Much of what claims to be ethics or moral philosophy is really moralising: a version of preaching in which the congregation is told what wrongs to avoid and what the right behaviour should be. The scene is all too well known. The priest, minister or pastor thunders from the pulpit against fornication, sloth, murder, slander, idol-worshipping, bestiality, poisoning the neighbour’s hedge, fighting over the flower roster, necrophilia and harbouring evil thoughts against the conservative party (all without distinction); by contrast the upright items include not lusting after one’s neighbour’s spouse (or indeed one’s neighbour), not stealing, keeping the Sabbath, telling the truth, supporting one’s community, stoning one’s child should they give cheek and giving handsomely to the priest’s Mercedes Benz fund.
The list may alter, but unfortunately too much of what passes for ethics is really a version of such moralising. Two forms of such moralising make their appearance with uncanny frequency: the care of the self and how we should react to and behave towards the ‘other’. How should I care for my body, my mind and soul? What is required to stay healthy, vigorous, sensitive and tolerant? On this score, ethics comes down to asserting that the way I live my life, or at least would like to live my life, is the way you should live yours. As for the ‘other’, the question becomes: what is the appropriate way to respond to the stranger in our midst, the refugees from that country where our government sent the army to shoot the shit out of them, the immigrants with a vastly different cultural, social a religious background to the one with which we are accustomed? And how should we respond to that greatest ‘other’ of all, the non-human, or as it sometimes called, the ‘more-than-human-other’? In these cases, ethics becomes the process of producing a code of acceptable conduct for relating to those ‘others’. Both the care of the self and the response to the ‘other’ are categories in which the term ‘ethical’ is thrown about with careless abandon – indeed, they are often assumed to constitute ethics as such. Such moralising is really a bowdlerisation of ethics, a dumbing-down that has not escaped the ubiquity of television programmes (Ophrah Winfrey has much to answer for), self-help manuals, the desire for makeovers and the obnoxious need to ‘sell’ oneself in order to make any headway in the world.