Ethics and Extremity
In European thought, there have been various writers who have opened up the question of transgression by considering what lies inside and what lies outside the realm of the ethical. And because it is European it generally interrogates the limits of the good as being co-terminus with christian ethics. Notoriously, Nietzsche announced the death of God' and thus our potential for being morally tossed about on the seas of caprice, experience and history without anchor or harbour.
Nietzsche is writing about 'nihilism' at a time of both kultur-pessimismus and kultur-kampf - the struggle for a re-assertion of (German) values in the face of the sense of a loss of values.
"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?" Nietzsche, Die Froliche Wisssenschaft, 1882 (The Joyful Science)
and Thus Spake Zarathustra he notes:
Beware! The time approaches when human beings no longer launch the arrow of their longing beyond the human, and the string of their bow will have forgotten how to whir!
Beware! The time approaches when human beings will no longer give birth to a dancing star.
Beware! The time of the most contemptible human is coming, the one who can no longer have contempt for himself.
And Nietzsche says this in Beyond Good and Evil: "At long last, did one not have to sacrifice for once whatever is comforting, holy, healing; all hope, all faith in hidden harmony, in future blisses and justices? Didn't one have to sacrifice God himself ... ?"
Combine these quotes with a notion that always Nietzsche is encouraging us to experiment with life and perhaps by the 'Death of God' idea he is issuing us with a challenge as puts it in the preface to Beyond Good and Evil to open up the question of the value of values - to experiment with our 'good' conscience and forms of life and not accept a routine un-reflected version of church led authorised christian morality through which we have become intellectually lazy.
The Death of God has perhaps a double-sense - God and the abyss are one - the horror of having to face God has been forgotten as a test of one moral conscience because of the pleasant bourgeois trivial routines of life - much as today with amusements, mobile phones, and the Kardashians - an empty airheaded life. And equally in the absence of God the moral foundation have been taken away - the abyss opens - there is no floor of certainty - so what are going to do? That is the test of nihilism.
Georges Bataille glossing Nietzsche comments that: "Being divine is not only putting life to the standard of the impossible, it is renouncing the guarantee of the possible. Man's understanding of this notion is no more perfect than his understanding of God. God doesn't tolerate himself as possible. Man is constrained by this tolerance but God, the Almighty, no longer is. God's misery is the human will to appropriate God for humanity through salvation. This will expresses the imperfection of the possible in man, but the perfect possible that God is does not end before falling into horror and into the impossible. To die an atrocious, vile death, abandoned by everyone, abandoned by God himself, what else could the perfect possible aspire to? It would be foolish and small without this aspiration! Man, who is nothing but man, can be limited to the moment of his greatest thought, raising himself to the height of God: man's limit isn't God, isn't the possible, it is the impossible, the absence of God." (Sur Nietzsche, 1944)
Bataille again is opening up the test though (an erotic) one of facing absolute horror of absolute torment and pain as an experiment of facing oneself....and thus of radical subjectivity as opposed to the shaping objectivity of ethical reason.
I want to talk about the possible relation between ethics and the extreme - Can one talk about this?
Is not the extreme..outside of the ethical?
Where is the extreme? At what point does it occur? And what is it to tame it by the economy of an ethics (oikos = household = tomb)
Do we always try to blunt the extreme for the sake of the reasonable or do we sometimes pay homage to extremity?
Slightly odd questions perhaps but let us see if we can make some headway.
Let us start by wondering about what ethics does and how it/they are implemented.
It regulates - expresses and defines the rules for conduct over a range of cases in recommendatory form (you ought always to do this in these circumstances) (as opposed to imposition - you will do X (the law))
In a sense ethics is absolute because it is bound to its very idea is what it is - a statement of the meaning of 'the good'.
It is not measured by corresponding penalties for failing to obey the rule - choice is permitted, whereas, curiously, the law - which is often seen as an absolutist form, is to be judged and measured by what lies outside its rule - the penalty/the punishment. I do not obey the law for the sake of the law (that would be its absolute form)...
but to avoid the penalty on the assumption I will be caught disobeying...traded off against not being caught. It is conditional - if you do not obey, follow, do x then Y (an unpleasant consequence) will occur.
And presumably Ethics determines the extremes - which cases do not fall under the rule - either under any rule because these cases are simply irrelevant to the ethical questioning; or under another moral rule, just not this one.
So...ethics determines the limits not only of what is ethical, but also the limits of itself -
a) what ethics can address to say how something should be done...and where and when it is wrong to do it?
b) what lies outside of ethics and therefore determining its limits - ethics's extremes - after which it no longer can be meaningful as ethics.
Some kind of conduct is so extreme that ethics cannot and should not say how or where it may be done - it rules it out tout court. It will not talk of it - no words, no meaning - this conduct cannot count under any rules
Think here of the child who in a nice 1950s family setting suddenly starts discussing in detail some aspect of sexual behaviour. Very quickly either the child is punished apparently without explanation because, to explain would put it within moral discourse and reason as well as be embarrassing; whereas the parents want to signal that such matters and the child's conduct are absolutely wrong and not morally considerable. The child is told: Darling, we don't talk about that sort of thing. It is improper even for moral consideration and thus in its very immorality, it is beyond speech and meaning.
All such talk and with it the kind of activities the words allude to, are to be banished from even moral consideration and thus choice and decision
And think here of censorship and public burning of 'blasphemous'
books or just those that are written by outsiders in
Where it is the role of ethics to specify the conditions under which an action is permissable, i.e. the setting of the relevant categorial limit, it is of course, as noted a moment ago having to decide two limits or extremities - does it fit under this rule OR is it outside of any framework...is also to open up the potential for a clash with that most fundamental of meta-ethical containers - the universalisation of ethics...
this is Ethics's equivalent of the old adage 'hard cases make bad law'..or what has been called akrasia - weakness of the (moral) will - backsliding!
Kant showed us why we need some universal moral rules - 'always do X'; never 'Y'... Utilitarian approaches are problematic because we usually do lie for what we see as good reasons in this case, at the time i.e. that utility-wise it will produce, at least for me, a better outcome (than not lying)
But by that token, it legitimates each person lying whenever it suits irrespective of the social consequences which quickly accumulates into the breakdown of trust.
So absolute rule: 'never lie'...and then think of the Saki short story of Tobermory:
....“And do you really ask us to believe,” Sir Wilfrid was saying, “that you have discovered a means for instructing animals in the art of human speech, and that dear old Tobermory has proved your first successful pupil?” ..... In the midst of the clamour Tobermory entered the room and made his way with velvet tread and studied unconcern across the group seated round the tea-table. A sudden hush of awkwardness and constraint fell on the company...“Will you have some milk, Tobermory?” asked Lady Blemley in a rather strained voice. “I don’t mind if I do,” was the response, couched in a tone of even indifference. Tobermory looked squarely at her for a moment and then fixed his gaze serenely on the middle distance. It was obvious that boring questions lay outside his scheme of life. “What do you think of human intelligence?” asked Mavis Pellington lamely. “Of whose intelligence in particular?” asked Tobermory coldly. “Oh, well, mine for instance,” said Mavis with a feeble laugh. “You put me in an embarrassing position,” said Tobermory, whose tone and attitude certainly did not suggest a shred of embarrassment.
“When your inclusion in this house-party was suggested Sir Wilfrid protested that you were the most brainless woman of his acquaintance, and that there was a wide distinction between hospitality and the care of the feeble-minded. Lady Blemley replied that your lack of brain-power was the precise quality which had earned you your invitation, as you were the only person she could think of who might be idiotic enough to buy their old car...” ...Major Barfield plunged in heavily to effect a diversion. “How about your carryings-on with the tortoise-shell puss up at the stables, eh?” The moment he had said it every one realized the blunder. “One does not usually discuss these matters in public,” said Tobermory frigidly. “From a slight observation of your ways since you’ve been in this house I should imagine you’d find it inconvenient if I we re to shift the conversation to your own little affairs.” The panic which ensued was not confined to the Major.
Much later in the day Mrs. Cornett said, “Tobermory may be a valuable cat and a great pet; but I’m sure you’ll
So the problem is that universalisability
makes at least some rules absolute which would seem wrong to suggest otherwise
and...What to do with Tobermory who must tell the
truth - Tobermory being an ethical extremist.
What is wrong with ethical extremism?
That we do want to circumscribe the limits of the ethical case-range often is not itself a matter of ethics but of awkward and inconvenient consequences.
...and that draws the boundary between reason and un-reason. Why I have set the extremes of relevance here, is because it would be unreasonable to take it one case further..
So perhaps social conventions and rules are the guardians and limits of moral rules both in their making as much as their applicability
"it may be moral but it's not quite nice!"
Let me now turn to the relation between ethics and extremity in extremis
If one of the functions of an ethics is to shape the meaning of actions to prompt inner reflection upon what one should and should not do, in what ways can ethics address dis-economies - of endless expenditure, torture, sex and death?
And this is the way ethics addresses the 'radical other' by way of the quest for and to understand, absolute subjectivity...
Let us take a fairly familiar case - honouring the dead and then later the memory of the dead - their trace as the motive of a seemingly right action
But do we have obligations to the dead - why?
Famously Wittgenstein said Death is not a event in life (it is the absolute other) - as such Death has no meaning - it does not matter
There are no words fit for the dead?
Does this make necrophilia amoral? irrelevant?
Death is the reversion of culture back into nature; nothing can harm them now....
The moment of death is the freeing of the person from their history and moreover, from their responsibility - for some, and Heidegger points to this, death is the finality of what one is but never quite grasped. As such it is the abstract and pure moment of subjectivity-in-its-objectivity for which there is no further interpretation by its owner - one may recall the cry of death "it is finished"
This absolute subjectivity that in life was the source of the possibility of ethical identity, in death too often seems to become the possession of others.
We make sense of them, we judge them, we praise them and give them a furtherance of their ethical life when they are not present to live it and take responsibility that is surely, the basis of ethics to be possible at all.
Here we connect ethics to history as an ethical activity - it points to ethics not merely being a matter of judgment now but of ethics as a learning to weigh up and distill what is morally relevant and irrelevant as the historical record itself reveals more and more of a life - viz the current row over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel college Oxford. And through that ever-extending practise of moral considerability which thinking ethically we also extend out capacity to be ethical - we are more ethically literate and subtle so as to be better at moral conduct...hopefully.
And yet this very activity of praising the dead seems to be right and proper. Is this an over-extremity?
or as Shakespeare famous pointed out about the social logic of death and ethics:
"the bad men do lives after them,
the good is oft interred within their bones"
if I now turn to sex - always amusing.....
Many people have noted that french avant-garde writers of the 60s and 70s started to revise established views of the word of the Maquis de Sade. The most famous names of this enterprise were Pierre Klossowski, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and Michel Foucault.
...and the ethical question that the work of Sade raises is whether the expression of absolute desire, exploitation, sexual violence is not only permissable to be said/written and read by us, but whether such writing tells us something about who we are in our subjectivity and its realisation. It reveals the truth about our condition - about ourselves that was expropriated by the external cultural demand to be ethical by the rules that standardise us - they make an economy of our individuality so as to be a socially NORMAL being and if we are not then we are damned and ultimately punished.
"...for Klossowski, Sade's work held a similar theological perspective. 'The libertine's atheism', as Klossowski points out, 'is not a denial of God but an angry attempt to force God to manifest himself."
'We are', according to Bataille, 'discontinuous beings, individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure, but yearn for our lost continuity'. The desire in eroticism is to find continuity in the face of discontinuity, and thus in erotic activity there is a 'dissolution', a nakedness, where the orgasm becomes the 'little death'. The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives'. The sexual act thus involves a 'violation' of the other's state of self possession and, echoing Sade, eroticism exists in the same domain as violence.
In this violent disinterment from the ordinary, we are in a pure state of desire for which there is no greater until orgasm. If this is raw truth, why is it not moral?
Equally the truth that Pierre Clastres speaks of in the Guyaki Indians of the relation to torture to memory and identity.
and Blanchot on chatter and friendship - what is the ethics of friendship?
Chatter is the shame of language. To chatter is not to speak. The stuff of speech destroys silence while at the same time impeding
speech. When one chatters, nothing true is said, even if nothing false is said, because one is not truly speaking. This speech that
does not speak, speech of diversion that goes every which way, with which one passes from one subject to another, without knowing
what it is about, speaking equally of everything, the so-called serious things, the so-called insignificant things, in an equal movement
of interest, precisely because it is understood that one is speaking of nothing, in such a manner of saying, running away
from silence, or running away from the fear of expressing oneself - this is the object of our constant reproach. . . . The reference
to the serious, that demands that one only speak in good earnest, in keeping with solemnity, or that one not speak at all but only begin
to speak—this would soon appear as an attempt to close down language; it is a matter of keeping words back on the pretext of returning
them their dignity; silence is imposed because the one speaking alone retains the right to speak; vain speech is denounced and is substituted
by trenchant speech that does not speak but commands...
Is the ethics of friendship not in a conscious meaningful responsible relationship but is a an idle careless loose being-with relationship that goes against the economy of expenditure?
and then Bataille on symbolic exchange as opposed to Baudrillard's semiotic exchange - of the exchange (potlatch) unto death and of the paradox of the irresponsible christian who gives away all and has nothing: is this ethical unto others? to oneself? Is it a joyful death - is death an experiment in life?
Nietzsche, eternal return, and will to power/self-overcoming.