My thoughts are still under development here so hopefully readers will be kind, but for some time now I’ve found myself deeply attracted to eudaimonistic models of ethical thought. Eudaimonistic ethical thought asks the question “what is the good life?” It is focused on questions of what a life characterized by flourishing would be. Thus, where nomological/juridical models of normativity are primarily concerned with determining whether actions are right or wrong, eudaimonistic normative models are interested in questions of ultimate values and how those values might be actualized or produced. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment, but it’s important to note that for eudaimonistic models of normativity, the question is not one of rejecting rules governing or regulating action, but rather a question of priorities. Where nomological/juridical models of normativity treat questions of normativity as exclusively exhausted by an examination of rules governing right and wrong action– leaving aside the question of whether or not these rules promote and further flourishing –for eudaimonistic models rules 1) are subordinate to fundamental values pertaining to flourishing, 2) therefore follow from these fundamental values, and 3) are therefore rules of thumb rather than absolutes.
It is likely that the seeds of nomological/juridical models of normativity began with the rise of Christianity during the middle ages. Where the ethical question of Greco-Roman antiquity had been “what is the good life?”, this question was largely foreclosed within the framework of Christianity insofar as 1) this world came to be seen as fallen, sinful, and futile, and 2) the overarching aim became one of salvation in the next life. Within this framework, situating ethical questions within the framework of questions of the good life amounted to a rejection of Christian doctrine and metaphysics. To raise such questions would amount to rejecting the thesis that the world is fallen and that salvation is to be sought not in this life but the next. Accordingly questions of ethics shifted from questions of the good life to questions of how to evaluate right and wrong action according to divine Law. What mattered was whether or not action accorded with this law, whatever it might be, and not whether or not action in according with that law produced or was conducive to the good life. We see vestiges of this today in Christian variants of homosexual reparative therapy. Even if the therapy tends to generate severe psychological maladies in the form of massive depression and and suicidal thoughts, it will be seen as a success if it shifts the person from homosexual behavior to heterosexual behavior. The quality of life is secondary to obedience to the law. The function of the law is not to promote flourishing, but rather is absolute and commanded by God.
With this shift we also get a shift to a new conception of both autonomy and the body. Setting aside the strange case of Plato, in antiquity the issue was not so much one of eradicating the body, of denigrating the body, as one of how to best live and satisfy one’s passions. Our passions, when left unformed or uncultivated, can generate massive suffering as in the case of the junkie that is a slave of his passions. Yet a life without the passions would be empty and would generate great suffering as well. The question is thus one of how to rationally satisfy our passions and drives without becoming slaves. In this regard, the body is a central theme of eudaimonistic ethical systems. We need to know something of the body, of its affects, of how it functions to answer questions about flourishing. Accordingly, we get a much broader conception of autonomy or freedom. Autonomy will not simply consist of being self-directing beings independent of all circumstance, but will involve questions of our relationship to our body, the social world in which we exist, our relation to our environment, etc. Epicurus’s Garden, for example, is not merely a historical curiosity with respect to his personal biography, secondary to the proper content of his ethical doctrine. Rather, the Garden, a place where like-minded individuals devoted to the Epicurean way of life live together, was a vital component of their autonomy insofar as control over their social life and environment was necessary to achieving the form of flourishing they sought. The Garden was a part of their autonomy.
With the rise of Christianity, however, the place of the body and the nature of autonomy changes significantly. Where before the question was one of how to best live the body, how to, as Spinoza would later put it, achieve joyous affects, the body is now a mark of sin that we must minimize to the greatest extend possible. In the marital setting, for example, we are not to enjoy sex, but only undertake sex for the sake of procreation. Likewise, it is likely that European attitudes towards cleanliness throughout the Middle Ages and up through the Enlightenment had less to do with a fear that water would generate sickness, than a belief that cleaning the body was a form of vanity that privileged the body over spiritual life. Bathing is what those Romans did. Similarly, the concept of autonomy shifts from being materio-spiritual as in Greco-Roman antiquity, to being purely spiritual. Autonomy will no longer involve questions of material conditions that must be satisfied in order to achieve the good life, but will now be purely spiritual, pertaining to our ability to act independent of any bodily inclinations and material conditions. This shift will receive its highest formulation in Kant, where categorical imperatives are 1) to be undertaken solely for the sake of duty without any regard for what consequences might follow from them, where 2) categorical imperatives (absolute duties) and hypothetical imperatives (actions undertaken for the sake of achieving an end) are rigorously separated such that hypothetical imperatives are excluded from the domain of ethics altogether, where 3) actions done for the sake of duty are to exclude any reference to pathological inclinations (“pathos” referring to bodily inclinations, feelings, sympathies, etc), and where 4) categorical imperatives arises from reason alone and are not contaminated by experience in any way. All that matters here is whether or not the action accords with the law, whether it is right or wrong, and not whether or not the action produces results that promote or inhibit flourishing. We are to purify ethics of all experiential elements.
It is sometimes suggested that eudaimonistic ethical systems do a poor job addressing issues of injustice and whatnot. “What if,” the rejoinder runs, “my flourishing relies on the oppression of others?” For example, people living in first world countries rely on the cheap and oppressive labor of people living in second and third world countries. However, we should note that this criticism is formulated from within the framework of assumptions about morality belonging to nomological/juridical models of normativity. In particular, this criticism assumes a framework based on the idea of isolated individuals acting and living independent of others. However, when we begin to seriously pose questions of flourishing, the first thing we notice is that we live in relationships to the world around us and other persons. We are not isolated and sovereign individuals, but rather beings that exist amongst other beings. As we begin to pose questions of what flourishing would be and how it can be obtained, the first thing we notice is that answers to these questions are deeply bound up with questions of these relationships. In this regard, eudaimonistic normative systems are profoundly ecological in character. Questions of my flourishing will thus be bound up with questions of the flourishing of the world around me (it’s hard to flourish in an environment that, for example, has been contaminated by radioactivity) and the flourishing of others (where those others are both other people but also other living things: it’s hard to flourish when the bees have been driven away).
This is in stark contrast to juridical normative models that focus on the rightness or wrongness of an act. Where a eudaimonistic model ineluctably leads us to some variant of a Marxist conception of both what society is and what it ought to be, juridical models tend to erase any ecological dimension to how we think about right action and society. Where in Marx I’m made aware of all sorts of ecological relations embodied in the commodity and how it is produced (e.g., the fact that it is congealed labor, that it’s value comes from this labor, the systematicity through which inequalities are produced, the manner in which I too am enslaved by this process, the impact of capitalistic production on the natural environment, etc), such an ecological dimension is occluded in juridical normative frameworks. Within this framework the ecological is occluded in two ways: First, insofar as, in Kantian models, the focus is on universality and necessity when evaluating actions, I am to ignore all contextual features pertaining to the circumstances in which the action is undertaken, focusing on the verb of the action in its generality. Circumstances are to be ignored altogether for they would ruin the universality of the moral law. Yet this amounts, very precisely, to ignoring all that is ecological or relational. Second, as a result, in such a juridical model, my relation to the seller in the act of buying really is just a relation between me and this seller. My obligations do not extend beyond this relation (to all that labor, for example) precisely because those are circumstantial elements that are to be excluded in following and formulating the moral law. All that matters is my obligations in this relationship. In short, it is actually the juridical model that occludes the broader social dimension, not eudaimonistic models.
In a wonderful article entitled “Responsive Becoming: Ethics Between Deleuze and Feminism” in Deleuze and Ethics, Erinn Cunniff Gilson outlines four points of overlap between Deleuze’s ethical thought and feminist ethical thought that largely accord with the eudaimonistic theory of normativity I’m trying to think about. Gilson writes that “firstly… both approaches [Deleuze and feminism] articulate an understanding of ethics that is rooted in and grows out of experience rather than being purified of experiential element” (64). This is a crucial point. Although eudaimonistic models of normativity strive for flourishing, they don’t begin from the premise that we know what flourishing is or would be. Not only can we be mistaken about what constitutes flourishing, but our knowledge and understanding of flourishing can grow and deepen as we learn more about ourselves, the world, the social world, and so on. Where, in juridical models, we are to bracket all reference to experience so as to ground universality and normativity, eudaimonistic models are situated squarely within the field of experience. Through this bracketing of experience, juridical models find it extremely difficult to deal with issues of race, gender, class difference, etc., precisely because these are all particularities that are to be ignored in the formulation of the moral law. By contrast, eudaimonistic models, insofar as they are ecological in character, can begin from these singularities.
As a consequence, within these eudaimonistic models we get an “immanent ethics”. As Gilson writes,
In his book on Spinoza’s practical philosophy, [Deleuze] defines ethics as ‘a typology of immanent modes of existence,” a definition that emphasizes that he regards ethics not as supplying standards for judgment but as a practice through which one invents for oneself better ways of living. Following Nietzsche, he considers valuing and evaluating as the primary ethical activities: through living, one values, and how one lives defines what one values. Ethics consists of distinguishing between those affects, relations, ways of thinking, and, ultimately, ways of living that are life-affirming, joyous, and active and those that are life-negating, sad, and reactive… Only through experimentation is one able to discern the difference between those things that can be said to be good for us and those that are bad for us, and devise for oneself such a typology of ways of living. For Deleuze, then, ethics is a question of ethology in the sense that it has to do with studying bodies– both animal and human –in terms of what they are capable of doing and undergoing, and evaluating those changes from within the experience of affecting and being affected. (64 – 65)
An immanent mode of ethics will thus not begin with transcendent moral rules, but rather will allow for a pluralism of different modes of existence or different existing entities. These modes of existing will then be evaluated immanently according to their own affects or capabilities of acting and whether or not they live in such a way as to maximize those capabilities of acting. Is one living in a way that produces sad passions or that produces joyous affects? Moreover, it here becomes clear that ethics is not restricted to the domain of humans, but now includes nonhumans as well.
“Second,” Gilson continues, “…both are concerned to understand ethical comportment in terms of practices rather than in terms of adherence to abstract rules and forms of moral reasoning” (65). Ethical thought is to be understood in terms of practice or engagement with the material world and others. It cannot be divorced from this engagement. Insofar as abstract universal rules tend to occlude this dimension of material engagement and relations to others insofar as these are all circumstantial, it blinds us to our relations with the world. What follows from this, according to Gilson, is a care ethics where we are concerned with “…concrete individuals in their singularity and in relations with other unique individuals” (ibid.). Here we find a rich overlap between Gilson’s model of ethical thought and Timothy Morton’s ethical comportment towards “strange strangers” that are simultaneously both within us and infinitely distant from us.
The concept of immanent ethics might give rise to the worry of a radical relativism in which each individual entity immanently defines its own values without regard to other beings. For example, we might get the question of what the active and life-affirming of a serial killer would be in its own mode of existence. However, this ignores, once again, the relational dimension of eudaimonistic ethical systems. As Gilson continues,
A third commonality is a shared line of critique that focuses on a conventional understanding of ethical subjectivity that emphasizes autonomy, rationality, independence, impartiality, and self-mastery. For both Deleuze and feminist thinkers, this form of subjectivity is one that demands submission: submission to a norm of what it means to be a “good” person, which implicitly determines the qualities virtuous as being masculine, as well as obedience to the moral law itself… Deleuze’s critique of the subject also shifts the focus from the subject as autonomous substance to the relations that constitute it, whether these relations generate a molar identity or a “fascinated self” in a process of becoming. (65 – 66)
It is in fact the juridical model that tends towards a sort of ethical solipsism, that is monosubjective, in that the issue is one of obedience and subordination to the law, not regard for the other. I outlined this in my post on Kant and Sade. For Sade, what is important is obedience to the necessity of the law, not any sentiments either the agent of the law or the patient of the law might have with respect to that law. As such, the relational dimension entirely disappears. It seems to me that what might be called “moral pathologies”– those states where morality generates a form of horror and suffering –always involve either a) a brute and mechanical application of the law that ignores its effects (Eichmann speaking about his moral duties), or b) an evacuation of relationality that ignores the other (the serial killer that reduces his victim to an object of enjoyment to be absorbed in his economy).
Finally, fourth, Gilson concludes that “…both Deleuze and feminist theorists approach ethics in a way that is inherently political; the question of how to live ethically is fundamentally a political question” (66). This follows from the relational dimension of eudaimonistic ethical orientations. With the rise of Christianity we begin to get a separation between the political and the ethical. Insofar as the ethical becomes the question of right and wrong action, and insofar as it is separated from questions of flourishing, ethics comes to be separated from the political because it now pertains to humans living in a spiritual vacuum. This set of assumptions continues an unconscious and subterranean existence in juridical models of subjectivity. By contrast, the question of flourishing immediately plunges us into questions of politics because flourishing is bound up in relations to our environment, other organisms, and other persons. As a consequence, the question of ethics cannot be separated from the order of the political.
Throughout this post I’ve focused heavily on the relational dimension of the ethical. For those who have been following object-oriented ontology, this might appear strange as one of the key claims of OOO is that entities are independent of their relations. However, it is a mistake to assume that the thesis that entities are independent of their relations is the claim that entities are without relations. In my onticology, at least, the thesis that entities are independent of their relations is the thesis that all relations are external. Entities can always break with existing regimes of relations and enter into new regimes of relations. I take this to be a necessary condition for any change and for any political revolution. If entities are constituted by their relations then matters are pretty hopeless as we’re nothing more than the relations in which we’re embedded. Ontology, I believe, deals with three issues: the being of entities, quality, and external relations. Ethico-politics, by contrast, deals with relations, with what sorts of collectives of humans and nonhumans would be best, and with how those collectives might be produced.