Once upon a time, Max Weber credited Tolstoy with isolating what he thought was the most essential question that all humans have: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’ (1922, p. 11). The latter is the powerful hesitation that moves and has moved for eons people. But, to answer this question, –for some reason– people require a sense of calling that comes from beyond themselves (Althusser, 2006). In other words, for most of human history the answer to the Tolstoyan question came from allegedly autonomous and independent frames of reference, such as deities. The cult of deities has been for long an enchanting escape from the perdition of not knowing what one should do with one’s life, precisely because they ‘appear as an autonomous reality’, with the authority to tell us what to do (Ricoeur, 1986, p. 5). Something that in the vocabulary of Berger and Luckman derives in their legitimation (2011).
In the hilarious The Good Place, the magic of television brought to us an unorthodox reflection on this topic. In this widely successful comedy, Eleanor, for some mysterious reason, ends in the afterlife in the good place, despite having lived a fairly naughty life. In the good place, Eleanor meets Chidi, a man whose life on Earth once revolved around teaching ethics. At some point, Chidi explains ethics to Eleanor. He claims that from time to time, humans experience a life crisis, which redefines them in many ways. One of which is their realization and comprehension of the fact that one day they will die (Varki & Brower, 2013). This epiphany of death reveals to people how perishable their existence is, and thus, drives them to search for the best or right thing to do with their ephemeral lives. Hence, Chidi claims, people find ethics. Ethics is supposed to become, therefore and according to Chidi, an absolute and universal frame of reference that could guide humans in their long-lasting conundrum of what is right to do with their lives and what is wrong: i.e., the world is black and white, this is always right, and that is always wrong.
Now, the problem is that ‘Nobody knows whether a truly universalist ethic is humanly possible’ (Bloom, 2013, p. location 372). Thus, universalist/absolutist ethical –or moral if you prefer– frames of right and wrong, are doomed to sooner or later express the symptom; the expression that says: these beliefs might not be so right after all (Žižek, 1989). For existentialist philosophers, the symptom was illustrated in the epic biblical binding of Abraham. In short, ‘the story from Genesis [where Abraham having been ordered by an angel of God,] was ready to sacrifice his only son in obedience to God’s command’ (Flynn, 2006, p. 34). According to Sartre, this biblical moment derived in what is known as the ‘anguish of Abraham’: i.e., for Abraham, ‘obedience [regarding sacrificing his son] was obligatory, if it really was an angel who had appeared…. But anyone in such a case would wonder, first, whether it is indeed an angel and secondly, whether I am really Abraham’ (Sartre, 1989, p. 5). In other words, the difficulties around finding what might be an absolute, universal, and commanding frame of telling us what to do (like in Abraham’s example would have been God’s wishes), derive in the schizophrenic human anguish of not knowing whom or what to follow.
Given the issues and dilemmas surrounding a universalist and absolutist approach to ethics, there is the alternative –and now increasingly popular– ethics of care one (Tomkins & Simpson, 2015). ‘[E]thics of care theorists argue for a different system of morality, one that does not rely on claims of universality, absolute judgements of right and wrong and perfect virtues. Instead, they identify a practical morality that grows out of a recognition that all people are embedded in different webs of social relations, being dependent on others for their survival and well-being and capable of supporting others in their moments of need and helplessness’ (Gabriel, 2015, p. 323). In short, ethics of care is about our biological inheritance as tribal members: we belong to groups of people with whom we identify –the exemplar being the family. Hence, the ethics of care reminds us of how ‘People deeply need membership in a group’ (Wilson, 2014, p. 150). And, furthermore, the ethics of care entails, thus, that what is right or wrong is not dictated by an absolute frame of reference, but by what is needed to take care of our people.
This debate was brilliantly portrayed by the, at first inspirational but in the end diabolical, Walter White. In the critically acclaimed series created by Vince Gilligan Breaking Bad, Walter White is initially a devoted father of a son struggling with serious health issues, and a loving husband of a wife for whom he even sacrificed a once promising career in science. He is a humble family man, expecting as well, a new baby. The only thing he cares for is his family. Yet, this loving father finds out that at age 50, he has developed inoperable lung cancer. This is how life has paid him for being a loyal head of family. In his first reaction to this betrayal, Walt decides to continue focusing on his family, and becomes anguished about what legacy a struggling high-school teacher like him could leave them. Although the process is fairly intricate, in the end, he decides to put his science skills to use by developing a new business, and becomes like this, a crystal meth producer. At first, his obsession with illegal drugs is probably the product of his ethics of care: i.e., his need to take care of his people enables him to cross the line of illegality, to protect his family. He does not see it as doing anything wrong, because what matters to him is his people.
Walter’s crystal meth business eventually becomes a thriving business that not only protects his family, but even gives jobs to many others. The problem with the ethics of care, however, is what in the end happens to Walt: caring for others turns into caring for me only. In short, in what is probably one of the best stories in television ever, Walter, through the passing of 5 seasons, ends up realizing that his Breaking Bad is not only about caring for his family, but is as well an opportunity to realize all of his darkest fantasies of power, greed, domination, violence and mightiness, among other things. This ends up generating consequences that simply destroy his life and the life of those around him. Something that makes us, once more, hesitate about whether to let go of universalist ethics for the sometimes deeply problematic ethics of care. Yet, more importantly, Walter completely distorting his ethics of care into an egotistical and diabolical ideology of the self, takes us back to the original human question of people wondering, ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’ (1922, p. 11). Is Walt’s darkness a reminder that perhaps ethics –overall– does not work because what we actually want is all about us and our frivolous egos? Or, is Walt’s darkness a remainder that ethics is precisely protecting us from that?
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Bloom, P. (2013). Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
Flynn, T. (2006). Existentialism, a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gabriel, Y. (2015). The caring leader – What followers expect of their leaders and why? Leadership, 11(3), 316–334.
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Sartre, J.-P. (1989). Existentialism is a Humanism.
Tomkins, L., & Simpson, P. (2015). Caring Leadership: A Heideggerian Perspective. Organization Studies, 36(8), 1013–1031.
Varki, A., & Brower, D. (2013). Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. USA: Twelve.
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