Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil
Ethics in general
thanks to its negative and a priori determination of Evil, ethics
prevents itself from thinking the singularity of situations as such, which is the
obligatory starting point of all properly human action
In this sentence, the term
“ethics” refers to the conventional ethics that one could associate with the ethics of
the modern cultural hegemony, with its imperialisms and other forms of social
It assumes that Evil is self-evident and that the Good is simply that
which is not-Evil, even though from another perspecive it may not be all that Good.
For example, the logic of the U.S. invasion of Irag seems to go something like this:
Saddam is Evil, and even if you don’t think George Bush and company are all that
Good, they are
Good by comparison with Saddam.
For Badiou, this kind of ethics
negates what is most valuable about humanity, what he calls the Immortal.
man’s ability to formulate a positive Good.
His first thesis is that “
Man is to be
identified by his affirmative thought, by the singular truths of which he is capable, by
the Immortal which makes of him the most resilient and most paradoxical of
This idea of the Immortal is hard to swallow in a materialist (and Badiou is
a materialist), so we have to try and understand what he means.
lies in his ability to produce a truth that does not transcend a particular situation in the
sense of erasing it but transforms the situation.
The traditional idea behind a
universal truth is that it is self-evident and transcends any particular situation, so that
in effect it rises above every situation.
It is not singular.
For Badiou, truth is
immortal not because it transcends time but because it transforms a situation and
creates the ground from which a new situation can be constructed.
Why the term
Because in order to produce a truth, humans must recognize an infinity
of possibilities that lies beyond the finite limitations of any given situation.
leads to his second thesis about “
our positive capability for Good
,” which entails “
boundary-breaking treatment of possibilities and our refusal of conservatism
latter is more than a political position but a relation to the givens of any situation.
constitutes a refusal of the Immortal, of that capacity for recognizing the singular
truth within a situation, a possibility of the situation that has gone unrecognized.
Badiou, according to his third thesis, “
There is no ethics in general
,” that is to say, a
self-evident knowledge of Good and Evil that transcends any singular situation.
There are only—eventually—ethics of processes by which we treat the possibilities