Wherever You Look, the Unethical Rule. Why?
Jack won’t kick Alex Jones off Twitter. Paul Manafort buys $15k jackets. Kleptocrats skim millions with glee. London bookshops attacked by fascists. Extremism, hate, rage on the rise.
What unites all these weird, awful things?
I think that predatory capitalism has ripped a hole not just in economies — but right down in our souls. It’s inequality, unfettered greed, unfairness, and dehumanization are sparking an ethical implosion. One which we see everywhere, if we look. Hey, why doesn’t Silicon Valley have any ethics? Wait — what about Washington DC, Wall St, the alt right, the neo-Nazis, ICE, the GOP, the immovable centrists….
You see my point. Wherever we look, it seems self-evident that ethics have collapsed ruinously — the idea that our lives should arc towards some genuine, enduring ideal of the good. Instead, we seem to delight in ruin and misery. Why is that? How did it come to be? What happened to the good, anyways?
Today, we veer between two ethical stances — neither of which are much good at all. They don’t really allow to think clearly, well, or enough about vexing issues of suffering, harm, and the meaning of our own lives — but I’ll get to all that.
Jack, shrugging when it comes to Alex Jones, is using what I call protagonistic ethics. This is the first perspective that I see people take — it’s more or less the default stance we take today. It consists of a kind of negligent indifference to suffering. Hey! It’s not my fault! Everyone has to grow up and take personal responsibility for their own suffering! The old myth of self-reliance, writ large. But can self-reliance — for everyone else — really spark the human good? American collapse suggests: LOL, no.
Do you know how we’re told, so often these days, to be “heroes in our own stories?” Protagonistic ethics is a little bit like that. We live in a hostile, alien world. Thanks, largely, to predatory capitalism. It doesn’t just seem like things are out to get us — like explorers on a new planet, where even the trees are carnivorous — things are out to get us. So in a classic case of what Freudians might call reaction formation, we react, and suppose that the best thing for us to do is to be heroes of our own stories.
Can we survive the slings and arrows of the hostile world capitalism has left us? Can we make it as we struggle on in our journey through the wasteland? That is the primary goal of protagonistic ethics. It is concerned with the survival of the self in a world which appears hell-bent on defeating one. Capitalism doesn’t just eat away at our self-belief — it’s premised on the idea that we have no inherent worth. And so the protagonistic hero’s goal becomes to establish a sense of self-worth. Perversely, in capitalism’s terms usually. By making lots of money, buying fine things, driving a fast car, and so on. I’m sure you know many people like this. What do they really earn? The meaning of a life as something like: “survivor” or “strong” or “powerful.”
But the price of seeing this — surviving the cold, hostile world capitalism has created — as the defining journey and signal accomplishment of a life, though, is steep. That price is indifference. If we are our own protagonists, it doesn’t pay to care very much about anyone else. After all, they must be their own protagonists, too. So we are neither enemies nor allies. We are just atoms. The end result is a kind of shattering indifference, just like Jack has. For anyone else’s suffering.
(In a truer sense, that indifference is alienation. The protagonistic hero, trying to survive capitalism’s wasteland, is estranged from human suffering itself — even their own. They never really understand that suffering is a message, from the self, that one’s life must bend in the direction of a truer and fuller humanity, one that brims over more with grace, truth, compassion, gentleness, wisdom. Why? We’ll get to that.)
Jack, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t so bad. Much worse is the second stance that’s evolving today — what I call antagonistic ethics. Here, my survival comes at your extinction. Life is a zero-sum game. You must lose for me to win. In antagonistic ethics, the human good become perverse. My good is your bad. When I harm you, only then am I good. It’s a kind of perverse, reverse Kantian law: do unto others as you wouldn’t like done unto you.
Where do we see antagonistic ethics growing? Among young men. Among falling middle classes. In the “alt right.” All the nascent extremist, proto-fascists movements of today are really expressions of antagonistic ethics. But antagonistic ethics rose in Silicon Valley, in Wall St, and in Washington. Why?
What sentiments develop as a result of antagonistic ethics? Well, if protagonistic ethics produce indifference, negligence, alienation from suffering, antagonistic ethics produce a kind of deep, enduring obsession with suffering. With one’s own suffering — it is the most important thing in all the world, so one sees one’s self as a grandiose persecuted victim, nursing grievances vengefully. And with the suffering of others — who must be extinguished, in order to turn one’s own victimhood into ssuperiority. So antagonistic ethics produces cruelty, rage, bitterness, hate, and spite — all of which we see rising like a poison tide among young men today.
But what would propel and motivate such a strange belief — that I can only win if I extinguish you? Well, this is just the logic of capitalism taken to an extreme. It’s the logic of predatory capitalism, where protagonistic ethics is the logic of just capitalism. Under the rules of predatory capitalism, only the strong survive. But the strong are defined as those who can prey on the weak most, best, hardest, fastest. So, very quickly, the only ethical rule left is my existence equals your nonexistence.
That is why so many young men, so quickly, seem hell bent on demeaning, devaluing, and lessening everyone who is not like them. In little bands and tribes. They hunt down and digitally attack women, minorities, Jews, gays, immigrants, Muslims, and so on. Having subscribed to antagonistic ethics, they believe — probably genuinely — that in order for them to exist, they must extinguish others. And so they are, in very real ways, attempting to cancel the existence of anyone else. Isn’t that what Miller is doing, from the height of power? That is perhaps the defining example of antagonistic ethics.
Now. Is there a way out of this ethical mess? On the one side, protagonistic heroes, who are indifferent and negligent to human suffering, and on the other, antagonistic heroes, motivated only by their own victimhood, grievance, and vengeance ?
If you ask me — and it is just my view — the way out is what I call eudaimonic ethics. “Eudaimonic ethics” consists of three very simple ideas. Everyone has intrinsic worth. Suffering is the deprivation of intrinsic worth. Because no one can deprive themselves of intrinsic worth, we must examine ourselves to see if we are involved in that deprivation.
(Now, you might say, “but people abuse themselves all the time!!” And you are correct. But even when they cut themselves, shoot up heroin, smoke meth, buy expensive clothes, and so on, they are either replicating behaviours learned from elders — or they are responding, in some way, to a sense of intrinsic worth that was taken away from them, long ago. Isn’t that much true? So it’s truer to say that nobody — nobody — takes away their own intrinsic worth, as much as they appear to. They might repeat that act, as a way to gain power over their abusers, or to keep a bond alive, and so forth. But the deprivation of self-worth is never initiated by the self.)
Now. You’re probably with me so far. Here’s the challenging part. If you really believe that people have intrinsic worth, then they must deserve good lives to. To some very real degree. How so is up to you — that’s the ethical challenge. Me? I think at minimum, everyone deserves healthcare, education, energy, housing, media, safety nets, retirement — as a consequence of intrinsic worth. As an ethical stance — not a political one (“but what happens if those lazy bums…!!”) An ethical stance means: for lives to realize and cultivate themselves as good, this is what each one must have. Eudaimonic ethics says: the answer isn’t antagonistically punching people down, or protagonistically being indifferent to them. But giving each life what it needs, at a minimum at least, to really flourish.
It seems to me that in this troubled world, spiraling inequality, unfairness, and inequity, is creating a hole in economies, which becomes a hole in the soul of people, who take out their bitter anger on another with antagonistic ethics, or, using protagonistic ethics, become heroic, indifferent survivors. But the challenge of building a better world, for that very reasons, appear to me to be squarely about cultivating a new (or very old) eudaimonic ethics, which are much more genuinely about what is to be good.