It has been much remarked upon that Derrida turned to ethical concerns toward the end of his career. This turn is often invoked to push back against those who would view Derrida as a nihilist, etc. Yet it often escapes notice that Derrida is undertaking a kind of meta-ethics — investigating the grounds of possibility (and, since it’s Derrida, also of impossibility) of something like ethical responsibility. This meta-ethical ground would presumably underlie any stance or practice that could be recognized as ethical.
The problem I see with much of the reception of Derrida’s meta-ethical work is the desire that this meta-ethics could somehow directly and already be an ethics in itself. Indeed, taken in that way, it seems to be a particularly demanding ethics, one that puts all previous ethical systems to shame. The paradox, however, is that if the conditions of possibility and impossibility for ethics are already present in all ethical behavior and deliberation, it cannot be “difficult.” It’s just how things are.
For example, we don’t need to somehow “recognize” the fact that we don’t have the kind of agency a classical ethical theory would attribute to us, as though positive ethical results would follow if we “embraced” the dividedness and inconsistency of our subjectivity. Gaining insight into that underlying structure is not in itself an ethical achievement, nor does it lead to any particular ethical achievement. In fact, one could almost say it’s just the opposite: the illusion of agency is a necessary illusion if we are to fulfill the ethical demand to take responsibility.
Similarly, it is not necessarily ethically beneficial to “recognize” the infinite demand of the other, of every other. In the famous passage about feeding his cat out of all the other hungry cats, I don’t think Derrida meant to say that he was being “more ethical” because he somehow managed to feed his cat in such a way as to recognize the full overwhelming pathos of the gap between his action and the infinite demand — it’s easy to imagine that recognizing that infinite demand could become an alibi, releasing one of any concrete ethical obligation. Again, the illusion that the other who happens to cross your path takes priority — defying the maxim that tout autre est tout autre — is a necessary one, without which actual ethical behavior would be impossible.
It may be possible to evaluate certain ethical codes or behaviors as rising more fully to the challenge of the ethical situation as such — in particular, one would hope that this theory of meta-ethics could exclude limit cases such as Nazism from the category of the properly ethical. Yet even then, it would be necessary to maintain the irreducible gap between the meta-ethical conditions of (im)possibility of ethics and any actual-existing ethical code or behavior. Even if we were able to determine with absolute certainty that one particular ethics was “best” in terms of meeting the demand of the ethical situation, Derrida’s meta-ethics still would not simply “be” that ethics. Nor indeed should we assume that Derrida’s own personal ethical convictions “necessarily follow” from his meta-ethical analysis.