Weaponized ideals and ethical profiling

High ethical standards initially seem to be a good thing. Even if we cannot always live up to them, there is value in recognizing and enshrining an ideal. At the same time, ethical standards are not used solely as an object for aspiration. They are also used as a basis for judgment. And that leaves room for high ideals to be weaponized.

The way this works is analogous to racial profiling. For instance, it is well known that in the United States, virtually every driver exceeds the speed limit. Indeed, following the speed limit can often create a dangerous situation. Nevertheless, the police still enforce this ultimately unenforceable law, and when they do so, they tend to pick out members of groups who already receive disproportionate police attention, namely people of color. In the same way, when we’re dealing with an impossible ethical ideal, those who are judged or punished for not following it will often be selected from disadvantaged groups — a phenomenon we can call “ethical profiling.”

This happens most of all when the high ideal is extremely abstract. For instance, we are told that it is ethically most salutary to be non-violent. Though violence may be sadly necessary under certain circumstances, we should aspire to avoid it to the extent possible. In the world as we know it, however, avoiding it completely is often utterly impossible — particularly when “violence” can be so broadly defined as to include property damage, or impeding the normal run of things, or speaking too harshly. Everyone is violating the ideal in some way or other, but only the protestors (by definition a less powerful group than the powers that be) are judged for doing so. This effect is of course amplified when the protestors are black.

We might also think of the demand to cherish every “life” to the fullest possible extent. Really following this demand would require changing literally everything we do every day, even if we’re only limiting ourselves to human lives. Once again, it is an impossible demand, and once again, only the most vulnerable — women with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies — are expected to follow through on it. The ethic of life is weaponized in the service of ensuring women’s subordination and punishing their sexual expression.

None of this is to say that there aren’t people who don’t sincerely hold the ideals in question. For a select few, aspiring to a high ethical ideal becomes a true vocation to which they dedicate their whole selves. The problem arises when the unique achievements of these ethical heroes become a weapon of the powerful — for instance, when the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is weaponized to shame and denigrate the contemporary black community, or when the heroic voluntary self-sacrifice of Christ is imposed as a baseline expectation on women and the poor. In such cases, we’re dealing less with mere hypocrisy than with something like blasphemy.

“At least I’m honest”

“Sure, I have racist thoughts. I’ve crossed the street to avoid a black man sometimes, but only at night. I mean, at least I’m honest about it, though, right?”

“I have had a lot of bad experiences with women, and yes, I’m resentful about it. It colors how I treat the women I meet. Even though I know in my head that it doesn’t make sense, in my gut I feel like every woman I date owes me sex on behalf of all those other bitches who teased me and left me high and dry. But hey, at least I’m honest!”

“Can I just say that for me, family life was always just an obligation? I mean, yeah, I care about my wife and kids, but what’s really important to me is my work. I wish we could just be honest about it — I’ll give them money if they leave me alone.”

I don’t think that any of us would say that statements like this represent important ethical achievements. Even in their own wording, they openly admit that they’re doing the very minimum — more honesty! Yet the “at least” may already be an overestimate: who would claim that unethical behavior suddenly becomes ethical when it is openly engaged in?

In reality, the “at least I’m honest” gesture is a foreclosure of ethics, a short-circuit by which being true to one’s own authentic shittiness becomes an ethical obligation in itself. It is the last stillborn offspring of the Christian critique of hypocrisy — a critique that was originally intended to shame people into living up to their stated ethical ideals, much as Christian confession (“being honest with yourself”) was a first step toward ethical transformation and made no sense outside of a process of conversion. In the “at least I’m honest” worldview, by contrast, ethical aspiration as such is already the hypocrisy that must be rooted out, and the only possible outcome of confessing one’s shittiness is to remain authentically, honestly shitty.

In response to this radically self-serving post-ethical stance, all we can do is require people to stop being so damn honest and start being as hypocritical as possible — because say what you will of hypocrisy, at least it maintains the possibility of an ethos.

The Use-Value of Ethics: Antonio Negri’s Hopeful Time

This post emerges out of a close reading I did of one of Negri’s toughest texts, “The Constitution of Time,” which is in the Time for Revolution book put out by Continuum. I’m referencing the hardback edition, which has different pagination than the paperback edition. My thanks to Adam, Anthony, and Brad for hosting the post at AUFS.

I’d suggest that Negri’s “The Constitution of Time” can be understood as part of a contemporary ethical project. I am using “ethics” here in the sense of a way of life, and it’s how I understand Negri’s usage of “the practice of theory,” such as the following statement: “When the practice of theory is directed simply towards the constitution of the transcendent, time is non-existence. Time is multiplicity. Time is a theological scandal.” (30) I think that his (uneven) attempt to chart out a materialist theory of time is more readily understandable in these terms, and I’d like to  draw out the main contours of this ethics in order to clarify his pervasive recourse to the language of hope. Given Negri’s grounding of his own project in Spinoza, this is something I’ve found a bit troubling, even though I’m willing to entertain the idea that Negri does the some kind of rewriting to terms like hope that Spinoza famously does with God. Nevertheless, reading through “The Constitution of Time” was a bit of a revelation for me in my study of Negri, and despite the fact that this text is at times even more difficult than The Savage Anomaly, I’ve found it pretty helpful for getting a sense of what he’s up to in terms of his own ethics.

The first place that Negri’s ethics can be detected is in his polemical opposition to the “re-equilibrating calculus” of Keynes and Polanyi. (41) The fundamental distinction in Negri’s text is between the empty, reversible, measuring time of capitalism, and the constitutive, composing, open time of communism. Negri suggests that the second has been made possible by the first, which for him is why the “overcoming of capitalism occurs on the basis of needs constructed by capitalism.” (26) The more that capital has expanded on a global scale, the more difficult it becomes to measure labor with time. When capital has expanded far enough, when it “invests the whole of life,” then “time is not the measure of life, but is life itself.” (35) This paradox is one way to describe real subsumption; in conquering life, capital has seemingly become victorious once and for all. There is no longer an alternative to the M-C-M’ relation. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Communism, ethics, immanence, Marxism, Negri, politics, Spinoza. Comments Off on The Use-Value of Ethics: Antonio Negri’s Hopeful Time

That’ll preach

One of my favorite games is to declare, in the midst of a conversation, “That’ll preach!” Most of the time, the declaration is ironic or absurd. The exceptions are sometimes interesting, though.

Case in point, this morning. I was talking to a friend of mine about an interview with László Krasznahorkai, in which he says toward the end:

According to Krasznahorkai, the deepest loss is the loss of a culture of poverty – the ability to “sing wonderful songs when we are poor”. Now, he says, “… we only have people who don’t have money … everybody wants to be rich, everybody has only one dream, but people, do we really have one dream – I ask – is this the only aim in this shit, to have much more money?”

There’s nowhere left beyond the reach of the market, he continues, “… no empty spaces with possibilities, only stupid spaces, spaces in which you can’t do anything other than wait to return from this space …” There are perhaps theorists who could explain why this has happened, he adds, but after these explanations “… everything goes on – why? I see you, and I ask you – why?”

He gestures to the computer sitting on the table at his elbow. “This is the result of 10,000 years? Really? We have microphone, laptop, this technical society – that’s all? This is sad, and very disappointing. After so many geniuses in the human story from Leonardo to Einstein, from the Buddha to Endre Szemerédi, these are fantastic figures, and their work is unbelievably important and we cannot do anything with it – why?”

My friend objected to what he regarded as a certain romanticizing of old-time poverty. I disagreed with him on a number of grounds, but in the end conceded for the sake of conversation. I argued instead that what if the point is less some kind of nostalgia for the past, and more a heightened indictment of the present? Nostalgia, after all, is only really a problem when it overly informs present action.

Fundamentalist preaching, for example, can be boiled down to “Our belief in ethical progress has doomed us to moral regress,” and will appeal to the past as a remedy. But is it possible to accept their diagnosis without the prescribed remedy, and confess instead that of all the world’s guilty parties throughout history, we of the here & now are the guiltiest — that instead of improving or progressing beyond the past, we are to blame for whatever entropic decay we’re enduring and systemic abuse we’re committing.(Obviously, there are gradations of ‘blame’ to spread around. None of this necessarily has to extend into strict moral equivalence. The point being we blame in order not to distinguish the wronged from the wrong, but to identify our different responsibilities and responses to present shittiness.)

If we could accept this, if we could preach this(!), whether it is measurably or qualitatively true or not, could something good, something beyond self-loathing, come of it?

Thoughts on Seminar VII

Yesterday, Stephen Keating and I had a great discussion of Lacan’s Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. There is much that is impressive about this seminar, which seems to me to operate at a higher level of ambition and reach than the first three, but there is also much that is puzzling — most notably the central question of the sense in which this is an ethics.

As Stephen suggested, perhaps Lacan was not so much putting forward a normative ethics as performing a kind of thought experiment, asking what ethics would look like in light of psychoanalysis. Read the rest of this entry »

Moral dilemmas as intellectual bullying

In my social science course, we’re reading Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan on moral development. Kohlberg uses longitudinal interviews based on moral dilemmas to measure moral development, which for him moves essentially through self-interest to social conformity to something like a liberal respect for human rights. The only problem with his system is that it doesn’t appear to work for women’s development, and Gilligan points out that in many of Kohlberg’s interviews with women, the problem seems to be that they resist the simplistic set-up of the scenarios and refuse to accept the implied either/or of the dilemma.

For instance, one of the dilemmas features a man who has to choose between stealing medicine and letting his wife die. This is perfectly calibrated to measure Kohlberg’s stages, because it poses a sharp contrast between legal and moral obligations. It also makes no fucking sense, and the women tend to pick up on that, essentially asking, “Are you sure these are the only two options?”

It strikes me that what Kohlberg regards as “retrograde” answers are actually more useful as concrete moral reflection. His dilemmas are meant to measure moral deliberation, but as Gilligan points out, they are really meant to produce a certain type of answer (in this case, the one correlated with one’s developmental stage).

As I reflected on my experience, it seems that that has always been my experience with the moral hypotheticals that populate Anglo-American philosophy as well as political punditry. The “ticking time-bomb” scenario is not meant to produce any real insight into torture, for instance, but to shut down any actual reflection and force one’s interlocutor to say that torture is permitted. It’s similar with discussions of drone warfare: the moral dilemma posed is always that between land invasion and drone warfare, and what kind of monster would prefer a land invasion? Yet I daresay those aren’t the only two options. Or we could even take the example of voting for Obama: yes, I prefer Obama over Romney, Democrats over Republicans — but is that really where the discussion has to end?

This is the dark side of reasoned argument, where debate itself becomes a form of violence. Who hasn’t laboriously constructed a bulletproof argument and been blinded by rage and frustration when one’s interlocutor could not be forced to agree? “But surely,” you sputter, “you have to admit that…” And at this point, only one response is possible: “I don’t have to admit anything!”

Is hypocrisy to be preferred?

In the last decade or so, one has frequently heard people express the sentiment that it is somehow “better” for powerful politicians to openly proclaim the evil things they do, because “at least it’s out in the open.” In my mind, this is profoundly and disturbingly misguided, as our present experience with Obama’s “kill list” shows. When Bush openly claimed excessive powers, his party embraced that position and it became part of the mainstream debate. Similarly now with Obama’s “kill list” — there are now liberal pundits who are openly defending the indefensible, simply because it’s their guy doing it. I don’t think any rational person can argue that this course of events has improved the chances of rolling back the Bush-Obama anti-terror policies.

What’s nice about hypocrisy is that it at least maintains some point of connection with morality. It keeps moral principles — like “you don’t torture people” or “you don’t send killer robots to murder people on your sole say-so” — enshrined as norms, meaning that there’s some kind of leverage for change. Actually committing the crimes is bad enough, but publicly proclaiming them to be the right thing to do is an even more horrific crime, because it closes down the possibility that the crimes may end in the future.

We have a “natural experiment” before our eyes right now of how the “at least it’s out in the open” strategy worked with Bush and Obama — once moral norms are dethroned, it just leads to further degradation. I know that one might be uncomfortable with such slippery-slope arguments given how often they’re used by conservatives, but that really is how it works. We just happen to think the moral norms they lament weren’t truly moral in the first place — it’s good that we’re on a slippery slope toward greater freedom to divorce, greater acceptance of gays, etc. It’s not good that we’re on a slippery slope toward greater acceptance of torture and assassination. (I hope this isn’t too complicated for anyone.)

So in conclusion, if I had to choose between Obama having a top-secret kill list that he’d disavow in public and the current situation, I’d chose the top-secret kill list every time — because say what you will of hypocrisy, at least it leaves open the possibility of an ethos.


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