Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil

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Evil appears to be but a bit player in Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Or at least that's how it seems. The book begins with crucial philosophical questions that seem to be even more crucial in the Bush Years (redux): Is the concept of Man dead?

Alain Badiou

Reviewed by Scott Schaffer

Monday, September 23 2002, 8:13 AM

When I first heard of Alain Badiou's newest intervention (and one of his first works to be intended for a general audience), I was excited. The title was provocative: How often does one attempt to understand evil? Generally, and in recent months in particular, Evil is something to be invoked, a label to be applied to another person or group that one wants to condemn in some way or for some reason. But to understand Evil? Not in American society, at least.

Evil, though, appears to be but a bit player in Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Or at least that's how it seems. The book begins with crucial philosophical questions that seem to be even more crucial in the Bush Years (redux): Is the concept of Man dead? If so, can there be an "ethics" that comes from a historical situation in which Man is dead? And can that ethics be derived from the philosophical underpinnings of universal human rights, which seem to be asserted almost at the drop of a hat?

To Badiou's mind, there is a fundamental tension that undergirds all of these questions, namely that between a Kantian conception of ethics, in which we seek the ability to apply the set of rules that motivates our own actions to everyone and a Levinasian ethics, motivated by our concern for and care of the other. This tension, one that amounts to the tension between the extreme poles of moral absolutism and ethical relativism, is linked by Badiou to the tension between universality and particularity, between Human Rights and a culturally relative sense of "the human," and to what others have called a "clash of civilizations." More poignantly, though, Badiou claims that the Kantian version of ethics amounts to "the self-satisfied egoism of the affluent West, with advertising, and with service rendered to the powers that be", while the 'Levinasian ethics' concern for cultural differences and multiculturalism is hindered as an ethical discourse:

Contemporary ethics kicks up a big fuss about 'cultural' differences. Its conception of the 'other' is informed mainly by this kind of differences. Its great ideal is the peaceful coexistence of cultural, religious, and national 'communities,' the refusal of 'exclusion.'

But what we must recognize is that these differences hold no interest for thought, that they amount to nothing more than the infinite and self-evident multiplicity of humankind, as obvious in the difference between me and my cousin from Lyon as it is between the Shi'ite 'community' of Iraq and the fat cowboys from Texas.

This amazingly prescient statement (given that the book was written in 1998) highlights Badiou's real problem with contemporary ethical discourses 񠮡mely, that they emphasize resignation, a betrayal of human capacities, and, most importantly, that they rely upon the notion that ethics is what brings human beings out of Evil and into the Good instead of the other way around.

In fact, Badiou's essential claim about Evil is that it derives specifically from the Good -- or rather, that our ability to discern what is Evil in the world depends on our inherent capability for Good. The impact of this inversion is remarkable, taking out both human rights (which Badiou claims are rights to "non-Evil," based as it is on getting out of Evil) and the emphasis on cultural differences in the same philosophical explosion.

Ethics, in both modes that Badiou describes, amounts to not much more than a figure of nihilism, a subjugation to the status quo and to the standing order of things. Kantian ethics relies upon a parallel of the Nietzschean "will to power," the will to make the world entirely the same. Taking this position on amounts to rescinding our own capacity to construct the world in a unique way. Levinasian ethics, by contrast, with its fetishization of "cultural differences," entails surrendering to what is a brute fact of human existence -- we are of course all different from one another, and so what? Neither mode of ethics, Badiou argues, is sufficient for human existence today.

For Badiou, the real goal is the creation of an ethics of truth: not the universal, positivistic sense of Truth that postmodernists decry (and, in so doing, take truths out of any equation), but rather a truth that derives from our response to a given situation. In this undertaking, Evil represents a corruption of the truth, a betrayal, a delusion, or a form of terror.

The ethics of truth Badiou develops amounts to "the continuation of a truth-process -- or, to be more precise and complex, that which lends consistency to the presence of some-one in the composition of the subject induced by the process of this truth." This statement condenses the key points of Badiou's argument: it insists on the significance of desire and becoming in the development of our subjectivity; it underscores the importance of fidelity to a cause; and it advocates a willingness to risk ourselves and our desire in the pursuit of what is not known. Ultimately, then, the ethics of truth Badiou develops adds up to the following injunction: "Do all that you can to persevere in that which exceeds your perseverance. Persevere in the interruption. Seize in your being that which has seized and broken you."

In this ethics of truth, the valuable concerns of both universalist ethics and postmodernisms 񠴨at is, the warding off of Evil and the balance between particularity and generality 񠡰pear to be satisfied. Badiou's ethics of truth is designed, he claims, to ward off Evil, not by positing it as the a priori of the human animal but by showing that Evil is only possible insofar as we are capable of Good. And by emphasizing the process of truth construction rather than the absolutism of truth, Badiou is able to ensure that our capacity to act, albeit in an asocial (or, better put, an extra-social) kind of way, is maintained.

Evil returns at the end of the book, where it becomes clear what Badiou is really on about. The bete noire here has more to do with the delusion and deception of individuals by the collectivities to which they belong than it does with what is normally thought of as Evil. Simulacrum, betrayal and disaster: these are the names of Evil for Badiou, and specific social and historical events (the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, the tendency of former revolutionaries to claim that they "used to be lost," Nietzsche, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution are the examples he relies upon) are merely instances of these forms of evil. Truth, then, can only be found in working through a process, while simultaneously not betraying our fidelity to the goal at hand andnot submitting to extremism of any sort. Badiou regards this as a liberating approach.

His book is, of course, difficult. It requires a near-inversion of everything the usual reader of a work like this is trained to think, and its reliance on Lacan and Derrida in spots might very well delude readers into thinking that Badiou's real intention is deconstructive rather than reconstructive. However, there is one key element yet to be mentioned about the book that is its saving grace -- a lengthy interview, conducted with Peter Hallward in 1997, about Badiou's political experiences, upbringing and involvement.

When read against the more philosophical work within Ethics, all becomes clear. Badiou's revolutionary experience, dating back to May 1968, and the reflections so many intellectuals undertook after the failure of the student movements in France, have come to roost in his philosophical stance. Badiou is anti-party, anti-state, anti-identity politics, anti-fealty to any kind of ossifying and objective group that claims to speak for another "objective" other words, Badiou appears to be exclusively dedicated to what needs to be done at a particular moment in history. His L'Organisation Politique is actively involved in fighting a number of political battles within France, and La Distance Politique, the bulletin of the OP, is almost exclusively devoted to analyzing and arguing for "what is to be done." Badiou labels this work the "subjective condition of my philosophy", and as such, it fills in many of the blanks that the philosophical part of the book leaves in the reader's mind.

In sum, Badiou's philosophy and politics -- and they should be linked, so read the interviews first -- come down to this: struggle for the principles of a collective liberation and against the hegemonic principles of the Western cultural and economic order. Or, to put it another way, "emancipatory politics always consists in making seem possible precisely that which, from within the situation, is declared to be impossible." And whether that sentiment derives from Marx, Lenin, Lacan, or Badiou himself, it is a necessary sentiment in our time, and Badiou's Ethics goes a long way toward inspiring it.

Ethics is available from Verso 

Scott Schaffer is assistant professor of sociology at Millersville University and a member of the Bad Subjects production team. He also edits Journal of Mundane Behavior in what resembles spare time. 

Copyright © 2002 by Scott Schaeffer. All rights reserved.

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