Michael Kinnucan

What Politics Can Steal From Ethics


ISSUE 25 | CONSERVATISM AND REACTION | FEB 2013

There’s a certain sort of highly ethical person for whom it’s very important to do his job well, whatever the job happens to be. In this person’s way of thinking, a job is one’s place in the world, and whether it’s assigned by choice or by accident one has a duty to fill that place well, to be skilled, conscientious and cheerful; no task is too humble to be worthy of care if it’s yours, and no place in the world is too lowly to serve as exemplar of work well done. I first came across this character in a novel: Caleb Garth in Middlemarch, an excellent husband and father and a builder whose conscientiousness in his work has left him in financial straits, as well it might—he’s the sort of guy who can’t build a house that will last for less than a hundred years even if the customer will pay just as much for one that will fall down in twenty, who can’t see the use of looking over contracts very closely since that doesn’t help build houses. He’s the sort of guy who gets screwed over repeatedly by business partners who think of him as a holy idiot and nonetheless can’t help but admire him. For him a job is less a way to make money than the most ordinary means of loving one’s neighbor: people need houses and walls and barns, they need them well-built and well-ordered, and he can do that, and he’ll charge for it what it’s worth, and no more. If you keep your eyes peeled for it, this attitude is surprisingly and rather comfortingly common, even today, even outside of novels.

For a person who thinks this way, doing one’s work well is not a means—to earn a living, or even to find fulfillment—but an end. Hence a person who thought this way might never quit his job: from his perspective every kind of work is equally good, as work. A less ethical person—me, for instance—might argue with him over this: “Really, you’re doing yourself a disservice, staking your tent in this unimportant corner of the world; it’s unworthy of you. Did you know that while you’re slaving away here for a pittance 23-year-olds are making six figures designing iPhone apps? And okay, even if you don’t care about the money, you might not be well-suited for the job the world dropped you in; after all, you ended up here through merest chance. Try a few other things, find out what you’re really good at. It’s even a duty to do so: what a terrible thing to waste your talent and conscientiousness on something so insignificant, when you could really be making the world a better place applying the same effort to another line of work!”

The ethical person might respond: “Well, you may be right that if I found another line of work I’d be richer, happier, more appreciated and admired; then again you might be wrong, it might be that I’ll end up worse off than I am now in those respects. It’s largely a matter of chance what job I get, after all; it’s beyond my control. And wherever I end up in a couple of years, you’ll be justified in repeating your advice: there’s always the possibility of something even more remunerative and fulfilling right around the corner. Again, it’s a matter of chance. What’s certain, however, is that I won’t be satisfied and I won’t do any job well until I settle down, stop worrying about what chance might bring me, and get to work. Sooner or later I’ll have to settle down, which is to say that sooner or later I’ll have to ignore your counsel. You’re right, I could spend some time wandering around, doing shoddy work and keeping a weather eye out for opportunity, and maybe I’d end up better off and then maybe not. How long is long enough to spend that way? How long should I wait to find just the right duty before doing my duty? I can’t be sure of finding a place in the world perfectly suited to my tastes and capacities; what I can be sure of, what’s in my power, is to occupy adequately the place in which I find myself, and I can do that only when I accept that place and quit trying to wiggle out of it.”

If this conversation seems unlikely, it’s because ethical people don’t generally think or talk too much about ethics. They leave it to the rest of us. The question raised here, however, is of general ethical significance; it’s the same question raised when we ask ourselves what we owe our families, who after all we did not choose. It’s the question that gets asked in a relationship: do I do my best to do right by the person I’m with, or do I seek out someone with whom I’d be better suited? What if I don’t find anyone better? What if the reason I can’t be happy with this person is that I’m waiting around for someone better instead of working on what I have?

In its basic form the question concerns the apparent conflict between the generality of ethical obligation and the particularity of that to which it obligates us. For example, it’s a universal principle that one should be loyal to one’s friends, but again, who are one’s friends? What if a friend hurts me: am I to apply the general principle and be loyal to him anyway, or am I to decide that he is no longer my friend and so I have no obligation? Or again, no one doubts that one should care for one’s spouse and treat him well, but what if one falls out of love with him? Is he still the spouse to whom one has a duty, or should one go looking for someone else whom one can love better?

The ethical worker described above solves this problem by fiat and very simply. He says: one’s moral obligation is not to some particular set of circumstances which may come along someday, but to the very particularity in which one finds oneself, whatever it might be. And it’s clear why he thinks this, why he can’t allow our obligations to wait until we find the right particularity: if we wait at all we’ll be waiting forever. There’s always going to be a better job, a surer friend, a more lovable lover somewhere else; it’s never going to be clear that we’ve found the right particular case. If we wait we’ll be waiting forever. We’ll never be that fulfilled or that in love, and all the more so if we’re always wondering how fulfilled and how in love we are. In fulfilling our duties we can always begin with what is closest, and there’s nowhere else to begin.

Love Thy Neighbor

This position is expressed most extremely in Christ’s demand: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Who am I to love? My neighbor, the guy who lives downstairs, my roommates, the person I offer my seat to on the subway, whoever’s around. How am I to love them? As myself: neither less than myself nor differently. An ethical person won’t hold himself apart from those nearest him, hoping to find a better setting for that precious jewel, his selfhood; he’ll find in every particular situation a means of fulfilling the commandment, of loving himself.1

Note that this is not, or not exactly, a demand for altruism; we’re not commanded to love others more than we love ourselves, to put them first and ourselves second. We’re commanded to love them “as” we love ourselves. Such a demand concerns not so much the quantity of love as its quality, its how. We’re not being asked to match our love of others to our self-love; that would be impossible in any case, since self-love separates us from our neighbors and holds us apart. Rather we’re asked to love others in the same way as we love ourselves. In fact this aspect of the commandment might be divided into two parts: “Love your neighbor in such a way that, loving him, you love yourself,” and “Love yourself in such a way that, loving yourself, you love your neighbor.” In loving your neighbor you will find what’s best worth loving in yourself, and you should love that in yourself which finds its fullest expression in loving your neighbor. In our concrete example, the ethical worker loves his conscientiousness and skill because they are in the service of others, and loves the social situation in which he finds himself because it offers him the chance to be of use, to do something well.

Finally, we are not commanded merely to do our duty by our neighbors but to love them. Giving up your seat on the subway with a sigh, or staying in a loveless marriage because you promised to, doesn’t cut it; you have to love. Here we approach two apparent contradictions. First, isn’t love a feeling, a passion? And if so how can it be commanded? If you demand an act of me I can always obey, but a feeling... Second, isn’t love always particular? I love this person, not that one, for this quality, not another; to love even two people means to love each less than I might, and to love everyone seems to make love an empty word. To love all mankind is like being a patriot of every country—it’s the same as loving none.

The first question—can love be commanded?—I’d like to brush off here. I will simply ask: if you don’t think love can be a duty, how can you feel guilty for not loving enough?

The second is of greater importance for our purposes. To respond to it we must distinguish between loving all and loving each: it’s one thing to love the general class “mankind,” quite another to love each particular human. The latter is what’s demanded when we’re asked to love our neighbors. It’s a universal ethical obligation that one love and care for one’s spouse; in applying this rule, however, each person will love one spouse, in particular, above all others: their own. They’ll fulfill this universal commandment the only way it can be fulfilled: by loving someone in particular, not because that person is better than all the others, but because he’s their own.

Section 3

It has long been recognized that ethics entails a certain kind of renunciation with respect to fate: one ceases to seek desperately for happiness, which is the gift of fortune and cannot be won through effort. One decides to do one’s duty no matter what. This is the Stoic doctrine, commitment to duty because in a changeable world happiness is at best fleeting and bound up with chance. But the ethics we have been describing—a Christian ethics in the broadest sense—demands something more than mere renunciation in the face of fate; it involves amor fati. One must learn to love the situation in which one finds oneself in all its details, in every particular; one must take up its obligations as one’s very own. Every place in the world, every set of neighbors, is equally a blessing insofar as it is taken up as task, insofar as it is not fled but chosen.

Christian ethics, then, demands something very close to what Nietzsche challenged us to accept in the eternal return. The world must be chosen again, exactly as it is, in every particular; fate must be transformed into freedom through affirmation and through gratitude. If Christian ethics is a world apart from Nietzsche’s, it’s because, as Nietzsche himself saw very clearly, it understands fate in a way we can no longer accept. In the modern era, fate has become political.

Section 4

The ethical subject accepts fate—the order of the world and the place in which he finds himself—as given; his duty is to fill that place. He does not plead with fortune for a better place, or dream of a heaven in which life would be easier; he takes things as they are. But since the nineteenth century we’ve been painfully aware that the world order is not given and cannot be taken as such: it’s a historical contingency produced by political decisions. If everyone must have a job, accepting your own and doing it well may be an ethical obligation to be nobly taken up; if, on the other hand, the necessity that all or most people be employed in a single task for most of the waking hours of their adult lives is simply the contingent demand of a social form designed to allow the few to profit from the labor of the many, then accepting one’s role in this system as an ethical obligation begins to look very much like voluntary self-mutilation. To be sure, 500 years ago it was a contingent political fact that some people were peasants and some were kings—but back then it was necessary that someone be a peasant, and desirable that that person bear his fate well. Today, it’s no longer inevitable that there be any peasants, and a peasant has every right to rail against his condition. To choose oneself in the way described above requires a kind of willful blindness.

“Fate” is that which lies absolutely beyond human control, and to the extent that it’s beyond our control we’re well advised to learn to bear it bravely. It cannot be just because it is an anonymous force of nature; our task is to be just in relation to it, and despite it. In the modern world we find scarcely anything which might be described as fate. Disease, for example, is no longer a fact of life, it’s a product of politics: children of the inner city get asthma because of a political system which does not care what air they breathe, and they lack treatment because we’ve failed to make the political choices to ensure that they receive it.

In this context, the acceptance of something called “fate”—and with it the invocation of ethical categories in general—becomes reactionary. The demand for virtues like hard work and commitment, and the appeal to an era in which they were supposedly more widespread, are right-wing tropes for a reason: they’re efforts to transform the politically contingent into a natural necessity, which is to say that they’re props to an ideology. Our society’s ethics is corrupted to its core by political expedience—hard work, maturity, integrity will make us good workers and nothing more. This was the substance of the argument between the protesters at Occupy encampments and the people who shouted “Get a job!” as they drove by: the latter thought it was childish and irresponsible to believe the economic order could be different, while the Occupiers knew that it’s childish and irresponsible to believe things have to be this way.

In the modern era love for one’s fellow man can no longer be routed exclusively through the particular, one’s neighbor; that kind of action is worse than irrelevant if it comes at the cost of political change. One can help humans in particular only by directing one’s action toward humanity in general—only by changing the world. If ethical action as I described it above involved accepting fate as given, coming to terms with the inevitable world order and learning to affirm it even to the point of love, politicization takes the opposite direction: it means recognizing the world order as contingent and learning to hate it. If ethics meant acting universally through the particular situation in which one finds oneself, political action means addressing the particular situation only through the universal political order that produced it. One does not end poverty through charity toward those around one but through turning one’s attention to the economic order that makes people poor.

Section 5

This political worldview is both widespread and internally coherent, but it conceals a tragedy of epic proportions, for the simple reason that for the most part we cannot change the world. Occasionally, when the historical moment is right, we find ourselves in a position to help—but for the most part, the world order, contingent, irrational and unjust though it may be, consumes us. I may understand very well that the job I hate is a loathsome injustice; I still need a job. And where does that leave me? I can no longer relate to my situation as anything but a political injustice, but it’s an injustice I must nonetheless live. Shall I rage against the system that produced it, or fill myself with envy for a future epoch in which it will not exist? The ethical ennoblement of particularity has disappeared and I have nothing with which to replace it.

Much of what’s sad-making in leftist political action can be understood this way: the obsession with revolutions and revolutionaries (a fantasy of collective agency contrasted with the blind contingency of social force), the depression of activists left empty when their hope is disappointed, the grating cynicism of the old leftists who’ve been right and irrelevant for so long. The social order is contingent, yet it confronts us as a fate; together we can make a difference, maybe, but we mostly find ourselves alone. This situation also explains the tendency of ordinary people toward reaction: what’s the good of knowing that one’s suffering is contingent and political if that doesn’t make it go away? What good would it do the people yelling from cars at Occupy activists to learn that the economic order is a scam to exploit them? At least now they can do their jobs and take pride in them; to be politicized would force them to do their jobs as dupes.

The ethical relation to fate offered a way to live a particular human life in light of the universal. It took up the challenge of human contingency. Our historical situation makes the acceptance of fate not merely foolish but impossible; nonetheless we must find a sustainable way to live particular lives “before” and in light of the revolution, no longer in light of fate but in light of history. It has been obvious for a long time that we require a political ethics—a way of living that articulates the particularity of individual human life to the possibility of collective agency, to the historical universal. Activist burnout and political depression are evidence of our failure, so far, to imagine what it would mean to live politically in the ordinary, the particular, the everyday. This is a question to be answered by experiment. The Occupy movement was such an experiment, perhaps a failed one; we’ll need to try again.


1 Here I’m depending to the point of plagiarism on Kierkegaard’s beautiful discussion in Works of Love.