The Impossibility of Ethics

by Michael G. McKimmy, PhD.

1. Words are said, glances given, actions individual and collective occur. Some of these seem to cry out for judgment, for justice, for a declaration of what is right and wrong. Other words/glances/acts plead beyond their passing for alleviation of suffering.. Some of these seem so horrific that our words fail and all conceptualizations of what might constitute the foundations of the ethical seem trivial. To avoid such moments as these is not possible, even when our courage fails and if we could we might seek to cover ourselves in silence or religion or each other, it is to no avail.

There are many forms of silence and some of them, too many of them, accuse. Religion, even as it seeks to create or recreate order by explanation or by sovereignty, is on some fundamental level unable to turn away from suffering and injustice which resist explanation. Even as we seek shared denial with others equally horrified at evil and suffering, in the moment that we might pause or laugh, sigh, or stare, that very moment is a witness to the fact that denial is not resolution. Denial remains an open secret. To speak, act, make some gesture that might be, will be, labeled "ethical" is inevitable. And yet, if we look closely, if we look seriously, if we look long enough, an impossibility lies in the midst of this inevitability.

2. The term is from the Greek ethikos , having the sense of custom or practice. The ethical, etymologically is the practice of a culture, it’s set of customs. On the one hand, we can think of ethics as a growing and shifting set of practices A community, a culture, that lives and moves in the world and it members in relation to each other. What they do, how they think about what they do, how the world is conceived, all this and more compose an ever changing ethical perspective. In this sense, ethics is possible because here we think only of descriptive ethics- what people do. Ethics as description is rich and promising in its inherent desire to express and explain, to compare and analyze. Ethics as description is possible, yet even descriptions have histories. Though I will not follow that thought further, one related observation seems unavoidable. No novelty of mine. This unavoidable observation concerns what communities and cultures do with their histories of ethics (custom, practice). They often seek to impose the current state of affairs on the future. This is right/ wrong, not only for us but for the future, or for humanity. Here, "is" becomes "ought" without an awareness that any such distinction could be made or was blurred. Now, beyond describing what people do, a judgment is made of what people should do.

3. Now ethics becomes impossible. A judgment has been made. Creation by fiat, destruction as well. There are direct, immediate as well as multidirectional and subtle consequences of this moment. To begin with, when something is declared morally right, something or some things are freed into the unregulated realm of the morally wrong. . What is judged as wrong or morally repulsive enters the freedom of exile in the darkness of the taboo. The terrible, silent freedom of Dorian Grey’s picture to record what it will, to be what it will without regard to Dorian’s wishes or fears. The excluded, that which is named evil is at some times wild and destructive , some times forlorn and weak, but always alive in the freedom of that judgment. The attempt of the ethical gesture is an attempt to establish control, but by that very gesture, control is rendered impossible. Jung seems to take this insight to the extreme in talking of Yahweh’s shadow self. God shown up by Job, seeking to be only good. After the good God incarnated in Christ, Satan seeks incarnation. The excluded part of God beyond his control and rendering complete control impossible.

Again, this is not to say that no ethical judgment should be made or even could be avoided. The murderer owns that name by his/her action. Atrocity demands response and suffering obligates the one not suffering. Yet, it will be impossible to neatly map the world according to any judgment, by any moral theory, since every map creates a tohu wavohu, a non place, dis- order.

4. Now ethics becomes impossible in another way. In the effort to relate to others ethically, someone is inevitably excluded. John Stuart Mill, for example, sought a faithfulness to individual freedom and social responsibility by basing ethics on what seemed most fundamental to human behavior- we seek pleasure and avoid pain. An obvious and compelling observation as old as Lucretius and Epicurus. If this is the universal "is," if this is a description so fundamental that by making it into an "ought" a normative ethic, then every human being can be respected as being like every other human being. Ethical decisions would now be based on our similarity.

As much as we might desire respect, to feel its warmth and to give it to others unconditionally, is respect truly a regard for the other person if it is based what the other shares with me? It seems more that I respect myself in you. A respect for what I understand. How then am I respecting anything but myself? To whatever degree you differ, to what ever degree I cannot understand you, you are excluded. You may desire what I may call pain, your pleasures may seem either base to me or arrogant and affected. If so, my treatment of you will be based on what I understand rather than on who you are. Here, we are very close to Mill. He differs from the philosopher he was raised by and with, Jeremy Bentham. Mill finds he cannot talk in terms of only quantity of pleasure as does Bentham . Mill could - quite literally- only live with distinctions between pleasures. If they were all the same, all hell would break lose. Why advance knowledge, why work and achieve? Humans might settle for the " base" pleasures. Order, security, progress come with distinctions, High and low. Enlightened and unenlightened. But this will mean that if I have experienced your pleasure and mine and prefer mine, it is, if confirmed by others, a higher pleasure. If you are ever able to achieve enlightenment, you will also see that my pleasure is superior. In sum, when I seek to respect you, I exclude you.

Many critics talk of this dilemma in terms of excluded minorities. If what is good is the greatest good for the greatest number, then a small number might/must be sacrificed. If capital punishment deters, then a few innocent persons must be sacrificed for the common good. My point is that utilitarian thought has already sacrificed everything that cannot be understood by the subject in a place to judge, by a society expressing its values. The effort to include and be fair at the same time excludes and abandons the minority in resignation.

5. Ethics is yet impossible in another way. Before Mill, but after Epicurus and after the skepticism of Hume, Kant offered an ethical gesture before movement of any kind. The ethical a priori. Here, a formula that seeks to be as dependable and as cold as those of mathematics founds ethical decision making. If ethics can be certain and objective on any grounds, then the desire for an ordered way of relating t others and world will be fulfilled. A firm law will be in its rightful place. Kant offers the Categorical Imperative- what if every one did what I am about to do- which makes every individual both a law giver and a law abider. Moral value lies in that I do what duty tells me, and in no other motive than that duty tells me. Many times, this seems fine. I can reach a decision that seems right for the right reasons. Yet, how do I define the "what" of "what I am about to do"? What elements of the context rise to a level of significance sufficient to determine my decision? In the case of abortion, is it the life a child would experience or the assertion that the fetus is a life that is more significant? Is the suffering of innocence or the survival of democracy the greater in constructing the maxim upon which I would act? To obey, to be faithful, to be…, compelling even if only, at times, in its nostalgic quality. Yet, as Sartre knew, the decision seems to have been made before the decision in the unspoken and perhaps even the unthought criteria used to determine what may be considered relevant. The "unspoken" seems to drown out the confident tone of "duty." It is the unspoken that creates duty. The law has hidden origins, hidden long before a vote is taken to create a law, long before I sit down to ask myself, what if everyone did….

Ethics is impossible yet unavoidable. The lack of ethics is impossible as well. It seems ever to return -on a practical level as well as the philosophical or reflective one- as a problem or a question. The question of the ethical. Perhaps a way of thinking its impossibility without falling into a simple and permanent skepticism might be to take the gesture of ethics as a question seriously. I have spoken elsewhere of Emmanuel Levinas and his remarkable, obsessive and irresistible meditations on the impossibility of faithfulness to the other. Witness and testimony of and to the other attempt a faithfulness to the unsaid in the said. Faithfulness in the moment of betrayal. Another attempt at faithfulness to the question of ethics quite different from Levinas and rich in way of maintaining the question is found in Confucian thought.

6. The center of Confucian ethics is rightfully seen as Jen. Impossible to translate, it carries the sense of compassion, benevolence, regard for the other person and human nature- what it means to truly fulfill our humanity in our daily existence. As the Dao De Jing and other daoist works observe, Confucianism based on jen can tend towards such a human based world view that it can seem imbalanced. As human centered, it can appear a philosophy hardened in tradition and the works of ancient sages. While the Doaist criticism is broader than this point, it is an example of a common view of Confucianism. The comments which follow here are made with the awareness of the tensions within the texts and within the context of readings and interpretations. There are readers of Confucian literature have seen different and varied themes in these works, and some these variations expand and even call into question some of the themes called into question as being rigid and tradition based.

Particularly, Yi seems to recognize in a profound a need to respond to our specific context in an ethical (faithful) way, but that the question of appropriateness is always new question with every context. The Analects of Confucius contains no straightforward definition of Yi. Appropriateness may be seen as what is called for, but any response seems not to have a life beyond that unique context in which it is offered. Consider the following very brief selection from the Analects concerning Yi:

"The Master said, ‘Exemplary persons ( junzi ) in making their way in the world are Neither bent nor against anything; rather they go with what is appropriate. (Yi )" 4:10
"There were four things the Master abstained from entirely; he did not Speculate, he did not claim or demand certainty, he was not inflexible, And he was not self- absorbed." 9:4
"The Master said, ‘There is nothing I can do for someone who is not Constantly asking himself: ‘What to do? What to do?’" 15:16

A few insights, I think, are offered here into a way of speaking of and even responding to the impossibility of ethics. Perhaps the most obvious quality of these sayings is a tone of negativity. No guidance is given about the kinds of behavior that will result in an ethical life, a life of growing and manifesting Jen. Rather, one is wise and wizened who brings no agenda with him/her, but in a manner that seeks another impossible state- that of an historical gesture toward finding what is appropriate. Bringing no damage from the past, no prejudice from past injustice or privilege, no plan at all, one simply responds to the context here and now. I must say more about this impossibility, but for now enough to note that such a place exists from which to respond to the impossibility of the ethical.

More must be said about this tone of negativity. It seems to have a depth. It rules out certain behaviors, while offering none in their place. Confucius does not speculate. Beyond bringing no agenda from the past- again, an impossibility- one reaches towards no particular goal in the future. No view- could this mean even no hope-as to the unfolding of events that might influence my words and actions beyond this singular moment. What might this interval be between my undergoing experiences from one situation without bringing my thoughts and judgment from this and innumerable others to the next? Impossible, yet imagined by Confucius, and perhaps all of us, in some way, several times as we seek to be far and balanced- appropriate. No speculation, refraining from guessing as to what will happen in this situation. It follows from this that certainty, then, could neither be offered nor demanded. Certainty comes from beyond and/or before. The foundation of the past as a reference for what must be the case in the present and the future. Certainty is an often unspoken, if not more often unthought prediction that the future will be as the past was. A principle, an insight, a person, a deity, that transcends all time is the guarantee of a particular judgment in any particular time.. Time is not of the essence for certainty. To risk questioning certainty is to consider that one cannot be otherwise than here in this moment and that the future will only in part be determined by what was an uncertain past, all the time- from the beginning. A subtle and often ignored aspect of Confucius is this elusive sense of direction that is without any transcending points of reference that are objective and concrete.

And then, two more characteristics that do not yield any sort of character. The master, who did not consider himself to have attained wisdom, but was on the way (Tao), this master was not inflexible and not self absorbed. Again, this does not dictate a way to be flexible and self effacing. This description only points backwards and tell us what Confucius was not. It leaves us looking at his words and narratives about him to try and fill in the void left by this non-description. However, everything that we find might lead us back again to this non- description. Wherever we find him, it is evident that he is not inflexible- not that we now know exactly the formula for being flexible in the future. Wherever we find him, he is not focused on himself- not that we now know how to shed our anxiety over the narrative our actions are writing about our every decision and action.

What now, is left? How to hear, how to be taught the impossibility of an ethic that prepares us in principle to question, if not refuse all principles?

In the last excerpt from the Analects, Confucius describes the person he can aid. This is a person how asks, " what to do?" There is an openness, an urgency, a seeking in this question. In an profound and subtle way, Yi is sought after, and yet already embodied in coming to the words, "What to do"? Notice the result of asking of this question, the condition created. It is not a question that leads to an answer. This is clear in that Confucius says this person is constantly asking this question. An answered question becomes a satisfaction and a memory. No definitive principle, no satisfactory guidance to hold on to is given if the question always continues. Yet, the question and the questioner are not abandoned. In fact, it is the one not asking that is beyond remedy. To ask is to be teachable, taught, and acting.

7. Finally, then, this faithfulness to the impossibility of ethics. How might it be described? What is this state of constantly asking and not expecting an answer that will survive beyond this moment, and even in this moment knowing every answer fails its desire?

A vigilant openness to the silence after the question.

Compassion beyond the reward of being compassionate.
Compassion beyond tolerance.

Faithful in the presence of the impossibility of ethics. Jen Yi
Love your neighbor as yourself.
The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.