An Essay on the Understanding of Evil

Alain Badiou
Verso, London, 2001
translation and introduction Peter Hallward

By Ruud van de Meerakker, jurist and legal philosopher

Read more about Alain Badiou.

Order this book through Athenaeum Boekhandel

Born in Rabat, Morocco in 1937, Alain Badiou is a well-known French author of successful novels and plays, but, most importantly, of more than a dozen philosophical works. In his book L’Éthique, Badiou presents an outline of the ethico-political consequences of his philosophical work L’Être et l’Événement (1988). Yet in large part it reads as a polemical indictment of two contemporary ethical discourses. In it Badiou argues (i) against the ethical doctrine sustaining human rights, and (ii) against the ‘ethics of difference’, which he takes to be the ethical doctrine supporting multiculturalism, before presenting his own sketch of ethics. Parenthetical numbers refer to the English translation of L’Éthique, Ethics, published by Verso Books in 2001.

According to political theorist Steven Lukes, the following excerpt from The German Ideology is an adequate representation of the thought of Marx and Engels regarding human rights: ‘As far as Recht is concerned, we with many others have stressed the opposition of communism to Recht, both political and private, as also in its most general form as the rights of man.’

Marx holds that the fundamental rights of property, equal liberty and security, as proclaimed by the eighteenth century American and French political documents, are ‘simply the rights of a member of civil society, that is, of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community’ (1844, On the Jewish Question). Since liberty is not founded upon communal relations, but on the separation of man from man, it is the right of separation – the right of an individual to be withdrawn into himself. The practical application of this conception of liberty is the right to private property, which assigns each man with the right to act in his private interest and according to his private caprice.

In a similar fashion to Marx, Badiou stresses that reality bears witness to the impotence of the ethical foundation of human rights: ‘[…] the – perfectly obvious – reality of the situation is characterized in fact by the unrestrained pursuit of self-interest, the disappearance or extreme fragility of emancipatory politics, the multiplication of “ethnic” conflicts, and the universality of unbridled competition’ (10).

Since this message is well-worn among thinkers of the far left, Badiou does not bother to substantiate his claim – he hands his readers no more than a very short idiosyncratic account of the ethical foundations of human rights (8-10). It is clear, however, from Badiou’s remarks, that he takes issue with the idea of negative liberty – a central tenet of the views of (an outmoded) liberalism. This is the idea that every person is endowed with rights that are not to be hindered by the behavior of others. According to liberalism, Badiou argues, the human being is no more than a being that can recognize itself as a victim, i.e. a being conceptualized by the rights it holds, and that suffers in case these rights are infringed upon. In effect ‘Evil is that from which the Good is derived’ (9) since ‘Good’ can only be the absence of violations of human rights: ‘The refrain of “human rights” is nothing other than the ideology of modern liberal capitalism: We won’t massacre you, we won’t torture you in caves, so keep quiet and worship the golden calf’.

In order to ease the suffering, this ethics turns politics into a scheme for humanitarian intervention, which clears the guilty conscience of those who are responsible for bringing the suffering about. At the same time, Badiou argues, intervention only displays (and reinforces) their moral superiority, while it does doing nothing to address the structural problem of inequality that (ultimately) causes human suffering.

Despite his ferocious attack on liberalism, Badiou’s Marxist critique of the ethical foundations of human rights is not exempt from its own criticism. It can be argued that his critique of traditional liberal foundations of human rights fails to take into account that our modern concept of human rights has changed. Today this concept no longer refers exclusively to the fundamental rights proclaimed in the eighteenth century; it denotes a host of economic, social and cultural rights (which materialized in the aftermath of the Second World War) as well. As a result, it can be argued that these rights are no longer conceptualized exclusively by the Evil against which human beings have to be protected; they define a conception of the ‘Good’ as well (See Boyd 2009 on the compatibility of human rights and Marxism).

Badiou’s second issue is with the domestic identity politics of multiculturalism. According to his (peculiar) views the discourse of multiculturalism, or tolerance in general, is (ultimately) sustained by the ethics of difference propagated by Emmanuel Lévinas (20). The ethics of Lévinas, derived from Kierkegaard and later championed by Derrida, depends upon the ‘intuition’ that every Other (i.e. every other (human) being that I encounter) is, in principle, as dissymmetrical, impervious and transcendent as God – that every Other is Wholly-Other. Like Abraham in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, people can only justify their acts ethically by meeting the demands of the Other, by sacrificing their ethical obligations to all others. As Derrida writes:

There are also others, an infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal responsibility (what Kierkegaard calls the ethical order). I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others. Every other (one) is every (bit) other [tout autre est tout autre], every one else is completely or wholly other (Derrida 1996, 68).

Badiou brushes this argument aside by claiming that ‘[t]he other always resembles me too much for the hypothesis of an originary exposure to his alterity to be necessarily true’ (22). It would be interesting to read a substantiation of this claim, but at this point Badiou seems to prefer a polemic attack at (liberal) multiculturalism:

Our suspicions are first aroused when we see that the self-declared apostles of ethics and of the ‘right to difference’ are clearly horrified by any vigorously sustained difference. For them, African customs are barbaric, Muslims are dreadful, the Chinese totalitarian, and so on. As a matter of fact, this celebrated ‘other’ is acceptable only if he is a good other – which is to say what, exactly, if not the same as us? (24)

Apart from a polemical assault on other ethical doctrines and the politics they sustain, Ethics provides a sketch of Badiou’s ethics of ‘processes of truth’ (28). This ethics is supposed to support a politics beyond humanitarian intervention and identity politics. James Ingram argues that, for Badiou, the challenge for ethics and politics is to invent new forms of commonality. Badiou suggests that such is possible in an ethics of events. Events are juxtaposed to the general state of affairs – ‘for example, the ordinary state of relation to the other, before a loving encounter’ (41). Consequently, events are foreign to the general state of affairs and cannot be included within it. According to Badiou, events can take place in four realms. He gives the examples of the amorous, the artistic (e.g. Haydn’s invention of classical music), the scientific (e.g. Galilean physics), and the political (e.g. the French Revolution) event.

Even though it is a central category in Badiou’s ethics, the theory of the event is only sketched in Ethics (its readers are referred to Badiou’s Being and Event for its theoretical foundation). Events open up new thoughts and new modes of action, which means that the ‘event’ of the French Revolution is not its actual history (between 1789 and 1794), but the new modes of thinking and action that fueled, for example, the night of 4 August 1789, the Paris Commune, and the Bolshevik Revolution. According to Badiou these openings are ‘truths’; they cast the world in a different light and demand action. Badiou’s ethics of truth seeks to realize the truth of an event (Ingram 2005, 565). This, Badiou maintains, can only be done by a particular process of fidelity to the event. In the end this process is initiated by the ‘decision’ to be oriented by the event (41). Ethics consists in the injunction to continue the truth-process opened up by the event. This ethics as fidelity to the truth-event is, according to Žižek, clearly indebted to the Kierkegaardian existential commitment experienced as gripping our whole being. When people commit themselves to such an event with what Kierkegaard calls infinite passion – the commitment will determine what will be a significant issue for the rest of their lives. It is an ethics that does not avail itself of a truncated account of human beings, as those passive animals which can recognize themselves as suffering; it is an ethics that operates with an active, or positive account of human beings, as the beings that can live with infinite passion.

However, this leaves open the criticism of decisionism. Is Badiou advocating commitment to an arbitrarily chosen truth? Badiou disagrees since, for him, truths are universal – available to, and valid for everyone (Badiou 2004, 172-73). Yet within Badiou’s framework, there will be no certainty that the truth given is universal – its universality cannot be determined in advance – for example by common opinion (De Brabander 2006, 27). An example of this is Nazism, which presented itself as an event – but which turned out, according to Badiou, to be a simulacrum of an event.