Thoughts on Seminar VII

Yesterday, Stephen Keating and I had a great discussion of Lacan’s Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. There is much that is impressive about this seminar, which seems to me to operate at a higher level of ambition and reach than the first three, but there is also much that is puzzling — most notably the central question of the sense in which this is an ethics.

As Stephen suggested, perhaps Lacan was not so much putting forward a normative ethics as performing a kind of thought experiment, asking what ethics would look like in light of psychoanalysis. Continue reading “Thoughts on Seminar VII

Moral dilemmas as intellectual bullying

In my social science course, we’re reading Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan on moral development. Kohlberg uses longitudinal interviews based on moral dilemmas to measure moral development, which for him moves essentially through self-interest to social conformity to something like a liberal respect for human rights. The only problem with his system is that it doesn’t appear to work for women’s development, and Gilligan points out that in many of Kohlberg’s interviews with women, the problem seems to be that they resist the simplistic set-up of the scenarios and refuse to accept the implied either/or of the dilemma.

For instance, one of the dilemmas features a man who has to choose between stealing medicine and letting his wife die. This is perfectly calibrated to measure Kohlberg’s stages, because it poses a sharp contrast between legal and moral obligations. It also makes no fucking sense, and the women tend to pick up on that, essentially asking, “Are you sure these are the only two options?”

It strikes me that what Kohlberg regards as “retrograde” answers are actually more useful as concrete moral reflection. His dilemmas are meant to measure moral deliberation, but as Gilligan points out, they are really meant to produce a certain type of answer (in this case, the one correlated with one’s developmental stage).

As I reflected on my experience, it seems that that has always been my experience with the moral hypotheticals that populate Anglo-American philosophy as well as political punditry. The “ticking time-bomb” scenario is not meant to produce any real insight into torture, for instance, but to shut down any actual reflection and force one’s interlocutor to say that torture is permitted. It’s similar with discussions of drone warfare: the moral dilemma posed is always that between land invasion and drone warfare, and what kind of monster would prefer a land invasion? Yet I daresay those aren’t the only two options. Or we could even take the example of voting for Obama: yes, I prefer Obama over Romney, Democrats over Republicans — but is that really where the discussion has to end?

This is the dark side of reasoned argument, where debate itself becomes a form of violence. Who hasn’t laboriously constructed a bulletproof argument and been blinded by rage and frustration when one’s interlocutor could not be forced to agree? “But surely,” you sputter, “you have to admit that…” And at this point, only one response is possible: “I don’t have to admit anything!”

Is hypocrisy to be preferred?

In the last decade or so, one has frequently heard people express the sentiment that it is somehow “better” for powerful politicians to openly proclaim the evil things they do, because “at least it’s out in the open.” In my mind, this is profoundly and disturbingly misguided, as our present experience with Obama’s “kill list” shows. When Bush openly claimed excessive powers, his party embraced that position and it became part of the mainstream debate. Similarly now with Obama’s “kill list” — there are now liberal pundits who are openly defending the indefensible, simply because it’s their guy doing it. I don’t think any rational person can argue that this course of events has improved the chances of rolling back the Bush-Obama anti-terror policies.

What’s nice about hypocrisy is that it at least maintains some point of connection with morality. It keeps moral principles — like “you don’t torture people” or “you don’t send killer robots to murder people on your sole say-so” — enshrined as norms, meaning that there’s some kind of leverage for change. Actually committing the crimes is bad enough, but publicly proclaiming them to be the right thing to do is an even more horrific crime, because it closes down the possibility that the crimes may end in the future.

We have a “natural experiment” before our eyes right now of how the “at least it’s out in the open” strategy worked with Bush and Obama — once moral norms are dethroned, it just leads to further degradation. I know that one might be uncomfortable with such slippery-slope arguments given how often they’re used by conservatives, but that really is how it works. We just happen to think the moral norms they lament weren’t truly moral in the first place — it’s good that we’re on a slippery slope toward greater freedom to divorce, greater acceptance of gays, etc. It’s not good that we’re on a slippery slope toward greater acceptance of torture and assassination. (I hope this isn’t too complicated for anyone.)

So in conclusion, if I had to choose between Obama having a top-secret kill list that he’d disavow in public and the current situation, I’d chose the top-secret kill list every time — because say what you will of hypocrisy, at least it leaves open the possibility of an ethos.

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.

Continue reading “Derrida’s meta-ethics”

Religious but not spiritual

For years, I have been sarcastically reversing the popular claim that one is “spiritual but not religious,” instead declaring myself to be “religious but not spiritual.” As I’ve pondered this formula more, however, I have become increasingly convinced that this joke does contain a sincere grain of truth about the way I’d like to approach my life. I obviously don’t want to be “religious” in the sense of going to church every week, but that’s not all that’s at stake in “spiritual but not religious.” The “religious” is the formula, the ritual, the mediating institution that’s bigger than any individual — anything that’s not fully owned by the individual, anything that risks being an empty gesture. The “spiritual but not religious” person wants to cut past all the accumulation of tradition and habit and get straight to sincere spiritual experience.

My inspiration to write about this at long last comes from my reading of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which seems to fit my current mood perfectly. In particular, this bit strikes me as true:

Behind the pseudo-democratic dismantling of ceremony, of old-fashioned courtesy, of the useless conversation suspected, not even unjustly, of being idle gossip, behind the seeming clarification and transparency of human relations that no longer admit anything undefined, naked brutality is ushered in. The direct statement without divagations, hestitations or reflections, that gives the other the facts full in the face, already has the form and timbre of the command issued under Fascism by the dumb to the silent. Matter-of-factness between people, doing away with all ideological ornamentation between them, has already itself become an ideology for treating people as things. (sec. 20)

Once the empty gestures of courtesy are swept away, we aren’t inducted into a new realm of sincere, unmediated human brotherhood — rather, we are left with nothing but the brutality of market relations. Similarly, once we get rid of “religion,” we’re left with nothing but prideful (and empty) speculations and a demand for the warm fuzzies we associate with spiritual ecstacy.

My main focus is not on the spirituality element, though, but on the element of ritual. Continue reading “Religious but not spiritual”

Against discursive utilitarianism

In discussions of all kinds, one frequently hears someone declare that there is no point in continuing the conversation, because their interlocutor will never be convinced. This sentiment can sometimes be a kind of short-hand for various understandable reasons to cut off a conversation — your interlocutor doesn’t seem to be taking you seriously, they are trying to catch you in a contradiction or otherwise make you look stupid, they are just trying to waste your time, they just want to repeat the well-worn formulas that for them count as “opinions” or “views,” etc. — but insofar as we take it literally, it is a terrible reason to stop conversing.

The point of a conversation is not to convince as many people as possible to adopt your viewpoint, nor indeed is it to find good replacements for one’s own views. We are, at least sometimes, rational beings, and as such, we have a duty to give reasons for what we say.

There are circumstances that supply a good excuse to shirk that duty, and we are of course free to shirk it arbitrarily if we so choose — no one has infinite time or patience, and sometimes the interlocutors who are genuinely asking in good faith and with an open mind are the most exhausting of all.

Yet it is never acceptable to cut off a conversation because you have determined that your interlocutor will never abandon their views and adopt yours. It is perfectly acceptable, again, to conclude that they’re not taking you seriously, that they are just waiting their turn to say the same things they would say no matter who they were talking to — or indeed that you’re simply getting bored. But if the only thing that keeps you from becoming bored with a conversation is the prospect of getting someone to abandon their own view and adopt yours, then you have failed as a human being in a fundamental way.

The simple believer

In comments to my post on literalism, Rob L. has been concerned with defending the existence of “literal” religious beliefs, as opposed to what he sees as the tendency of religion scholars to explain away seemingly simplistic views (such as the idea that the Virgin Mary is “really” up there in heaven listening to our prayers). He seems to worry that such a view is patronizing or disrespectful to the simple religious folk, but I’ve seen a similar strategy at work among New Atheists: when confronted with more sophisticated theological reasoning, they will claim that theologians aren’t representative and you have to look at the religious beliefs of the majority.

This overlap between a well-intentioned and hostile approach gives me pause. What I’d like to argue in this post is that literalism is an unacceptable and ultimately patronizing approach to the faith of the simple believer — we must side with approach of the religion scholar or the theologian to deal with religious beliefs responsibly.

Continue reading “The simple believer”

The financial passage à l’acte

Zizek has often said that the truly ethical act is one that changes the standards by which ethical acts are judged. On the face of it, it appears that the actions of the Too Big To Fail firms in the mortgage markets qualify — in the normal run of events, fraud on this scale should obviously be punished, but it has reached a point where applying the rules could trigger another financial crisis, thus causing massive human suffering. By flouting the law in such a systematic way, the banks have de facto rewritten the law for what counts as a valid transfer of a mortgage and put the public at large into a situation where we basically have to hope and pray they don’t get fully called out on it, since that would lead to another systemic collapse.

At the same time, Zizek would doubtless point out that this is the seemingly radical change that ensures that nothing changes — a pseudo-radical gesture that makes sure that society still is working to the advantage of the capitalist class, within which the financial sector now plays a hegemonic role in basically all developed nations.

Sketch for a typology of Christian approaches to homosexuality

Anthony’s post about typologies of apocalyptic positions has me in a typologizing mood, so I thought I’d try my hand at a typology of Christian positions on homosexuality:

  1. Hate the sinner, hate the sin: homosexuals are all depraved predators whom God rightly rejects; giving them any ground is out of the question
  2. Love the sinner, hate the sin: homosexuals are involved in a sinful and destructive lifestyle, and it is our duty to save them from that lifestyle, since they are children of God who deserve better
  3. Ignore the sinner, hate the sin: homosexuality is a profoundly disordered condition that has no place in the church, but a huge number of our ministers are homosexual
  4. Hate the sinner, love the sin: “I can’t wait until I’m done preaching this fire and brimstone sermon against gays, so that I can get back to my meth and male prostitutes.” [Thanks to James K. A. Smith for this one.]
  5. Love the sinner, ignore the sin: we know that the Bible condemns homosexuality, but we can get around that with some hand-wavy gestures toward the importance of love
  6. Love the sinner, love the sin: the condemnation of homosexuality is a minority tradition in Scripture that need not bind us; the clear fact that practicing homosexuals are committed Christians shows we should welcome them with open arms
  7. Love the sinner, sin boldly: Christians who reject normative sexuality enact God’s judgment on human sexuality under conditions of patriarchy [Thanks to Silivren for this]

Two possible combinations of the terms that didn’t make it into the typology:

  • Ignore the sinner, ignore the sin: homosexuality? what’s that?
  • Ignore the sinner, love the sin: homosexuality sounds like a great idea — if only there were someone willing to engage in it with me!