This is an abridged version of a paper given at the recent conference on “The Political Dimension of Sacrifice” at Trinity College, Oxford, organized by Professor Johannes Zachhuber.


Morality and ethics: two paradoxes

In recalling and commemorating the originary event, we focus alternately on its symmetrical-moral or its asymmetrical-ethical elements, on the peripheral humans’ mutual exchange of signs or on their relation to the forbidden central object. To emphasize the exchange, which has no direct practical-alimentary value, is to define the human by the exercise of moral reciprocity. In contrast, to attend to the sacred center, which is also the source of alimentary distribution, is to recognize the dependence of the community’s survival on the transcendent status of the sacred.

The earliest human societies, hunter-gatherer groups, participate in a ritual exchange system whose members occupy symmetrical positions on the periphery of a sacred center. In these egalitarian societies, humans experience originary resentment toward the “immortal” sacred that guarantees the transcendent, extra-individual status of their representations. This resentment reflects our experience of what we may call the semiotic paradox: that as mortal creatures we communicate through signs whose sacred guarantee makes them “immortal.”

The birth of sedentary agriculture in the Neolithic era saw the emergence of the first “big-men,” whose accumulation of surpluses allowed them to occupy the ritual center of their societies, monopolizing the redistributive function previously shared among the various families or clans. Since human communication and culture as realized in the originary reciprocal exchange of signs remains fundamentally egalitarian—linguistic and symbolic exchange in itself being inherently reciprocal—the emergence of hierarchy embodies a second, moral paradox of humans participating in an unequal social system whose inequalities can be conveyed only in the egalitarian forms of language. The hierarchical social order provides a human focus for the originary resentment directed at the sacred center.


The term sacrifice embodies the tension inherent in these paradoxes. The plain meaning of the word is “to make sacred,”sacer facere; whether in ancient times, when sacrifices were carried out as ritual offerings, or today, when religious sacrifice is limited to the transubstantiation of the Mass or to personal acts of abnegation, the term refers to the renunciation of an object of desire for the sake of a “higher” cause. What this conjunction suggests is that it is through this renunciation that the sacred itself is “made,” that is, generated or revealed. The first sign, the aborted gesture of appropriation, sacralizes its object by renouncing it; the signs of cultural representation are the residues of sacrificial acts.

Alimentary sacrifice is the dominant ritual of early egalitarian and hierarchical societies. In the latter, as befits the central role of the big-man and his more powerful successors, the tribal chieftain and the king, the structure of sacrificial ritual is extended to the social order as a whole. The “subjects” are obliged to renounce an often considerable portion of their worldly possessions in order to furnish the central power with goods and services, a portion of which is redistributed to the population at large. Just as in the originary event, the members give all to the sacred center in order to subsequently receive their portion, except that now this center is under the control of a monarch, who at the limit becomes a god-king like the pharaohs of Egypt.


At the most centralized moment of ancient society, Christianity, with its roots in the monotheistic, anti-imperial religion of Judaism, confronted the imperial social order with an order of reciprocal morality rooted in the originary scene and maintained in what the Gospels call the “Kingdom of Heaven.”

Jesus’ dictum, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17), expresses the ontological distinction between the moral and the ethical order. Whatever one’s obligations to the poor, one does not refuse to pay taxes in order to meet them; because the moral realm transcends the ethical realm, its challenge to it is not political but “spiritual.” Whether the historical Jesus made this distinction so clearly is a secondary matter. Open revolt would not have ended Roman rule; the important thing was to emphasize the priority of the moral over the ethical, of human reciprocity over the sacrificial reinforcement of social solidarity. A few centuries later, Caesar’s conversion compromised the clarity of the moral-ethical distinction, which nonetheless remained at the foundation of the Christian order.

“Politics,” left and right

Political debate, as first exemplified by the Athenian assembly, traditionally concerned the great questions of war and peace: how to assign authority, how to raise money, with whom to ally and whom to oppose, whether to defend or attack. Elements of these debates can in retrospect be labeled as “right” or “left”—for example, the Gracchi, patrons of the Roman plebes, have been placed on the left and compared to the Kennedys. But although the tension between morality and ethics is originary, and although Christianity had opposed the moral to the ethical as its foundation, it was not until the French Revolution that this opposition became the basis for a fully articulated political division.

By mob compulsion when necessary, the Revolution tore open a space for the insertion of the moral imperative of equality into politics. Only then did politics come to be explicitly understood as mediating between the egalitarian moral model, privileged in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, and the ethical norms and laws that permit the functioning of society as it is, whatever failures of reciprocity this may require; only then did moral reciprocity acquire parity with ethical stability as one of the ultimate criteria to which all political arguments must appeal. The pragmatic origin of the right-left polarity in the seating arrangement of the French National (Constituent) Assembly in 1789-91 implicitly affirms that, given that all social institutions deviate in some way from perfect reciprocity, policies and their advocates are most pertinently judged by the degree to which they temper the application of the moral imperative by consideration for existing institutions.

The effectiveness of democratic political institutions requires that their sovereignty be accepted by both left and right, in the first case, despite their deviation from simple moral equality, in the second, despite their “parliamentary” openness to particular interests in contrast to those of the collectivity. The political symmetry of right and left is complicated by the different levels on which the moral and ethical are situated. There is a “moral instinct” but no “ethical instinct”; we resent social norms if they violate our sense of moral reciprocity. In other words, we are instinctively leftists; respect for the institutions that have insured humanity’s survival must be learned. The originary dependency of this survival on the sacred is preserved in the right’s respect for and frequent appeal to religion, which stands in contrast to the left’s emphasis on human reciprocity.

The minimality of the right-left model suggests that it represents a semi-stable pole of political organization in which the parties are defined not by their devotion to specific interests but by overall principles. This model privileges political debate by embodying these principles in two broad families of policies, any specific one of which a given citizen at a given moment might ideally be persuaded to support. Although the exclusionary power of this dualism periodically provokes the disaffected to form third parties around purportedly neglected issues, the two-party system tends to reestablish its dominance after each perturbation.

Sacrificial and victimary politics

The right-left opposition may be understood as a contest between two modes of sacrifice. In the traditional social order, extending up to the Revolution, the members of society were asked to sacrifice their goods, services, and sometimes their lives for the benefit of the constituted social order, which claimed to be cautioned by God. The right, which inherits this traditional view, demands sacrifice for the sake of the society, which, as Burke reminds us, is a precariously balanced entity that risks irreparable damage from radical attempts to create new institutions from whole cloth. In contrast, the process begun with calling up the Estates General in 1789 put into political terms an opposing notion of moral sacrifice, in which the members of the society were asked to sacrifice their possessions and lives for the sake of liberté, égalité, fraternité, with the emphasis on the second of these as the watchword of originary reciprocity. Thus the left asks us to sacrifice for the sake of moral equity, which may also be formulated, in the words of the New Testament, as for the sake of the least of these, that is, to raise the less fortunate up to the general level. The right’s concern is the difficulty of maintaining society as it is, the left’s, that of creating society as it should be.

Yet there is another, stronger sense in which a political attitude may be called “sacrificial” that applies asymmetrically to the recent politics of the left. For although every political decision presupposes in principle that the citizen consent to sacrifices, not every citizen feels a personal need for such sacrifices. What I refer to as the sacrificial political attitude may be defined as one in which the individual attributes to himself an uncleanliness that can only be purged through certain forms of political action, which he thereby promotes as conducive to the spiritual health of the polity. Given this definition, victimary politics as practiced throughout the postmodern era is appropriately called sacrificial.

The postmodern configuration of victimary politics was precipitated by the Holocaust, the central revelatory event of the 20thcentury. The radical inhumanity of the Nazi-Jew paradigm tainted with genocide all forms of differential group status. This delegitimation of de jure difference gave a decisive impetus after WWII to the American Civil Rights movement and the various decolonization movements, and subsequently, to female and gay “liberation,” the assertion of the rights of the disabled, and so on.

Yet it was not until overt or de jure forms of discrimination had largely been eliminated in advanced societies that victimary politics took on the definitive configuration that it has maintained more or less since 1968. As long as there were legal obstacles to equality, it was possible to think that it was these obstacles that prevented the members of disadvantaged racial-ethnic-gender groups from achieving equal success with the “majority” population in every prestige-bearing domain. The emergence of policies of “affirmative action,” which the French call less euphemistically discrimination positive, reflected the a priori conviction that any group success differential could be attributed to discrimination, overt in the past and/or persisting in the present in more subtle forms. Unsurprisingly, many of these policies are still in place forty years later and are unlikely to disappear altogether for generations to come.

White guilt

It is obvious why victimary politics would be attractive to the groups who are advantaged by it—although a few courageous figures in the minority community, such as Ward Connerly and Thomas Sowell, have rejected it. It is its support among the so-called “majority” that reflects the more broadly based victimary-sacrificial attitude that we call white guilt.

Shelby Steele’s White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era (Harper-Collins, 2006) defines white guilt from the perspective of American race relations, but the term can be usefully extended on the model of Derrida’s métaphore blanche to refer to the guilt of the unmarked toward the marked. (As an example of postmodern sensitivity to the privilege of unmarked status, many writers of English have come to substitute “she” for “he” as the “generic” pronoun.) The sacrificial attitude of white guilt extends the moral model to relations beyond humanity, to our treatment of animals and even plants, or our extraction and use of natural resources. The far from unambiguously demonstrated phenomenon of “global warming” has been greeted almost joyously as an occasion for sacrifice. The fact that as members of wealthy societies we make significantly greater use of natural resources than the majority of our fellow humans facilitates the extension to nature of our guilt toward our human “victims.” Thus the moral model of reciprocity among humans, as emphasized by the Judeo-Christian tradition, is extended to a model of “sustainable” exchange between humanity and the natural world, a perspective more closely associated with Asian religions such as Buddhism and Jainism.

The spread of white guilt in our era reflects the coming to a head of the fundamental tension between morality and ethics. As the origin of our particular sensitivity to the immoral aspects of previously tolerated forms of ethical relation, the Holocaust is situated at the boundary between a national era of market society and the global one we now inhabit. One way of understanding the horrors of WWII, which include on the Japanese side such phenomena as the Nanking massacre, is that the most extreme forms of domination practiced in colonies on other continents were transferred to the home or near-home territories of the countries involved. If, as went a familiar Leninist argument, Western prosperity was dependent on its exploitation of colonial empires, then the reconciliation of morality and ethics was a utopian fantasy; a people could survive only by remorselessly dominating others both within and without its home territory.

The postwar era that ended the colonial empires has witnessed, along with the gradual emergence of “Europe,” the dissolution of the formal obstacles to the integration of the world market. Nor would the “global village” that is the contemporary context of victimary politics be conceivable without the qualitative enhancement of communications over the past few decades that has produced the Internet, cellular telephones, social networking, and so on. Signs circulate faster and more cheaply than things, and a crucial, unanticipated aspect of technological progress is that this difference is at first vastly multiplied before it can begin to be reduced. Thus the exchange of representations appears to become detached from its originary function of facilitating the exchange of goods; the moral model realized in the world of signs seems unconnected to a global ethical reality. The evidence that everyone in the world desires essentially the same things only increases the guilt of those who already have these things toward those who do not.

In the real world of liberal democracy, this lack of temporal density is slowed down by the inertia of the political process, the purpose of which, as James Madison and his colleagues understood, was to protect ethical reality from the dissolving impact of both private interests and moral imperatives. The generative-anthropological model introduces temporal density under the rubric of firstness.

The necessity of firstness

In the absence of belief in a transcendental sacred being, sacrifice itself, as realized in white guilt, becomes the only guarantee of the sacred. To the extent that ethics fails to embody morality, our guilt is the sign of our solidarity with the moral imperative that accompanies the originary sacred. This guilt also provides the energy for extending the moral imperative of reciprocity to our relationship with the natural world, creating the new paradigm of sustainability in a finite environment.

Rather than seeking to abolish or “refute” white guilt, I would offer an anthropological justification for allaying its impatience. The moral model is originary, but it is a mistake to see its reciprocal exchange as equal at every moment. As Adam Katz has pointed out, in the originary event, someone had to be first to think of the aborted gesture as a sign, and someone else,last. Racial or ethnic prejudice abandons the symmetry of the moral model for an attribution of lastness; the humanity of the Other is claimed to be “later” than my own. (The more complex phenomenon of antisemitism, on the contrary, should be understood as resentment of firstness.) White guilt, which manifests itself for Steele in a constant need to demonstrate that one is not tainted by racism, may then be understood as the fear of appearing to attribute such lastness to the Other, in violation of the moral imperative that all, first and last included, participate in the symmetrical exchange of the sign.

In the nineteenth century, the West saw its historical firstness, not altogether hypocritically, as “the white man’s burden”: the mission of the first industrial (and relatively democratic) civilization was to spread its values throughout the world. Today, such ideological affirmations are anathema, yet the values of the liberal-democratic market system have indeed spread throughout the world. With the demise of the communist dream, these are indisputably the only values with the potential to fulfill the desires of the world’s population for a higher standard of living, modern medical care, a longer life-span, and so on.

This unanimity of desire could not avoid provoking resentment, particularly within societies less successful than others in fulfilling its goals. Thus we have recently seen the rise of political movements dedicated to the ruthless enforcement of traditional values as against those of the global economy. Western market society has been opposed most vigorously not by those on the left, such as Chavez in Venezuela, who demagogically denounce its infidelity to the moral model, but by those fanatically attached to a transcendentally guaranteed system of ethics. The term “Islamofascism” is meant to reflect the Islamists’ emphasis on ethics at the expense of moral reciprocity. Yet where fascism promised a utopia of reciprocity for its master race, Islamism turns its back on history and “moral progress” of any kind to seek the universal triumph of the rigid ethical code of medieval Islam.

Sacrifice and self-correction

The growing success of former victimary groups within American society gives evidence that the moral obsession of white guilt has indeed contributed, through the mediation of the democratic political process, to an ethical progress that seems bound to gradually reduce such guilt in the future. Whatever element of white guilt may have contributed to the election of Barack Obama to the American presidency, this election has undoubtedly contributed to making relations between American races and ethnic groups more cordial and reciprocal.

Yet white guilt on a global scale, because it lies outside the democratic political process, is not so clearly beneficial. The historical counter-productivity of much foreign aid is a salient example. Even if we accept in principle the extension of moral reciprocity to our natural environment, we must not forget that the imperative of sustainability can function only within a sustainable social order. Even if it is indeed urgent to combat global warming, this combat cannot be allowed to damage the international economic system. And I hope it will not require further 9/11s to make us realize that the only effective way to reduce the white guilt of the West toward the “third world” is through the prudent expansion of the advantages of modern market society to the entire globe. We must avoid at all costs letting our sacrificial passions play into the hands of those who would gladly relieve us of our guilt by putting an end to modern civilization, if not to humankind itself.