Deleuze and the Ethical Life

In Deleuze and Interventionism the good father explored Deleuze’s opposition to the concept of universal moral laws. You may respond that without moral laws there is no way to identify acts as ethical or unethical. Deleuze recognized this problem in the political works he published with Felix Guattari. The pair was disturbed that “in renouncing moral laws we had the impression of depriving ourselves of any means of assessing the differences between actions, as if from now on everything was equally valid.” In response to this problem Deleuze proposed that we could evaluate our ethical behavior in three ways. 1) Do we strive to expand our capacities? 2) Do we engage in what the Stoics called “the care of the self?” 3) Do we affirm and embrace the conditions that confront us?

First, one’s ethical worth can be evaluated by our capacities to successfully engage with the world. These capacities and actions can be evaluated, not by their degree of proximity to or distance from an external moral law, but by their power to interact with an ever wider range of situations. These capacities might include languages, technical skills, interpersonal or political skills, knowledge of different ways of life, etc. Deleuze and Guattari took up this notion of an ethics of capabilities in their political works. Under what conditions, they asked, “can we be separated from our powers, or allow or actually desire that our powers be diminished?”  (Here it is important to note that Deleuze differentiated between two French words for power. He suggested we forego pouvoir which is the power of domination over another, and proposed that the we develop puissance; “the ability to affect and to be affected in multiple ways.”)

Secondly, ethical behavior can be assessed by considering how we develop ourselves in what Michel Foucault called the project of our life as a work of art. Foucault developed this concept from the early Stoics for whom “Ethics was not yet a business of calculation or logic”. Christianity developed a morality in which salvation was attained through the renunciation of the self. For the stoic Seneca, ethics was a practiced way of life; not a subservience to moral laws, but a project of self-formation, the care of the self, the “perfection of the soul.”  Foucault proposed ethics as an aesthetics of existence, ethics as “an exercise of the self on the self by which one attempts to develop and transform oneself.” This was done by meditating on how well or badly others navigated life and incorporating these lessons into our outlook and interactions.

The third evaluative approach, that of willing an affirmation, was developed from the Stoics’ and Nietzsche’s idea of ethics as “embracing that which occurs, being equal to the event, that is, meeting the event in a way that involves neither resignation nor ressentiment.” Deleuze did not suggest that we acquiesce without demurring to whatever comes our way. When we are confronted by power relations (pouvoir) which seek to limit our freedom, the ethical response is to face the event with a calm spirit “like a master who with one word hushes the growling of dogs.” We respond by owning and affirming our situation, using our extended capacities to develop new relations.                                        

2 thoughts on “Deleuze and the Ethical Life

  1. Ray

    “The pair was disturbed that ‘in renouncing moral laws we had the impression of depriving ourselves of any means of assessing the differences between actions, as if from now on everything was equally valid.’”

    They were quite right to be disturbed — and yet their proposed solution (with which I was unfamiliar until I read and reread this excellent post) strikes me as a little overcomplicated.

    It’s the conceptual faculty (which humans alone possess) that gives rise to universal moral laws — because it is the conceptual faculty that gives rise to the faculty of choice. The faculty of choice is what gives rise to good and bad behavior. The grizzly bear who mauls the innocent child isn’t evil. The man who mauls the innocent child is.

    “Moral law is just as real as human nature, within which it has its existence. Strange, indeed, if man alone of all living beings could realize his highest welfare in disregard of the principles of his own nature,” wrote professor Walter Goodnow Everett. “The things that nourish and give warmth and enhance life are deemed good, and those that frustrate and threaten are deemed bad.”

    1. father time Post author

      I think Deleuze would reply that he can’t fault your reasoning, but he would challenge your premises. The problem of ethics, for Deleuze, turns on the question of what is the subject. By this he means being as human; each of us as perceiving, acting individuals.

      An unfathomable volume of ink has been spilled on the ontology of the subject and perhaps even more on ethics and moral theory. There are any number of answers, I’m sure you have given this some thought and, as have many others, settled on a stance in which you have a strong belief.

      For Deleuze, as well as Whitehead, Bergson, and others, the subject is a process, a self-organizing system of becoming, composed of capacities and interfaces. The subject does not endure, but rather perdures: it exists as a series of events that perdure as a continually changing process. In this scenario, the ethical drive is to enhance the ability of the series to continue to grow in capacities to interact with an ever increasing number of entities, or other series. Deleuze thinks of this as adding new lines of flight, new routes of encounters.

      Everett subscribes to the “Boo-Hurrah” ethical theory, or emotivism, as proposed by A. J. Ayer: “That’s an act of saving a drowning child. Hurrah! That’s an act of gratuitous cruelty. Boo!” Thus situations that “frustrate and threaten” evoke negative emotions. This implies that we are governed by a metaphysical essence that stands behind all humans. It also implies a compilation of metaphysical moral laws which our essence constrains us to obey by triggering the correct, or essential, emotional response. When an individual’s emotional responses to the necessary moral laws are incorrect she is said to exhibit a dysfunctional moral compass.

      For Deleuze this idea of an enduring identity propped up by a governing metaphysical essence which stands behind us is mistaken. Our identity, if he would use such a term, is our perduring collection of capacities and connections. The unethical act is to use these capacities to territorialize, or exert power over, other series; to limit their ability to expand their capacities; to limit their lines of flight.

      I agree that Deleuze’s thought is certainly complicated in the sense of being difficult. It is also true that Deleuze’s philosophy is conceptually rich: it has a lot of moving parts and is thus clearly complex. Whether it is unnecessarily complex, in the sense of having a large set of unnecessary concepts is an open question. I would argue that his philosophy is composed of important concepts that are all felicitously joined.


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