Thursday, 5 December 2013

Milbank's critiques of eudaemonism and altruistic ethics

According to Milbank, our two inherited notions of the ethical (he is of course speaking of the West) are both linked to the supremacy of self-possession and self-government. The first is classical eudaemonism, the other is 'other-regarding ethics'. Drawing on Spaemann, Derrida and Williams, he shows that both are subject to inner dialectical collapse or deconstruction, precisely in their attempts to manage and control fortune. (111)

1. Classical eudaemonism (111-2)

One cannot secure happiness in an abiding way. At most we have only 'virtual happiness.' Four reasons:
1. To open ourselves to the most happiness involves risk and so sorrow. For self-protection we must remain to a degree self-enclosed; and we are never free from the anxiety of what balance of adventure and security we must espouse. [And this is true.]
2. Happiness is not punctual. / It is rather the course of a whole life (Aristotle). [This, on the other hand, is a defining of the meaning of happiness. Perhaps in the East one might choose to regard happiness precisely as punctual. But that needs probing. I am thinking of the man being chased by a tiger: he falls off a cliff; manages to catch the branch of a bush; sees two mice gnawing at the roots; knows he must soon fall; and in this situation, reaches out and enjoys the berries on the bush.] Yet we never get to the end of our lives; we die 'before our time'; and only others will read our lives as a whole [and so determine whether or not we have been happy?]. (111-2)
3. Happiness is comparative. [This argument seems specious to me.] The shepherd in Arcadia does not know he is happy [but is that not his charm, as Vernet would say, quoting the spanish poet: the charm of a bowl full of beautiful roses is that they do not know they are beautiful]. His happiness is known only by another, and that knowledge in itself is not happiness. So happiness is nowhere in space.
4. Happiness is nowhere in time. The past is always contaminated by loss and mourning; the future by fear and anxiety.
In these ways, not only ordinary joys remain illusive, but also our enjoyment and realization of a consistent ethical excellence. (112)
Antiquity therefore underrated the contamination of morality by luck or fortune.

2. Other-regarding ethics (Kant - Bentham - Levinas - Parfitt)

2.1 As soon as we act with patience, humility, forgiveness, suffering unto death, we are liable to misinterpretation and abuse (Hegel's critique of Kant). It is no use considering such derelict, abandoned acts as 'perfect gifts' with Marion, who takes the content of a gift as a mere sign of the real ethereal gift of intention, or the self-giving itself. Milbank holds that intentions and passages have always instantiated in signs and gestures and are therefore always somewhat particular, content-specific. A duty that fails to make the other happy ceases to be a moral act. Milbank's point: "Other-regarding ethics cannot ignore happiness, [i.e., it has to take into account its content, and the result] yet happiness is often the child of whim and circumstance." (112) There other-regarding ethics is also undermined "by the self-implosion of the notion of pure duty."

2.2 Following this loss of duty comes loss of self. We cannot possess ourselves as ethical through a sacrificial self-offering in death, because this would mean that we need the misfortunes of others to demonstrate our worth. [This again seems specious to me - though perhaps I must not ignore the qualification "if this alone proves the good".] But this destroys the morality of the ethical self.  (113)

2.21 And again, till we are martyrs, we can never be sure of possessing ourselves as ethical; and there is always the uncertainty, the possibility that in the last gasp we may despair and recant. The uncertainty - luck - continues having a part in being ethical. (113)

2.22 If the dying self is subject to uncertainty, much more so is the living self. The contingencies here are the needs of others. We are subject to "limitless persecution by the needs of others" who are regarded as somehow enjoying themselves. Such a 'bad infinite' haunts the ethics of both Kant and Levinas. "Modern ethics, just because it enthrones altruism, is pathological in its degree of obliteration of the possibility of consummation" - or at least of the beginning of beatitude. (113)

2.3 [Loss of the other.] Insofar as the other is alive, I will tend to take her for granted. Her otherness will emerge in her absence, especially in her death. (113)

Those who are wounded see (or learn to love) too late, and only through loss of the other - like Leontes of Sicily after the death of his wife, his heir, and the loss of his daughter. Those who are apparently innocent, on the other hand, are always infected by complacency, the non-realization of the fragility of the gift (of love that they have received and are in some way able to pass on) in its passage through time. "And since all are either wounded and complacent, or rather all are relative mixtures of both, since this is an exhaustive human typology, there exist no potential moral subjects at all." Neither the living beloved nor the dead can adequately fulfill the role of the other. (115)

3. There are no criteria to prioritize either the pursuit of self-fulfilling happiness or regard of the other. So when to live and when to give? (115)

A further dimension of luck enters the picture. (The example Spaemann gives of Gauguin, who chose his painting over his family.) / The giving of ourselves to one person or purpose frequently involves sacrificing other goods or people, and often without reason. There are no "publicly stateable reasons for lavishing devotion on one person rather than another  - to the public gaze this will always appear excessively aesthetic or erotic." 

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