Saturday, June 16, 2018


375. Does ethics need dogma?

In the preceding item in this blog I discussed the unsaid: what cannot or should not be said. Another angle is that one should take something as dogma, leave it unargued. Zizek argued this for ethics. The example he took was rape. As soon as you submit this to argument, one can always find some conditions where the accusation can be relativised: the women secretly did elicit it, evoked it with dress and demeanour, etc.

Similarly, one can relativise honour killings, or cliterectomy as justifiable in cultural relativism.

Another case Zizek brought forward was the holocaust and anti-Semitism. As soon as you enter into discussion of wrongdoings of Jews, you have to admit that indeed some of them engaged in usury. Of course some of them did, as did non-jews, and if jews did more it was because they were excluded, discriminated against, in other than financial activities.  

This is an intellectual challenge to me. I have pleaded, throughout this blog, for an Aristotelian virtue ethic, being reasonable, willing to listen to any argument, taking into account contexts and contingencies, in the exercise of phronesis, practical wisdom. That issues in relativism.

In his view, Zizek goes back to Kant: the categorical imperative. Ethics, Zizek agrees, is a matter of absolute metaphysical commitment, without accounts of reason, interests, or custom.

This is a problem for me. If Zizek is right, what is there left to reject discrimination with, and intolerance? Zizek is cynical and dismissive of tolerance, but I cannot see where that leaves us.

Does Zizek here fall back into Platonism? Or is he being merely realistic about reason and its ability, its cunning to hide its hypocrisy, in hiding the bias, the illusion of righteousness, not seeing its ethical bias, often determined by material self-interest and social self-interest, and psychological urge to be seen as righteous?

He has that view also with respect to psychoanalysis. It is an illusion to think that it will bring the analysand to understand itself, clearing out the ghosts. The best one can achieve is to live with imperfect self-knowledge and self-control. The analyst lets the myth rest because the false belief in it brings the analysand to open up, which is needed to achieve a much more modest result.

Elsewhere, Zizek gave an admiring view, to my surprise, of Christ as an anti-universal, anti-platonic solidarity with the particular, the unique, the different, excentric human being. But then, how can one imitate Christ while harbouring an ethical dogma?

In one of his many presentations on YouTube Zizek said that we should not ‘have our hearts go out’ to the refugees, which is cheap and subject to hypocrisy, but should give them rights. The problem is that of exclusion, and we should ‘involve the refugees themselves in the debates’. How does that work, on the basis of cultural, ethical dogma?

There is a more pragmatic stance. One does not have the ethical right to condemn cultural attitudes of others, but one has a democratic right to not tolerate practices that are at odds with the basic rules one has adopted together in one’s society. There lies a difference between pragmatic doxa and philosophical dogma.

But that still leaves the problem of the rebel: what room does he get? And here we are back at the problem of Foucault, and Bourdieu, of how to escape the collective symbolic order, to develop an authentic self.