Ethics should be the most comprehensive field of philosophical inquiry. The term derives from the Greek ethos, which can be translated as “way of life.” Since the human way of life involves necessary interactions with nature and society, demands both physical and symbolic activity, physical and emotional relationships, and decisions about self and social governance, the ethical problematic involves everything, from ecological considerations, to the place of science in our relationship to nature, to economics, problems of gender and sexuality, race, political organization,religion and spirituality, art, interpretation and meaning, and individual existential crises about the meaning (or lack thereof) of their own existence. Moreover, since the only way to understand ways of life is to study them, and to study them we have to look to history, ethics makes clear the diversity of forms of life. But within that diversity, it also discloses (if we know how to look for them) certain commonalities, core natural and social needs which, though they may be satisfied differently, are shared, baseline human realities.
However, unity amidst diversity is a problem I will explore another day. I want to focus on two ways in which “ethics” is bastardized and its politically radical implications stifled today. In standard usage, ethics does not refer to a holistic form of life, but professional rules and standards. Hence, ethical behaviour is reduced to rule following within a strictly delimited professional domain. “Unethical” behaviour, by contrast, is reduced to transgressions of these standards, and is often synonymous with being “unprofessional.” When it refers to more than just unprofessional behaviour, unethical action is still typically confined to an individual violation of another individual’s legitimate expectations of treatment, given the rules that define the professional “code of ethics.”
Of course, professional standards are important and have their place, especially in a world where professions are defined by often complex bodies of knowledge. In cases of law or medicine, for example, those who need a lawyer or doctor but are not fully versed in the complexity of the legal system or scientific medicine rely upon their lawyer and doctor to be honest with them, to have their best interest at heart, and to provide them with the information they need to make informed decisions. So there is no question of simply doing away with professional standards and codes of conduct.
Nevertheless, this restricted use of ethics emphasizes its repressive aspect. Ethical codes are primarily invoked when they are violated: they are mostly lists of what not to do (even if they are phrased in affirmative rather than negative language). Ethics, in the sense of ethos, however, is not primarily about what not to do, but how people live. Ethical philosophy is thus life-affirmative: it studies the way people actually live, in the comprehensive sense of “live” given above.
At the same time, ethics is not anthropology. It is not a dispassionate study of different ways of life interested in the details for their own sake, or for the sake of discovering deeper patterns, but a critical inquiry into the normative problem of how we ought to live. Diversity may seem to rule out an answer to that question. An unthinking cultural relativism might conclude: everyone ought to live in accordance with the standards of the culture into which they are born– bad news for women born into sexist cultures or racialized subaltern groups born into racist cultures.
I think that there are not terribly difficult ways to avoid the problem of cultural relativism without imperialistically ignoring difference. Societies claim not only to be, but to be good. All claims to goodness demand some attempt to legitimate available positions and opportunities, their openness or closure, as in the interests of the members of society. Ancient slave societies did not say that they were unjust because slaves had no choice about where they worked; they claimed to be just because those who were slaves were constructed as subhuman instruments who could no nothing more than work for a master. Had slaves never revolted, perhaps this argument (familiar from Aristotle’s Politics) would have worked. But the so-called slaves themselves eventually did rebel (most famously in Rome, led by Spartacus) thus proving, by their self-activity, that the philosophical justification of slavery as good was really ideological justification for slave holding.
This example shows us the general way in which ethics can be critical without being perniciously ethnocentric. All societies justify themselves by intrinsic standards of legitimacy, but these justifications can also be found wanting by subaltern groups within them. Over time, we see a general pattern of struggle emerge across eras and cultures: people who are constructed as not having a certain need (say, women, for education) eventually re-interpret themselves and reject that construction. Once a group recongises deprivation of a core need as a harm, they realise that they have been oppressed, and begin to fight back against the oppressive structures and their justifying ideologies. Conservative elements will of course respond that the demands are unnatural abominations, but these are transparent attempts to hold on to their own power. The demand for change is a demand to open space for individual activity, not wholesale destruction of the culture (its language, art, etc).
These struggles are of course political and economic, but they are not about institutions in the abstract, but how people live, and how they might live differently, and better. Hence, they are ethical struggles par excellence. Normative inquiry into the problem of how we ought to live is thus essential to social change and ethics, properly conceived, is thus also critical.
Here again threats loom. Case in point: Israeli philosophy professor Asa Kasher who has authored a proposed new code of academic conduct for Israeli universities. This code of conduct is a pretty clear effort to squelch dissent on Israeli campuses and to prevent, in particular, the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement from gaining any traction there. Specifically, it is part of a wave of anti-BDS measures designed clearly to criminalize dissent and opposition to Israeli colonialism and apartheid. For good measure, Kasher has also recently argued that Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi should stay in prison for fear she might slap soldiers again. Tamimi had the temerity to slap a fully armed thug invading her home! But more generically, it is part of a wave of “civility codes” that institutions, from corporations to universities, are trying to impose on workers. These codes are always justfied in apple pie terms: the need for respectful workplaces, etc. In reality, they are thinly veiled efforts to increase management power to control dissent and opposition.
Kasher is thus only an extreme example of the danger that seemingly benign or even progressive ethical codes, codes of conduct, anti-bullying protocals, etc., can have. Since these codes have to be administered, they invariably give more power to the authorities: the very groups who preside over deeply unjust societies. Historically, however, most struggles against oppression: against slavery, against patriarchy, against exploitation, have been struggles for self-determination, against the bosses, the police, the authorities; struggles not for more repressive enforcement of the rules, but for different rules, whose willing internalization creates different people, who can govern themselves and establish mutually affirmative, respectful relationships with others always treated as moral equals.
But we live in a fearful age that lacks imagination and confidence, an age in which too many people want to be told what to do rather than decide collectively how to live together as free individuals, an age in which too many people are afraid of the unanticipated encounter, an age which too often confuses moralistic rigidity with social criticism. As the example of Kasher shows, people who think they are struggling for freedom and justice best be careful of what they wish for, if they wish liberation can be achieved by repressive behaviour codes imposed from above.
As ye suppress, so shall ye be suppressed in turn.