In favour of an unethical and unmoral politics

Let’s define ethics as the means of greasing or oiling social relations so that they work more smoothly. Now, I am very suspicious of ethics, a suspicion aroused whenever I encounter a certain cluster of unthinking phrases. 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 suggest an ambit claim, an overdone proposal in order to make what I really want to propose seem perfectly reasonable, and 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 and 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 (like Elvis perhaps) before which your position counts for nothing’. After all, who doesn’t want to be ethical? All such approaches, I suggest, are actually moralising, telling people what they should or shouldn’t do.

In the the rush of studies on ethics, two positions quickly show up: care of the self (Foucault, Alain de Botton and all those books on self-help that tower over you when you walk into a bookshop), and concern for the ‘other’ (Levinas, Laplanchle, Irigaray, Spivak, Butler, Eagleton). Both are problematic for the simple reason that they try to make interpersonal and social relations work better. Add a drop of oil here, some grease there and we’ll all learn to show some more patience, tolerance, love, understanding and responsibility. In other words, the status quo is basically fine, but we’ll all be do-gooders and add a few little modifications. Salvation by good works, anyone? Further, rather than the ‘other’ being a problem to which ethics must respond, I would suggest that ethics itself creates the ontological ‘other’ in the first place.

For all the quasi-theological babble about ethics, it is worth pointing out that the words ethikos and ethika do not actually appear in the Bible. All we find is ethos, used on a few occasions by the urbane author of Luke and Acts. Its meaning: the customs and law, whether of the priests, the Jews, Moses, the fathers.  Here is a hint of the problem with ethics. Briefly, the adjective ethikos is actually part of a larger semantic cluster around the substantive ethos and the verb ethō, which bear the basic sense of custom and habit. The Latin translation is mos (plural mores), which means habit, custom, common usage and then even law.


The catch with both ethos and mos is that moral terms like this cannot escape all those class assumptions from the Greek and Roman worlds, where moral, social and economic terms all overlap in designating one’s place among the powerful ruling classes or in one’s customary place among the slaves, impoverished peasants and indentured labourers. For example, terms like good, beautiful, lucky, brave and upright, are interchangeable with well-born, wealthy, noble, elite and pillars of society, while bad, ugly, unlucky, cowardly and lowly, are linked very closely with poor, ignoble, ill-born, cursed, masses and the dregs of society. Moral, economic, social, temporal and spatial terms overlap and merge into one another to provide a complete discourse, a class consciousness that is voiced again and again the classical Greek and Roman texts. So, what is customary and habitual at a social level, what is expected of one in such circumstances is not to disrupt social ‘harmony’ but to follow all those ethical and moral expectations, assumptions and laws that keep the social fabric together.

So what is the proper response to such social grease, to supporting the status quo? aēthēs (or aētheia): the unaccustomed, unusual, unwonted and unexpected – unethical. Or praeter morem, contrary to custom, and sine more, against custom – in short, unmoral. Undesirable terms in classical writers such as Thucydides, Aeschylus, Euripides, Virgil and Terence, but this is precisely why the terms appeal to me so much. Note carefully: I do not argue for an amoral position. The universe may well be amoral, for there is nothing good or bad about a piece rock floating in space, as Darko Suvin once put it. But I wish to take a position against ethics from within, challenging ethics itself in the name of what is unethical and unmoral. For these terms indicate what is disruptive, unwelcome, what shakes up the customary and comfortable social order.  So I am after an untimely, unethical and unmoral politics.



11 thoughts on “In favour of an unethical and unmoral politics

  1. Roland,

    Given that you must have a better solution in mind eventually (I don’t see you as giving up on th world just yet), would that involve the formulation of a new ethics or would it involve perpetual unethical behaviour? Order or anarchy? (Oh, dear, two more loaded terms 🙂



    1. The ubiquity of ethics! Of course, my approach takes place within ethics rather than dispensing with it entirely (although I am Calvinist enough to think that any salvation by do-gooding gets us nowhere). But this unethical position is part of a necessary and perpetual theological suspicion.

  2. Lyotard’s approach to ethics, at least when he is advocating ‘paralogism’, is a ‘good’ alternative to the search for higher ethical principle. Lyotard does sometimes seem to slip into the emancipationist grand narrative (particularly when he is only copying Levinas). But what is distinctive about paralogism is its relentless reconsideration of the alternative conceptions of ethics which are being excluded in any particular imposition of ethics. Such an approach collapses (I think) the consideration of ethics into a consideration of the logic of ethical systems. That is, it does away with the normative mode completely, as always and inevitably totalitarian. So the ‘proper’ response is not appeal to some higher rule of ethics (there is none), but recognition of the injustices caused by the system of justice itself (i.e. differends).

    Class assumptions, huh? There’s this quote by Michel de Montaigne which I’ve always liked. I’ve got it written down somewhere. Here it is (from 1588):

    “The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom; every one, having an inward veneration for the opinions and manners approved and received among his own people, cannot, without very great reluctance, depart from them, nor apply himself to them without applause.”

    Not bad. But maybe it was the next one I originally had in mind, which is also a pearler. It’s old Arthur Schopenhauer:

    “The average individual, who thinks his conscience such an imposing structure, would be surprised to see of what it actually exists: about one-fifth fear of men, one-fifth fear of idols, one-fifth prejudice, one-fifth vanity and one-fifth sheer habit, which makes him basically no better than a certain Englishman who flatly stated that he could not afford to have a conscience.”

    Fear of idols: more pagan superstition!

    Who was that certain Englishman? That’s interesting. It looks like William Paley. Yep. It was uttered, perhaps rashly, on his refusal to sign the clerical petition to the House of Commons in 1772, which would have provided some sort of relief from subscribing to the 39 articles of religion (though he agreed with the principle behind the petition).

    But I’m avoiding writing a wedding speech, and it’s already turned into the day of the wedding. I have a moral obligation.

  3. Butler too wants to avoid some totalitarian ethics, arguing for patience in the incompleteness of giving accounts of ourselves. But then, as Negri points out, behind any provisional ethical scheme lurks an absolute one.

    So you can either offer another absolute one, like Badiou, for whom ethics is a second order activity after the event, encouraging to ‘keep going’ and not get too up yourself. Or perhaps take Zizek’s line that the ‘other’ with whom you engage at the imaginary level actually conceals, via the symbolic ‘big Other’ (law and so on), the obscene, ugly, traumatic other of the Real with whom you have no chance in hell of communicating. But you need to face this dreadful other, so you just smash the face of the imaginary other to get to it.

    Or you can take unethical approach to that wedding speech…

  4. ‘Behind any provisional ethical scheme lurks an absolute one’? Yeah? Sounds interesting. Does Negri mean this in a pragmatic sense? Something like, whenever you appear to leave other schemes open, you are (rhetorically?) excluding other schemes of ethics? Or does he mean something else by this?

    1. I suspect it is more tied up with his argument that there is nothing outside the system – capitalism – so any resistance is generated form within; or rather, it is constitutive of the way the system is organised. So any ethics with a claim to an absolute outside doesn’t work. Tricky argument that, since resistance by those filthy ferals doesn’t make capitalism, but it does shape the form it takes since the controlling factors act in constant response to resistance. OK, I know that’s a tangential answer, but what the hell.

  5. Then Negri sounds like Zizek, whose analysis is a trip, but it results in a system which is so static and structural that there doesn’t seem to be any way beyond it.

    I still think Lyotard’s paralogism provides a third way, in addition to your two ethical systems of ‘self’ and ‘other’. It’s kind of a non-ethics, or at least an approach to ethics which refuses any principle of ethics.

  6. I’m more taken with Negri – one of those sexy writers for me, unlike the frenetic Zizek (whom those in the Balkans regard as a turncoast). The last thing you could say about Negri is that he sees the system as static, but he does argue that it is no longer possible to find any point (foco theory) outside capitalism from which to launch resistance. But that system is so uneven, ruptured, lurching from crisis to crisis, precisely because it tries to overcome the pesky problem of resistance. But I must look more into Lyotard – all I read a while back was his report for the Canadian government that kind of took off.

  7. Lyotard gets right into ethics after that report for the Canadian government ‘that kind of took off’: Just Gaming, The Differend, and the odd article.

  8. Roland, you’re gonna hate me for saying this, but when I read this post the first thing that came to mind was Caputo’s Against Ethics. Heheh. I don’t go in for Caputo all that much, but there’s some decent stuff in that book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.