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.