spanishcrueltyOver at Perverse Egalitarianism, Mikhail has written an interesting post outlining some of his ethical concerns with respect to realist ontology. A nice discussion has ensued that is well worth reading. Mikhail’s worry is that realist ontologies exclude the possibility of the moral “ought”, leaving us without any moral purchase on the world. I confess that I don’t really see the connection here as one can be a metaphysical and epistemological realist while still remaining an ethical correlationist, and one could also adopt the stance of moral realism.

It appears that Mikhail’s ethical position is primarily that of Kantian deontological ethics. That is, it is an ethical position based on the universality of the moral ought. For some reason I have always had a distaste for the branch of philosophical ethics. Perhaps this is a carry over from having religious fundamentalists screaming at me. Perhaps it’s because moralists have often struck me as the cruelest of human beings. I suppose that, paradoxically, I’ve never seen much good coming out of ethics and have seen a lot that is very ugly. I find it very difficult, in particular, to understand the allure of Kantian ethical universalism. It is difficult for me to conceive of any possible value to ethics unless it be to promote our happiness and flourishing, yet this is precisely what Kant excludes from the domain of the ethical (yes I’m aware he claims we have a duty to pursue happiness). Off of the top of my head, I can immediately think of three arguments as to why Kantian ethical thought is both psychologically unhealthy and a social menace.

read on!

The first argument, of course, comes from Paul’s Romans. As Paul observed so long ago, the moral law creates a morbid and unhealthy psychological disposition that is effectively our death. In seeking to obey the moral law, the more I try to conform to the moral law the more I become obsessed with that which the moral law prohibits. Thus, as Paul puts it, I would never have thought to covet my neighbor’s wife had the law not told me not to. The law creates the very desire for the very thing that it prohibits. Psychologically this pervades the subject with an overwhelming and inescapable guilt that consumes the subject in proportion to the person’s attempt to obey the law. All of us have heard our Jewish and Catholic friends joke about being pervaded by guilt. This is what Paul was talking about.

Socially this dynamic between law, desire, and guilt has horrific consequences. In becoming pervaded by this inescapable guilt, we project the sin outward on to other persons and then seek to destroy these persons. Thus, if the law forbids me from being homosexual, the more I obey this law the more obsessed I become with homosexuality. However, in seeking to escape this I experience my obsession in another person. I now look to eradicate homosexuals from the social sphere as a way of trying to destroy my own guilt. This sort of horrific dialectic seems especially manifested in matters pertaining to sexual desire, where our attempt to eradicate sexual thoughts from our own mind leads to an morbid obsession with the sexual sins of others. It is not by mistake that again and again we see ultra-religious conservative figures fall to these desires even as, in the public space, they’ve spent a lifetime denouncing the sinfulness of our society and others and causing great suffering for thousands of people.

Paul had already put his finger on these psychological dynamics two thousand years ago. I perpetually find myself amazed that Christian fundamentalists, in their obsession with the law, do not notice this or see its real daily effects in our country. It is a shame that all of the good words are taken… Words like “Christian”. When I read the Paul of Romans, or the red script in my Bible (i.e., Jesus’ words), what I discern is an ethical philosophy trying to navigate these sorts of sickly psychological deadlocks and social conflicts. Thus when Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, not to pray in public, not to judge others, to love our neighbors, and when he abolishes the law, everything seems geared towards overcoming these deadlocks and promoting social harmony. All of the things Jesus denounces– praying in public, judging others, hitting back, etc –are things generative of conflict and strife. How is it that a cult of death arose around a man who said such things? How is it that so many of his followers are obsessed with the moral law? How is it that so many of these followers are convinced that what is important, what is central, is having an absolute faith that makes you a “Christian”, rather than creating a kingdom where Jew and Gentile, Jew, and Roman, and Greek, and Chinese, and Indian, and, and, and… where all are welcome and included while nonetheless remaining what they are? How is it that this revolutionary, emanicipatory ethical vision based on difference comes to be clothed in the most hateful and brutal superstition and cruelty? In short, where all of these ethnic and religious differences become indiscerned, irrelevant? I find it deeply mysterious. I mean, damn it, Luke directly says cites the kingdom of heaven as being here.

Second, there is the Hegelian argument. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel shows how the truth of Kant’s categorical imperative or moral law is the French Reign of Terror. If the French Reign of Terror is the truth of the categorical imperative or the universal moral law, then this is because the universality of the law, as Kierkegaard observed, degrades all that is particular, or, more properly, all that is singular. We are thus warranted in overstepping the particular– individual people –because what is important is the universal to come and no particulars can ever live up to the moral law. In striving to actualize the ideal man, those behind the Reign of Terror find that every actual human falls short and therefore must be killed. Do we not find this dialectic again and again wherever the universal comes to trump the singular?

Finally, third, there is the Nietzschean argument. Far from being a universal moral law grounded in a Good Will, the moral law, the categorical imperative, is in reality a disguised will to power that seeks to subordinate the other, to divide them from what they can do, and take revenge upon the other through their moral judgment. Do we not sense this sickly spirit of revenge in every moralist obsessed with the moral law? Do we not sense, again and again, that the cruel Nun from our childhood school, that the strict teacher who acts according to principle, that the fundamentalist evangelist secretly takes pleasure in their judgment and punishment?

For my part, I simply cannot see what good the moral law does. Rather, instead, I advocate an ethics based on aleatory encounters, where my engagement with the other is tailored to the specific singularity of what is required by this circumstance here and now, with that other, premised on love. The ultimate aim of such an ethics is happiness, human flourishing, or eudaimonia for both myself and the others. If, in this ethics, I must be concerned with their happiness and flourishing as well, then this is because, being a relational being rather than a being that lives in a solipsistic void, my happiness is bound up with their happiness. If I drive like an asshole I’m likely to get the finger and honked at a lot. This ethic could thus be described as an ecological ethic. It requires me to think about how I am related to the rest of the world, both other people and natural ecosystems, and the feedback loops between my actions and that world. It requires me to discover those things that most promote my peace of mind, fourishing, and satisfaction. Since the lion share of my happiness is bound up in living in a world that has stability as well as meaningful social relationships, it means that I must be concerned with the sort of social institutions that best promote these ends, that best help to cultivate and foster fellows that can live well with one another, and that attends to the health of the planet. It means that I must attend not simply to base appetites like sex, drink, and eating well, but intellectual values like beauty, wonder, fascination, and fulfilling relationships.

As Kant rightly recognized, we do not know a priori what will make us happy. But this does not mean that happiness and flourishing cannot function as an adequate ground for an ethics. All this lack of knowledge entails is that ethics must be a science, an experimentalism, where we seek to discover those things that produce our flourishing. Just as our medical science helps us to discover those ways of life, those diets, those activities, that promote our health, we need to investigate those things that promote psychological and sociological health. We need to study ethnography, sociology, and history to discover those social institutions that have led to horror and profound human suffering, and those social institutions and forms of life that have produced flourishing, harmony, sustainability, and happiness. If such an ethics is superior to a law based or judgment based ethics– regardless of how facile this ethic might sound –then this is because this ethics is for something, rather than against something. Rather than telling us what is prohibited or forbidden, thereby creating sickly desires for the prohibited and social conflict, this ethic strives for all that is excellent in life, striving to find happiness for ourselves and others.