An Ethical Person

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).

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4 responses to “An Ethical Person

  • Justin Caouette

    Nice piece. I was wondering if you could clarify something for me though. You say; “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.” Impossible to be ethical? How so? Maybe, “impossible to be ethical ALL of the time”, but I do think an ethical person can be ethical. Actually, an ethical person would have had to act ethical at least once or we couldn’t call him ethical, right?

    I must admit, that as an analytic philosopher I’m not familiar with Derrida so I can’t contribute much to the statements “cultivating ethics without ethics” or “the responsible person is responsible without responsibility”. To be honest, I’m not sure I know what those statements even mean. Maybe you could illuminate a bit?

    Thanks in advance.

    –JC

    • sam

      Thanks for your comment, Justin. You’re right that the ethical person would have had to “act ethical at least once.” Hopefully ethical people are acting ethical a lot, and to do so, they have to hold themselves (and their sense of ethics) in abeyance so that they can encounter others as others (i.e., encounter others on the others’ terms).

      I suppose my point is that ethical action is paradoxical. It reminds me of Wittgenstein’s comment that ethics is a matter of astonishment at existence, which makes nonsense of our expressions. Ethics is a matter of “running up against the limits of language,” which he relates to Kierkegaard’s understanding of ethics as “running up against paradox.” Being ethical means reaching the astonishing limits where one’s ethics breaks down.

      This is similar to what John Keats calls “negative capability.” It’s a capability to relate to others without reducing their uncertainties and mysteries to our own ideas, projections, reasons, etc.

      I hope this clarifies a little.

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