Drew M. Dalton, The Ethics of Resistance: Tyranny of the Absolute. London: Bloomsbury, 2018; 224 pages. ISBN: 978-1350042032.

Reviewed by Tyler Tritten, Gonzaga University.

Rarely do we read books that do philosophy anymore – even more rarely in the field of ethics. Both as educators and as scholars, too many are satisfied with publications that unpack a difficulty in perennial texts or highlight problems that have been obscured. Glancing at the table of contents of Drew M. Dalton’s The Ethics of Resistance gives the impression that he is an archivist (as he draws on a wide swath of figures, both ancient and contemporary) and just another prescriptive ethicist. This impression proves faulty on both accounts, as Dalton’s aim is neither to protect the canon nor to tell us how to live. Instead, using philosophy’s history as a mode of doing philosophy, Dalton shows us how to resist those that do aspire to these things.

Dalton espouses several theses that run counter to the tradition, but perhaps his most basic premise is his rejection of the concept of evil as privation. Instead of positing that evil is a fall from, defiance of, or shortcoming with respect to an absolute good, he insists that the absolute, both in terms of being and value, can become the very impetus to evil. Evil is something positive, as it is an affair of the absolute. Here too, then, Dalton runs against the grain of what we all thought we knew – namely, that the absolute is unequivocally good. When conceived of as fixed and rigid, Dalton argues, the absolute is decidedly a source of evil. Although he is sometimes hyperbolic in his argument that the absolute is a source of evil rather than good, Dalton convincingly argues that the absolute is at least properly ambiguous, the source of both the greatest good and the most heinous evils. That is to say, in opposition to the prevailing trend in contemporary ethics, Dalton does not deny the existence of absolutes – they are everywhere and constantly proliferating!  Rather, he argues that absolutes exist, but that they must be resisted, and in this volume, he shows us how.

Dalton’s argument commences by pitting Alain Badiou against Quentin Meillassoux. Namely, he notes an opposition between Badiou’s militant decisionism (that rejects the universality of any absolutes in favor of the particular and actual) and Meillassoux’s hope for a universal justice (that is not actual but deferred to a time to come). From this confrontation – not just an artificial pairing used only as an arbitrary vehicle to convey his point, but a veritable Auseinandersetzung – Dalton aims to find an absolute that is both universal and actual (i.e., neither relative nor merely virtual). We find such an absolute neither in Badiou nor in Meillassoux, but in Emmanuel Levinas (though the imperative for a universal and actual absolute first emerges by realizing the correlative deficiencies in Badiou’s and Meillassoux’s respective positions).

The Other in Levinas, Dalton convincingly argues, is universal, because the Other is the ground of all ethical meaning. Without our relation to the Other, there is no moral significance; nothing would be either good or bad. In the Other, the ground of morality is actual rather than only a virtual hope, insofar as Levinas espouses a “realism of the Other.” Dalton is particularly astute on this point, remarking, “Levinas aimed to recast the appearance of the other to the self as a power which appeared outside of and beyond the structures of subjective thought and perception … as an absolute power capable of radically reconfiguring our understanding of ourselves and our understanding of ethical responsibility.” (36) He continues by noting that “we must situate the appearance of the Other ‘on its own [ground]’,” which “signals the subject’s access to some absolute reality which lies outside of and beyond itself and operates as its ground and condition.” (36) The ultimately real is not one’s own being but the being of the Other, which universally grounds all moral significance.

Levinas’ Other is a universal (rather than relative) and actual (rather than virtual) absolute. But, Dalton assures, this does not mean it is also unequivocally good (and thus to be unquestionably obeyed). Dalton corroborates this by pointing to certain elements of Levinas’ own corpus, e.g., obsession, or the fact that we can become a hostage to the Other. More directly, he turns to F.W.J. Schelling and Jacques Lacan. In Schelling, Dalton finds an account of the absolute as an unground, which, anticipating Friedrich Nietzsche, would properly be “beyond good and evil.” More precisely, in Schelling’s still underappreciated 1809 essay, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Dalton discovers “the reversibility of good and evil” in the absolute. The positive ground of goodness is just as equally the positive (rather than privative) ground of evil, depending on one’s comportment to it. Lacan, however, most poignantly exposes the possibility of evil afforded by the absolute, for whom the absolute (as in Levinas) is also conceived as the Other.

Lacan, Dalton explains, offers a very different picture of the Other than Levinas, although Lacan too holds that the Other is both the actual and universal ground of morality. Lacan’s position, however, was not erected in tension with Levinas, but rather in opposition to Sigmund Freud. The Other plays the role of the unconscious for Lacan, but neither as a storehouse of drives contained deep within the ego’s psyche nor as a system of social, yet anonymous, sanctions and taboos. Each of these would only be relatively outside the subject, i.e., they would be outside the conscious awareness of the subject, but perhaps only as its libidinal or repressed underbelly. Lacan, Dalton contends,wants the unconscious to reside in the Other, i.e., absolutely outside the subject, beyond the subject. Like Levinas, then, the Other is not just the universal ground of moral relation, but the ground of relation simpliciter, as it is the ground of the being, of the actuality, of the self. “…[T]he ‘I’ for Lacan is not primarily its own, but primordially, a possession of the Other.” (78) One might imagine Levinas making the same claim – for whom one’s body is not fundamentally its own but is rather one’s being for the other. For Dalton, Lacan is much more incisive concerning this point, as Levinas still privileges beneficent descriptions of the Other, as welcome, grace and peace. Lacan more penetratingly observes the fact that the Other is as much the source of evil as good. If, for Levinas, the Other is not fundamentally a problem – i.e., an obstacle to my liberties, as was the case for Thomas Hobbes – but grace and peace (ultimately the face of God), Lacan, by contrast, more consistently stresses the ambiguity of the Other.

Up to this point in his argument, Dalton has negatively rebuffed the premises that evil is privation and that contemporary ethics is both in principle and in fact post-absolutist. Positively, he has anchored his reflection in an absolute that is both universal and actual, the Other, but recognized that this Other is not unequivocally good (and also not unequivocally evil). The Other, though the absolute source of morality, must often be resisted. In the wonderfully practical penultimate chapter, Dalton mines Michel Foucault for concrete techniques of resistance. However, I found that this chapter also raises the most questions.

Through techniques like parrhesia, askesis and self-writing, each masterfully explained, Foucault is said to offer a “new mode of subjectivity qua aesthetics” (102), with Marquis de Sade and Herculine Barbin serving as exemplars. Here, I wonder how this ethics of aesthesis can be justified without losing the absoluteness, i.e., the non-relativity, of the absolute Dalton so vigorously and convincingly sought to retain. Is it certain that these techniques are means of resisting the absolute, or might they also or even rather be techniques of relativizing the absolute, i.e., of rendering it non-absolute? What precludes that any act of resistance and any form of life could, in principle, even if not within the court of public decency, be militantly and/or dogmatically affirmed as ethically viable? Would we then be as far away from Badiou as once thought? If Foucault’s “primary aim is not to govern how a subject relates to an other, but how a subject relates to itself,” (101) and this because he is returning to ancient practices, then is it not fair to say that he finally grounds morality in techniques of the self, rather than in the Other? And is it a corollary that the highest values, as one could argue was the case for ancient philosophers, would be autarchy and self-sufficiency? Does the ground of morality remain tethered to the Other for a Foucauldian? Finally, are these questions potentially problematic for both Foucault and Dalton, or only for Foucault? These are questions for Dalton, as I for one remain undecided.

Dalton concludes, in a Foucauldian fashion, by suggesting that politics is first philosophy. He then argues for an ethics (and I would assume also a politics) of ab-archy. I found this extremely fascinating, as it seems to imply that although politics is first philosophy, it could nevertheless be decidedly a-political, just as, for example, Epicureans engaged in the care of the self and askesis and yet retired to their gardens, away from political life. In other words, although one cannot break from power, from arche, one can resist (not evade) not just this or that arche, this or that way of doing politics, but arche as such, politics as such. We will never be without it, but I wonder if Dalton’s account might allow us to resist politics while yet affirming that politics is first philosophy. Dalton does not suggest as much himself, and I am uncertain about how comfortable he might be with how I am attempting to press the point. To my mind, it seems to follow from or, at least, is not excluded by Dalton’s own principles.

Dalton’s ethics of resistance is not an action-based ethics (i.e., an ethics that prescribes or prohibits specific acts). It is a contemporary possibility for a new agent-based approach to ethics, yet without having to return to traditional virtue ethics, which erroneously presupposes the normative ideal of a “human nature.” If anybody considers themselves to be on the cutting edge of contemporary ethics, then they cannot ignore Dalton’s re-evaluation of what we thought we all knew about ethics.