Thursday, August 4, 2016

Julio Cabrera's Negative Ethics

Generally, Western philosophy has assumed that living the good life was possible. Aristotle's virtue ethics, Stoicism's virtuous man, Epicureanism's happy man, Kant's dutiful man, Bentham and Mill's "greatest good for the greatest number", Peirce's "brotherhood of love", the various social contract theories, and in general the overall affirmation of life. To these theories, although life may be filled with hardship, it's nevertheless good because good can be done while alive

But is this the case? Can we actually live a moral life? Is the Good Life even attainable?

One lesser-known contemporary philosopher who thinks this is not the case is the Argentine philosopher Julio Cabrera. Pulling from Heideggerean ontology, as well as the works of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche (very much so the previous two), Levinas, Bentham, and several others, Cabrera published a book in which he describes what he calls "negative ethics".

If Nietzsche asked what would happen if we abandoned ethics, Cabrera asks: what would happen if we fully embraced ethics?

Negative ethics stands in opposition to what he calls "affirmative ethics", of the kind mentioned before. Whereas affirmative ethics asks "how should we live?", negative ethics asks "should we live?". Thus, affirmative ethics are second-order ethics.
Cabrera, as might be expected, thinks that to live is inherently problematic. Although he recognizes and agrees with much of the general pessimism and nihilism of his predecessor inspirations (he spends an entire section praising Schopenhauer), he argues that this is not the sole, not even the primary, reason for adopting the stance that life is problematic.

For Cabrera, there is one overarching concept in ethics, including affirmative ethics, what Cabrera calls the Fundamental Ethical Articulation (FEA): the respect for others' autonomy and the non-manipulation and non-harm of others.

The issue with affirmative ethics, as Cabrera sees it, is that it generally accepts the FEA but nevertheless ignores it by trying to compromise. Affirmative ethics is largely the act of compromise, and Cabrera criticizes it for not considering why it has to compromise in the first place. Why is it that morality has to compromise? Why is it that we have to compromise on when an abortion is acceptable? Why is it that we have to compromise on our policy towards the environment? Why is that we have to compromise by killing each other in war? Why is it that moral agents have to make unsettling moral choices, such as in the theoretical Trolley problem or the real-life scenario of M.A.D?

Affirmative morality must do this because it takes life as a good thing.

But Cabrera argues that this is misguided and quite unethical. The reason we have to make all these compromises and difficult decisions is because life itself is unable to accommodate the ethical. Moral agents are morally disqualified. Every action we do has some impact on other people, either indirectly or directly. The FEA requires us to put others before ourselves, and being creatures who irrationally continue to live, we are unable to fulfill the FEA. Life itself in all its glory, horror, and drama cannot even come close to fulfilling the FEA. It is structurally insufficient.

In this sense, Cabrera is similar to Levinas in that they both feel our ethical obligations are to other people first and foremost. Levinas even goes on to argue that this ethical obligation is a kind of "persecution" - but it's nevertheless an obligation we must fulfill.

From this, it's pretty obvious that Cabrera is against birth. Although taking inspiration from him, Cabrera criticizes Camus for believing that the only important philosophical question was suicide, when in reality it is both suicide and the decision to make another conscious moral agent.

In regards to suicide, Cabrera does not deny it as a valid option, but neither does he usually support it. The only suicide that he supports, in his view (and from my understanding), is one that is made out of an understanding that one's very existence is an overall detriment to other people, similar to the Stoic view on suicide. He argues that Hume was the only real historical philosopher who argued that suicide might be a valid and moral action, and criticizes Christianity, Kant, Schopenhauer, Camus, and others for ignoring this and thinking suicide was either blatantly immoral or irrational.

Cabrera argues that pleasure exists, and pleasure is good. But this goodness necessarily exists within a certain context - a context of pain, tedium, and moral disqualification. Any pleasure either harms other people or is a reaction to our existential state.

"The negative human being has a greater familiarity with the terminality of being; he neither conceals it nor embellishes it, he thinks about it very frequently or almost always, and has full conscience about what is pre-reflexive for the majority, that is, all we do is terminal and can be destroyed at any moment. 
Negative life, in this sense, is melancholic and distanced (but never distracted or relaxed), not much worse than most lives and much better than them in many ways, a life with neither hope nor much intense feelings, neither of deception nor even enthusiasm. And, above all, without the irritating daily pretending that “everything is fine” and that “we are great”, while we sweep our miseries under the carpet. Therefore, it is usually a life without great “crisis” or great “depressions” (by the way, depression is the fatal fate of any affirmative life); negative lives are anguished lives, poetic and anxious, and almost always very active lives. 
In the Critique, I have already written that a negative life shall emerge, basically, on four ideas: (a) Full conscience about the structural disvalue of human life, assuming all the consequences of it; (b) Structural refuse to procreation (a negative philosopher with children is even more absurd than an affirmative one without them); (c) Structural refuse to heterocide (not killing anybody in spite of the frequent temptation to violence); (d) Permanent and relaxed disposition for suicide as a possibility."
Being that his work was originally written in Portuguese and/or Spanish, it's sometimes difficult to understand what Cabrera has to say, especially since he takes inspiration largely from the Heideggerean ontology, which is already difficult to fully understand if one does not know German.

Overall, I think it's a valuable piece of philosophy, one that was long overdue even if it may have its flaws. It's too bad he's not an anglophonic philosopher.

What do you think? Is the Good Life possible? What do you agree/disagree with Cabrera on?

Links to his work can be found here (luckily in English):



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