dealing with a political situation, one that calls for a political thought-practice, one that is peopled by its own authentic actors - it is perceived, from the heights of our pparent civil peace, as the uncivilised that demands of the civilised a civilising intervention. Every intervention in the name of a civilisation requires an initial concept for the situation as a whole, including its victims. And this is why the reign of 'ethics' coincides, after decades of courageous critiques of colonialism and imperialism, with today's sordid self-satisfaction in the 'West', with the insistent argument according to which the misery of the Third World is the result of its own incompetence, its own inanity - in short, of its subhumanity." (12-13)

2. It builds consensus around the recognition of evil, and therefore identifies all attempts to build positive notions of the good as part of this evil. "Such is the accusation so often repeated over the last fifteen years: every revolutionary project stigmatised as 'utopian' turns, we are told, into totalitarian nightmare. Every will to inscribe an idea of justice or equality turns bad. Every collective will to the Good creates Evil." (14)

3. Because of its universal underpinnings, ethics is unable to address the singularity of situations as such, "which is the obligatory starting poing of all properly human action." (14) A doctor can attend a conference on medical ethics where he will uphold Hippcratic principles, but will have no problem turning away a sick patient on the grounds that *this* particular person does not have the requisite papers.

Badiou advances three principles:

1. Man is to be identified by his affirmative thought, by the singular truths of which he is capable.

2. It is from our positive capability for Good that we are able to identify Evil, not vice versa.

3. There is no ethics in general. There are only ethics of processes by which we treat the possibilities of a situation.

2. Does the Other Exist?

Another strain in contemporary ethics is built not around the idea of the self but the idea of the other. Can be traced back to Emmanuel Levinas rather than Kant. Levinas argues that western metaphysics is built on the logic of the Same - the primacy of substance and identity. "According to Levinas, it is impossible to arrive at an authentic thought of the Other (and thus an ethics of the relation to the Other) from the despotism of the Same, which is incapable of recognising this Other." (18)

He finds in Jewish ethics a relation with the Other that predates the coming-to-being of the Same. Greek philosophy was about deriving laws from the whole, rational individual. The Jewish Law is about the primacy of the relation with the Other.

But Levinas' examination of the phenomenology of the experience of the other (the face, the caress) is inadequate to the task he sets for it. There is no guarantee that the other is actually experienced as other (psychoanalysis gives many theories to the contrary). And the "other" is always inadequate to its role as other, because there is as much about it that it is "same". For absolute otherness, the "other" must become an abstract category - like God - which turns the project of ethics into religion.

Ethics must find its foundation in the Same. The Other is not helping us to find any basis for our ethics except prop up a frivolous language of "difference". The fact is that no truth can be derived from the banal observation that there is difference between human beings - because difference is the basic fact of all human interaction: there is infinite variety within the self, and infinite variety between human beings.

The particular sort of difference that contemporary societies are most obsessed with - cultural difference - is no more than a kind of tourist's fascination. This can be shown empirically. "Our suspicions are first aroused when we see that the self-declared apostles of ethics and of the 'right to difference' are clearly horrified by any vigorously sustained difference ... As a matter of fact, this celebrated 'other' is acceptable only if he is a good other - which is to say what, exactly, if not the same as us?" (24)

3. Ethics as a Figure of Nihilism

"Whether we think of it as the consensual representation of Evil or as concern for the other, ethics designates above all the incpacity, so typical of the contemporary world, to name and strive for a Good. We should go even further and say that the reign of ethics is one symptom of a universe ruled b a distinctive combination of resignation in the face of necessity together with a purely negative, if not destructive, will. It is this combination that should be designated as nihilism.

The logic of Capital is what is "necessary" in contemporary society: it is objective and incontrovertible; its needs and constraints are preeminent. Ethics functions as a nihilistic "understudy" to this "necessity." "The celebrated 'end of ideologies' heralded everywhere as the good news which opens the way for the 'return of ethics' signifies in fact an espousal of the twistings and turnings of necessity, and an extraordinary impoverishment of the active, militant value of principles." (32)

"The very idea of a consensual 'ethics' stemming from the general feeling provoked by the sight of atrocities, which replaces the 'old ideological divisions' is a powerful contributor to subjective resignation and acceptance of the status quo. For what every emancipatory project does, what every emergence of hitherto unknown possibilities does, is to put an end to consensus. How, indeed, could the incalculable novelty of a truth, and the hole that it bores in established knowledges, be inscribed in a situation without encountering resolute opposition?" (32) But ethics is the "spiritual supplement" of the consensus and is horrified by discord. "Ethics is thus part of what prohibits any idea, any coherent project of thought, settling instead for overlaying unthought and anonymous situations with mere humanitarian prattle." (32-3)

The example of immigrants is clear. "Ethics is the ideology of [France's] insularity, and this is why it valorizes - throught the world, and with the complacency of 'intervention' - the gunboats of Law. But by doing this, by everywhere promoting a domestic haughtiness and cowardly self-satisfaction, it sterilises every collective gathering around a vigorous conception of what can (and thus must) be done here and now. And in this, once again, it is nothing more than a variant of the conservative consensus." (33)

But it is not only ethics' complacency about 'necessity' that makes it nihilistic. It is also its dependence on happiness and the absence of death.

This comes out most clearly in arguments about euthanasia. "Who can fail to see that the 'debate' on euthanasia points above all to the radical poverty of the symbols available today for old age and death? To the unbearable character of the latter as a sight for the living? Here ethics is at the junction of two only apparently contradictory drives: since it defines Man by non-Evil, and thus by 'happiness' and life, it is simultaneously fascinated by death yet incapable of inscribing it in thought." (36) Ethics is about making death disappear and policing the border of 'happiness'. "It is clear that the external barricades erected to protect our sickly prosperity have as their internal counterpart, against the nihilist drive, the derisory and complicit barrier of ethical commissions." (37)

"It is only by declaring that we want what conservatism decrees to be impossible, and by affirming truths against the desire for nothingness, that we tear ourselves away from nihilism. The possibility of the impossible, which is exposed by every loving encounter, every scientific re-foundation, every artistic invention and every sequence of emancipatory politics, is the sole principle - against the ethics of living-well whose real content is the deciding of death - of an ethic of truths." (39)