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Why I am Against “Ethics” (or Why We Need Unethical Politics)

Picture the following situation. It may be a discussion over global warming or environmental politics and someone will say, ‘ethically speaking …’ Or it may the question of asylum seekers and refugees and another will say, ‘if we approach this ethically …’ Or I may acquire some spare toilet paper from my work place, a pair of scissors perhaps; a moral warrior will look at me sourly and pronounce, ‘that’s not ethical.’ Or I may be talking with an apostate lefty over a beer and she will suggest I become involved in that oxymoron, ‘ethical investment’.

The invocation of ‘ethical’ effectively seeks a closure to argument in terms of an unassailable position with which we must agree, for it really seems to mean what is ‘good’, or more often ‘I think this is correct and you had better not disagree, for my position invokes a higher order before which your position counts for nothing’. After all, who does not want to be ethical?

All such approaches are actually moralising, telling people what they should or should not do. I have always been quite suspicious of ethics, a suspicion shared by a varied but fascinating collection – such as Marx for whom ethics is a mystifying ideology that justifies the status quo and keeps the ruling class in position, or Calvin, for whom ethics is a form of salvation by works, or Adorno for whom any moral philosophy ultimately comes to grief on the rocks of the false universal, or even Badiou, for whom the ‘ethical ideology’ of the other is merely a justification for the ‘state of the situation’.

Why the negative reaction? Is not politics inherently ethical? And does not the left seek to take a better ethical approach to economics, society and politics? Do we all not want to apply the ethical grease can to our social relations, and indeed our sense of connectedness to nature, so that they may work better than they do? That is, do we not wish to connect with those multiple others with whom and between whom social relations are problematic, seeking to overcome those problems in order to make social relations operate in a more improved manner?

A long chapter from In the Vale of Tears, due out early next year, outlines the reasons for my suspicions (a taster will appear in Rethinking Marxism). A brief outline of the main points:

1. A critique of some of the key forms that ethics takes today, as either,

a) ‘care of the self’, focusing on Foucault, who is rather close to Alain de Botton here.

b) relations to the ‘other’, with a focus on Butler and Eagleton, who end up quite close to one another, urging that we should simply be nice, loving and good to one another while recognising our failings.

2. Producing the other. I ask a preliminary question: how is the ‘other’, a given of so much ethics, produced in the first place? The answer is that the discourse of ethics does so, but in the process it obfuscates its arrogation of other discourses that also produce others, as well as concealing the socioeconomic connections that enable such productions. The result is that ethics gives the impression that the other is a given upon which ethics may set to work.

3. Chosen people. That concealment requires further interrogation, specifically in terms of its biblical and class dimensions. On the biblical side, the ‘other’ trails the dust of the pernicious theme of the chosen people. The process of claiming to be chosen requires the production of all manner of ‘others’, of strangers who are not part of that select group.

4. Goodness. By this time, someone may well object that ethics is not so much an issue of self, other, stranger, neighbour, social relations or chosen people, but actually of goodness. In response, I tackle goodness in terms of its problematic theological associations. The problem here is that one ends up in all manner of theological knots attempting to distinguish good from evil. The most consistent theological position, but one that few theologians or indeed biblical scholars wish to touch is that God is responsible for both good and evil.

5. Class. Goodness and ethics ultimately have inescapable class associations. When Plato asked, ‘What is good?, it was not an abstract question. Goodness was applicable only to the well-born, wealthy, propertied, lucky ruling class. And Aristotle, who coined the term ethics (ta ethika), states bluntly that ethics is appropriate not for persons of low tastes, who are the vast majority: ‘The utter vulgarity of the herd of men comes out in their preference for the sort of existence a cow leads’. In other words, only ruling class males are capable of ethical lives, as well as philosophical reflection, rhetorical training and political leadership. It certainly does not include all those class others, such as slaves, peasants, artisans and women – even though the ruling ideology is applicable to them. The purpose of ethics is thereby to ensure that existing custom and habit (ethos and mos) remain in place, get some much-needed lubrication and work a little better.

The very structure of the discourse of ethics, whether framed in terms of ‘self’, ‘other’, goodness, an ‘ought’, has ever since borne these implicit class assumptions. As soon as we use it, we play the same game.

6. Unethics. Can the term can be appropriated, emptied and refilled by those opposed to the ruling classes? Many have tried and failed, for a form inevitably trails the dust of its former associations. That is, the enmeshment of form and content ensures that a term such as ethics is never quite free of its ruling class dimensions. So I suggest that a position opposed to ruling class custom and habit be pursued, that is, aēthēs and praeter morem, an unethical and unmoral politics.

It may be objected that these terms too are part of ruling class discourse, designating the class other, that they are still within that framework. In response, I suggest that the valorization of the realm of those opposed to the ruling class then becomes an act of subverting the very ideology of ethics and its class associations. That is, such a position may be regarded as a taking of sides, for these terms indicate what is disruptive, unwelcome, what shakes up the customary and comfortable social order – unethical and unmoral politics. It seizes ruling class ideology and turns it against itself. In the end, even these terms should be understood as place-holders for an entirely other terminology that may be more appropriate, a terminology that maybe found among the masses silenced in the elite literature of ethics.

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