David Richter

Afterthought on “The Empty Subject and the Art of Ethics”


This article responds to Michael Kinnucan’s piece, The Empty Subject and the Art of Ethics.

Writing about morality seems to incur the same justified suspicion that we have against, say, writing about music—the suspicion that it somehow misses the point. We shouldn’t need to write or read about morality. We should “just do it.” If we have a conscience, then we should heed its call, and if we don’t, then hopefully we’ll lack the power to do much harm.

In short, philosophizing about morality doesn’t seem all that necessary. When we look around, we can see all sorts of people who are, to all appearances, treating each other with respect, spontaneously coming to fair agreements and sticking to those agreements—all this without the help (or hindrance) of complex argumentation.

Yet many of us do not spontaneously develop moral respect for others. There are those who respect only those who are similar to them—who share a common race, culture or class. There are those who manipulate others for various purposes or who take pleasure in the destruction of life. And there are those who distrust their moral instincts and received wisdom and therefore turn to philosophy.

In one of the footnotes to his piece, “The Empty Subject and the Art of Ethics,” Michael Kinnucan belittles the notion that moral philosophy can justify morality. Kinnucan is half right—generally, the police do a good job keeping crime at an acceptable level. However, he’s also wrong: modern moral philosophy—Kant and Nietzsche included—in fact does attempt to adduce reasons for moral behavior. The catch is that, for both Kant and Nietzsche, the law can’t simply be handed down by some higher authority, whose only legitimacy lies in its ability to kill us or condemn us to eternal damnation. Rather, we must give the law to ourselves. This is the “very exacting concept of freedom” that Kinnucan is correct in referencing.

Two intellectual themes wind unevenly through Kinnucan’s essay: moral duty and ethical practice. He opens with the notion of morality as debt—as duty or obligation towards one’s given community, employer, etc. and then considers the possibility of defaulting on this debt. The possibility for such a default, Kinnucan writes, arises at a specific historical moment, when philosophers began to see human beings as “empty subjects” with the freedom to define for themselves what counts as right behavior. The problem with absolute freedom, in Kinnucan’s view, is that nobody really wants it. You end up raging maniacally against God or puttering about aimlessly.

Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche are presented as offering solutions to this impasse, since each of them gives the subject something to work at, instead of losing himself in a woeful orgy of hedonism and despair. The Kantian subject negates his particularity, attempting to “become no one.” This is, in Kinnucan’s view, just a slow form of suicide. The Hegelian subject, Kinnucan believes, is better, because he is actually producing something—history—though once history is over, he’s back to puttering. Nietzsche’s ultimate superiority, for Kinnucan, lies in the lack of a preordained aim directing the subject’s ethical practice. The Nietzschean subject takes pleasure in the simple feeling of exercising domination over himself and remaking himself according to his creative inspiration. Closed-ended Hegelian techne-as-craft gives way to open-ended Nietzschean techne-as-creative-art.

A short summary allows us to see the broad contours of Kinnucan’s piece: We want to free ourselves of duties that we haven’t chosen. But once we have done so, how do we give ourselves duties that (1) we have chosen and (2) that will keep us productively busy?

The problem with this picture is that it doesn’t take the idea of duties seriously at all. Kinnucan’s piece begins with the fundamental and correct notion that duties are obligations to other people, but by the end he’s making pronouncements about the subject making history and exercising domination over himself. While he does indeed speak of the Nietzschean subject’s ability to make and keep promises, this faculty is treated as an arbitrary development in the long history of sublimated cruelty, not as an act that affirms his participation in any larger community, even a voluntary and exclusive community of Übermenschen. These are certainly ways of thinking about human purposiveness, but what makes them properly ethical?

Kant thought most clearly on this subject when he distinguished between imperatives that are conditional and imperatives that are categorical. Conditional imperatives tell us what to do if we want to obtain some arbitrary end: If I want to achieve end x, then I ought to do y. A categorical imperative, on the other hand, is an absolute obligation and my duty to obey it is independent of any personal aims that I may desire to achieve. There is only one categorical imperative, according to Kant, namely to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

At first, it’s rather difficult to see why this imperative should be categorical. Why shouldn’t my actions simply be my own? Why must they be in accordance with universal legislation? There are two examples in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals that allow us to examine the motivation behind Kant’s universalism: The first concerns the act of borrowing money with no intention of paying it back. The second concerns the obligation of those enjoying material comfort to assist those in need.

Interestingly, the enforcement of these two obligations are today largely outsourced to institutions—debts are collateralized and defaults are reported to credit agencies; similarly governments tax their richer citizenry and redistribute this income through social welfare programs. Even if these institutions are unfair in one way or another, responsibility for their fairness is displaced from individuals onto institutions. The possibility of default on a debt is a calculated risk rather than a moral injury, and while the debtor might be accused of irresponsibility he would never be accused of manipulation—if you lose your house (or your good credit score) you can’t be accused of gaming the system.

Nevertheless, these institutions are all founded on the voluntary participation of human agents. While they are built to tolerate a certain degree of unpredictability and noncooperation, beyond a certain point they can no longer function. If everyone defaulted on their debts, banking would collapse. If everyone stopped paying their taxes, the government would be forced to shut down. To be a free moral agent, in Kantian terms, is to affirm one’s dependence on and participation in these cooperative institutions. To deny this interdependence while still benefiting from it is, in short, hypocrisy.

Of course, such a denial is only hypocrisy if we consider the subject to be a rational member of society. If we believe that the subject is essentially the subject of his desires, then he is in fact entitled to always pursue his own ends, no matter at whose expense. But is the subject of desire, construed in this sense, a moral subject at all? If he is unwilling to acknowledge the moral rights of others then by what right does he claim to deserve moral respect as well? His proud avowals of self-sufficiency are utterly meaningless because they address themselves to no one, and because nothing is at stake for him but his bare, unqualified life.

So maybe it’s necessary to have some sort of moral interlocutor to confirm our status as free subjects and to recognize the value of our choices. Maybe we need to treat at least one other person with respect—honoring our promises to them, etc. But why everybody? In a slave-owning society, slave-owners can affirm each other’s moral worth and status as free individuals, establishing amongst themselves a code of honor and through that code, holding each other to standards of mutual respect. Yet slaves-owners do not bear the same obligations towards slaves that they bear towards each other. If a slave-owner is kind to a slave it is not out of duty but out of an overabundance of strength and good will.

However, such an aristocratic moral community is inherently ridiculous. This is because it cannot be based purely on “higher” values such as intellectual capacity or cultural capital, since such “higher” values are incapable of sustaining privilege on their own. Rather, this privilege must be sustained by more violent and contingent forms of social domination—violent, because without the threat of force, such a community could never enjoy its privileges with impunity, and contingent, because the power of an exclusive community is in no way guaranteed, but is at every moment threatened by those excluded from it.

If we then recognize the fundamental role played by universal law in human life, what place ought we give to ethical practice? Kinnucan, I think, is right to devote a portion of his piece to the question of what we might work at, how we might strive to be “better.” The question here is not “what ought I do?” but rather “who do I want to become?” Kant’s morality is repellant to Kinnucan because it seems to demand the slow annihilation of human materiality in favor of an impersonal conformity to the moral law. It demands, in his words, “that we become no one.”

However, Kant’s position on ethical practice is a bit more sophisticated than Kinnucan allows. “Adversity, pain, and want,” Kant writes in the Metaphysics of Morals, “are great temptations to violate one’s duty. It might therefore seem that prosperity, strength, health, and well-being in general, which check the influence of these, could also be considered ends that are duties, so that one has a duty to promote one’s own happiness and not just the happiness of others. —But then the end is not the subject’s happiness but his morality, and happiness is merely a means for removing obstacles to his morality.”

In this passage, Kant clearly expresses his position that the subject’s materiality is not an evil to be negated, but the necessary condition of both his physical existence and his capacity to obey the moral law. It is impossible to misread this as an advocacy of hedonism. But it also demonstrates that universalist morality is not an idealist flight from the world or a perverse asceticism incompatible with effective action, but a rigorous practical stance, rooted in the common material life shared by human beings possessed of various capacities and vulnerabilities. Our vulnerabilities require that we seek one another’s assistance and our capacities enable us to assist others. Insofar as we are subject to the moral law, we are therefore obligated to cultivate our capacities, not to negate them.

In Kantian moral philosophy there is a distinction between duties of right and ethical duties. Duties of right are the “narrow duties” that forbid behavior insofar as it contradicts the moral law. Ethical duties, on the other hand, are “wide duties”—they do not require or forbid particular actions, but instead command us to order our actions for the sake of higher ends--the perfection of our own moral capacity and the happiness of others. Kantian perfectionism does not limit itself to inner purification, but extends to the development of human capacities more generally.

In the Groundwork, Kant describes the application of the moral law to someone who “finds in himself a talent that by means of some cultivation could make him a human being useful for all sorts of purposes. However, he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to give himself up to pleasure than to trouble himself with enlarging and improving his fortunate natural predispositions.” “As a rational being,” Kant writes, “he necessarily wills that all the capacities in him be developed, since they serve him and are given to him for all sorts of possible purposes.” This statement is both strict and open ended. It commands an ethos of hard work and social responsibility, but also recognizes the infinite variety and potential of human capacities and the infinite uses that we might make of them.

What differentiates this picture from the “Nietzschean alternative” presented at the end of Kinnucan’s piece? Nietzschean moral perfectionism, Kinnucan claims, is generated by the subject’s sublimated capacity for cruelty and domination. This capacity is the motor that drives the subject’s ethical practices and guarantees their endless productivity. Consequently, the Nietzschean picture now appears as an impoverished version of the Kantian one, since the Kantian subject is defined by its infinite capacities, while the Nietzschean subject is defined merely by its capacity to inflict suffering. Deprived of a community and possessing only the ability to wound himself, the Nietzschean subject appears to be nothing more than a victim of his own perversity.

However, Nietzsche, like Kant, presents a stronger case for morality than Kinnucan’s presentation makes apparent. The promise-maker in Nietzsche stands at the end of a long history of human development, the product of millennia of strict discipline that have made man increasingly predictable and subject to social norms. This figure “has the right to make promises” since the value of his word is guaranteed not by his of fear of punishment, but by the strength of his self-discipline.

Nietzsche famously called into question the value of truth in human life. The will to truth, he argued, has a destructive capacity, and has become for modern man a kind of perverse addiction. However, in describing the promise-maker, Nietzsche celebrates the subject’s incorporation of truth-telling as an act of strength, an acquired ability to sustain the destructive effects of truth for the sake of a higher ethical ideal. What distinguishes Nietzsche from Kant is that this injunction to honesty is not a “moral” obligation through which the subject humbly submits to his place within a universal political order, but a “super-moral” obligation, through which the subject expresses a supposedly more authentic form of freedom.

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