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Radical Philosophy
May/June, 2000

Demanding Approval: On the Ethics of Alain Badiou
by Simon Critchley

What is ethical experience for Alain Badiou? What can be said of the subject who has this experience? Let me begin by trying to pick out the formal structure of ethical experience, or what with Dieter Henrich we can call 'the grammar of the concept of moral insight', and explaining how such experience implies a conception of the subject.

Ethical experience begins with the experience of a demand to which I give my approval. Approval and demand: that is, there can be no sense of the good - however that is filled out at the level of content, and I am understanding it merely formally and emptily - without an act of approval or affirmation. My moral statement that 'x is good or bad' is of a different order to the veridical, epistemological claim that `I am now seated in a chair.' This is because the moral statement implies an approval of the fact that x is good, whereas I can be quite indifferent to the chair I am sitting on. If I say, for example, that it would be good for parrots to receive the right to vote in elections, then my saying this implies that I approve of this development. Practical reason is in this way distinct from theoretical reason. In Badiou's terms, the order of the event (l'événement) is distinct from the order of being (l'źtre).

However, if the good only comes into view through approval, it is not good by virtue of approval. Ethical noesis requires a noema. In my example, my approval of parrots receiving the right to vote is related to the fact that - at least in my moral imagination - parrots make a certain demand, the demand for political representation. Ethical experience is, first and foremost, the approval of a demand, a demand that demands approval. Ethical experience has to be circular, although hopefully only virtuously so. Leaving parrots to one side, in the history of philosophy (and also in the history of what Badiou calls anti-philosophy, namely religion), this formal demand is filled out with various contents: the Good beyond Being in Plato, faith in the resurrected Christ in Paul and Augustine, the fact of reason or the experience of respect for the moral law in Kant, the certitude of practical faith as the goal of subjective striving (Streben) in Fichte, the abyssal intuition of freedom in Schelling, the creature's feeling of absolute dependency on a creator in Schleiermacher, pity for the suffering of one's fellow human beings in Rousseau, or for all creatures in Schopenhauer, eternal return in Nietzsche, the idea in the Kantian sense for Husserl, the call of conscience in Heidegger, the claim of the non-identical in Adorno, and so on. All questions of normativity and value, whether universalistic (as in Kant in the categorical imperative, and his latter-day heirs like Rawls and Habermas) or relativistic (as in Wittgenstein on rule following and his latter day heirs like Rorty), follow from such an experience. Without some experience of a demand - that is, without some experience of a relation to the otherness of a demand of some sort - to which I am prepared to bind myself, to commit myself, the business of morality would not get started. There would be no motivation to the good, the good would not have the power to move the will to act. Kant calls that which would produce the power to act, the motivational power to be disposed to the good, `the philosopher's stone'. What is essential to ethical experience is that the subject of the demand assents to that demand, agrees to finding it good, binds itself to that good and shapes its subjectivity in relation to that good. A demand meets with an approval. The subject who approves shapes itself in accordance with that demand. All questions of value begin here.

Let me take this a little further. If we stay with the example of Kant, then this dimension of ethical experience or moral insight - the capacity of being motivated to the good - resolves itself, in a rather complex fashion, in the seemingly contradictory notion of the fact of reason. That is, there is a Faktum which places a demand on the subject and to which the subject assents. There is a demand of the good to which the subject assents, and this demand has an immediate apodictic certainty that is analogous to the binding power of an empirical fact (Tatsache). The difference between the apodicticity of a fact of reason as distinct from an empirical fact is that the demand of the former is only evident in so far as the subject approves it. It is, if you like (and Kant wouldn't), the fiction of a fact constituted through an act of approval. However things may stand with the doctrine of the fact of reason, Dieter Henrich argues, rightly I think, that the entire rational universality of the categorical imperative and Kantian moral theory follows from this experience of moral insight. The philosopher's stone would consist precisely in the link between the motivational power of the fact of reason and the rational universality of the categorical imperative. Now, because Kant's entire moral theory is based on the principle of autonomy, the fact of reason has to correspond to the will of the subject. The fact of reason is a fact, it is the otherness of a demand, but it has to correspond to the subject's autonomy. Hence, for Kant, the ethical subject has to be apriori equal to the demand that is placed on it.

It is arguably this structure that Heidegger repeats in his analysis of conscience in Being and Time, where conscience is constituted in the experience of a demand or appeal that seems to come from outside Dasein, but which is really only Dasein calling to itself. Heidegger writes, `In conscience Dasein calls itself.' In this sense, the grammar of moral insight in Heidegger, at least in the analysis of authenticity, would be an existential deepening of Kantian autonomy. Heidegger recognizes as a `positive necessity' the Faktum that has to be presupposed in any analysis of Dasein. The Kantian fact of reason here becomes the ontic-existential testimony, attestation or witnessing (Zeugnis) of conscience which is relativistically translated into the key notion of the `situation'.

We can see already, from this little sketch of Kant and Heidegger, that the claim about ethical experience being constituted in a demand which I approve is also a claim about the nature of the self or subject. The response to the question of ethical experience entails a response to the question of the subject of that experience. The self is something that shapes itself through its relation to whatever is determined as its good, whether that is the law of Moses, the resurrected Christ, the suffering other, the intuition of freedom, the call of conscience, the non-identical, or whatever. If the demand of the good requires the approval of that demand, then that approval is given by a self. An ethical subject can be defined as a self relating itself approvingly to the demand of the good. For me, the ethical subject is the name for the way the self relates itself bindingly to the good.

This claim about the entailment between ethical experience and the subject can be buttressed by claiming not simply - and rather neutrally - that the demand of the good requires approval by a self in order to be experienced as a demand, but by asserting that this demand of the good founds the self, or is the fundamental organizing principle of the subject's articulation. What we think of as a self is fundamentally an ethical subject, a self that is constituted in a certain relation to a good. This is perhaps best proved negatively through the experience of failure, betrayal, or evil. Namely, as Badiou notes, that if I act in such a way that I know to be evil then I am acting in a manner destructive of the self that I am, or that I have chosen to be. I have failed myself or betrayed myself. Once again, such a claim is quite formal and does not presuppose specific content for the good. For example, my good could be permanent revolution, perpetual peace or paedophilia. This is why Plato is perfectly consequent when he claims that vice is destructive of self. Anyone, who has tried - and failed - to cure themselves of some sort of addiction, whether cigarettes, alcohol, permanent revolution or whatever, will understand what is meant here. The subject that I have chosen to be enters into conflict with the self that I am, producing a divided experience of self as self-failure and the concomitant overwhelming affect of guilt. Guilt is the affect that produces a certain splitting or division in the subject, which is something that St Paul understood rather well, 'For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.'

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