Alain Badiou turns his attention in Ethics to the problem of categorizing and understanding evil - what is it? what is its relation to good? what do the previous and prevailing definitions of it do right, and what do they fail to grasp? Badiou must first deal with 'ethics' as it stands in terms of Emmanual Levinas and the Other, which to Badiou constitute an anti-philosophy in the same terms in which Lacan described his own work - the Real existing mystically beyond the ability to conceive and distinguish it. Badiou must first do away with ethics as it stands in order to produce an 'ethic of truths', which stands within what he sees as the Hegelian tradition of differentiating between reflexive 'morals' and decisive 'ethics'. Badiou criticizes this as an unimaginative and severely limited current understanding of good: simply the attempted negation and avoidance of evil by actively avoiding dangerously ambitious projects to define good positively. This sort of ethics is nihilism, plain and simple; it serves the world as it exists by appealing to consensus for its definition. To Badiou, the Real is found in the event - a radical break with the current that "punches a hole" in the everyday world of already known, already facilely 'true' opinions to make genuine progress in the form of a subtraction from what is present. To conceive of Good requires exactly this sort of dangerous ambition, not a shunning of it, and only once an ethic of truths has been established can the very real problem of Evil be addressed properly.
Badiou first situates his ethical questions in a dispute that is not recent but still continues practically: does man exist? Or, to use less sexist and more specific terms, does a universally recognizable human subject exist? The tenets of ethics in capitalist democratic societies depend greatly on the assertion that it does: "humanitarian individualism" and its doctrine of human rights, against revolutionary and liberationist goals and ideas, require such an individual. Badiou presents three major challenges to this subject in the forms of recognizable "big names" Foucault, Althusser and Lacan. Foucault addressed "man" and the subject as a historical construction instead of a timeless and self-evident fact, undermining the supposedly firm foundation of liberal arguments. Althusser argued for a history as a process that lacked a subject and a 'theoretical antihumanism', while Lacan explained the subject as having no nature and dependent on language. To Badiou, these indicate not a cynical willed ignorance of human suffering, but rather a compatibility with the search for active, engaged, and radical solutions to the problem of an unjust system. (6) Badiou's subject is not that of liberal humanism.
Badiou explores the system that he plans to knock down, finding its origin in Kant: after assuming a subject whose main traits are that of the victim and the judge of victimization, this system subordinates politics to ethics and derives a definition of the Good from Evil, finally concluding with ethics in the form of ensuring negative "human rights" (the right to be free from Evil). (9) Badiou finds the definition of the subject unacceptable because of its victimhood - it defines man downward into his life as an animal, rather than dealing with his capability to define himself above this as an "immortal" resistant to mortality (11); it defines any attempt to seek a positive and change-oriented Good as the face of Evil (13); finally, by defining Evil a priori and deriving Good from it, it prevents each specific situation from being seen as the historical singularity that it is. (14) Against these, Badiou proposes three theses: Man is best identified by his affirmative thought and the truths of which he is capable; we are able to identify Evil from our positive capability for Good; humanity is rooted in thought of singular situations, which means that rather than an "ethics in general", there are only ethics of various processes corresponding to the possibilities of situations.
Continuing from the subject to the Other it supposedly confronts, Badiou attacks Levinas for promoting ethics based around the difference of the opposition to a dominant self-identity, in what Levinas conceived as a rebellion against metaphysics since ancient Greece. Badiou cites the present-day doctrines of multiculturalism and tolerance (negatively defined against racism and intolerance) as superficial perversions of Levinas's system (20) that, in their common sense, lose all force as arguments because the totalitarian dichotomy they set up between their terms rejects anything new.
Badiou turns from modern-day misinterpretation to Levinas proper, and concludes that the Other's requirement of a principle of alterity, the 'Altogether Other', is more or less the same as a dependence on God for the definition of good and evil - an appeal to an ultimate, and ultimately absent, authority. When we deny this religious element, we are left with
"a cultural sociology preached, in line with the new-style sermons, in lieu of the late class struggle." (23) The difference promoted in the ethics of the other denies real difference and attempts to force acceptance of its complacent existence - because it defines an identity of 'respect for difference' that is truly intolerant of anything else. Badiou, instead, wants to deal with the "real question. . .recognizing the same." (25) There is no God; there is not One, but a truly infinite alterity that defines both 'I' and any other in the world as no more, but no less, different. This difference is what is, and what any truth works to displace; thus, truth and the Good are concerned with the absent Same in the situation. The conditions for philosophy, in the matheme, love, politics, or the poem, are the names under which a truth falls - and there are a number of truths, and any number of ethics that are their processes. "Ethics does not exist. There is only the ethic-of. . .There is not. . .one single Subject, but as many subjects as there are truths. . ." (28)
General 'ethics', then, is the lazy sickness of complacency and inaction, the figure of Nietzsche's dread enemy: the will to nothingness. Nihilism is for Badiou "a kind of understudy of blind necessity." (30) 'Economics' and parliamentary politics are respectively the logic and the exteriority of Capital, the latter transforming the former into a neutral necessity rather than something to be judged or surpassed. The "end of history" in democratic capitalism, and its resulting consensual ethic of human rights, contribute to "subjective resignation and acceptance of the status quo. . .For what every emancipatory project does. . .is to put an end to consensus." (32) Resignation, however, is nowhere as threatening as the death drive behind ethics - the seductive obsession with the death of the self and the Other contained in the claim to judgement; the power to grant death or take it away. Ethics swings back and forth between these instincts, conservatism and death, in a sophistic cycle. In love, science, art, and politics and the ethics thereof, we see instead the possibility of the impossible, and the conditions for philosophy and truth. The progress of thought, and of the world, has this Hegelian character, where what could not be conceived in the attitudes before is conceived because of the need it fulfills.
An ethic of truths requires a subject that is not eternal and pre-existing (this is the quality of the animal, not the immortal, man), but rather is something that man becomes through a supplement to the ordinary world of existence. This supplement is Badiou's event, always universally addressed: "the French Revolution of 1792. . .Galileo's creation of physics. . .the Cultural Revolution in China. . .a personal amorous passion. . ." (41) A truth is what fidelity to this event produces; this process is borne by the subject that it induces. The subject need not be an individual as generally defined: lovers true to their love are a subject, as may be the Party in revolutionary politics, or a work of art (and not the artist) in an artistic process. But how will we know the ethic of a truth? A human individual - at the point of solution in a mathematical problem, the point of declaration in love, the point of perfect summation in militancy - joins the truth-process at a point, and becomes "simultaneously himself . . . and in excess of himself" (45) as he joins for an instant the immortal universality of the fidelity to a truth. The consistency is the engagement of this animal individual in the continuation of the subject of a truth: Lacan's maxim, 'do not give up on your desire'. The individual continues engaging the subject, rather than returning to the Spinozan 'perserverance in being' that constitutes everyday life and self-interest, and pursues that which is not-known. The same perserverance is turned now not towards any interest but towards the radical nature of fidelity to a truth, which has nothing to do with the interests of the individual human animal. (49) The subject is the escape from opinion (the mere communication of what is, back and forth, without a chance for what is not to be created, and its corresponding 'ethics') into that of the immortality of truth. (51) The ethic of truths is one of change and the revelation of striking absence, and stands in opposition to exchanging existing beliefs of any sort - like the 'consensus' of human rights. It is a moving Hegelian progression rather than an eternal Kantian imperative.
What then of Evil? Badiou has previously said that it must be derived from the Good, rather than the other way around. Good requires disorganization and the challenge of routine survival of the animal, which nevertheless remains indifferent to truth. The return from truth to opinion is the return of Plato's escapee from the sunlight to his companions in the cave: from Galileo to engineering, from Einstein to the atomic bomb. (60) The animal is 'beneath Good and Evil'; the decision of the Immortal is thus to continue with the disorganizing process of truth or return to routine. Evil is one possible effect of Good. (61) Badiou dismisses the idea of radical or ultimate evil; the Holocaust and crimes of Nazism are horrific and singular, but they must be situated rather than constantly invoked by those who maintain that they are unthinkable. (64) Nazism was one everyday political sequence, and if we are unable to even consider the possibility of a sequence that could define a 'German' interior by the construction of an exterior 'Jew', we are hardly considering the Holocaust at all. Evil, like the National Socialist 'revolution', is not the dull violence of the human animal, but is rather the subject's failure to realize the ethic of a truth.
A truth is connected to its earlier situation by a void - it defines what was not present in the situation, as Marx found the proletariat made economically invisible by the development of capitalism from its earlier stages into the situation to which his truth 'belonged'. To believe that an event completes a situation rather than punching a hole in it is Evil in the sense of simulacrum. (71) The National Socialist 'revolution' is just such a simulacrum, borrowing the universal qualifiers of events like the French Revolution of 1792 and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and applying them to the particular situation of the German nation. The void is universal, but the set ('Aryan', 'German') is closed and particular - and the fidelity to this simulacrum led to war and massacre as the set sought to void all that was outside of it through conquest and literal death. If one fails to live up to a fidelity, this is the Evil of betrayal - not the renunciation of a truth, but to convince oneself that the Immortal who joined the truth was nonexistent, an artifact of madness. Why was I such a militant? I must have been crazy to be so swept up in the moment. Did I ever truly love that person? If so, I don't have the slightest clue why I ever did. Thus is the ethic of truth defeated.
Finally, Evil's third form is the disaster of identifying total power with any truth. Truth changes the regime of opinions - it is not that they become 'true', since they always remain on the level of animal self-interest and complacent existence, beneath Good and Evil. But they nevertheless become other than what they were. The language of truth is concerned with the event, and is alien to the language of the situation: when one says 'I love you' in a declaration of love, it is quite different from when one says it as an everyday matter; the power in the language of a poem is alien to the language used to analyze it. If a truth were to have total power, it would be able to evaluate "all the elements of the objective situation from the perspective of the truth-process." (83) Thus the truth is believed to challenge the world, name the entirety of the real, and even the elimination of opinion through the complete negation of the human animal by the Immortal he bears. (84) This is the Evil of Nietzsche's madness in his belief in the Dionysian truth's ability to annihilate nihilism, or the Red Guard's harmful Evil following from their proclamation that they had suppressed self-interest. No truth ever eliminates opinion, because opinion is the form of everyday communication. None of us will ever find a truth that allows us to confer completely in terms of that truth, or raise the world above its position beneath Good and Evil. Each truth must have at least one, and probably more, elements that it cannot force: its unnameable. Evil is the forcing of naming the unnameable.
Badiou concludes that the ethical ideology of the contemporary West has no real defense against Evil, which is a perverse possible production of the Good which 'ethics' cannot recognize. Good, which strives against 'ethics' in the ethic of the truth, is fidelity to the realization of the void in the complacent world of opinion. It is able to recognize the Evil that is its underside, and ward it off by its active nature that 'keeps the faith' of a truth but refrains from erroneously forcing it as a totality onto opinion, communication, and consensus, which is incapable of Good but necessary to the animal existence which can realize the Immortal.
Badiou, Alain. Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil. Trans. Peter Hallward. Verso, New York, 2001.