Derrida’s meta-ethics

It has been much remarked upon that Derrida turned to ethical concerns toward the end of his career. This turn is often invoked to push back against those who would view Derrida as a nihilist, etc. Yet it often escapes notice that Derrida is undertaking a kind of meta-ethics — investigating the grounds of possibility (and, since it’s Derrida, also of impossibility) of something like ethical responsibility. This meta-ethical ground would presumably underlie any stance or practice that could be recognized as ethical.

The problem I see with much of the reception of Derrida’s meta-ethical work is the desire that this meta-ethics could somehow directly and already be an ethics in itself. Indeed, taken in that way, it seems to be a particularly demanding ethics, one that puts all previous ethical systems to shame. The paradox, however, is that if the conditions of possibility and impossibility for ethics are already present in all ethical behavior and deliberation, it cannot be “difficult.” It’s just how things are.

For example, we don’t need to somehow “recognize” the fact that we don’t have the kind of agency a classical ethical theory would attribute to us, as though positive ethical results would follow if we “embraced” the dividedness and inconsistency of our subjectivity. Gaining insight into that underlying structure is not in itself an ethical achievement, nor does it lead to any particular ethical achievement. In fact, one could almost say it’s just the opposite: the illusion of agency is a necessary illusion if we are to fulfill the ethical demand to take responsibility.

Similarly, it is not necessarily ethically beneficial to “recognize” the infinite demand of the other, of every other. In the famous passage about feeding his cat out of all the other hungry cats, I don’t think Derrida meant to say that he was being “more ethical” because he somehow managed to feed his cat in such a way as to recognize the full overwhelming pathos of the gap between his action and the infinite demand — it’s easy to imagine that recognizing that infinite demand could become an alibi, releasing one of any concrete ethical obligation. Again, the illusion that the other who happens to cross your path takes priority — defying the maxim that tout autre est tout autre — is a necessary one, without which actual ethical behavior would be impossible.

It may be possible to evaluate certain ethical codes or behaviors as rising more fully to the challenge of the ethical situation as such — in particular, one would hope that this theory of meta-ethics could exclude limit cases such as Nazism from the category of the properly ethical. Yet even then, it would be necessary to maintain the irreducible gap between the meta-ethical conditions of (im)possibility of ethics and any actual-existing ethical code or behavior. Even if we were able to determine with absolute certainty that one particular ethics was “best” in terms of meeting the demand of the ethical situation, Derrida’s meta-ethics still would not simply “be” that ethics. Nor indeed should we assume that Derrida’s own personal ethical convictions “necessarily follow” from his meta-ethical analysis.

6 thoughts on “Derrida’s meta-ethics

  1. Adam, you just added Derrida’s later work to my reading list. I don’t know whether that is something to thank you for.

    The idea that an ethical stance is just how things are is one I sympathize with. It is a matter of discovery & research to gain a progressive insight regarding what such a stance implies. Anyway, most ethical systems go well overboard in their details. Excessive moralizing is always unethical because it limits the progress of our collective insight.

  2. Daniel, It seems to me that Caputo construes Derrida’s ethical work as putting forth an exceptionally rigorous and difficult ethics. I may be wrong, however. Many others would obviously follow his lead.

  3. The paradox, however, is that if the conditions of possibility and impossibility for ethics are already present in all ethical behavior and deliberation, it cannot be “difficult.” It’s just how things are.

    I completely agree, but I do tend to think this actually does erase the pathos of failing to live up to an infinite demand. A purely descriptive meta-ethics cannot contain demands – the is/ought distinction plays a role here, right? There is no ought attached to the is of the other, pace Levinas.

    Regarding the illusion of agency and the need for responsibility, I don’t think a splintered, inconsistent subjectivity is anymore an obstacle than Spinoza’s determinism. Moral statements typically take the form of “I am making ethical decision X because of meta-ethical principle Y,” but is it not possible to erase the second half of that statement? I tend to think that is what Derrida does. Not “X because of Y,” but “X. . .”

    All that being said, I’m far from being well-read in Derrida; I’ve usually taken him cut through other authors. Most recently Hagglund.

  4. Under what conditions would it be ‘necessary to maintain the irreducible gap between the meta-ethical conditions of (im)possibility of ethics and any actual-existing ethical code or behavior’?
    Suppose it is the case that I start off questioning my own behaviour from a moral point of view and others, similarly motivated, join me in so doing and a discourse develops. At a certain point, the question would naturally arise whether our concern to act morally had not led us into a qualitatively bigger type of wrong-doing. At this point our discourse has become meta-ethical. Why does it necessarily follow that we must dig some sort of trench or erect some sort of boundary between the two discourses? Both are deontic rather than alethic. Meta-ethical issues arise in even the simplest ethical decision. Indeed, in personal relationships, there is a sort of reverse Categorical imperative- ‘for fuck’s sake don’t do x because it’s the right thing to do- I know, I know, I really need you to do x, indeed, I may perish if you don’t do x- but, frankly, I’d rather die than know you did x only because it was the right thing to do. Listen, get drunk and then do x so we can blame it on the beer. Better still, get drunk and loudly proclaim you are doing from the most ignominious of motives, so that Pastor Y, who is looking upon us with moist sentimental eyes, has his nose put permanently out of joint.’

    A couple of other points-
    1) the ethical turn in Derrida is quite different from the linguistic turn in Witgenstien, indeed it is a bit like’ Kripkenstein’ in that infinite operations in the object language allow it to contain its own truth predicate.

    2) In so far as deconstruction is being done by someone, meta-ethics collapses back into ethics in the same way as meta-preferences, for a consumer, collapse back into preferences (‘Anne buys both a carton of cigs & tobacco patches)

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