Alain Badiou: Ethics
Long train rides provide ample time to read and reflect, and I used a recent long journey through several Great Lakes states to delve into some books I recently purchased. Because of its author’s recent altercation with Laurent Joffrin, which I found amusing and gratifying,* I started with Alain Badiou’s essay on the ideology of “ethics.” For those less familiar with French philosophy, a forgivable lapse if ever there was one, a few words of introduction. Badiou, a student of blog muse Louis Althusser, is, to my mind, the last standing great Marxist intellectual of the revolutionary period of late 1960s and early 1970s France. Where scads of disappointed intellectuals who saw the collapse of radicalism in the wake of the May 1968 revolt retreated into academicism and postmodernism, Badiou has continued to pledge fidelity to political radicalism. His major philosophical preoccupations have been mathematical set theory and theories of subjectivity, aesthetics, and universalism. My first encounter with him came when I read his book on St. Paul, and I’ve kept an intermittent interest in his work alive. This is despite his political lapse into what he calls “politics without a party,” and a post-Maoist and anti-statist position I find untenable. As a prose writer and a polemicist he has few equals. As a philosopher I find him more frequently lucid and pertinent than most––though I have yet to plunge into Being and Event. Since I have had difficult defining my own position on what is popularly called “ethics,” I thought this book would be able to draw some helpful lines to guide my thought. For the most part, I can confirm that it has.
Ethics is animated by a sense of righteous anger and disgust with the prevailing ideas about what “ethics” should be. Badiou therefore first strips down the implications of “ethics” and, after dismissing the popular ideology, attempts to construct an ethics of truth.
Today, ethics is everywhere. Medical ethics, humanitarian ethics, “ethics in game journalism,” commissions in ethics, and on and on. All of this talk and institutional fretting about ethics appears to originate from a genuine concern with human welfare and happiness. Badou, however, understands this form of ethics to amount to nothing other than a “genuine nihilism, a threatening denial of thought as such.”¹ Not only thought, but politics as well fall prostrate before the specter of ethics. By defining human beings as nothing more than (potential) victims, it transforms ethics into a conservative force, merely concerned with pitying those who have been wronged. It proposes that abstract ideals rather than the concrete realities of certain situations should govern a subject’s actions. By subordinating politics to itself, it radically undermines the capability of militants to really transform their situation instead of paying fealty to the belief that any attempt to formulate a positive good will create evil.
Fundamentally, Badiou argues for an ethics of truth, of the singularity of situations. He describes the following medical situation:
“Thus, for instance, the doctor won over to ‘ethical’ ideology will ponder, in meetings and commissions, all sorts of considerations regarding ‘the sick’, conceived of in exactly the same way as the partisan of human rights conceives of the indistinct crowd of victims – the ‘human’ totality of subhuman entities [réels]. But the same doctor will have no difficulty in accepting the fact that this particular person is not treated at the hospital, and accorded all necessary measures, because he or she is without legal residency papers, or not a contributor to Social Security…
“And if he is to be prevented from giving treatment because of the State budget, because of death rates or laws governing immigration, then let them send for the police! Even so, his strict Hippocratic duty would oblige him to resist them, with force if necessary.”²
What this illustration provides is an example of absolute and selfless commitment to truth, to the requirements of the situation itself. The doctor must treat the patient. The revolutionary must destroy the rotten void of the old order. A lover must, to be faithful, subordinate the one to the multiple and forgo their own interests. There is no ethics in general. No set of abstract ideals and principles is sufficient to safeguard Good as it appears in real life. Rather, there are only “ethics of processes by which we treat the possibilities of a situation.”³ These ethics are necessary because evil, to Badiou, can emerge only from Good. Evil is, as a matter of fact, the specific name of the results of infidelity or wrongful commitment to the good, and ethics is there to safeguard good from those side effects.
Ethics is a philosophical work, and so its purpose is to demarcate, as Lenin reminds us, between opposing “fundamental lines in philosophy.”⁴ Those lines being materialist and idealist ones. To reduce Badiou’s schemes and no doubt do some injury to their value, if Badiou is working as a Marxist philosopher should––definitely a contentious suggestion––his ethics of the situation is the materialist line that excludes the idealistic distortions of contemporary ethics. Indeed, his suggestions appear far superior to the vague pontifications of church leaders and politicians who prattle on about ethics to justify imperialist wars and the immiseration of the working class for the “common good.” How much have we heard about the fact that everyone in the United States has to bear “their share” of the burden of capitalist crises? Not only this, but Badiou’s ethics of fidelity and commitment have their appeal for revolutionaries as well, which surprised me. A revolutionary should treat the political situation as the only one that matters, the only one that captures their full attention and energy. Revolutionary truth has a shattering effect on the subject, one that I can attest to, and it remakes the person. Conservatism finds itself disarmed, void of any relevance because it can only chatter about “collective responsibility” while always investing particular collectives with all the power and the only authority to speak.
At the same time, I have questions about Badiou’s theories of the subject and of the “event.” These confusions stem mainly from lack of exposure, but are also symptoms of discomfort with Badiou’s fascination with Plato and use of vocabulary about “immortality” and the infinity. Can such transcendent language avail itself for revolutionary use? Or is this just a more subtle mask for idealism? I am reluctant to believe the latter, but I certainly know many people who hold that opinion. Nevertheless, as a polemic against a creeping and pernicious ideology, Ethics has powerful virtues.
1. Alain Badiou, Ethics (New York: Verso, 2012), 101. (ebook)
2. Ibid, 123.
3. Ibid, 126.
4. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/one1.htm
*Gratifying as a defense of the Cultural Revolution as a major landmark of the history of human liberation. The fact that I feel so gratified by the statements of a major intellectual as opposed to the many militants I know says something about how rhetorical power is invested in the capitalist world.