Ethical Perspectives 2 (4):165-179 (1995)

Johan Taels
University of Antwerp
Isolated subjectivity is something of a controversial guest in the world of ethics, one which has not infrequently been shown the door as an unwelcome visitor. How might we accommodate its chaotic attitudes and perceptions under the same roof with the demand for a universal ethics?So runs the obligatory question, frequently to be answered by a firm denial of the possibility of combination: two into one won’t go! Either the subject, as a being fascinated with the singular, will simply stand there staring into the radiant glow of the here and now, or as an ethical being, it will go out in search of an objective, extratemporal authority which will transcend the instability of its subjectivity. Good reasons lie behind the alleged irreconcilability between ethics and subjectivity, two of which, one from classical ethics and another from contemporary ethics, are not only good but in fact very good.Rooted in general philosophical anthropology, the classical argument states that the human person, as an immediate and natural being, encounters the world from the perspective of his or her own neediness, from the imperialism of his or her sense of pleasure. His or her sensitivity to good and bad remains buried in the chaos of his or her unique nature. In order to grow into an ethical being, the human person must transcend this stage of subjectivity and caprice, the only trustworthy guide along this journey of transcendence being reason. Only ratio can point to the place where the good-for me becomes an objective good, a bonum commune.It can do this in two ways: as a discoverer or self formulating . In the first case it refers to an already given objective reality outside and beyond the inconstancy of the subject: humanity, nature, God, even reason itself. In the second case it creates its own reality: a particular social and/or political order, a consensus or common will. Only afterthe subject has reached this point, after it has associated itself with the universal principle or common order can its existence be referred to as ethical.A second argument stemming from recent cultural criticism points out that the term ‘subject’ in its present meaning is a product of the anthropologising tendency of Modernity. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages the term carried the more general meaning of substance: that which lay at the basis or foundation of the qualities of a thing or was the bearer of those qualities. From Modernity, however, the human person as such became the primary subject, the reference point of all that is. The subject henceforth came to mean the autonomous consciousness that objectivises the world, brings it to a standstill, makes it into an object of its explanatory representation and thereby keeps it in its grasp.As a matter of fact, the subject seen in this way is completely abstract and theoretical. The ‘I’, as the 19th century ‘masters of suspicion’ were well aware, is in no way autonomous, nor does it live from within an interior, free and inviolable core. In the meantime, however, this abstract concept of the subject has rendered unspeakable damage and suffering. The modern subject might be dead, yet it nevertheless left the destruction and death of the self in its wake
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DOI 10.2143/EP.2.4.563051
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