Articles & Essays

Alain Badiou: Ethics Under Fire – Is Humanitarianism Killing the Good Within Us

Caption: Non-Violence or “The Knotted Gun” by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd, outside the UN Headquarters in New York, NY, USA. (Photo by Matthew TenBruggencate on Unsplash)

Two fundamental and indisputable facts shape our lives. Our world changes, and human beings deliberate on how best to be agents of change.

These two facts are at the heart of the philosophy of Alain Badiou, one of the most significant thinkers working today. Badiou has for decades concerned himself with why human beings reorganise their world, what motivates them to do so, and how they should ultimately do it.

His ideas are grounded in a theory of existence that is built on mathematical set theory. Amongst a crystalline complex that describes the cosmos, Badiou defines a human agent that is produced by, but also a participant in, social changes.

These changes can be as grand as civilisation-changing revolutions or as small as person-to-person love affairs. To understand these changes at each end of the scale requires an engagement with ethics — the study of how we ought to live our lives both as individuals and as collectives.

His short book Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (1993, translated into English in 2001) is both an accessible introduction to his ideas and an impassioned case to rethink ethics. The book begins with a ferocious criticism of how we tend to think about good and evil.

Badiou’s criticism is not of ethics in general, and certainly not the need for ethics, but rather the generalised and predominant humanitarian ethics that the western world has propagated.

These ethics have been established as abstract, self-evident and universal. They come to us in the guises of terms like “human rights”, “tolerance”, “multiculturalism”, “humanitarian aid”, and, most controversially, in “humanitarian intervention” — the use of force to ostensibly protect people from evil.

All these ideas are assumed to be not only good but also natural — they seem to stem from an innate morality in human beings. Badiou starts to forensically break them down to reveal foundations that he argues are neither natural nor necessarily good.

Does “Man” Exist?

All ethical theories have at their heart a conception of what is subject to ethics. In the ancient philosophies of the Hellenistic (Greek) world, the self was the subject of ethics. “Virtue” (Stoicism) or “pleasure” (Epicureanism) were the outcomes of self-directed ethical practices. By living according to such principles, the self is protected from evils such as anxiety or pain.

The generalised conception of humanitarian ethics of the West has its foundation not in the self, but in a universal idea of “man”.

We all know that people exist, but “man” is an idea of the human that treats all people — hence, it is “universal” — as if they have the same essence of humanity. The particularities of people are set aside when we speak of “mankind”, and instead ideas of “human nature” are invoked.

That reduction of all particular people to “mankind” allows for self-evident principles to be formed in the conduct of human beings toward each other. This is because the result of such a reduction is that human essence. Humanitarianism also entails delineating all that is harmful to this human essence — that is, evil.

In humanitarian ethics good is derived from evil, and not the other way around. Good is defined as not-evil because it is easier to get a consensus of what evil is than what is good.

Think of the operation of such ethics as being like the law. The law is the law against evil — it identifies evil behaviours and actions. If the evil of a given action is not clear the law provides arbitration. The law does not define nor reward good, it simply defines and punishes evil. Similarly, human rights are rights to non-evil: the right not to be humiliated, hurt, offended or impeded.

And so the generalised “man” is both the human that suffers from acts of evil, according to Badiou, but also the human that can also identify evil and know that it must be stopped. Therefore, in the generalised ethical framework of humanitarianism, man, according to Badiou, “is the being who is capable of recognising himself as a victim.”

The Mortal Man and the Immortal Man

What we have then is an ethics based on man’s capacity to be harmed and to suffer. So while man as predator of man is an animal abjection, so too is man in the role of the victim of evil. Why? Because man is dissolved to the substructure of his biological make-up — the fragile fresh-and-bones of the body.

The philosopher makes the case that perpetrators of terror and torture can treat people horrifically because the victims are conceived as less-than-human, reduced to the animality of our bodies. The right not to suffer, Badiou points out, is no different from animal rights.

The suffering human is contemptible and there to be saved by those who intervene. Every “humanitarian intervention” is then also based in contempt, because it sees a fragile, sub-human that needs to be freed from the harm of evil. This particularly colours the relationship between rich and poor nations. Badiou writes:

“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… of its subhumanity.” (13)

Many philosophers have argued that “man” is a fiction. Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser all proposed ways in which the concept of “man” has no basis in reality.

While Homo Sapiens tend to have common traits (such as the ability of language, two arms, two feet and so on), these philosophers have argued that there is no defining essence of “mankind” that precedes the existence of all individual human beings.

Badiou also proposes that there is no universal man, but there is such a thing as a “subject”.

The “subject”, understood philosophically, is a subject that stands in relation to things — the subject is distinguished from objects. We form beliefs and desires in relation to our situation as subjects.

For Badiou, the subject emerges in relation to specific situations that human beings find themselves entangled in. So while there is no universal essence of “human” for the philosopher, there is a universal mechanism by which we understand and apply our agency as human beings: subjectivity.

In this way, the philosopher suggests, people transcend the human biological substructure. An example he gives is that those who survive extremely cruel treatment or concentration camps typically hold on to “something other [more] than a mortal being”. They survive by envisaging a future — by a commitment to what is not simply their bodily survival.

The subject is, in Badiou’s terminology, “immortal”. This is not in the sense that they live forever, but simply that man can “distinguish himself within the varied and rapacious flux of life.” In other words, people can be more than the material components of their bodies.

The subject, then, is the basis for good conduct, while the animal substructure alone can only be the victim of evil. So herein lies the problem for humanitarianism, which is predicated only on the harm man can sustain.

These ethics prevent people from being harmed, yet do not empower them to fulfill their potential beyond their biological needs. The humanitarian would forcefully intervene on behalf of such things as “freedom”, but only insomuch that people may be physically harmed as a result of exercising free speech, for example.

If our only ethical project is against evil then we have no hope of making any meaningful progress — we are left with a “stodgy conservatism” since evil is defined and conceptually sustained in this self-evidential way (where there is harm being inflicted, there is evil).

This negatively-defined ethics serves to stifle positively-defined possibilities for human life. If we are not defining and sustaining our ethical doctrine on what is good, how can we better imagine the possibilities for the good of people?

Such an ethical framework is not the engine of any positive change — politics or any other force for social change, for example, are subordinated to this ethics. Badiou describes humanitarian ethics in this light as a “miserable moralism in the name of which we are obliged to accept the prevailing way of the world and its absolute injustice.”

For Badiou this ethic of the humane forbids the fruition of “immortal” humans, because “immortal man is sustained by possibility rather than present reality.”

Humanitarian ethics prevents itself from thinking in the specific situation, instead it conceives of “the victim” as a non-specific man. The immortal man — the subject — emerges in relation to the situation they are in and therefore ethics must be bound to the conditions of their subjectivity, that is indeed how such a subject is “sustained by possibility”.

And so for Badiou there are no true ethics in general: “Ethics does not exist. There is only the ethic-of.” What is meant by this is that a positively-defined ethics would be a way of thinking ethically in a given situation — to understand what is ethically appropriate to that situation. Ethics are not universal, but contingent on singular situations.

Badiou gives the example of the doctor in two guises. There is the doctor as a healthcare manager who helps “the sick”, and the doctor as a clinician who helps individual patients. “The sick” are universal ethical man-as-suffering-creature — vague victims of injury reduced to statistics for the managerial doctor.

The truly ethical doctor is one that applies medical ethics in the moment of the clinical situation — they fix the problem at hand. The managerial doctor may also want to establish who is worthy of treatment — for example, are they insured? Are they citizens or undocumented migrants? The doctor as clinician simply helps those who enter her clinic, no questions about their “status” are asked.

Ethics of Truth

The positively defined ethics that Badiou proposes are based on what the philosopher calls “truth events”. Put simply, these are moments of innovation and transformation that emerge from the “situation” — that is, the ordinary configuration of a given realm of human organization. Such a realm could be politics, for example.

Ordinarily we live in the world of routine and “opinion” — accepted ways of doing things built on accepted but contingent truths. So in an established “situation” we accept basic assumptions about the world, and we live according to those assumptions.

But situations always have inherent problems. For example, people could live and cope with a hypocrisy at the heart of their governing political system. Such a system cannot adequately represent the interests of the people it claims to represent. So within those assumptions there is a gap — or “void” as Badiou calls it — that makes us continually aware that our situation is not right.

This would be a void at the heart of the political system. The “truth event” is in which a self-evident truth springs up out of such a void. If a class of people’s interests are not represented, that misrepresentation is the void from which such a truth springs.

The truth event is a recognition of that hypocrisy and the alternative of a more representative system of politics. Badiou claims the French Revolution is an example of such an event.

The subject is “induced” by this truth process. Human beings do not choose their subjectivity, the truth makes a subject of them. Their own choice, as we will see, is what they do with their relationship to the truth.

Caption: For Alain Badiou, the good is a commitment to a truth. This is most commonly exhibited in the figure of the activist who seeks to bring about change by their commitment to a particular “truth event”. (Photo by Edrece Stansberry on Unsplash)

Good and Evil

What is good, then, is a fidelity and commitment to the truth understood in this way. When we are aware of a void like injustice or hypocrisy, we have a self-evident understanding of justice and integrity.

Good conduct is to persevere in and honour these truths. Unlike in the humanitarian ethics where good is defined against and seeks to limit evil, Badiou’s ethics is concerned with positively defining and encouraging the good. Put simply, ethics — in Badiou’s vision — is not protecting people from violence, but potentially creating a world in which such violence could not exist.

So what is evil? Badiou does not believe in evil that is intuitively understood prior to any acts of evil — there is no essence to evil, nothing that is self-evident about it.

In fact, Badiou is against what philosophers call an “a priori” understanding of both good and evil. “A priori” here means “knowledge before the fact of an instance”. For example, we have the a priori understanding that a triangle has three sides because the definition of a triangle is that it is a shape with three sides. An a priori idea of evil would be “deliberate acts of harm”, which seems self-evident, but Badiou would question what we mean by “deliberate”.

Obnoxious acts of self-interest to Badiou are “beneath good and evil”, since it is only in the framework of his “truths” that human beings are active as ethical agents. The human who acts simply in self-interest as a thief or even as a thug is “animal” man and mortal, not the “immortal” man whose agency emerges in relation to a truth event.

So the crimes of petty theft and assault probably would not enter Badiou’s realm of good and evil, and instead be transgressions of the established moral order.

This is an important point to make because Badiou’s goal is not dogmatically spelling out what is morally right or wrong, but rather proposing a new framework for how we understand right and wrong.

The good is to ultimately stop the need for such transgressions from emerging in the first place. Every act has a reason that is not just evil or just good. Badiou’s thinking is concerned with reasons, not the moral dimensions of those reasons.

Evil is instead redefined by Badiou as the good abandoned, misconstrued or misrepresented in relation to truths. Essentially, Evil is the corruption of our relationship with truths, not a self-evident essence that can be known before — and detected in — human behaviours.

This goes back to Badiou’s point that there are “no ethics in general”, “only ethics of processes by which we treat the possibilities of a situation”. He writes, “it is only because there are truths, and only to the extent that there are subjects of these truths that there is evil.”

Defined as such, Evil comes in three forms:

Simulacrum — What Badiou means by this is that a false truth event emerges (the solution to a false problem, as it were). Simulacrum here means “fake”. The example Badiou uses is Nazism. Nazism had all the appeal of a truth event that emerged to overthrow the decadence of the prevailing system at the time — the Weimar Republic. But Nazism was a fake solution, instead of being a cause of a truth (a universal concept such as liberation), it was a cause of particularities (nationalism and racism). The result was that its followers used terror and hatred to achieve their ends.

Betrayal — it is evil to give up on a truth for the sake of self-interest according to Badiou. Those who know what is right may abandon efforts to materialise that “right” in order to profit in some way or to make their own life easier. To put this simply, we are guilty of betrayal for all the good that we do not do. To betray the truth is to lose the immortal side of your being — the subjectivity that emerged in relation to the truth — and go back to satisfying the animal substructure of your being.

Totality — The totality is the form of evil in which a particular truth subsumes all within itself as if it were a definitive and total truth. It is more precise to refer to the truths that emerge from situational voids as “a truth” rather than “the truth”. This is because there is no overarching truth that we can know from an event.

A truth is really ungraspable in language. For example, saying “I love you” to the one I love is wholly different from saying “I love you” to anybody else (in a city like London, it is typical for people to say “I love you” as a statement of friendly endearment, rather than as one of devotion), yet the statement is exactly the same.

And so too a truth such as “all people are equal” is felt, not thought. A truth cannot be proved (in the same way the statement of love cannot be proved). The statement is simply an opinion, not a truth as Badiou explains it. Truths are unnamable. “Truths make their singular penetration only through the fabric of opinions”, as Badiou says.

When truths are presumed to be speakable, we have what the philosopher terms a “disaster” that is not unlike fanaticism, where opinions are taken for absolute truths. Badiou gives the examples of the fanatical Red Guards of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the anti-religious zeal of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Both were guises of a destructive (and self-destructive) will to impose a total truth.

These three kinds of evils — fake truths, betrayal of truths, and fanaticism — are the greatest threats to the progress demanded from the truth of the event and therefore the real evils.

Badiou wrote: “For a politics of emancipation, the enemy that is to be feared most is not repression at the hands of the established order. It is the interiority of nihilism, and the unbounded cruelty that can come with its emptiness.”

In other words, when we become subjects of the truth, our loss of faith to — or our corruption of — the truth is what can unleash the greatest cruelties. “One can, then,” he told Cabinet magazine, “define evil in one phrase: evil is the interruption of a truth by the pressure of particular or individual interests.”

Under the ethical imperative to remain faithful to a worthwhile cause (the “truth” in Badiou’s terminology), we must resist these three kinds of evil to remain good. This means exercising “resources of discernment” — so that we do not fall for fake causes, summon courage to not give up, and using moderation in our vision as to not get carried away to the extremes of totality.

Caption: For Badiou, evil is defined as a corruption of the good. The philosopher cites Nazism as an example of a movement formed by a false truth. (Source: Wikipedia. Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-02134 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Deliberation and Agency

The critical part of Badiou’s Ethics is successful insomuch that it exposes the flaws in widespread thinking about ethics (most importantly its negativity). He does so by pointing out that humanitarian ethics are historically contingent, that they are fundamentally conservative, and that such ideas also help to camouflage the forces that instrumentalise (and therefore propagate) these ethics — western capitalist hegemony and imperialism.

To make matters worse, these ethics are predicated on the fragility of human beings. They reduce us to our animal substructure and erase the transcendent and immortal qualities of being human that allows us to participate in our own collective destiny.

The positive part of Badiou’s thinking rests on ideas the philosopher formed as both a thinker and in practice as an activist. While these ideas dispel any remaining universal ideas such as human essence or innate ideas of good and bad, they are not relativistic.

Pointedly, Badiou does hold that there are truths. These truths spring up from the contradictions — the “void” — of prevailing opinions defined as “the situation”. A statement such as “all people are equal, regardless of race” is a truth that may be widely acknowledged, but yet to be realised in practice.

As such a truth bridges between the present world and a future world. The allure of these truths transform people from human animals to subjects of the truth who work to make the future. This is how we become ethical agents who can choose between good and evil.

The problem with the positive thesis, being grounded in Badiou’s own ideas, is discernment. How do we objectively discern between a “simulacrum” and a real truth? And how do we discern exactly what “betrayal” entails?

We become agents of change based on information. The situational truth does not come to us as a divine revelation comes to the prophet — that is, completely and flawlessly. And even if we were “good” insomuch that we were committed to the truth, how do we deliberate between differences in tactics and strategy? If differences emerged among subjects, who is to determine the line between fidelity and betrayal?

The integral strength of humanitarian ethics is precisely in its a priori understanding of good and evil. Nobody in this ethical framework can be deemed to be evil by mistake, even if you could cause harm by mistake (such as in the “friendly fire” and “collateral damage” of armed humanitarian interventions).

Badiou’s positive ethics depend on an ability to discern “truth” from “simulacra”, “fidelity” from “betrayal”, and “modesty” from “totality” that has no objective mechanism for validation, only judgement.

Badiou is correct to write that there are no ethics, there is only the ethic of any given situation.

As such, ethics are not a unitary code of conduct but a multiplicity of practices and ideas that relate to human agency. Ultimately ethical deliberation is about validating one’s agency, of testing our freedom against the state of affairs we find ourselves in. Thinking about ethics in this way, we can see that Badiou’s thesis is insightful and important, but remains — by Badiou’s own definition — an opinion.


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