Commentaries

On Alain Badiou: Ethics An Essay on the Understanding of Evil

 

Alain Badiou thinks that philosophy should be universal and understandable by everyoneHis book that I will talk about, “Ethics An Essay on the Understanding of Evil” , is taught to high school students in certain parts of Europe. Here, I will unpack for you some of Badiou’s most important thoughts.

Good and Evil

For Badiou, not everyone may agree on what is Good, but we definitely all agree on what is Evil (ie. holocaust, racism, rape, violence, war, etc.). Thus, human rights are the rights of non-evil. Evil is derived from the Good and not the other way around (9). The reason why not everyone agrees on Good is because it is “what comes to be” through an event (will get to this). Good is a truth-process.

Good creates the possibilities of Evil through totality:

“Every revolutionary project stigmatized as ‘utopian’ turns, we are told, in totalitarian nightmare. Every will to inscribe an idea of justice or equality turns bad. Every collective will to the Good creates Evil.” (13).

I will return to Badiou’s notion of Good creating Evil near the end of this post.

The Human Animal and Immortal

What makes us human is that we are first animals. This is what Badiou calls “the human animal”. What distinguishes the human animal and animals is our intellectual capacity for thinking. Thinking allows for the “tissue for truths”that I am a thinking person.  This is what Badiou calls the “Immortal” subject. The two terms are paradoxical to each other. The human animal is capable of becoming immortals which is resilient to being an animal altogether. We are at once, the human animal and the thinking Immortal.

Fidelity: The Event and Truth Process

Once again to be sure, before one becomes an Immortal thinking subject, we are all human animals. In such case, how do we become immortal thinking subjects?

What brings a thinking subject (or the “becoming-subject”) into existence is what Badiou calls the “Event” (ie. the event of you reading this text). This Event presents itself as a rupture of conventional norms, common knowledge and laws. It “punches a hole in knowledge” (a quote Badiou borrows from Jacques Lacan)(43). The Event invites us into the unknown and surprises us. This surprise is brought to us by what Badiou calls “the void”  (will get to this in “The Unnameable” section).

Nonetheless, the Event is presented as a situation. It is the process of truth where the subject is brought into fidelity by such situation. Badiou considers four categories of universal Events in which truths are born: science, politics, art, and love. When an Event happens, we suddenly see something that we have never seen before (hence the sudden void). It is sort of like a discovery, a change. The Event is unpredictable.

Badiou’s example: “After Albert Einstein’s texts of 1905, if I am faithful to their radical novelty [an event], I cannot continue to practice physics within its classical framework.” (42) [parenthesis added]. If one remains faithful to Einstein’s event, one would therefore begin to practice modern physics which creates a new truth.

A common example of an event would be falling in love. The encounter with your lover is a rupture out of your ordinary life (it is “special”). Just as one gives up on classical framework of science for modern physics. In order for you to remain faithful to this particular event and your lover, you must now reorganize your life around the person that you love (ie. one might give up on their religion, work, and practice new cultural etiquette etc). The truth produced here is the truth of one (two people sharing the same truth) (86). Whereas sexual pleasure is inaccessible to truth (86).

Language and Naming the Situation

Badiou sees how we can have multiple interpretations of the same event. These interpretations are what we call opinions. For example, after I become faithful to Einstein’s event and begin practicing modern physics, I am now able to name alternate new theories and opinions from the same Einstein situation which in themselves might become other possible significant events and therefore truths.

This act of naming within a particular situation is marked by our communication and opinions through language. It is because there was an event and therefore a truth process that there are opinions of a situation. Although an opinion might possibly be a truth (which therefore is not an opinion), a truth is not an opinion. Truth has the ability to change opinions.

This naming and opinion is a subjective language (83).  Thus, Badiou points out that opinions are based on “Love only that which you have always believed” (52). Depending on how it is interpreted, names can change within the same situation / event. There are multiple names and opinions within a situation (82). Thus, in order for us to understand a certain event or situation, we must discover everything within it (ie. all the different discourses and possible interpretations of an event). For example, while many may agree with Einstein, my opinion is that I disagree with him. Therefore, I may come up with a completely new theory which might spark a new event to create a new truth. Or you might disagree with this text, etc.

Ethics: Difference and Sameness

What Badiou is critical of is the ideology of ethics as a conventional norm, common knowledge or laws of ethics. Badiou writes:

“I respect differences, but only of course, in so far as that which differs also respects just as I do the said differences…The problem is that the ‘respect for differences’ and the ethics of human rights do seem to define an identity! And that as a result for differences applies only to those differences that are reasonably consistent with his identity…’Become like me and I will respect your difference’.” (24-25).

To be sure, this ethical ideology was first established as a notion of Good and not Evil. Yet, ethical ideology or laws can sometimes prevent us from carrying out what is actually considered Good. For example, if you are a doctor and you encounter a dying person who is illegal of being treated in the current country, the most ethical thing to do is to give him treatment regardless of the law (the norm, the ethical ideology). [Here, Badiou also addresses the “face-to-face” ethics from Emmanuel Levinas who is probably one of the most important 20th century French philosopher; someone who I will not speak about here].

What we can witness is how the doctor is presented an event which ruptures conventional laws and norm. The doctor becomes faithful to the event. S/he becomes the thinking subject through the situation (of the dying person) and therefore the birth of a truth. If the doctor does not give treatment to this person, this would be considered as unethical. It is a betrayal.

Instead of following the ethics of differences (political correctness), Badiou wants to draw our attention towards sameness of truth: that we are beings capable of multiple truths within events. It is this sameness which we as the immortal thinking subject must recognize. If we are multiple beings and truths, then what can we make from differences? Nothing. We must become “indifferent to differences”. Truth is not “what is”, but “what comes to be” through an Event.

Badiou writes:

“What is to be postulated for one and all what I have called our “being immortal” certainly is not covered by the logic of ‘cultural’ differences as insignificant as they are massive. It is our capacity for truth – our capacity to be that ‘same’ that a truth convokes to its own ‘sameness’.


The Three Forms of Evil

Simulacrum 

Simulacrum is a copy of an event (Badiou is probably considering Jean Baudrillard‘s infamous ideas from “Simulacra and Simulation”).  For Badiou, simulacrum is one of the primary source of Evil. A simulacrum presents itself as if it was an authentic event, even when it is not. Within simulacrum, one cannot distinguish between what is real and what isn’t. We are only able to trace (most likely a term adapted from Jacques Derrida) an event that refers back to a vanished event (72).

We cannot differentiate the simulacrum of an event and the real event. What is to be known is that a simulacrum seeks “fullness”, whereas a real event comes to us as a surprise, a discovery of a void, a nothingness.

For example, Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” is in itself a simulacrum of a past event. Obama’s response: “America is already great” is also a simulacrum. I recall Slavoj Zizek’s remarks: can a country that allow people like Donald Trump to even get a shot at being president (let alone become the president) actually be great? Is it because of the event that America is not great that Donald Trump won? Or is it because of the event that America is already great (as Obama suggested) that Trump won? Which one is the real event?

Simulacra (the plural of simulacrum) is the very first form of Evil.

Betrayal

Suppose that we live in simulacra, then are we human animals (mortal) or immortal subjects? When the name is obscured within a simulacrum of the event, we become lost. This is what Badiou refers to as “the crisis of fidelity” (79). It is essentially an infidelity against one’s truth. This betrayal as Badiou suggest is a breakdown of one’s self image. Since simulacra presents itself as a real event, one may betray their own truth with or without knowing it.

For example, in the event that you fall in love with someone and you betray them (by no longer being faithful, no longer pursuing or breaking up with them) because they do not hold the same truth as you, or because your friends don’t like them, or you think they are just good looking, etc.

There are many other examples of betrayal and simulacra of events because it is virtually everywhere (ie. media).

Badiou’s writes:

“Opinion tells me (and therefore I tell myself, for I am never outside opinions) that my fidelity may well be terror exerted against myself, and that the fidelity to which I am faithful looks very much like – too much like – this or that Evil. It is always a possibility, since the formal characteristics of this Evil (as simulacrum) are exactly those of a truth. What I am then exposed to is the temptation to betray a truth… I must always convince myself that the Immortal in question never existed, and thus rally to opinion’s perception of this point – opinion, whose whole purpose, in the service of interests, is precisely this negation…Consequently, I must betray the becoming-subject in myself, I must become the enemy of that truth.” (79).

Betrayal is the second form of evil.

The Unnameable

Anytime someone / group comes out and makes some profound universal claim that their ideas of Good will break history or provide “progress”, will in fact create the possibilities of Evil (ie. United Nations trying to define human morality). To put this in another way, the act of totalizing an absolute definition of Good for everyone is what creates the possibilities of evil.

Badiou provides some of the best examples:

“When [Friedrich] Nietzsche proposes to ‘break the history of the world in two’ by exploding Christian nihilism and generalizing the great Dionysian ‘yes’ to Life; or when certain Red Guards of the Chinese Cultural Revolution proclaim, in 1957 the complete suppression of self-interest, they are indeed inspired by a vision of a situation… in which opinions have been replaced by the truth to which Nietzsche and the Red Guards are committed. The great nineteenth-century positivists likewise imagined that the statements of science were going to replace opinions and beliefs about all things…

But Nietzsche went mad. The Red Guards, after inflicting immense harm, were imprisoned or shot, or betrayed by their own fidelity. Our century has been the graveyard of positivist ideas of progress.” (84) [parenthesis added].

Contrary to a simulacrum which makes us negate our truth by other’s opinions and therefore eliminating the immortal subject (remember our capacity for thinking allows the “tissue of truths”). Here, we have replaced opinions with truth by forgetting the mortal human animal; by becoming too much of the immortal subject. We “negate the human animal that bears” us (84).

“Every absolutization of the power of a truth organizes an Evil. Not only does this Evil destroy the situation (for the will to eliminate opinion is, fundamentally, the same as the will to eliminate, in the human animal its very animality, ie. its being), but it also interrupts the truth-process in whose name it proceeds, since it fails to preserve, within the composition of its subject, the duality of interests.”

As it appears, our proclamation of truths are not total. As already mentioned earlier, naming and the subjective language does not have the ability to name everything within a situation. There are always something that we cannot or have not yet name, something that we have missed: a void, a gap, or a hole in knowledge via the Event. This “one thing” that always cannot be named, this “always to come” surprise and rupture, is what Badiou calls the “unnameable”. The forcing of such unnameable (the forcing of a singular truth) is the third Evil.

Thus for Badiou, Evil comes from a truth (which may very well be a simulacrum). We realize that “Evil becomes an actual possibility only thanks to the sole Good we recognize – a truth-process.” (86). This possibility of Evil resides from an event of what one / a group of people who once thought of as Good (hence, revolutions, civil war, violent protests, etc). There are many examples in history and contemporary society that demonstrates this (some are more complex than others). I need not to say more. If good is the sole possibility of Evil, then what does it mean to be good?

Badiou sums up ethics and the power of truth:

“The Good is only Good only to the extent that it does not aspire to render the world Good. Its sole being lies in the situated advent of a singular truth. So it must be that the power of a truth is also a kind of powerlessness.” (85).

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