Alain Badiou's Ethics An Essay on the Understanding of Evil


In Ethics An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (1993) Alain Badiou shows how prevailing concepts of “ethics” and “human rights” are tools of Western democratic totalitarianism.  He represents the West as smug and self-serving, and the US specifically as a world power that carries out humanitarian acts with contempt for the “other” that they have no real interest in understanding or in considering as an equal.  The standard understanding of ethics presupposes a consensus of what evil IS and aims at preventing and stopping evil.  This understanding of evil justifies Western intervention in the affairs of other countries under the façade of humanitarianism, “human rights” and activism.  He argues that the entire reason for “human rights” at all is because man is violent and aggressive and there is no hope for any redemption for mankind.  “Human rights” makes man feel like he is ethical, but in the end, on the singular and local level, man continues to be evil.  Badiou gives the examples of the medical industry that concerns itself endlessly with “prattle” about ethics, but when it comes down to it, a doctor will not treat someone who does not have the necessary paperwork in place.  So, he argues, that mankind is not ethical, but “ethics” allows them to be okay with that.

Badiou conceptualizes two natures to man; mortal man and a higher level of being, the immortal man.  This seems to echo Agamben’s zoe and bios.  He argues that “human rights” animalize man and keep him at this lower level of being by constituting man as a victim.  Badiou argues that man has rights to a higher consciousness (the Immortal) and that death is not the worst thing that could happen to man, reducing man to an animal is worse (12).  Man’s immortal self emerges in refusing and resisting being reduced to an animal against all odds.  In this way “human rights” actually take away “immortal rights” and Badiou argues that living at a higher level with integrity is more important than surviving and being reduced to a victim.     

Evil for Badiou is related to truth and there is no presupposed consensus on what is evil and what is truth.  Evil is belief in an event that is a simulacrum of truth, or an unfulfilled event, such as the Nazis in Germany.  This event seemed like a momentous event that changed the culture like the French Revolution did, but in fact Badiou says that it was only a simulacrum of a truth event.  If an event is true and changes society then it cannot be evil, but if an event is a simulacrum of a truth event then evil can come of it.  Betraying a truth event also leads to evil.  If this is the case then truth is unrelated to ethics; it is only related to the social impact of an event.  I may be missing something here, but this is as close as I have been able to get in two readings to understanding what truth means to Badiou.  Chris Bateman's Blog provided some insight on Badiou's concept of truth and the event: