Reading Badiou’s ethics in City Lights

August 20, 2012 · Posted in Blog 

As part of a study tour-cum-family break, I find myself in the most wonderful bookshop I have ever visited: City Lights in San Francisco. This is a little gem associated with the 1960s free speech and revolutionary movements that continues to provide an astonishing selection of inspirational creative and philosophical thought. And here I finally cross a threshold and read some Badiou. I pick up his book Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil (Verso, 2001) and find it immediately engaging. An important (the most important?) French philosopher of the present age, he is both informed by and a critic of Kantian ethics so at once my hunch is confirmed – I really should have read him earlier. So now I am beginning to recompense for my former failings. Peter Hallward’s good introduction (he is also the translator) pin points some interesting features of the links between Kant and Badiou. Badiou, like Kant, separates moral decision making from sensibility. We should not be relying on sentiment, feeling or emotion to inform our moral decisions. Also like Kant, Badiou thinks moral actions are only legitimate when they are based on the universal. However, Badiou and Kant part company. Badiou sees every ethical obligation as particular, exceptional and subjective. This flows from his general philosophy that knowledge is objective, but structured by those who dominate the particular situation and that moral actions, those linked to a fidelity to truth, seek to subvert that dominance. There is no general ethic, but instead an ethic of singular truths. The particularity of an ethical obligation results from human experience which is situational and particular. So while Kantian ethics has a legalistic ethics linked to duty, obligation and conformity, which means moral behaviour is for the sake of the law, such connections are rejected by Badiou. That’s how Hallward describes Badiou’s ethics so now I need to read it and try to unpack what all this means!
There is of course a lot more – notably that Badiou rejects ethics of otherness, an ethic based on respect for the other. I think Badiou takes an interesting position of critique against human rights, as they are often interpreted.

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