Ethics and Personhood: ‘you can’t have one without the other’
There is an agentive aspect to making the distinction between a morality and an ethics. Yet just here we are already relativists, for morality was never simply one of many, but rather ‘the’ only game in town. Even the recognizance, found in the Hebrew scriptures, that there are in fact other gods – just don’t worship them – presupposes in an essential manner that one’s own morality is at the very least superior to those of the others. So, to speak of ‘a’ morality, one amongst many, is to engage an historical sensibility utterly absent during the actual epochs when morals themselves were in the ascendancy. Then, morality could command because the one upon whom it made its demands was not a fully individuated person in the contemporary sense. The shalt and shalt not of a moral code impinged not upon agency per se but rather upon one’s sanity, if saneness is thought of in the sociological sense of fully understanding what is customary.
For the Greeks, the ‘moron’ was the one who resisted custom; mores, traditions, rituals and the like, or was akin to a child who simply did not yet understand them and thus one’s duties towards same. And though it seems somewhat amusing that the one who went against the fates was none other than the ‘hyper-moron’, for our purposes we can borrow from the pithy pop lyricist Neil Peart and reiterate with him that for us today, ‘fate is just the weight of circumstances’. Just so, circumstance for any pre-modern human being could be conceived as fate simply because of the singular presence of morality. Bereft of competition, moral principles could very well give the impression that they were good for all times and places, to the point of convincing the would-be moralist that any sane human being would hold to them. I say ‘would-be’, because though moralizing always seems to be in fashion – demarcating the fine line between righteousness and self-righteousness – to actually be a moralist one requires at least some comparative data.
It was just this that was missing in premodern social organizations, no matter their ‘level’ of cultural complexity. It is not a coincidence that our first serious stab at ethics occurred in the cosmopolitan settings of the Alexandrian Empire. It is well known that Aristotle’s attempt to disengage ethics from metaphysics didn’t quite work, not due to the person-friendly ideas therein – his conception of friendship is still basically our own; the most noble form of love – but due rather to the lack of persons themselves. Even so, the abruptly multicultural scenes of a relatively impartial imperialism forced upon the customary the customs of the others, unheard of, alien, eye-opening. It was the beginning of perspective in the more radical, experiential sense of the term. And the origin of recognizing that one’s culture was simply one of many also prompted the incipience of imagining the possibility that a single human being might just have a slightly different understanding of ‘his’ customs than did his intimate neighbor.
Yet this too is an abstraction. While the history of ideas presents a far more choate brevis, the Socratic citizen which gains a worldly consciousness, the Pauline persona for which each step crosses a limen between history and destiny, the Augustinian subject which redeems itself and thus adds a self-consciousness – one is responsible for one’s own past, history is also and suddenly biography – and thence fast-forwarding through Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, the process of individuation greatly augmented until the 18th century wherein we first hear of the authentic individual, the Enlightenment’s fabled ‘sovereign selfhood’. It is here, belatedly, that the ‘which’ becomes a ‘who’.
In literary reflection, the mythic hero which is only begrudgingly human, and then only for a brief period of existence, is gradually transmuted to the person who acts heroically and thence often also dies a human death. Between the hero and the person lies the saint. Between mythology and biography there is hagiography. And while the self-styled heroic author may sometimes engage in autohagiography – Crowley is perhaps an exemplar of self-satire to this regard, though the reader is led both ways there – in general modern literature casts very much human beings into human crises. We have to turn to epic fantasy to attain the echo of the mythic, but in so doing, we also in general cast aside our shared humanity. I resist here the opportunity to provide an alternative to this lot. In any case, it is mortality rather than mere morality that retains its own de profundis in the face of anonymous social relations and mass society.
The Socratic citizen is lesser in distancing himself from the ‘examined life’. This early Selbstverstandnis has elements of an ethics about it; the idea of virtue, the sense that one should think for oneself over against institutions and customs alike, the weighing of one’s experience in contrast to received wisdom, the questioning of authority. But I feel that it also instrumentalizes youth, seeks the vigor of the question only to enthrall it to the rigor of the argument. Inasmuch as it ‘corrupts’, it also uses youth for its own purposes. In this it feels more like a mission than a mere mission statement. Similarly, the Pauline pilgrim; one is individuated in the face of a transcendental judgment by which the mythic re-enters history through the back door, as it were. The more radical ‘you have heard it said, but…’ is muted by the sense that the objection to history is both final and ahistorical. It vaults the apodeictic into a kind of aphasia, wherein language itself is lost to Logos just as history is lost to Time. That this inability to give voice to one’s own experience is made singular through the redemption or damnation of the soul only underscores the absence of ethics in this kind of liminal spatiality. With Augustine, we are presented with a morality under the guise of an ethics. Self-consciousness is the basis for a redemptive strike; picketing sin in the knowing manner of the one who has sinned but then has broken good, for the good, and for good, in judging the self and finding it wanting. But this is a narrow understanding of the self as its subjectivity is limited to an auto-moralizing; in a word, the subject is subjected to itself.
In this self-conscious subjection, I appear before myself as a shadow, awaiting the completion and uplifting of secular being through the death of sin. The world is itself the untended garden, its overgrown paths serpentine and thus leading one on but never out. I dwell in this undergrowth as my soul dwelleth only in the shadow of Being. There is no way in which a holistic and authentic selfhood can germinate here. For this, we have to wait for the being-ahead of the will to life to overtake the nostalgic desire for either childhood or death itself. Both are impersonal events, abstracted into Edenic paradise on the one hand, the paradise of the firmament on the other. Only in our own time does our childhood become our own – if only for a moment given the forces of socialization and marketing, schooling and State – and as well do we, if we are resolute, face our ownmost deaths, the ‘death which is mine own’ and can only mean the completion of my being. It is the happenstance of birth, the wonder of the child, the revolution of youth, the Phronesis of mature adulthood, and the singular ownmost of death, which altogether makes the modern individual a person.
Given this, the history of ethics as a series of truncated attempts to present agency and responsibility over against ritual and duty – and in this, we should never understand Antigone as representing an ethics; her dilemma lies between conflicting duties and customs, not between a morality and an ethics – comes to its own self-understanding in the person-in-the-world. In doing so, it recapitulates its own history but one now lensed through a ‘completed’ ethics; self-reflection seems Socratic, anxiety has its Pauline mood, resoluteness one Augustinian, being-ahead its evolutionary futurism, and its confrontation with tradition its messianic medium. The presence of key moments of the history of ethics geared into our interiority – we use the term ‘conscience’ for this odd amalgamation of quite different, if related, cultural phenomena – allows us to live as if we were historical beings cast in the setting of timeless epic. Though we no longer write myth – at most, the new mythology is demythology – we are yet able to be moved by it, think it larger than life, imagine ourselves as mortal heroes. The formula for this Erlebnis-seeking is pat enough: the rebellious youth takes her show on the road, discovering along the way that some key elements of what she disdained are in fact her tacit allies; trust, faith, and love. In coming of age as a person, our heroine gains for herself an ethics, differing from the received but suffocating morality of the family compact, deferring the perceived but sanctimonious mores of the social contract. If her quest is to reevaluate all values, her destiny is to return to at least a few of them after being otherwise. The new ethics she presents to the world after conquering her own moralizing mountain is simply the action in the world obverse to her own act of being in that selfsame world.
This is the contemporary myth, our own adventure and not that of our ancestors, however antique. Its heroes are fully human but indeed only demonstrate this by overcoming the dehumanizing effects of anonymity and abstraction the both. In short, today’s epic hero becomes human, and indeed this is her entire mission. Everyone her own messiah? Perhaps not quite that, not yet. For the godhead forced upon the youth, even though not her own, confronts her with the idea that there could be something more to life than what meets the shuttered eye. In its very parochiality, the heroine is made witness to the possibility that her world is but a shadow of the Being-of-the-world itself. It is in this realization that the adventure begins and the young halfling of a person, beset by market personas and upset by parental identities, strikes out with all of her ‘passions unabated’, as well as all of her ‘strength of hatred’, in order to gain the revolution all youth must gain. The very presence of this literary formula in media today at the very least cuts both ways; at once it is a surrogate for the real fight in which youth must engage, and thus presents a decoy and a distraction therefrom, but perhaps it also exemplifies and immortalizes that same fight, inspiring youth to take up its visionary sword and slice through the uncanny knot that shrouds our future being and history alike. If so, then with personhood comes also ethics; an agency in the world that acts as no one has ever acted heretofore. If so, then the most profound wisdom that we can offer our youth is the sensibility that what we are must not, and never, be repeated.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.