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Are we facing an ethical vacuum today?

In Living in the End Times (Verso, 2010, p. 324), the man who has been described as the “most dangerous philosopher in the West” (New Republic), Slavoj Žižek, makes the following remark: “The task [today] is to restore civility, not a new ethical substance. Civility is not the same as custom (in the strong sense of Sittlichkeit, ‘mores’, that is, the substantial ethical base of our social activity) — civility, on the contrary, and to put it in somewhat simplified terms, supplements the lack or collapse of the substance of mores. Civility stands for custom (or, rather, what remains of custom) after the fall of the big Other [the conventionally accepted symbolic order at a specific historical juncture]: it assumes the key role when subjects encounter a lack of substantial ethics, in other words when they find themselves in predicaments which cannot be resolved by way of relying on the existing ethical substance. In such situations, one has to improvise and invent new rules ad hoc; but, to be able to do so — to have at one’s disposal the intersubjective space in which, through complex interaction, a solution can be agreed upon — the interaction has to be regulated by a minimum of civility. The more the ‘deep’ substantial ethical background is missing, the more a ‘superficial’ civility is needed”.

Žižek’s remark occurs in the context of a wide-ranging discussion of what Foucault dubbed the “ubuism” of power — from Ubu Roi (King Ubu), a 19th century play by Alfred Jarry, which satirises obscene power and greed, and raises the question, whether there could be a link between the crazy exercise of power and the kind of “freedom” that is not linked to any accountability.

As anyone familiar with Žižek’s work knows, he does not fail to inscribe this question in specific historical contexts (too many to deal with here). One of these is the unbelievable celebration, in Indonesia, of a group of killers behind the “ethnic cleansing” (murder) of about 2.5-million people during the 1960s, notwithstanding which they were not held accountable, and instead lionised on state television in 2007, where their leader, Anwar Congo, revealed that their deeds had been inspired by gangster movies (to the delight of the studio audience). What interests Žižek about this is the fact that Congo and his henchmen made no attempt to hide the gory particulars of their massacres; instead, they openly boasted about the way to rape a woman in the most enjoyable way, to cut a throat efficiently, and to strangle someone with a wire.

This brings one back to the question of an ethical vacuum today. “Here the ‘big Other’ [the symbolic framework within which “ethical” behaviour is situated] enters”, says Žižek (p. 323), “not only with the fact that the killers modeled their crimes on the cinematic imaginary, but also and above all with the fact of society’s moral vacuum: what kind of symbolic texture (the set of rules which draw a line between what is publicly acceptable and what is not) must a society be composed of if even a minimal level of public shame — which would compel the perpetrators to treat their acts as a ‘dirty secret’ — is suspended, and such a monstrous orgy of torture and killing can be publicly celebrated decades after it took place, and not even as an extraordinary crime necessary for the public good, but as an ordinary acceptable pleasurable activity?”

His next words are crucial for understanding what is going on here (p. 323): “The response to be avoided here is, of course, the easy one of placing the blame either directly on Hollywood or on the ‘ethical primitiveness’ of Indonesia. The starting point should rather be the dislocating effects of capitalist globalisation which, by undermining the ‘symbolic efficacy’ of traditional ethical structures, creates such a moral vacuum”.

Žižek’s amusing discussion of the bizarre behaviour of Italy’s Berlusconi as another illustration of the obscene consequences of power, combined with the freedom not to be accountable — this time in the shape of a melting pot of private business interests and politics — need not be pursued at length here. What I want to argue, is that one has seen, and is increasingly witnessing, the manifestation of precisely such an ethical vacuum here in South Africa; in the horrific recent murder of two toddlers at Diepsloot, for example — something that would have been far less likely to happen in a cultural context where traditional ethical structures still exercise a decisive influence.

Further light is cast on this issue by the work done by Foucault (in I, Pierre Riviére, having slaughtered my mother…; Bison Books, 1982) and his seminar group on the Pierre Riviére dossier dating back to 1835. All the court documents on the appalling multiple murder, by the young peasant, of his mother, brother and sister, together with an exceptionally eloquent memoir by Riviére himself (despite his rudimentary education), formed the basis of the critical essays by Foucault and members of his group in this book.

They show that Riviére’s memoir became an arena where emerging, competing modern discourses such as the juridical and the psychiatric confronted each other in an attempt to demarcate their respective domains of “power-knowledge” and establish their own legitimacy (1982:x-xi). Regarding Riviére’s act of murder, however, the following remark by Edith Kurzweil (reprinted on the back cover of Foucault 1982) testifies to the significance of the fact that this case was set in an historical context characterised by major social changes: “For Foucault, Riviere provides the ‘excuse’ to examine power structures and social institutions, to question the scientificity of medical science, and to delineate the chaos of values and beliefs, of knowledge and power as it existed 150 years ago — a chaos we have not yet eliminated”.

What strikes one as being different today, compared to the early 19th century, is that the Riviére case was set at the time when some of the major discursive constituents of modernity were struggling for recognition; a time which had turned (or at least tried to turn) its back on religious “superstition”, as Baumer puts it (Modern European Thought, MacMillan 1977: 314-323). By contrast, the present, “postmodern” era is characterised, on the one hand, by a proliferation of discursive pluralism and cultural eclecticism, and on the other by the fact that the dominant discourse among all of these is that of globalising, neoliberal capitalism — something Žižek also notes.

The effect of this is precisely what the events in Indonesia, referred to earlier, illustrate so well, corroborated by Kurzweil’s remark, that there is “a chaos [of values and beliefs] we have not yet eliminated” — a chaos brought about by the ongoing uprootment of ethical practices by a globalising economic system which does not recognise any traditional ethical contexts, imposing a symbolic framework that valorises excessive consumption and the individualistic pursuit of material wealth in the place of communal values instead. Is it at all surprising that people seem to become morally disoriented and lose their ethical bearings in this situation?

Violent outbursts of frustration and anger in the face of violent events that seem to surpass comprehension are understandable, but they get us nowhere. “What is needed instead”, says Žižek (p. 327), “is the act proper: a symbolic intervention capable of undermining the big Other (the hegemonic social link), of re-arranging its coordinates”. Until this happens, the slaughter is bound to continue.

For a sustained exploration of this theme, see my paper,”Discourse, agency and the question of evil”. South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 22 (4), December 2003, pp. 329-348.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Maria Maria 20 October 2013

    Here’s another perspective on the way neoliberal capitalism is impacting on, and consequently changing society, this time as far as the lives of women are concerned. Renowned feminist and critical theorist, Nancy Fraser, analyzes the effect of capitalism on women’s solidarity, and society’s consequent loss:

  2. K1d K1d 20 October 2013

    aside, but REAL, my heart to the innocent toddlers
    & all those others who are prey to what the wurrld insists on loading on us
    without the control of due & true discouragement / recourse !
    As fahr as i wish,
    there are no Customs applicable to so much of the (apparently-huh) aberrant behaviour surrounding us. Who needs this ReaLity.

    The ethic “winner takes all-” ,
    has not changed but it has been altered by two additional words; ” of ALL”.
    This of course is unsustainable, for how does man retain humanity in the face of such completely encompassing misuse of act
    > and then what is a rEAl sustainable “act proper”
    which could lead to a trUth to negate this concept of winning..

    (pls allow a small paraphrase, excuse = no nu nuances since the dawn)
    when they kick in your front door
    how y’gonna come
    with your hands in the air
    or on the trigger of your gun

    ? Dislocate, or engage in an equal &/or opposite Reaction – the result cannot be allowed to be based on a nebulous potentially pleasurable outcome ~even revenge
    ethical “evolution”
    dwarfs & encompasses any other set of choices ahead of the ever changing
    human id. SO !!! )don’t just( HOPE )act(

    thanks Bert.
    “killing as art”-ex’d forthwith, b4 it kills our souls.

  3. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 21 October 2013

    If indeed the dominant discourse can be called capitalism, it’s one of state capitalism. This is in the proud tradition of central planning, mercantilism and with the explicit involvement of the state to keep things in tact, if not anointing winners and losers in the market, while simultaneously being an active participant and outright nationalising certain key industries.

    To drive the point home, the recent financial crisis is viewed as a failure of ‘unfettered capitalism’ and the overwhelming consensus is that we want a free market but not a really free market in the laissez-faire capitalist sense, since the state has to ensure certain checks and balances. Neoliberalism has not moved towards laissez-faire (for better or worse).

    I do however agree that there’s an ethical vacuum. With such ambiguity, is there any surprise that there’s an ethical vacuum?

    There’s a distinct double standard, whereby it’s OK for people who perform hideous crimes in the name of the collective, but it’s not OK for people to perform perceived similar crimes in the name of self-interest.

    Burlesconi’s behaviour inevitable in such a milieu. His values and beliefs are subject to approval by the peanut gallery, which is why his behaviour and his public statements are frequently contradictory. This is the same for our local politicians too, especially the populists like Malema and Roodt

  4. Tofolux Tofolux 21 October 2013

    @Bert, the ethical vacuum has never been as obvious as we see it today. Noting the advent of the us govt shutdown wasnt it ironic that all media did was question the debt ceiling and yet not one word about America’s debt. Now that is odd. If morality, values or ethics was at the centre or heart of everything we do, we would not have seen apartheid and the continued apartheid like practises we see in SA today. Now that is a complete lack of ethics. If we practised what is at question here, how is it that we are not questioning the conduct of america to knowingly and wilfully seek to plunge the World into a recession crisis and despair. No, not one word from any newspaper or journalist. If there was any iota of ethics, why are whistleblowers eg Snowden and Assange persecuted by usa without a trial of without the opportunity of putting their case? Not only has the value of Snowden’s whistleblowing aided many countries eg Germany, Brazil, India of guarding themselves against unwarranted spying by america and england it seems that the amount of interest spent on our own info bill disappeared with the evidence produced of invasion of citizens privacy. Where are the ethics of the civil groups in our country when they cried privacy and invasion of govt? We have clearly arrived at a particular juncture where one must call on those who claim to have ethics, or morals or values to declare their particular allegiance. I say this because ethics or morality cannot be selective.

  5. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 21 October 2013

    Bert – I think we must keep a sense of proportion and if that is out of place in circumstances as horrible as this, then at least entertain some degree of scepticism for ready-made answers, from whichever direction they come.

    When an invading culture destroys the old, a dilution or breakdown of traditional values and taboos follows, of course, but this has always been part of the human condition and is unlikely ever to change unless we somehow were to become homogenized.

    As to it signaling ‘ethical vacuums’, we forget the vast majority of humanity go perfectly peacefully about their daily lives without experiencing any such thing. The world would not work at all if it were otherwise. This is not to accept complacently hideous crimes, but to see that one simple explanation for them is not likely to cover all cases.

    Ineradicable convictions are a prison, I read somewhere recently. A thought to bear in mind, I think.

  6. bernpm bernpm 22 October 2013

    @Paul Whelan: “When an invading culture destroys the old, a dilution or breakdown of traditional values and taboos follows, of course, ”

    I have tried to introduce the UBUNTU “culture” as displaced by the Western culture in Africa as an example of your comment.


  7. J.J. J.J. 22 October 2013

    Yes, this is a global phenomenon – it has to do with the times we live in – every individual person will need to redefine (or define for the first time, if they haven’t done so properly) his/her morals and ethics and start living by them – or be swept up/away/along with the complete collapse of morals, values and ethics as we know them. All the structures which used to define morals and ethics have collapsed in the sense of holding any authority, e.g. religion, strong (local/domestic ) culture, spirituality, state as a “moral force”, etc.

    Values and ethics are now driven by the media. They are decided for us. We simply adapt as we go along – and so what used to be unacceptable becomes acceptable. The result over time is to lose the ability to distinguish between wrong and right – anything/everything goes – and when all is acceptable we don’t resist anything or criticize anything or stand for anything:

    = The collapse of civilization.

  8. J.J. J.J. 22 October 2013

    We are in the Liminal Space

    A dangerous place

    Where predators lay

    and tricksters play

    Where good people pray

    then look away

    Though shalt not enter the fray

    Bless the lambs who are slain

    It is not our pain

    They are weak

    We are strong

    Nothing is wrong

    Power is principle

    Principles have no power

    Virtue has no value

    Values have no virtue

    Ethics are not up to you

    Right is left

    Left was wrong

    Orwell wasn’t right

    Huxley won’t be correct

    Just forget

    Always project

    Don’t reflect

    War is peace

    Peace is war

    Pacifists we abhor

    Comfort is king

    Effort isn’t cool

    Take shortcuts you fool

    Thinking is old school

    These are the new rules

    Here I shall stay

    It’s all about play

    Don’t rock my boat

    I am well afloat

    I won’t get my coat

    Where would I go

    Away from the glow

    Of my own ego

    All is fine below

    With my shadow

    There is nothing to face

    I shall not introspect

    I will just express

    the politically correct

    Remain circumspect

    Moral demise or mass malaise

    We couldn’t care less

    Regression is progression

    Progression is possession

    There is nothing to confess

    On the Titanic we shall stay

    hear the band play

    Conscience long away

    deferred hell to pay

    Tomorrow is another day

    This is our Dystopian Utopia

    A Myopic Cornucopia


    By J.J. © 2013. All Rights Reserved.

  9. J.J. J.J. 22 October 2013

    Individualism strives for the Ultimate Freedom. In today’s world the Ultimate Freedom is considered to be freedom from responsibility. The ultimate freedom, once embraced, rejects all responsibility accept responsibility for the self/the individual. “Me-Culture”. It’s a false freedom, but it’s intoxicating and seems utterly convincing. This is related to “The Will To Pleasure” (The Pleasure Principle – Sigmund Freud), which seems to have won out in the end.

  10. J.J. J.J. 22 October 2013

    “Maturity is learning to endure the pain of deferred gratification when reality requires it. Freud argued that “an ego thus educated has become ‘reasonable’; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle, which also, at bottom, seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed and diminished”
    – ^ Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures 16.357.
    Quoted from:

    We have stopped taking account of reality as Western Society has become infantilised in it’s seeking pleasure (wealth, status, enjoyment, comfort, ease, convenience, less hard work, PLEASURE) – we do not progress to maturity any more and when we (already) have maturity, we lose it – we let go of it.
    Observe the interactions of “mature individuals” (of all ages) on social networking sites.

    “Regression is progression”

    So, do we really care about all the violence and mayhem in the world? Not really – especially when its far away – even if logic would dictate that those problems could eventually come our way. As long as our immediate environment is safe and comfortable. Other than that it’s social networking and promoting the self all the way… How many people care for “deep thoughts” or contemplating the world’s problems? Never mind seeking solutions. All responsibilities have been outsourced.
    All we have to do…

  11. J.J. J.J. 22 October 2013

    …is Enjoy Life.

  12. Neil Neil 22 October 2013

    I would just like to add that I think the unavoidable moral implications of Darwinism are having an impact as well.

    If you keep telling people they are just complicated monkeys, don’t be surprised when they act like them.

  13. Neil Neil 22 October 2013

    Lastly, Žižek would do well to avoid introducing his ‘civility’ into a moral debate.

    In this instance it seems like just another moral one group will hold to and one will not, and will fall by it’s own assertions, based on each individuals value system and moral compass.

    Once again the philosopher fails to see that no matter what, you cannot prove satisfactorily that another persons actions are immoral, uncivil or base without holding them accountable to your own set of ‘beliefs’.

    It’s the big ol my morals are better/more important than your morals stalemate all over again.

  14. Maria Maria 22 October 2013

    Neil, you don’t get it, do you? Žižek’s position is not the relativist one you describe. As a psychoanalytical theorist, he knows language has all the conceptual resources to enable one to universalize regarding certain ethical principles, for example the incest taboo and murder (which are prohibited in every human society except perhaps for what most people would call murder in cannibalist societies). Habermas acknowledges this universalist status of language, too, as did Mead before him. What Žižek is arguing for, is the interim “use” of civility as a minimum condition, until a new symbolic horizon can take the place of the bankrupt one of capitalism.

  15. Chris2 Chris2 22 October 2013

    It is true that essentially criminal behaviour is sometimes glorified in the media and particularly in entertainment. In as far as the message is ‘crime sometimes pays exceedingly well’ in stead of ‘crime does not pay’ it may help undermine the ethics of the audience, causing taboo behaviour to be seen more equivocally. Being able to question one’s convictions and come to the rational conclusion that they are actually warranted, might be enlightening for many.
    In some minds, finding a small crack somewhere might lead to a wholesale rejection of the inherited ethics bundle. Another problem is that the ethics void may be filled with extremist dogma by skilled propagandists as has happened and is still happening in the islamic madrassas in Pakistan and elsewhere. The disquieting fact is that even some academically qualified people are apparently not immune and have, for instance, participated in suicide terror attacks. Was it not Kant that feared that the Enlightenment would subvert the Christian ethics of the population? In fact, concerted nationalistic prattle (even from pulpits) prepared the nations for the horrific conflagrations of the 20th century world wars. On average, particularly among the more enlightened nations, man today shows more empathy and has apparently become less cruel, although freer from dogmatic straightjackets of the past. (Time will tell if it is a passing phase). The quoted examples represent more or less extreme cases, not the norm.

  16. J.J. J.J. 23 October 2013

    Civility is not morality. It substitutes morality and ethics (when there is a lack of it/when it is not functional/when it is lacking). Civility is needed to have civilization. How do we set ourselves apart from animals otherwise? Civility is “social rules” setting boundaries for actions (without boundaries we are “feral”).

  17. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 23 October 2013

    Darwinism also implies survival of the fittest, which implies morals and values that ensure fitness for survival. This suggests a component directly relative to the current environment, while also suggesting a focus on the long term survival of not only the individual complicated monkeys, but also the species as a whole – and concern for its environment.

    Telling people that they’re just ‘complicated monkeys’ is not inaccurate in biological terms, but it’s also necessary to consider the complicated part along with the monkey part. There are tomes written on how effective survival strategies involve cooperation, plus even more teleological tomes on how this came to be by means of evolutionary mechanisms.

    It’s however not true to suggest that our moral compass is entirely determined by public discourse. If it were, the guys who are always in the spotlight, like Žižek and Chomsky, would have far greater influence. People say one thing but tend to do something else entirely. Both of those writers are completely reliant on the structures they criticise so vehemently and cannot afford to cut the umbilical cord. They’re not ‘fit for survival’ in the complicated monkey sense, but they are acting exactly like creatures of comfort in the complicated monkey sense would act, despite their misgivings.

  18. Richard Richard 23 October 2013

    Is this all valid, though? Look at the Nazis, who were, after all socialists, and avowedly anti-capitalist, and their atrocities. More recently, think of Rwanda. In neither of those was global capitalism the cause (only in the case of Nazi Germany, and that was only in an ironic sense, if I might use such a term for such a grotesque). I think there might be a correlation with capitalism (after all, our times are characterised by it) but that does not necessarily imply a causative relationship, at least not for massacres of the sort described above. Civility and massacres are not really flip sides of the same coin. Murdering en masse is not simply the opposite of civility!

    As to civility, I think Žižek is correct, in that it does demonstrate the social “oil” that helps us get along, and consequently when society is sufficiently fractured, that oil replaces what C.S. Lewis might have described as the “Deep Magic” of cultural life. However, if parts of society do not care for the smooth operation of the commonweal – say they might put their own interests first and not think the interests of others impact upon them – such civility seems unimportant. To such people the stick rather than the carrot is what matters. Think of apartheid South Africa: as power-holders, white Afrikaners weren’t generally civil to blacks. Civility matters most where coercion is not used (but will also always play second-fiddle to idiopathic cultural forces).

  19. Matoro Matoro 23 October 2013

    How did Man regressively devolve from Darwin to Auschwitz to Anwar Congo Man. Homo sapiens sapien seems to be at what Ervin Laszlo describe as “The Chaos Point” lapsing into a pre-Axial phase vide Jaspers and “mentally unbalanced predator endowed with vigour and destructive aggressive instincts (Cartmill in de Waal, Frans, 2003 “Response to Robert Proctor’s ‘Three Roots of Human Recency: Molecular Anthropology, the Refined Acheulean, and the UNESCO Response to Auschwitz”, Current Anthropolgy44.
    Darwin’s “The Descent of Man, and Selection in relation to Sex” (1981) is worth a revisit. For Darwin “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals and their mental facilities”. In the second chapter of “The Descent of Man”, Darwin discusses how animals and humans share emotions, attention, and even memories. He saw imagination, however, as one of the “highest prerogatives of Man”. Darwin was very clear; however, about what really seemed to be unique about humans. “Of all the faculties of the human mind, it will, I presume, be admitted that REASON stands at the summit”.
    In his discussion of allegedly unique human traits Darwin finally focuses on MORAL SENSE or CONSCIENCE, which he clearly regarded as the most important characteristic regarding difference between humans and lower animals. The moral sense “is summed up in that short but imperious word OUGHT, so full of high significance. It is the most noble of all the attributes of man, leading him…

  20. Neil Neil 23 October 2013

    Sure, but who describes what ‘civility’ means and what a basic ‘civility’ must be for every human being?

    You can’t unless you use morals and beliefs that are deep set in YOUR own religion or philosophy or whatever it is you have used to determine it.

    I think it’s perfectly civil to kill people who oppose me. (I don’t really but you can see my point better this way)

  21. Neil Neil 23 October 2013

    Sorry to double post.

    In order for you to hold me to the ‘civility’ that you have defined, you must play the ‘my civility trumps yours’ card, and once again, the stand-off.

    The real answer here is, and once again, WHO”s civility do we choose? Who’s set of morals will create the best all-encompassing freedoms for all people?

    That must then be forced.

  22. Neil Neil 23 October 2013

    This is fun.

    His assertion reminds me of Roherty and the other pragmatists. It fails because it is fundamentally hypocritical and people see through it.

    Civility as described above falls in the same boat for me.

  23. J.J. J.J. 23 October 2013

    “Rules” for civility are usually universally defined within a cultural context and cultures develop those rules over centuries.

    When we lose/have lost our culture (or don’t have a very defined one, or the historical roots were/have been severed or disrupted through migration from other lands, etc), we start getting confused about “who says what my or your civility should be”, circular questions/arguments – this comes back to the “everything goes” mentality – and the will to: freedom without responsibility.

    Cultures world-wide have become diluted.

    The only culture some of us have (left) is “media-culture”.

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