What We Talked About At ISA: The God Complex – Biopolitical Ethics

The paper I presented at the ISA is part of a larger project in which I look at the ways in which ethics, in the context of certain political practices, is saturated with biopolitical rationalities. The (re)surfacing and framing of hitherto morally prohibited practices – torture, extraordinary rendition, extrajudicial assassinations – as justifiable, legitimate and even necessary acts of violence, paired with rapidly advancing and increasingly autonomous military technologies that facilitate these practices, has opened new dimensions and demands for considering just what kind of ethics is used to justify these violent modalities. I’m specifically frustrated by the emerging narrative of the use of drones for targeted killing practices in the interminable fight against terror as a ‘wise’ and ‘ethical’ weapon of warfare. The prevalence of utility, instrumentality and necessity in this consideration of ethics strikes me as dubious and worthy of a closer look. This keeps leading me again and again to the perhaps foolhardy, but inevitable question: what, actually, IS ethics? And more specifically: what is ethics in a biopolitically informed socio-political (post)modern context? My quest for an answer begins with the growing divergence in scholarship and philosophical inquiry of the ethicality of ethics, or meta-ethics on one hand, and practical conceptions of ethics, applied ethics, on the other.

It has been noted by philosophers and scholars across geographical and disciplinary divides, that, in recent years, there has been a growing focus in philosophical and political thought on the application of moral and ethical principles rather than the “ethicality” of ethics itself. This trend is particularly widespread in Anglo-American philosophy, and manifests itself in the striking surge of applied ethics as a subfield of ethics, which considers the chief role of ethics to be that of providing a practical guide for moral agents, based on rational analysis, scientific inquiry and technological expertise. In other words, considerations of ethics have become preoccupied with establishing practicalities and ways of application. While the practical side of ethics should, of course, not be dismissed, the domineering focus on ethics’ practicality over considerations of meta-ethics, or the ethicality of ethics, occludes any deeper engagement with what ethics actually is, how moral content is established and how we can understand ethics in modernity as something beyond a mere set of context specific norms and legal regulations, as something other than laws and codes. To make sense of this preoccupation with ethics’ practicalities, it is worthwhile to consider how ethics might, in fact, be determined by the characteristics of a specific form of society. This brings me back to the biopolitical rationalities with which (post)modern societies are infused.

The very turn toward applied and practical ethics is, I argue, in itself biopolitically anchored whereby the shift of life into the centre of politics, paired with the technological and scientific capacities for the mathematization of life plays a crucial role, not only in the politicisation of zoe, but also in the zoeficiation of politics – the conception of politics in terms of organic life processes. Both are strands of biopolitical rationalities at work in current political practices and facilitate specific ethical narratives for the justification of acts of political violence.

Code as Ethics – Ethics as Code

Where ethics is considered in its practical and applicable aspects, the assumption that ethics, as right or wrong behaviour, can be ascertained and secured becomes paramount. Here, the role of the human as a biopolitical subject is crucial. It is the calculability of the human self, and the human other, in her physiology, biology and psychology that allows for a consideration of ethics in terms of biologically, physiologically, neurologically and psychologically established norms of right and wrong and that inform the perspective that ethics can and ought to provide solutions to calculable problems. It presumes, that the human can reliably be scientifically captured to more accurately give content to practical moral reasoning. In short, it gives credence to the priority of the scientific basis of the biological, psychological and neurological human to establish ‘accurate’ ethical content, ignoring the intrinsically plural, aleatory and uncertain character of the human in her socio-political environment and context, let alone the status quo of science to date as being unable to reliably provide any stable account of human nature. However, it is this calculability that paves the way for ethics to be considered as a possibility for securing right and wrong. It is this calculability also that obscures the investigation into the meaning of ethics with a preoccupation of applying a defined set of principles in the encounter with the other in a socio-political context of alterity. Ethics becomes a quest for certainty that the right thing can be, and is, done in the respective fields of application; that wrong behaviour is curbed, if not eliminated, through the prescription of rules, frameworks, codes, which specify and enshrine how to behave the ‘right’ way. Ethics becomes politicised, whereby, as Bayertz notes, applied ethics is understood as part of society’s problem-solving process. In a biopolitically informed society, such politicised ethics cannot but also fall under the sway of biopolitical rationalities.

Some of these biopolitical underpinnings and the desire to make an ascertainable science out of ethics are best exemplified in the biological determinism discourses that seek to mitigate the indeterminability of ethics and want to secure the “success of ethics” in the ability to predict and prevent. In his influential work on biological sciene, E. O. Wilson examines the “biological roots” of ethical behaviour and goes as far as to suggest that, in fact, the inquiry into ethics ought to be removed as a study of philosophy and become a “branch of biological science” in order to ground ethics in a “foundation of verifiable knowledge of human nature sufficient to produce cause-and-effect predictions”. Predictable ethics.

Wilson’s pursuit to ground ethics in a biological foundation so as to make it ascertainable, if not predictable is, perhaps, the extreme manifestation of the problematic of ethics in a biopolitical modernity, but, with its focus on biological underpinnings as a determinant of human behaviour, epitomizes the desire to render the human and her actions calculable, as a member of a definable species, in the search for certainty and predictability. New neurological investigations into the mental working of the human brain emphasise this drive. The can of worms that is the potentially ensuing philosophical debates on ethics and responsibility when science claims that there might, after all, not be such a thing as free will is sizeable. And it has already been opened.

Recent technological developments in warfare and military affairs echo the desire to render ethics not only finite but concretely definable and thus predicable and benefit from considerations such as Wilson’s. Academics and practitioners in the field of military technology, Ronald Arkin, roboticist at Georgia Tech fervently leading the way, are currently considering not only the very ethics of the use of lethal robotics to substitute the human in warfare but also the possibility of creating a formulized ‘ethics’ that can be implemented into military robotic structures, via an ethics module, with the lofty goal to allow robots to kill more humanely than humans, seeking to eliminate the messy unpredictability of the oh-so-fallible human. Such a perspective of ethics, one that is based on scientific formulation and codes, turns the notion of what it means to act ethically into a universalizing set of guidelines (residing in the functionality of the human, transposed onto the post-human plane), so as to make ethical behaviour, specifically in the context of war, certain.

The quest for being able to ascertain with certainty the rightness or wrongness of a solution to an ethical dilemma reflects a determination to limit, if not eradicate, the very aleatory nature of human life. By searching to prescribe ethical principles to an abstracted set of instances and occurrences, the contingent character of the encounter with another is disregarded in the assumption that ethical dilemmas can be resolved. When we understand ethics, with Levinas and others, as arising from the encounter with the, or an-other, which neither threatens to punish nor promises a reward, but simply triggers, by their sheer presence and co-existence in a specific context, an ethical moment, the decision to act ethically arises ever anew. And it is precisely in this very moment of the ethical decision that the actual indeterminacy of ethics resides; in the impossibility to know the right decision lies the very possibility for ethics, not ethics a following rules and guidelines, but as responsibility. Here, Derrida is helpful

If I know what I must do, I do not take a decision, I apply knowledge, I unfold a program. For there to be a decision, I must not know what to do … The moment of decision, the ethical moment, if you will, is independent from knowledge. It is when I don’t know the right rule that the ethical question arises. (Derrida 2004 cited in Raffoul 2008)

In other words, the ethical decision, contrary to modern aspirations of applying ethical principles as ethical laws (universal or otherwise), arises from a status of non-knowledge. It is the encounter with the other that not only bestows an implicit vulnerability on the other, but also a certain vulnerability of the self in being unable to know, to ascertain, to have certainty. For such ethical decision to occur authentically, one must thus accept the very fallibility of man. And in the acceptance of this fallibility responsibility can exist.

In this perspective of ethics, the ethical decision maker finds herself in a moment of uncertainty, which arises ever anew, with each new ethical decision. The potential ‘fallibility’ of the decision maker in each ethical decision is in tension with the perception of man as controllable, calculable and utilizable entity within project mankind. It is, however, only in the biopolitical context of man (and the species) understood as a calculable and mathematisable being that the notion of ‘fallibility’, ‘failure’ and ‘error’ of the human can emerge in the first place and ethics and moral acts can be framed in terms of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. Considering ethics in terms of correct guidelines for a universal ethics, grounded in the quasi-scientific formulation of the biology, psychology and technology of man, delimits the recognition of ethics as the unique and momentary encounter that requires us to take responsibility for this encounter with the other rather than refer to a pre-established set of applicable rules, which can then be framed in terms of ‘success’ and ‘failure. The second aspect of a biopolitically informed ethics follows on from the first; from the mandate of prediction follows the mandate of prevention.

Ethical prophylaxis

It was this time of year, in 2012, when John Brennan – now CIA Director, then Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser – launched his campaign to make the drone the most ethical military killing machine there ever was when he claimed that drones are not only adhering to all aspects of the laws of armed conflict, but are the wise and ethical choice for warring with terrorists. Cloaking his defense of the drone in medical language he claimed: “It’s this surgical precision – the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumour called an Al-Qaida terrorist, while limiting damage to the tissue around it – that make [drones] so essential.” Dr. med. USA, stepping in to save humanity.

Increasingly, medical metaphors have come to serve as a means to assess (diagnose) what is wrong within a body politic and what can and ought to be done to remedy the ill. The biopolitical language in which societal assessments are couched is rife with pathologising terms such as sick and healthy, diagnoses and remedies, cancer and cure, prophylaxis and prevention. In August of 2011, shortly after the London riots in which mostly underprivileged parts of the UK capital suffered the consequences of the rioting acts, PM David Cameron framed the problem precisely in such biopolitical terms when he diagnosed society as being “not just broken, [but] sick” (Cameron 2011). In his public statements following the riots, Cameron laments at various points the decay of moral behaviour and the sickness of certain pockets of society. In his value judgement, the behaviour displayed by the rioting public was one of immoral (diseased) behaviour, which must be met with whichever means necessary, including physical violence. It thus is only controllable, pre-determined ‘healthy’ behaviour that is deemed moral behaviour and all other forms of action that do not meet such standards are deemed unhealthy elements that society must be cured of. This cure, Cameron emphasises, certainly includes “first and foremost … a security fight-back”, greater show of sovereign strength and tougher physical measures if need be. Cue: water cannons.

Medical language is also increasingly used in discussions on interventions and military engagements in various theatres of conflict. Even in JWT discourses, Cecile Fabre refers to medical consent / patient consent in her analysis of the justification for intervention and Ban Ki Moon in his five year plan on ‘The Future We Want’ speaks of prevention as being better than cure in an interventionist context. The same rationale is strongly reflected in a 2010 article penned by battlefield officers Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell and Capt. Mark Hagerott, published in Foreign Policy with the indicative title: “Curing Afghanistan”. In the article Caldwell and Hagerott draw a concrete analogy between a country in crisis and an ailing patient and liken Afghanistan to “a weakened person under attack by an aggressive infection” and play out the medical metaphor in great detail. In other words, Caldwell and Hagerott explain the logic of the counterinsurgency activities in Afghanistan by connoting their own position with that of a doctor, better yet, a surgeon, and the Taliban and insurgents with a diseased element, an infection of an organism, whereby military action depicts the necessary course of antibiotics.

While terms such as “surgical strike” have often been interpreted as being a rhetorical device serving to present the typically messy and erratic nature of warring in a more hygienic and controllable light, making war more palatable to the wider (unaffected) public, it betrays an underlying biopolitical mind set in contemporary politics. Such metaphors are not neutral in their cognitive power. They are, as Fabio De Leonardis notes, not merely a figure of speech and effective rhetorical device, but more so a “figure of thought” depicts the object rather than representing it. This has the capacity to create a reality whereby a similarity between two otherwise not similar concepts can be established and manifested. It is through the use of such specific metaphors that the (ethical) logos of a certain socio-political form is disclosed and circulated. Premised on a form of anthropomorphism – the state as physician, mankind as the patient – this manifests the perspective of society, in the wider sense, as corpus organicus, as De Leonardis terms it, that relies on the expertise of the physician-ruler to gain or re-gain health. The medical narrative combines knowledge with authority and thus functions effortlessly as a moralising principle in modern society preoccupied with the rationalisation and application of ethics.

Biopolitically informed ethics hold a number of challenges as an adequate framework for understanding the ethics of political violence today. They enable the prevalence of codes as ethics, on one hand, and facilitate the framing of political acts of violence in terms of medical necessity on the other, thus potentially lifting such acts from the realm of thorough ethical evaluation. Understanding ethics as a highly rationalized framework securing the rightness or wrongness of the conduct of humans, striving for predictability, is limited and limiting for a comprehensive consideration of ethics, specifically in light of practices emerging which run the risk of slipping into an ethical no-man’s-land, whereby ethics and law become confused as one. The problem is not codes of ethics per se or codes as law, but rather the reduction of the understanding of ethics as code and regulation normalizes something that cannot be normalized for its aleatory and inherently contingent nature.

To more thoroughly consider the ethics of certain acts of political violence today it is worth keeping in mind the vast potentiality of humans in a socio-political context. As Bauman so insightfully notes: “Any society is the togetherness of potentially moral beings. But a society may be a greenhouse of morality, or a barren soil …”. Methinks, more thinking about what ethics IS, is in order.


6 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: The God Complex – Biopolitical Ethics

  1. As one of my professors explained: “ethics describes what we ought to do, rhetorics describes what we want to do and psychology what we actually are doing”. The modern scientific approach to ethics have shifted from mere speculation to a more thorough investigation of human nature. However, ethics have almost always been treated as scientific despite lack of evidence. Ethics is not a mature system to be referred to as a set of laws bound to belief. Politics may in time even find a way to see ideology, religion and philosophy as theories and not as speculative facts.


  2. This is an interesting piece. I’m all for a bit of meta-ethical critique, and challenging the idea that ethics can be reduced to a simple set of proscriptions. However, as someone with some familiarity with what you call the “Anglo-American” approach to applied ethics, I feel I your characterisation of the field as operating under a biopolitical desire to rationalise everything is deeply unsubtle and uncharitable.

    Consider your characterization of applied ethics as a field which begins with the “assumption that ethical dilemmas can be resolved.” This is plainly false. Much applied ethics, normally of a ‘pluralist’ or Rossian stripe, holds that there may be no fact of the matter about what the right thing to do is where several equally weighty duties conflict. Often authors in applied ethics simply clarify which values are at stake, throwing the responsibility for a decision of the relative importance of these these values back onto the subjects who are involved in the situation. Likewise, neo-aristotelian virtue theorists (like Rosalind Hursthouse) specifically incorporate moral (and tragic) dilemmas into their moral schema – and their are long discussions in the literature on what kind of responses, of regret or shame, virtuous actors might have to their actions in such situations. Whilst its true that consequentialist understandings of ethics reject the possibility of moral dilemmas, they are often thought to be impoverished precisely for that reason.

    The claim that applied ethics seeks to eliminate moral dilemmas is particularly unsupportable with respect to the literature on political violence – where many different voices highlight the inescapability of situations where all courses of action are impermissible. Micheal Walzer, Tony Coady, Bernard Williams, and a long list of minor lights all argue along these lines. (As an aside, those who don’t hold a ‘messy’ view of morality – like Jeff McMahan – are often radical responsibilists, in the sense that they believe each individual subject must take responsibility for their on-the-ground participation in an unjust war – even if they operate in roles as servants of the state. Which, phenomologically at least, is closer to Levinas and Derrida’s responsibility to the Other than you might think).

    The general point about resisting the codification of ethics is great, and a welcome critique of some understandings of just war theory…but your claim that this stems from some broader biopoliticisation of ethics just isn’t supported from what I know of the literature.


    • I think this is a really useful point – though in part because most of the figures and lines of thought you point to are relatively dissident within the broadly analytical tradition of anglo-american philosophy. The pluralist and neo-virtue ethicists do share aspects of Elke’s critique but there’s still a really dominant strain of philosophical ethics that does pursue ethics on the kind of model she critiques. One of the more interesting questions is how the dissident (for lack of a better label) tradition of ethical thinking in Anglo-American philosophy can be brought into conversation with continental thinkers.


      • Are these strands of thought relatively dissident though? According to the recent survey of the profession by Chalmers and Bourget, there was a more or less even split between consequentialists, deontologists, virtue ethicists and a catch-all ‘other’ category (which included mostly pluralist options such as accepting all three approaches, accepting an intermediate approach, or believing there was no fact of the matter). Whilst we can’t deduce from these results the position of each respondent with respect to moral dilemmas and moral particularism/principilism, we can infer that the pluralists and virtue ethicists are highly likely to be sympathetic to both moral dilemmas and moral particularism. Additionally, deontologists are likely to recognise the possibility (and immense difficulty) of responding to moral dilemmas (the ‘dirty hands’ problem coming straight out of deontological discussions of just war). Its hard to say that any one of these approaches is ‘dominant’…

        Whilst there is much to be gained from a conversation between continental and Anglo-American ethicists on the subject of political violence, it’s fatuous to construct and then deconstruct a strawman of the very literature you are seeking to engage with…Much better to actually engage with, and cite, the specific authors or papers where biopolitical rationality exerts its influence, rather than claim (without evidence) that the field as a whole is labouring under the assumption that human behaviour is totally calculable and ethical behaviour is simply a matter of applying a set of abstract rules to certain situations.


    • Hi Everyone,

      This sounds like a really thought-provoking set of discussions. I would love to submit a paper for a panel discussion at ISA in the future on the topic of biopolitical ethics. My dissertation focuses on the biopolitics of the U.S. soldier’s injured body and I am also engaging these ethical questions. It is great to learn of your research here and to come across this very interesting blog.

      Brianne Gallagher
      Doctoral Candidate, University of Hawaii at Manoa


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