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An essay on the understanding of evil

According to current usage, the term "ethics" relates to the domain of human rights. A universally recognisable human subject is proposed possessing rights that are in some sense natural. In the political domain, deprived of any collective political landmark, stripped of any notion of the 'meaning of History' and no longer able to hope for or expect a social revolution, many intellectuals, along with much of public opinion, have been won over to the logic of a capitalist economy and a parliamentary democracy.

In the domain of 'philosophy', they have rediscovered the virtues of that ideology constantly defended by their former opponents: Rather than seek out the terms of a new politics of collective liberation, they have, in sum, adopted as their own the principles of the established 'Western' order.

But for Badiou they were much more critical and engaged than those who uphold today's "ethics". The foundation of the ethic of human rights is Kant. There is an assumed consensus about the nature of this Evil. Good is defined simply as that which intervenes visibly against this Evil.

The heart of this framework is the universal human subject. Ethics thus defines man as a victim. Man is the being who is capable of recognising himself as a victim.

It reduces man to the level of a living organism pure and simple. The rights of man need to be equated with the ability of man to think rather than the possibility that he might die. For this 'living being' is in reality contemptible, and he will indeed be held in contempt. Who can fail to see that in our humanitarian expeditions.

On the side of the victims, the haggard animal exposed on television screens. On the side of the benefactors, conscience and the imperative to intervene. And why does this splitting always assign the same roles to the same sides? Who cannot see that this ethics which rests on the misery of the world hides, behind its victim-Man, the good-Man, the white-Man?

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Since the barbarity of the situation is considered only in terms of 'human rights' - whereas in fact we are always dealing with a political situation, one that calls for a political thought-practice, an essay on the understanding of evil that is peopled by its own authentic actors - it is perceived, from the heights of our pparent civil peace, as the uncivilised that demands of the civilised a civilising intervention.

Every intervention in the name of a civilisation requires an initial concept for the situation as a whole, including its victims. And this is why the reign of 'ethics' coincides, after decades of courageous critiques of colonialism and imperialism, with today's sordid self-satisfaction in the 'West', with the insistent argument according to which the misery of the Third World is the result of its own incompetence, its own inanity - in short, of its subhumanity.

It builds consensus around the recognition of evil, and therefore identifies all attempts to build positive notions of the good as part of this evil. Every will to inscribe an idea of justice or equality turns bad. Every collective will to the Good creates Evil. Because of its universal underpinnings, ethics is unable to address the singularity of situations as such, "which is the obligatory starting poing of all properly human action.

Badiou advances three principles: Man is to be identified by his affirmative thought, by the singular truths of which he is capable. It is from our positive capability for Good that we are able to identify Evil, not vice versa. There is no ethics in general.

There are only ethics of processes by which we treat the possibilities of a situation.

Does the Other Exist? Another strain in contemporary ethics is built not around the idea of the self but the idea of the other. Can be traced back to Emmanuel Levinas rather than Kant. Levinas argues that western metaphysics is built on the logic of the Same - the primacy of substance and identity. Greek philosophy was about deriving laws from the whole, rational individual. The Jewish Law is about the primacy of the relation with the Other.

But Levinas' examination of the phenomenology of the experience of the other the face, the caress is inadequate to the task he sets for it. There is no guarantee that the other is actually experienced as other psychoanalysis gives many theories to the contrary.

And the "other" is always inadequate to its role as other, because there is as much about it that it is "same". For absolute otherness, the "other" must become an abstract category - like God - which turns the project of ethics into religion. Ethics must find its foundation in the Same. The Other is not helping us to find any basis for our ethics except prop up a frivolous language of "difference".

The fact is that no truth can be derived from the banal observation that there is difference between human beings - because difference is the basic fact of all human interaction: The particular sort of difference that contemporary societies are most obsessed with - cultural difference - is no more than a kind of tourist's fascination.

This can be shown empirically. As a matter of fact, this celebrated 'other' is acceptable only if he is a good other - which is to say what, exactly, if not the same as us?

Ethics as a Figure of Nihilism "Whether we think of it as the consensual representation of Evil or as concern for the other, ethics designates above all the incpacity, so typical of the contemporary world, to name and strive for a Good. We should go even further and say that the reign of ethics is one symptom of a universe ruled b a distinctive combination of resignation in the face of necessity together with a purely negative, if not destructive, will.

It is this combination that should be designated as nihilism. The logic of Capital is what is "necessary" in contemporary society: Ethics functions as a nihilistic "understudy" to this "necessity. For what every emancipatory project does, what every emergence of hitherto unknown possibilities does, is to put an end to consensus. How, indeed, could the incalculable novelty of a truth, and the hole that it bores in established knowledges, be inscribed in a situation without encountering resolute opposition?

But by doing this, by everywhere promoting a domestic haughtiness and cowardly self-satisfaction, it sterilises every collective gathering around a vigorous conception of what can and thus must be done here and now. And in this, once again, it is nothing more than a variant of the conservative consensus.

It is also its dependence on happiness and the absence of death. This comes out most clearly in arguments about euthanasia. To the unbearable character of the latter as a sight for the living? Here ethics is at the junction of two only apparently contradictory drives: The possibility of the impossible, which is exposed by every loving encounter, every scientific re-foundation, every artistic invention and every sequence of emancipatory politics, is the sole principle - against the ethics of living-well whose real content is the deciding of death - of an ethic of truths.

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