Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Philosophy

Goodness with Edges, A Guest Post from John Lysaker

In Hope, Trust, and Forgiveness: Essays in Finitude, John Lysaker develops a new ethics of human finitude through three experimental essays. This week, Lysaker was named director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics, an academic institution whose purpose is to inspire and advance scholarship and education in ethics, to ignite the moral imagination of leaders in all walks of life, and to foster lives of moral meaning and ethical engagement.

In this guest post below, Lysaker considers the role of professional philosophers in charting our ethical future.

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I am a philosopher who works in ethics, having recently published Hope, Trust, and Forgiveness: Essays in Finitude, and I have just become director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics. I’ve thus been thinking a lot (and talking a lot) about what is entailed when a philosopher and university professor tries to intervene in ethical life. But “ethics” also names a complex array of dispositions, deliberations, and commitments on which my life relies, from where I shop to the social agencies I support and resist to how I engage my cats and dogs.  “Ethics” is thus professionally and personally charged, and in ways that intensify one another, theory and practice braided into one another.

Do I enact my hopes or dream wistfully? Am I trustworthy, meaning, do I use my discretionary power to look after those in my care, or do I diminish trust to an implicit contract whose terms I meet until they prove inconvenient? Do I apologize and forgive in a manner that prepares for a renewed tomorrow, or are both weakened by a grudging manner? And when I teach, write, and address various publics, am I an agent of good or just another talking head self-branding in the name of higher values, thereby weakening their (and my own) credibility? To know anything about ethics is to know that it runs to the core of our lives and concerns everything we do. “Our whole life is startling moral,” writes Thoreau. “There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice.”

“Ethics” introduces reflexivity into conduct. We don’t just want to live but to live well. We don’t just want to succeed in our endeavors but to succeed for the right reason, in the right manner, and in pursuit of the right things. Ethics orients us amid these concerns, and it does so by way of conscience, which rotates around feelings of accountability. Are my hopes worthy of hope, down to their relative intensities? Is anyone missing from that imagined future who should appear a bit closer to flourishing? Why don’t I trust you? Have I reasons or is something undeserved disinclining me toward you? Should we always forgive? And suppose we do not or simply cannot forgive. What then? How do I go on with another having refused to forgive a wrong they have done? Conscience has us pause, specify, deliberate, and commit. It runs a circuit through our conduct, slowing it, sharpening it, orienting us toward the future.

In order to orient us, ethics requires discernment, which is why Emerson has claimed: “Your goodness must have an edge to it, else it is none.” It’s never “all good.” If it were, conscience would never have emerged. Whether through feeling or judgment, and almost always through both, ethics turns the rush of a situation into possible courses of action and commends some over others. After Nietzsche, it is tempting to think of ethics as shutting down possibilities: thou shall not. It needn’t be that way. As it flows through conduct, conscience generates possibilities. It cuts through habit, disposition, and apparent necessity and interjects opportunities for better and worse. “I think we could do better,” is one-way conscience whispers. A deliberate life needn’t begin with a “no,” therefore; a reflective pause might just as well lead to resounding, inventive affirmation and a culture of ethical aspiration. Rather than disciplining desire, ethics could fuel it: who do you wish to be? And imagine that: a culture devoted to something other than wealth and power, or rather, one that aspired to worthy ends toward which it put the wealth and power it could muster.

To say that our goodness must have an edge conjures images of speaking truth to power and holding others accountable for their misdeeds, particularly when perpetrated against the vulnerable. Rightly so, and the gadfly is a venerable image of the philosopher. But it’s an easy image, and too easy in an age of email and social media. The morally serious know that all action should be pro bono (that is, for the good, regardless of cost). Thus, they try to ensure that the good they seek actually comes to pass. But the worry isn’t just ineffectiveness. The edge of goodness can quickly dull. A heartfelt jeremiad can further the next news cycle and little else, clickbait for the committed, pennies for the publisher. Or think of someone forgiving another in an overly public, dramatic manner. What seemed to be an act of generous healing becomes one of self-promotion, and the beauty of the former is lost to the ironic ugliness of vanity. And that might lead others to think, wrongly, that forgiveness is nothing more than moral self-aggrandizement or just a passive-aggressive reminder to another that now they owe you. “Moralizing” has become a bad word for a reason. Our ability to find the good can be weakened by thoughtlessly and duplicitously pursuing it.

It is tempting to cast the struggle that Thoreau invokes as one between the righteous and the wrong. Such a reading is insufficiently startled by the scope of his insight. Conscience is an intimate affair. Whatever light it casts into the world shines inward as well, and not just to avoid hypocrisy. The edge of one’s goodness should be multifaceted, more gem than blade. Think how much weight tone carries in an apology, as well as timing. One might think one was right to apologize but regret how and when one delivered it. And given those regrets, one might elect to apologize again, flushed with embarrassment. But in apologizing and forgiving, we say to each other, despite the wrong that has come between us, let us still go on together, which is worth more than a few awkward moments.

Am I favoring the personal over the social? No. I am stressing the multidimensionality of our conduct and calling for a conscience equally faceted. We make the future through the manner of our conduct as well as through the content of our commitments. And it is often the former that wins the day after tomorrow. Make a show of doing a favor and the favor contracts. Overly trumpet your efforts and your allies will wonder what happens when the cameras go away. The trustworthy do not need to be thanked, and they often exercise their discretion discretely even as they keep an eye on what is likely to follow. As one of Emerson’s most powerful puns conveys, our conduct conducts the world in which we live, including the histories that fed that world and flow from the ways in which we inhabit it. Each of us, directly or indirectly, is a variable in the lives of others. Conscience asks that we consider the kind of variable we should be, whether we are rendering the world more or less hospitable to ourselves, all of us, including you and me. And note, this is not quite the golden rule. Our neighbor may want and need what we don’t.

I can appreciate Nietzsche’s desire for an extra-moral life even if eventually I elected not to follow him toward it. The reflexivity of conscience is relentless. Here is a case in point: we are creatures of limits, as one would expect of anyone who lives along an edge. Our motivations can be murky and we rarely if ever know the full story of our situation, which usually involves other lives as complex and murky as our own. Those striving to be conscientious must acknowledge their limits even as they strive to know more about who they are, those with whom they share their lives, and the complex scenes of interaction where everyone and everything eventually meets.

Given the dynamism, opacity, and complexity of ourselves and our world, conscience requires something like what Keats called “negative capability,” an ability to be in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The point is not to simply maintain uncertainty, however, but to act in the face of it, to venture the next steps while “remaining content with half-knowledge” as one responds thoughtfully and imaginatively. (One can reach for reason in a non-irritable manner.) Admittedly, Keats has artistic composition in mind, but the image is apposite to ethical life as well, as Simone de Beauvoir has argued in her Ethics of Ambiguity. The morally mature pursue the good without securing its finished form ahead of time or washing their hands of complex results with face-saving appeals to intention. The responsible pick up after themselves.

Some of the limits that conscience encounters arise with what first gives it shape. Ethics as a self-conscious effort enters a life already oriented by dispositions driven in part by history, family, ritual, and so forth. Our goodness thus acquires its edge through sorting and sharpening what had once seemed good enough, a process Thoreau regards as moral reform or the “effort to throw off sleep.” Ethics is always woke, therefore, or rather, awakening.

I am the kind of philosopher who considers the good life, one rich in meaning and praiseworthy in character, a paramount concern. But in a way, ‘the good life’ does not exist; there are only better and worse lives, and those whose goodness has an edge cut through the latter so that the former can emerge. And here I can echo Nietzsche when he writes: “May your virtue be too exalted for the familiarity of names: and if you must speak of her, then do not be ashamed to stammer of her.”

My friend, Eduardo Mendieta, kindly said that an earlier book of mine, Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought, is “about stuttering, about not knowing one’s way in an argument or how to say it, so that it is to the height of being expressed,” and laboring, in turn, to inventively find that height, to be equal to the occasion that called for that response. Conscience, when it acknowledges its finitude and the urgency that pricked it, stutters, stammers, and persists, even when, especially when, approaching the matter philosophically. A broad orientation will always need to be sharpened, and our dispositions often must be recut. We must see, for example, that disabled lives can flourish fabulously, and that love should be celebrated regardless of the gender identity of the partners. But maybe that stutter and stammer is also the sound of tools reworking wood, cutting into situations and approaches in need of improvement. Ethics, ever on edge, is always throwing off sleep to freshly assess and assay, pulling us into the morning of the future. I leave it to you to decide whether that is an obligatory burden or a radiant opportunity, for the better.

John T. Lysaker is the William R. Kenan University Professor and the director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. He is the author of many books, including After Emerson and You Must Change Your Life: Poetry, Philosophy, and the Birth of Sense.

His latest book, Hope, Trust, and Forgiveness, is available on our website or wherever good books are sold.