It is a truism, although not often recognized explicitly as such, that morality and ethics are not equivalents. This is not a mere matter of definition. As I think can be admitted without discussion, we all have a moral sense, a conscience not absorbed from any specific set of experiences, that can be expressed in formulas such as the “golden rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, modeled in the terms of the originary hypothesis on the reciprocal exchange of signs in the originary event.
The core of ethics, the rules of human interaction, is this simple notion of symmetrical reciprocity, and this holds even for those who subscribe to an ethic, such as that of the Hindu caste-system, that explicitly denies it. It suffices to point out that in hunter-gather societies, where the accumulation of individual wealth does not exist, all members of the society insist on equally sharing food and other goods wherever possible, in marked contrast to the pecking-order systems of our closest relatives among the higher animals.
Eric Voegelin’s Order and History traces the evolution of ethical systems in the West from the era of “compact” archaic empires through the liberation of the “Ecumenic Age” that saw the birth of Christianity (and Buddhism), and in which the originary moral principles laid aside during the imperial era were revived in the context of hierarchical societies as the ethic of God’s kingdom as opposed to Caesar’s.
This development gave birth to Western Judeo-Christian culture. In contrast, its current era of decline has spawned the cult of Wokism, which applies the basic moral principle to specific asymmetrical situations as a way both of debunking past history and of extracting compensations in the present. This disturbing development imposes on us the obligation to articulate ethical criteria beyond the moral model to defend the liberal-democratic social order against such practices as freeing convicted prisoners, not punishing “minor” crimes, rejecting merit-based reward systems, brainwashing grade-school pupils into apologizing for their “racial privilege,” and denying the objectivity of biology and even mathematics.
But the necessity of distinguishing ethics from morality transcends the current reign of “disparate impact.” It cannot be avoided in any attempt to judge the ethical systems of the past.
When partisans of Emancipation in the days before the Civil War condemned slavery as an unmitigated evil, they were rejecting slavery as incompatible with the nation’s foundational ethic. Yet beyond the facts that slavery continues to exist even today in various countries, and that since the last century Gulags and the like have habitually treated their workforce with far less regard for their welfare than the typical antebellum slave-owner, we must recognize that it would be naively anachronistic to take this same moral stance toward slavery in the ancient world, when there was no “free labor force” in the modern sense. Slavery began as a moral advance over slaughtering prisoners of war, a practice well attested in the days of Genghis Khan, not to speak of the Aztecs. The claim that slavery is ipso facto “immoral” is a historical category error. Ethics, like politics, is an art of the possible.
This principle once established, determining the moral status of a society’s ethical practices remains a delicate task. It is one that, nonetheless, for a couple of centuries at least, the liberal-democratic system made a concerted effort to accomplish. The crucial question today is whether the pragmatic, aposteriorist ethic of liberalism can be sustained in the face of today’s moralizing excesses—whether the “checks and balances” originally built into the system are capable of maintaining a common-sense ethic that can learn from the wisdom of the marketplace without either succumbing to the Mandevillian social nihilism of “private vices, public benefits” or, to the contrary, overcompensating its negative aspects by misapplying the principle of moral reciprocity.
The simplest point to begin from is that, unlike morality, ethics cannot be extrapolated from the originary hypothesis. Ethics are always situational, even if the situation’s appropriate framework is not an immediate one. The existence of a judicial system is predicated on transgenerational continuity. Constitutions exist to anchor legal decisions and enactments in what is considered the moral basis of the community, which cannot be modified without the most serious consideration. But the overarching “situation” that all laws and other ethical determinations must face is that of the survival of the community in which they are enacted.
The Declaration of Independence and Preamble to the US Constitution express the moral concepts that ground the ethical principles expressed in the latter, which provide a detailed basis for federal law, as well as limitations on the laws of the states. This layering was designed to respect the ethical needs of the hierarchy of components of the society. All liberal-democratic nations are similarly organized, it being assumed that the flourishing of communities at various levels is necessary to the functioning of the society as a whole.
One of the sources of the USA’s durability until now has been its strict limitation on federal law in contrast with state law; criminal and civil matters are for the most part assigned to the several states. Recent Supreme Court decisions such as Roe v. Wade and Obergfell have been sources of controversy largely because the legality of abortion or same-sex marriage is not the sort of question that the Constitution and Bill of Rights had previously been used to adjudicate.
Religion and Ethics
How then are we to judge the ethics of past social orders? The ideology current today, for which no caste-like distinction is anything but a form of oppression, is a vehicle for resentment that judges societies from a one-sided utopian perspective. Yet feminism’s strange tolerance for Islam’s extreme sexual inequality reflects not only its political alliance with a movement hostile to the West’s “patriarchy,” but more significantly, a tacit understanding of the necessity of the sexual division of labor in pre-industrial societies that cannot simply be abolished for moral/ideological reasons. Slavery and related forms of “unfree” labor should be considered in the same light.
What might be called the “moral coefficient” of societies of different eras with different levels of technology is impossible to determine on an absolute scale. We can judge only the forms of social hierarchy that have been actually tried, not other, utopian possibilities never implemented. Yet however much we would hope to separate 21st-century politics from the study of past history, we cannot help comparing the ethics of past societies to our own, seeking to understand the unknown from the known. In Pascal’s terms, this is a task for l’esprit de finesse rather than l’esprit de géométrie, or in our own terms, for anthropology rather than metaphysics.
And in old-fashioned religious language, for an understanding of the sinful disposition of human beings in general rather than that of the “oppressors” in contrast to the innocence of their “victims.” The right of every individual to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with which the Declaration of Independence claims we were “endowed by [our] Creator” remains within this perspective.
The originary function of the sacred was to guide the human community to “salvation” by permitting it to assure its survival by putting an egalitarian system of distribution in place of a pecking-order hierarchy. As a result, we survived, and the principle of reciprocal equality has remained our default moral model or “instinct.” The mutual resentment of the proto-humans that the sacred “ordered” them to defer, in effect transferring it to the sacred itself, was temporarily dissolved in the joy of the feast. But this originary egalitarian ethos was not utopian; it could not prevent intracommunal conflict, nor could it resist the social differentiation resulting from the institution of sedentary agriculture.
Past hierarchical societies, archaic or “ecumenical,” provided religious sanctions for their inequalities, and it is this feature more than any other that has led to the modern tendency to discredit religion as a moral force. The historical watershed in this development was the French Revolution, which not coincidentally established the “zero-sum” political spectrum of Left and Right. It was not without its precedents, notably in the British and American Revolutions, but it was the first to put its stamp on the radical notion that human inequalities were not ordained by the sacred, but were ipso facto immoral.
This notion is the foundation of the epistemology of resentment, which applies to all human relations the moral model of symmetrical reciprocity, with any systematic deviation constituting evidence of the oppression or “exploitation” of one social category by another. Marx’s name is associated with this perspective—and has indeed been today largely reduced to it, given that his positive concepts of socialism and communism have never generated overall prosperity nor realized anything like their alleged goal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Today’s “Marxists” no longer read Das Kapital.
Rousseau: Ethics and Metaphysics
It is of particular interest to generative anthropology that the modern dissatisfaction with metaphysics was born in this context. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the precursor of the romantic idea of the self as Christ-figure/scapegoat, as well as the author of the wholly human-based “social contract,” which in contrast to Hobbes’, was made not with Leviathan but within the human community. The French Revolution may be described as an attempted passage from the Old Regime to the Brave New World of the Contrat social.
The ideological outcome of the Revolutionary era was to validate a zero-sum perspective in human relations, in which any man’s hierarchical superiority over another was a form of oppression. The liberal idea of the “pursuit of happiness” gave way to utopian liberté-égalité-fraternité, as though the ideal human society should offer its citizens not simply equality of opportunity but equality of results (“equity”). It is no coincidence that the dissatisfaction with what we have noted as philosophy’s metaphysical “bracketing” of the anthropological origin of language began at this time, and was already implicit in Rousseau’s “scandalous” denunciation of les sciences et les arts in his first Discours, an attack on culture’s and on society’s corrupting effect on our “nature.”
To tell the full story of this phenomenon would require many volumes, but it will suffice for the moment to remark that it is here that we find the earliest source of the negative view of language implicit throughout the postwar Nouvelle Critique. This begins with Barthes’ straightforward critique of écriture in the language of the Left in Le degré zéro de l’écriture (1953), and culminates in Derrida’s “grammatological” condemnation of the “myth of presence,” which he associates with the false immediacy of the voice in contrast with the written word of écriture and its “absent” speaker that clearly mark language as an act of arché-violence.
Car l’écriture, oblitération du propre classé dans le jeu de la différence, est la violence originaire elle-même . . .
For writing, obliteration of the proper [a reference to the “proper names” whose use is forbidden in the Nambikwara society described in Lévi-Strauss’ “Leçon d’écriture” in Tristes tropiques] classed within the play of difference, is originary violence itself . . .
De la grammatologie (Minuit, 1967): 162
Language is always-already writing because it is supplementary to its object, and thus manifests arché-violence, the originary violence embodied in the différance of language. The myth of presence, by denying différance, seeks to efface the violence effectuated by the voice itself in usurping the place of the sacred by occupying the center of the scene. Rather than understanding la différance as the deferral of violence, this mode of thought understands it as destroying an originary homogeneity, so to speak the non-difference of Sartre’s en-soi. This is never stated outright, because for Derrida, all difference is toujours-déjà; the réserve that founds la différance is already present in the most elementary life-forms, and might even be attributed to those of lifeless matter.
Put in the simplest terms, what Derrida’s extenuation of metaphysics demonstrates is what the age of faith had called la misère de l’homme sans Dieu, the failure to recognize the role of the sacred in opening a space of deferred violence in which the human could survive and flourish. What Derrida’s arché-violence and Girard’s originary meurtre émissaire have in common is the notion of a founding violence, just the opposite of the anthropological role of la différance and the language it creates.
In the absence of Girard’s Christian inversion of the emissary murder into Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, Derrida’s denunciation of the myth of presence furnishes an ideological justification for the equation of language with asymmetry and hence with oppression, legitimizing the zero-sum model of human relations for which any breach of moral equality is unjust by definition, and any sign of material inequality has its origin in moral inequality. We observe here the unsuspected connection between the most sophisticated thinking of the post-structuralist clôture de la métaphysique and the kindergarten antics of the Woke pseudo-religion.
Whence this present, admittedly sketchy, reflection on the grandeur et décadence of the metaphysical attempt, begun in ancient Greece, to withdraw language itself from the scene of human reflection. It is henceforth our task as partisans of a humanistic anthropology to seek, before it is too late, to reconcile the order of the human community with its moral self-understanding in the post-metaphysical age.
To be continued…