As I think through ethics, I find that I’m confronted with something of an antinomy. On the one hand, no ethical action is possible whatsoever without affect. It’s not just me saying this. The philosophical tradition as well as empirical evidence seems to suggest this. Those who have suffered brain damage to certain reasons of their brain become moral morons, unable to determine right action while nonetheless retaining reasoning skills (take that Kant!). But even Kant recognized this. In both the Groundwork and second Critique he argued that we have to have a special sort of affect– “respect for the moral law”, whatever that is –in order to become ethical agents. On the other hand, you can’t base an ethics on affect because, simply put, people don’t have the affects. This person experiences outrage with respect to that thing, while that person is completely indifferent. For this person it’s an obscenity to club a seal to death, absolutely disgusting and horrifying, while that person feels nothing at all and just sees it as a purely utilitarian matter pertaining to gathering fur for coats (the thought process wouldn’t be very different in the case of enslaving others). It’s great that people have tender feelings, but when we talk about ethics we’re talking about grounding and persuasion. You just can’t get very far if the affect isn’t there.
This is why Kant said that ethics can’t be based on the “pathological”. He meant this in a very literal way: pathos = body = feeling. He wasn’t referring to “mental problems” or affect being “out of control”, but was simply referring to affect as such. We can’t expect people to feel such and such because, well, people are different (Spinoza), and not all people feel the same thing (Hume, von Uuxkull), so the grounds of ethics must come from elsewhere than sentiment.
This is why I don’t think Levinas– despite finding him very beautiful –has much to offer to serious ethical thought. Great, such and such a person experiences such and such an infinite obligation with regard to such and such a face, but just as many don’t. Just as many people don’t encounter the faciality of the Other in relation to people of different races, classes, nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc. For them this face is just an obstacle to their own aims. Levinas really has nothing to offer in this situation. Great, you feel this way. Others don’t. The whole question of relation to the Other was that of the face of the Other that we don’t recognize as a face. In other words, ethical thought begins at a different level where this phenomenological experience has failed. It begins where we don’t experience that pathology. It begins, perhaps, at the level of rhetoric. So enjoy Levinas but also forget him when it comes to ethical discussions. He hasn’t identified the problem.
Hume understood the problem much better. Hume rejected the liberal idea that we’re primarily selfish individuals that first are concerned with our own self-interest and who must then learn to have a regard for others. No, for Hume, we’re first defined by sympathies to others: our siblings, our parents, the members of our village (or in a more contemporary setting, our neighborhood, workplace, those who share our same ethnicity and gender, etc). But this is not yet ethics. That’s just how we are: social beings (which is why it’s so disturbing and perhaps symptomatic that our ethics has become anonymous and rule based, i.e, it suggests a collapse of that communal/social dimension of our existence… if you need to appeal to a rule for right action towards others something is wrong or has failed). For Hume, the question isn’t “how might we come to care for others?”, but how might we come to have sympathy for the stranger or the person/entity outside our familial, fraternal, ethno-sexual, tribal order. Ethics proper begins with the question of how we might begin to cultivate sympathy for those for whom we aren’t initially inclined to regard: the anonymous face, the different face, the animal face, the mineral face, the disfigured space, etc. No ethical action is possible without an affect, but affects also don’t come naturally or as the result of a contingent experience. How to move beyond the limits of our cognitive/affective enframing, our enculturated affect, that’s the question. This requires a formation or paideia of affect; which also implies aesthetics as a crucial dimension of ethics.