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This week’s post is eleven years old; I wrote it as a short assignment for David Hall‘s course on method and theory in the study of religion in 2002. The assignment was to write a “genealogy” of a key term in religious studies; I chose “ethics”. I like the paper for its historical awareness, its self-aware methodology and its general optimism for the methods of religious studies. As with many older papers, I would not write it quite the same way now, but I post it because I think it stands up well. I have posted two other posts based on course papers before. Unlike those – which were abridged – I post this one in its entirety.

The term “ethics” comes from the Greek ethike, roughly denoting a virtue, and derived from ethos, the general term for “habit” or “custom.” (Aristotle 1947: 1103a) “Moral,” derived from the Latin moralis, initially meant the same thing — Cicero, it is said, invented the term “moralis” to translate the Greek ethikos (MacIntyre 1984: 38). At some point since then — I haven’t been able to pin down the first instance of this increasingly standard usage — “ethics” came to be seen as the “science” of morals (or morality), as the discipline of moral philosophy, so that ethics was the theory and morality the practice.

We find this distinction articulated in many 20th-century encyclopedia entries. The online Encyclopædia Britannica (2001) says that ethics (for which “moral philosophy” is again given as a synonym) is “the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad, right and wrong. The term is also applied to any system or theory of moral values or principles.” In the Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, the claim that ethics is a “science” is seen as so obvious that it is not even mentioned; the question is what kind of science it is (Bullock 1908-1926: 414). The Encyclopedia of Religion, speaking more specifically of Christian ethics, notes:

The distinction between morality and ethics is most significant. Morality refers to the actions, dispositions, attitudes, virtues, and ways of life that should characterize the moral person and society, in this case the Christian person and the Christian community. Christian ethics operates on the level of the theoretical and the scientific and tries to explain the Christian moral life in a thematic, systematic, coherent, and consistent manner. (Curran 1987: 340)

Encyclopedias’ agreement that ethics is a systematic “science” or “discipline” might come as no surprise to Alasdair MacIntyre. For him, “encyclopaedia” is itself one of the three main “rival versions of moral enquiry.” The Ninth Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, he argues, was the product of a specific 19th-century culture with specific beliefs about ethics. Two of these are especially notable for our purposes: first, “morality was a distinct and relatively autonomous area of beliefs, attitudes, and rule-following activity, ordered in accoradnce with a scheme of rigid compartmentalization of life. The moral was sharply and clearly distinguished from the aesthetic, the religious, the economic, the legal, and the scientific.” Second, “social agreement, especially in practice, on the social importance and the content of morality coexisted with large intellectual disagreements concerning the nature of its rational justification, both agreement and disagreement being underpinned by a shared conviction that morality, thus understood, must be such as to be rationally justifiable somehow or other.” (MacIntyre 1990: 26; emphases in original)

MacIntyre contrasts this “encyclopaedia” with the very form of analysis we are expected to undertake in this project: “genealogy.” The term “genealogy,” as an attempt to trace the history of a concept, comes from Nietzsche’s (1992) Genealogy of Morals (Zur Genealogie der Moral). Nietzsche’s genealogy, by tracing the change from Greek to Christian ideas of ethics, attempted to argue that ethical terms had originally been a means of imposing the ideas of the powerful on the weak.

After Foucault borrowed Nietzsche’s term “genealogy,” it spread throughout the literary and humanistic fields of academia. And in addition to Nietzsche’s terminology, Foucault’s influence often brought with it Nietzsche’s skepticism toward moral claims. “Ethics” was doubly suspect because, as noted, it was considered a discipline. Starting with the English translation of Foucault1, critical academics often played with the multiple meaning of this word: a discipline is at once a field of systematic knowledge and a manipulative régime of social control. Thus the popular attitude to ethics among literary critics, as described by Geoffrey Galt Harpham (1995: 387), was fundamentally Nietzschean: “ethics could be the particular way in which people preserved a good conscience while overriding or delegitimating the claims of others. Ethics thus became for many the proper name of power, hypocrisy and unreality.”

Nevertheless, the major figures of literary criticism — Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, Butler — all came eventually to speak of “ethics” in a more positive light. Harpham (1995: 389) identifies the revelation of Paul de Man’s pro-Nazi writings in 1987 as a key moment in the return of ethics to literary studies, while admitting (392) that a concern for ethics had already been present in the writing of some figures, such as the late Foucault. However, the new ethics of these “post” figures, keeping the criticism made by genealogy in mind, aimed at distancing itself from the encyclopedic scientism of the positivists. Harpham’s own definition of ethics, rooted in Lévinas’s phenomenology, studiously avoids reference to “science,” to “discipline,” to “system”: “Ethics is the arena in which the claims of otherness — the moral law, the human other, cultural norms, the Good-in-itself, etc. — are articulated and negotiated.” (Harpham 1995: 394) “Moral” appears here only in an example of the claims which ethics involves.

MacIntyre too is suspicious both of the “encyclopedic” claim to catalogue ethics “scientifically” and of the genealogical claim to undermine it entirely. Rather than approaching “ethics” in terms of the claims of generic “otherness,” however, his preferred alternative is to situate “moral enquiry” within a tradition. Against the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Genealogy of Morals, MacIntyre puts forth Pope Leo XXIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris — which reasserted the value of Thomas Aquinas’s Catholic thought — as the work which typifies his preferred version of “moral enquiry.”

For MacIntyre, the tradition version of moral enquiry must understand itself in relation to scripture and to community — authorities which both encyclopedia and genealogy reject. It speaks with the voices of hermeneutics and theology. In contemporary North American universities, these voices have been heard most loudly within the field of religious studies, where genealogical suspicion toward “ethics” or “morals” never acquired the same degree of influence that it did in literary study, and where the Encyclopædists’ positivism does not rule as it does in sociology or economics. If MacIntyre is right, then the task of “doing ethics” may now fall primarily to us.

1 Discipline and Punish was Foucault’s suggestion for the English translation of his French book entitled Surveiller et punir.

Works cited
Aristotle. 1947 [4th century BCE]. “Nicomachean ethics,” trans. W.D. Ross. In Richard McKeon (ed.) Introduction to Aristotle. New York: Random House. 308-545.

Bullock, T.L. 1908-1926. “Ethics.” In James Hastings (ed.) Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 5. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons . 414-25.

Curran, Charles E. 1987. “Christian ethics.” In Mircea Eliade (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 3. New York: Macmillan. 341-8.

Encyclopædia Britannica. 2001. “Ethics.” Downloaded 4 Feb 2002 from http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=108566&tocid=0&query=ethics

Green, Ronald M. 1987. “Morality and religion.” In Mircea Eliade (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 10. New York: Macmillan. 92-106.

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. 1995 [1990]. “Ethics.” Ch. 27 in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (eds.) Critical Terms for Literary Study, second edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 387-405.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1984 [1981]. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, second edition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

—. 1990. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy and Tradition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1992 [1887]. “On the genealogy of morals: a polemic.” In Walter Kaufmann (ed. and trans.) Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: The Modern Library. 451-99.