Saturday, February 03, 2007

Ethics: Seriously, Who Cares?

To the left you see (a link to) Alain Badiou's Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. I'm not ready to discuss that book just yet - I've only read about half of it - but between this and some other Badiou material I've read, I'm wondering if he's not going to become my philosophical nemesis. Even if I ultimately want to distance myself from his ideas, the general thrust of his book is quite thought provoking. He's setting up a view of ethics that is essentially creative - creating or maintaining a new kind of situation. His complaint about other views of ethics is that they are dedicated to simply protecting the status quo; making sure everyone is nice to one another; in a kind of waking ethical sleep. I'm fine with that, especially because of the parallels with Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals.

For several years now, it's been one of my mantras that moral laws don't exist. It's always been something quite difficult to explain; often I'm accused of being one of those generic, yet mythical relativists that thinks morality is arbitrary.

After an extended and frustrated merry-go-round flame war on the blog Vox Popoli, I thought it was time to actually start writing about ethics rather than just bashing them. But it's hard, it is. So I've decided on a method. First, I'm going to put forward some themes, then spend a few posts speaking of other ethics. For example, Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. Kant's Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals. Foucault's care of the self. Spinoza's Ethics. And yes, Badiou's Ethics. After that, I'll write a post or two with some positive thoughts. Good, yes? Yes.

The first idea that I want to critique is the idea of moral laws. In a nutshell, this is the idea that there is a metaphysical legal system. That particular actions have particular metaphysical moral qualities. I think this is the basic idea that a substantial majority of ethical thinking is reducible to; by whatever means and on whatever basis, either revelation or by reason, that we can grasp this metaphysical legal system.

I would say this is neither possible nor desirable. It isn't possible because actions are physical; to give them metaphysical importance is necassarily the work of a mind. If it is the work of a mind, it is necassarily perspectival and finite. Yes, even if a God declares the rules. To speak of a perspectival, finite metaphysical law is oxy-moronic; it can never be anything more than a redundant ratification of desire or power (redundant because desire and power ratify themselves).

It isn't desirable, either, since these laws would also necassarily be impersonal. They would never be anything other than excuses - making necessity out of contingency. For example, claiming that your lack of sexual activity has a moral justification, rather than your own simply inability to get some. Or, claiming that fighting an enemy has a similiar kind of moral justification, rather than an amoral exercise of desire or power.

The second important theme is the quesiton of whether or not there are circumstances under which human life is best lived. Is the good life based on external circumstances, or an internal disposition towards the world? Or a mix of the two? This theme I'll develop in later posts.

So, next time I'll write about the Nichomachean Ethics.

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