In Defense of Not Giving a Fuck: Or, The Perils of Ethical Purity

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


February 3, 2013

In Defense of Not Giving a Fuck

Or, The Perils of Ethical Purity

Whenever we hear about an ethical catastrophe—the Sandusky scandal, Catholic sex abuse cases, or any number of corporate scandals—the typical reaction is the demand to know how it could have happened. There are always bad people who do bad things, and it seems safe to assume that if they’re capable of more extreme types of abuse, they’ll certainly have no qualms about lesser crimes: deception, manipulation, lusting for the power that they need to hide their deeds, and so forth. We like to think of them as fully aware of what they’re doing, probably cackling with glee—every evildoer appears in our imaginations possessed of an obscene enjoyment.

A story like this might be overly simplistic, maybe even flatly false, but at least it’s plausible. It’s far less clear how to account for the people caught up in the scandal who are more passively responsible, having contributed to the abuse by looking the other way. The main problem is that it is hard to understand passivity a kind of enjoyment, and without this, the guilty seem less evil and more sympathetic. We can imagine them sobbing on the witness stand, wracked with guilt and as much at a loss to understand their actions as we are.

They are like us, having only the best intentions at heart but imperfect and sometimes failing to live up to their ethical commitments. If we want to reject this easy conclusion, there are two possibilities. We could say that failing to enjoy your sins doesn’t get you off the hook. Perhaps passive responsibility is just as bad as active reponsibility? Or we could try the opposite strategy: maybe they did nothing wrong at all. More precisely, what if the problem isn’t that they failed to live up to ethical standards, but that they succeeded?

How could this be so? Žižek gives us some answers in this passage from For They Know Not What They Do:

“At the beginning” of the law, there is a certain “outlaw”, a certain Real of violence which coincides with the act itself of the establishment of the reign of law: the ultimate truth about the reign of law is that of an usurpation, and all classical politico-philosophical thought rests on the disavowal of this violent act of foundation. The illegitimate violence by which the law sustains itself must be concealed at any price, because this concealment is the positive condition of the functioning of the law

In her own commentary, Jodi Dean expands the point:

Law begins in trauma. From the standpoint of the old law, the violent establishing of something new is crime. The old law is disobeyed, overthrown, transgressed, usurped. From the standpoint of the new law, this crime is self-negating. It vanishes (or is concealed) as a crime once the new order is constituted. Put somewhat differently, the establishment of law overthrows law, for example, the law of custom, the law of nature, or even law as an ideal that only existed at the very moment of its loss. And, because establishing is overthrowing, there is a risk–the negation of law as such. Establishing manifests a disregard for law as it perversely (or criminally) turns crime into law. This paradox, this traumatic identity of law and crime, is the repressed origin of law.

In the context of corporate scandals, there’s the figure of the whistle-blower, a term coined by Ralph Nader in the 1960s and obviously derived from sports referrees who blow the whistle to signal a foul or the end of the game. Although referrees are the law within the bounds of the game and technically have a type of sovereignty over it, actually blowing the whistle still appears as an at least minimally traumatic intrusion. Blowing the whistle, literally or metaphorically, is therefore not simply the exercise of the law over lawless chaos. On the field, there is another order that’s established among the players that the law of the referree intervenes in to overthrow.

Going back to the problem of looking the other way, it is now clear what it means to say that looking the other way is a way of conforming to an ethical standard. When misconduct has been normalized in an organization, it is the dominant (un)ethical order. From inside this moral universe, someone who blows the whistle is guilty of the worst crimes: treason, betrayal and attacking the very foundations of the order itself.

Watching the exposure of misconduct from the oustide, it’s very easy for us to celebrate whistleblowers and their moral courage. It’s obvious that they did the right thing, we’re outraged at those who stayed quiet while feeling secure in the belief that we would have stood up for what was right if we were in that position. But these impressions can only appear retrospectively. Once the whistleblower has been vindicated, the abuses hit the media and all of society is expressing its collective dismay, we can feel confident that we’d have done the same. In those conditions, we probably would. But the whistleblower wasn’t in those conditions—indeed, their actions are what brought them about. Somewhat like the crime which is concealed to found the new law, the “criminal” aspect of standing up for what’s right is erased.

But would you be just as virtuous if you didn’t feel that all of society was behind you? If you were instead branded a troublemaker, an agitator, a provocateur, a troll, a shit-stirrer and a malcontent? And if you risked being ignored, isolated, undermined, blacklisted and ruined? Most people wouldn’t, and not because they are bad, but because they are good. Most people are basically well-meaning, polite and loyal; they like to help others and try to avoid upsetting people. It is exactly these qualities that make them complicit in abuse. In their goodness, they lack the courage to be regarded by friends and coworkers as evil for opposing the abuse.

In many parts of society, the dominant ethics is relational and prosocial. We should always be kind, respectful, tolerant, open-minded, non-judgmental, and concerned that those we come into contact with feel good about us and themselves. In many cases, perhaps even most, these really are virtues, and it is difficult to imagine how society would function if we did not expect these behaviors of each other. However, it is a different matter altogether to think that the royal road to society’s moral perfection lies in stamping out any deviation from these principles, a idea that often manifests as a deep discomfort with deeply flawed film characters and anti-heroes.

We can find numerous blog posts and articles denouncing Don Draper’s or Walter White’s insensitivity and lack of concern about the impact of their actions on others, and these evince a belief that we can progress morally by adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards these outlaws. Rooting for the bad guys is taken as a sign of corruption. Even though we adhere to these ethical rules in our lives, our enjoyment of fictional sociopathy exposes our secret enjoyment of transgressing them.

This idea finds its roots in Christian morality, where sinning in the heart is a prelude to sinful action. The New Testament teaches that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man…” Or to paraphrase the Gospel, anyone who watches Don Draper committing adultery has already committed adultery in his heart.

One problem with this view is that it misunderstands the relationship between fantasy and reality. Although fantasy works as a stage for realizing transgressive desires, it renders them impossible. We are only able to enjoy them because we know they are dreams, and when there is the potential for them to become real, the consequences can be terrifying, even causing the catastrophic breakdown of reality itself. A dream come true is a nightmare.

I’ve already mentioned the second problem, that prosociality is not the beginning and end of morality. The ethos of being nice to people does not encompass the full breadth of ethical behavior. In the case of whistleblowers, they must violate those rules. Here, the injunction to always be nice is not simply insufficient, it is actively on the side of evil.

But the worst problem is the way that the quest for ethical purity means that a community holds up certain individuals as exemplars, making it almost impossible to hold them accountable for ethical lapses. When we look up to others as the perfect embodiment of our values, the collapse of this illusion can be deeply shattering, so their misconduct must be covered up to protect us.

There are those who demand ethical purity from politicians, celebrities and other public figures, and feel that fame and power should be withheld from them unless they can function as role models. But this is misguided; we should do the opposite. Fame and power should be given to those who are already corrupt, who cannot be protected from accountability by their status as role models. Ethical purity invites abuse.