I’ve just started a summer semester, and I’m teaching environmental ethics. What continues to strike me is how difficult it is to get people to recognize that they need to study ethics. In terms of the Socratic axiom, it’s difficult to get people to realize that their ethical life needs examining. So many people think that they already act ethically and that their current understanding of ethical relatedness is sufficient.
If we think or feel that we’re already ethical enough, not only are we difficult students to teach, we are profoundly irresponsible. I would simply say that the difference between an ethical and unethical person is that the ethical person knows that it’s impossible to be ethical. This reminds me of Avital Ronell’s comments on ethics in the film Examined Life.
This is something that Derrida has taught. If you feel that you’ve acquitted yourself honorably, then you’re not so ethical. If you have a good conscience, then you’re kind of worthless. […] The responsible being is one who thinks they’ve never been responsible enough, they’ve never taken care enough of the Other.
This is “ethics under erasure,” as the new book on Derrida puts it. The responsible person is responsible without responsibility, cultivating ethics without ethics (or ethics “against ethics,” as Jack Caputo might say).