What is ethics? Teaching the introduction to ethics for years and years, to students in philosophy as well as in theology, I have often wondered what I was doing – where I was introducing them to: to a separate discipline with its own theories and methods of argumentation or to a systematic version of universal human reflections on good and bad. Or is ethics still something else? Viewing, and choosing from, available textbooks, one notices first a strong, if not hegemonic, presence of more or less analytic approaches. And second, an a-historical temper. One of the reasons for this last characteristic could be that ethics has tried to demarcate itself, in the twentieth century, as a distinct discipline, not as a branch of philosophy or of theology, but as something newer and more vital, a new ‘science’ of deciding what to be done in cases of moral dilemma. The trained ethicist should be able to be part of ethical committees and advise doctors, companies, governmental representatives and all kinds of other societal parties on morality and how it comes about by way of the right techniques of argumentation.
Thus, much of the reflexive nature of ethical questioning has gone lost. Many ethicists have forgotten about the experiences that induced human beings to reflect on good and bad in the first place. Like the experience of deteriorating political circumstances, for instance, for Plato, and the even more decisive experience that this could be repaired by searching for the original good that informs being. Or the experience, for a Christian philosopher like Aquinas, that the human being seems to be a creature in between – in between heaven and earth, having some idea of the divine origin of knowledge, and also feeling the need to comply with earthly desires and urges. A creature between angel and animal, seeing what should be, and what is, as different spheres, and having been endowed with knowledge of this – knowledge of good and bad. Also that great moral philosopher Nietzsche hardly has a place in the ethical canon, for his experiences, that the Christian view of humanity blinded human beings for their radically impulsive nature, and for the fact that no value has ever been found but as an answer to a need. Every good is a good for a will, and even going beyond good and evil is just the result of a bold, inquisitive nature, that of Nietzsche and his likes, who venture into radical moral insecurity.
What has been lost in the making of ethics into a discipline is, finally, the experience that ethics is a critical tool, which can hammer to pieces complacent adherence to whatever is in fashion, morally – be it tragic resignation, or acceptance of a dualistic wordview which leaves no room for tragedy. Be it the disappearance of the public sphere, or the belief that everything can be decided by rational argumentation. I have decided that I want to try to make for a change in this field. Ethics has to return to its reflective powers and its critical function. It has to remember the experiences that unhinge the factual world – those that make one silent first, and then brave. It has to renew its orientation, which does not mean that it will successfully solve dilemmas, or even understand them in a final manner. It has to dare to fail in the giving of reasons, while making room for pain and pleasure in a deeper sense than that of a rational individual. In this sense, there are quite a few moral philosophers who are not present in ethics textbooks: Jacques Derrida who dared to ask about justice in the present world, Hannah Arendt, who dared to expose the banality of evil in one of the biggest mass murderous experiments in history, Angela Davis, who dares to ask about the racist economy which underlies the prison system in the greatest country. This is all about pain – so what about pleasure? Pleasure could be given room in a reflection like that of Benedict de Spinoza on friendship, or in the research of the moral qualities of hermeneutics, like Hans-Georg Gadamer did. Or in the joyful visions of a deschooled society by Ivan Illich.