In what I take to be the “original Greek conception,” ethics was considered the philosophy of human action— and this meant every human action— the direct and integral, put-up-or-shut-up response to the Socratic question “How should I live?” This means Diogenes, living among the dogs, sleeping in bathtubs, masturbating in the public square; Epicurus, released from death and hidden forces, into the Democritean field of pleasure, integrity, and finitude; Protagoras bringing philosophy down from the heavens to serve the affairs of Man, the measure of all things; and Socrates, pressing a reflective, razorsharp dialectic against the necks of his fellow Athenians, sucking back hemlock like a dry martini, and living a life equivalent to his ideas. I’m just syaing: these these guys certianly had their shit together.
But this ethical vision was eventually eclipsed by a certain Judeo-Christian-Kantian ethical project I am tempted to call “classical morality.” An ethical vision more concerned with goodness than greatness, prouder of its saints than of its heroes. A system that frets and stresses over the tenets of moral duty rather than the possibilities of human desire. A system that dwells only on the absolute and controversial, on obligation and prohibition, but nothing in between. And— perhaps worst of all— a system whose proponents and flagwavers are unusually hellbent on grounding its duties and demands into the plumbing of the universe, by way of some kind of metaphysics, religious or otherwise. It is a morality that has dominated the Western Hemisphere since the fall of Rome, soaking into every crevice of modern life. So much so that freak tangents and ethical prototypes have trouble even being understood as alternatives. It certainly seemed to be the case with me and my philosophical amateurism.
Professors— “professional” philosophers presumbably— would enter with their typical firstday flourish and scrawl the Socratic question across the chalkboard, assuring the class that philosophy was not about pedantic matters, ivory tower dealings but about matters of Life and Death. But the moment I mention how I mixed Hegel with my breakfast cereal, he glazes over. He meant, Brandon, Life-In-General. “What are my feelings on globalization?” “What is the id and what is the superego?” He does not care about the rough-and-tumble of daily particulars or the passage of Time. He does not care about your crap. When he says “action” he means policy and politics— praxes and such, not your silly vignettes, self-directed autobiography, and various run-ins with the university police department. This will never be the firehot topic of insular academic journals. It is not a proper “object of study.”
With my ventures, I wanted to make philosophy relevant to everyday life by making “life-relevance” the cardinal criterion of philosophy, instead of trying to bridge the chasm between empty speculation and unreflected experience. Giving the blue-ribbon answer to the contemporary question “What is philosophy without metaphysics?” by living out my squiggly response to the ethical question of Being. Fleshing out a bastardized version of American pragmatism and making it into something wholly unrecognizable as “Academic Philosophy.” This was the drift of my modest projects. It did not seem that weird, that obscure, to me.
But mired in metaethical groundwork, professionals asked “Don’t you think that including all actions into your definition of ethics, rather than just moral actions, makes it so broad as to be useless?” All the while keeping a straightface when speaking of ontology, the study of “What There Is.” I could not understand the source of the confusion: this was not a science, nor a reductionist program in any way. Why would breadth or proliferation jeopardize the project any more than it would literature or history? New possibilities was what we were shooting for, right, and plenty of them. I guess strategies for personal action are… unprofessional? Too intertwined with idiosyncratic beliefs and desires? Poor candidates for soaring and irresponsible universalization? Too close to home? Too messy? Non-cognitive and therefore somehow useless? I wish I knew. The only thing I could glean from the halls of academia, besides a few good meta-ethical pointers, was: the real professionals are not interested in the Socratic question, really. It just sounds good, rhetorically. It might be wise to take my business elsewhere.
But on the other front, closer to the unreflective Christian numbers than the hairsplitting, deontological quasi-Kantians, troubles remained. You see, since I figured the professionals were living in a world of their own, I was not particularly worried about the armchair quarterbacks of the Land of Tenure. What bothered me were the little old ladies, peer groups, elementary school teachers, parents, influential loudmouths, situation comedies, Teen Beat Heartthrobs, Oprah, casual thirty-somethings: the subtler evangelists of Common Sense. Those who embraced the Judeo-Christian framework without a half-thought otherwise, and could not imagine life without its metaphysics. “Surely, the Christian impulse has done us some good, Brandon.” Sure, the Christian impulse, the inward voice of love and compassion and magnanimity, has done us tons of good. I would never interfere with the works of compassion. But the morality that attempts to codify moral sense; the systems and legalism anchored in the metaphysical mystery of Moral Authority— these have been nothing but trouble. Unlike Nietzsche, though, who considered the Jesus-Christian pathos of infinite empathy to be inseparable from the pathologies of the Judeo-Christian slave morality, I thought that goodness and greatness could coincide; that the fireball superman could play the redemptive superhero by night.
This goodness was not proportional to any kind of purity. It was, in the Humean and Rortyan cast, sentiment alone, a “sensitivity to the suffering of others.” Or to put put as succinctly as possible: moral sense is the desire for human happiness. A desire that arouses certain actions. Actions that optimize human liberty and human happiness. Actions that could let us forget the models of repressive moralities based on the authoritarian, anti-democratic say-so of Nature, God, or Universal Law. Those slick attempts to strip men of the power of decision. Bad faith. Philosophical formulations of “because I said so, that’s why.” A moral system incompatible with infinite diversity and the world-historical March of Freedom.
Moral sense goes directly counter to these moral systems; it lends an ear and attempts to transcend the simplicities of Good and Evil and other regrettable absolutes. Moral sense means deciding for yourself each moment anew, but above all deciding for yourself. In its infinite empathy, moral sense is, essentially, a communicative genius. It bridges the islands of diverse value-systems. It feels the cruelty done to others. It seeks justification for the extraordinary, the exception, human error, the unrecognizable; for misunderstandings, conflicts of interest, the slippery and the silly— anything that was previously outside the comings and goings of a particular ethos. For those with this ever-expansive moral sensitivity, the unknown is welcomely colonized and communicated, since it promises the possibilities of new forms of human happiness. This moral sense, this infinite empathy; this is what defines goodness, not metaphysical approximations, not the crude right/wrong mandates of moral autocracy, and certainly not the lashings and legalisms of the godfearing and right-of-mind. The sensitivity, the impulse alone, is all we need (with maybe some sense of reciprocity thrown in for good measure).
When asked for a metaphysical grounding, I would not or could not give one. Is a metaphysical grounding necessary? If it was somehow revealed to be impossible or unintelligible, as I believe it is, would you stop believing in human happiness? We do not need the consent of the universe, or for that matter, the consent of any power greater than ourselves. We do not need to justify our capacity for Love and Agape. Nor do we need to explain it in terms common with Nature. So, yes, I am saying that the entire notion of a systematic, commandment-driven, deontological morality should be done away with. Leaving us time to worry about other, better things…
Beyond goodness though, and far beyond the slippery science of “global elbow room,” there is the much-needed recovery of that ancient Homeric struggle to become “the speaker of great words and the doer of great deeds,” a struggle smothered under two-thousand years of Christian humility and common sense. Greatness, the mastery of finitude— the heart and center of a twenty-first century ethical outlook. I can hear the professionals wondering aloud “What would I put on the syllabus?” But the Life of the Mind is not here to answer the needs of the academy. It’s the other way around. An amusing daydream maybe, but I cannot imagine the “strategy and transformation of everyday life” in the classroom setting, being taught amidst Earth Science and rubber-band fights. I can, however, imagine it as a hot-topic between friends, among restless spirits, on dinner dates, in moments of self-love and self-loathing, or bouncing around the Culture-At-Large. “I mean— Jesus Fuck— What the hell am I doing?”
It already is, to a certain degree. The difference is that it comes in an implicit, decaffeinated, non-reflexive, unimaginative form, usually called socialization. It would be the job of “ethical philosophy,” then, to corrupt the young, and work against the stream of Certainty. This means throwing into question all our previous answers to the question “How Should I Live,” answers most often secured at the edges by some brand of metaphysics (usually of the religious variety). The new ethical vision suggests that goodness is simply not good enough; that we should surpass the performance of our predecessors. Greatness, not in the approximation of some golden moral ideal, but in the struggle against twenty-first century boredom.
And the first lesson of the new ethics, the first word scrawled across the blackboard? Restlessness.