Gilles Deleuze: Ethics and Morality

Key Concept

Gustave Doré (1866) : Moses Breaking the Tablets of The Law.

The place of ethics and morality in Deleuze’s thought

The task of talking about ethics and morality, in relation to the philosophical thought of one of the most significant French philosophers of the 20th century, Gilles Deleuze, is not an easy one. This is because – and despite the vast multiplicity of subjects that he examined, both in his solo works and in his collaborations with the militant psychoanalyst Félix Guattari – Deleuze has never stated his intention to write or create a work of ethical or moral philosophy, at least in the traditional sense that the term is used to describe a ‘genre’ of the discipline of philosophy.1 As such, any discussion on ethics and morality in Deleuze’s work is reduced in brief and sporadic statements – albeit, quite insightful and important as I will argue below.

Despite all the ‘silence’ and the marginal place of ethics in Deleuze’s thought, a statement from Michel Foucault provokes us to (re)think this very place of ethics in his contemporary’s thought. In his preface of Deleuze and Guattari’s ground-breaking work, Anti-Oedipus, Foucault writes that “Anti-Oedipus (may its authors forgive me) is a book of ethics, the first to be written in France in a quite long time.”2 Indeed, such a ‘grand,’ yet enigmatic statement calls us to ponder further on the issue of ethics in Deleuze’s work.

Defining ethics and morality

Deleuze offers a definition and, more importantly, a distinction between ethics and morality in a succinct statement made in an interview with Foucault’s biographer, Didier Eribon. Discussing Foucault’s work on the practices of the ‘Care of the Self’ in antiquity,3 Deleuze states the following:

Yes, establishing ways of existing or styles of life isn’t just an aesthetic matter, it’s what Foucault called ethics, as opposed to morality. The difference is that morality presents us with a set of constraining rules of a special sort, ones that judge actions and intentions by considering them in relation to transcendent values (this is good, that’s bad…); ethics is a set of optional rules that assess what we do, what we say, in relation to the ways of existing involved. We say this, do that: or say through mean-spiritedness, a life based on hatred, or bitterness toward life. Sometimes it takes just one gesture of word. It’s the style of life involved in everything that makes us this or that […].4

Deleuze does not comment further upon the issue. The statement offers, at least to some extent, a clear-cut definition of what he meant by ethics as opposed to morality, albeit he does not offer any analysis on how he arrived into that conclusion. As such, the statement needs further disentanglement.

The first point we need to take into account is the notion of the ethical, as opposed to the moral. The ethical is manifested as something that does not rely upon ‘fixed’ or ‘eternal’ norms – ‘You should do as I say because it’s the right thing to do!’ ‘That’s wrong, don’t do it!’ Instead, it is a matter of evaluating or assessing each situation and each encounter in their specificity – ‘How does a particular situation or a particular encounter with an external body or an idea affect me?’5 In that case, we can say that there is ‘a personal’ element in the ethical. As Deleuze states, it is a matter of ‘optional rules.’ On the other hand, moral rules claim to manifest a universality because they act as ‘judges’ of any actions – irrespective of an action’s singularity – based on presupposed and eternal values, what Deleuze calls transcendent values. This ‘blind faith’ to transcendence values leads, according to Deleuze, to a style of life which is consumed by hatred towards life. But why is this the case? In order to understand the problem with morality and the way it leads to a life full of ressentiment, we need to delve further into the reference of Deleuze to transcendent values and their close relation to morality and its constraining rules.

The meaning of ‘transcendence,’ has a long history in (Western) philosophico-theological tradition, manifesting itself in various and different ways. Broadly speaking, when we speak of transcendence or the transcendent we, usually, refer to something which is external, something which is not of this life, or something which is of a higher realm. Hence, for example, in the traditional understanding of Judeo-Christian and Islamic theologies, God is the transcendent being which is independent of His creations, the lower beings of our known world. This divine Being imposes His will upon His creations and He also acts as a judge, dictating which being is good, bad, just or unjust, according to His divine commandments. As such, a transcendent mode of life imposes upon us a “vertical, celestial”6 relation to the One, transcendent Being. For Deleuze, the philosophical notion of transcendence was first introduced with the Platonic concept of Forms or Ideas. For Plato, the world of Ideas is a non-material but substantial realm which manifests the most accurate form of reality. Hence, an Idea can be said to be the essence of the beings we encounter in the material world. However, all the material beings are but ‘shadows’ of the real Ideas.7 As a consequence, a hierarchy of beings is formed, where some beings hold ‘more reality’ than others depending on the beings’ proximity to an Idea. For example, something will be judged as good or bad according to its proximity to the Idea of ‘the Good.’

According to Deleuze, this transcendent mode of life dominates Western philosophical thought and Western society more broadly, since the days of Plato. This happens because we are still thinking in terms of a hierarchy and a primacy of a Being (e.g. God) or beings (e.g. ‘the rational human’) among other beings, a primacy of values or ideas among the rest (e.g. fixed notions of ‘justice,’ ‘the Law,’ or ‘human rights’). In a similar vein, this is how the transcendent values of morality operate. They set some ‘eternal’ and ‘fixed’ norms that we must adhere to. Consequently, operating as a ‘judge,’ morality decides which being has, successfully, obeyed to its commandments and thus, which being is ‘the good,’ ‘the rational,’ ‘the civilised,’ or which being failed to follow the rules and as such it is ‘the bad,’ ‘the irrational’ or ‘the uncivilised’ and so forth. Ultimately, morality and its values not only neglect the specificities and singularities that each different beings are, but they also hide “a hatred for life”8 because whichever does not adhere to these values is, automatically, condemned and it has to be extinguished or to be converted.

On the other hand, ethics supports a style of life that does not obey and which is not commanded by a set of eternal values and transcendent primary beings, causes or ideas. As Deleuze states “the distant cause is no more: rocks, flowers, animals and humans equally celebrate the glory of God in a kind of sovereign an-archy.”9 Here, every being is equal in its singularity, free to experiment and to create its own ‘style of life.’ Consequently, it is in these terms that we speak of ethical, ‘optional rules’ as opposed to moral constraining rules.

What is the moral of the distinction between ethics and morality?

Admittedly, then, there is an ‘an-archic’ (without an archē, a grounding or a primary principle) element when we refer to Deleuzian ethics, in the sense that they do not rely on any form of hierarchy and authority of ‘higher’ Being or value in order to be defined or to be judged. An ethical way of living, in the Deleuzian sense of the term, will not turn to higher values in order to ‘shape’ its ways of existing according to the command of such values. It is rather, as Deleuze states, a matter of forming ‘a style of life’ according to ‘optional rules.’ On the contrary, as we have seen, an idea of morality is manifested as a ‘universal,’ ‘transcendent’ set of rules and constraints. In that sense, a call for ethics may be seen as a way out of these claims and rules that are dictated by a notion of morality, as it is illustrated by Deleuze. But here we need to ask; ‘what could this way out be, or what is the moral of ethics and morality distinction? In other words, what could be the impact of it in broader terms? A potential answer to these questions may be given if we consider the condition of our age.

Even in our so-called ‘secular,’ (post)modern age, we are yet to be freed from the ’shadows’ of a transcendent morality. Instead, what we witness is a rise of the calls for ‘higher’ principles, such as ‘the nation,’ ‘race,’ ‘the state’ and so forth. At the same time, any effective resistance to these, often, nationalistic, even fascistic tendencies, is almost impossible to be found. This is, potentially, linked to the problem of morality, in the sense that any motion of resistance acts through a transcendent framework, invoking moral values, such as principles of human rights or of justice etc. This is, often, done in a ‘banal’ way which is completely detached from life and the specificity of each case and thus these forms of resistance remain significantly ineffective. On the other hand, what Deleuze defines as ethics, possibly, leads towards a new way of creative thinking and living in an ethical, expressive way that could do away from dogmas and hierarchies. Such a way of life, though, presupposes that we have to take a ‘risk’ because creativity presupposes experimentation and experimentation does not guarantee absolute ends. Our, potentially, new inventive ways of living may lead to some peculiar results, and thus we have to be prepared to accept that we have to seriously re-evaluate any values that are considered to be ‘sacred.’ Taking such a risk may cause an understandable uneasiness, but we are at a critical point where our “lack of experimentation”10 has led us to a nihilistic stalemate. Thus, such a risk seems not only necessary but also worth taking. 

Christos Marneros is an Assistant Lecturer and a PhD student at Kent Law School, University of Kent.

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— Deleuze Gilles in Conversation with Didier Eribon, ‘Life as a Work of Art’ in Negotiations. Trans. Martin Joughin (Columbia University Press, 1995).— Deleuze Gilles, ‘Plato, The Greeks,’ in Essays Critical and Clinical, Trans. Daniel Smith and Michael Greco, (Verso, 1998).— Deleuze Gilles, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. Trans. Robert Hurley (City Light Books, 2001).
— Deleuze Gilles, Nietzsche and Philosophy. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson (Columbia University Press, 2006).
— Deleuze Gilles, ‘Zones of Immanence’ in Two Regimes of Madness, Trans. Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina (Semiotext(e), 2007).
— Deleuze Gilles and Guattari Félix, What is Philosophy? Trans. Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson (Verso 1994).
— Foucault Michel, The History of Sexuality, Volume III: The Care of the Self. Trans. Robert Hurley (Penguin, 1990).
— Foucault Michel, ‘Preface’ in Deleuze Gilles and Guattari Félix, Anti-Oedipus. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (Bloomsbury Academics, 2013).
— Smith W. Daniel, ‘The Place of Ethics in Deleuze’s Philosophy: Three Questions of Immanence’ in his (ed.) Essays on Deleuze (Edinburgh University Press, 2012).

Show 10 footnotes

  1. Smith (2012), 146-159.
  2. Foucault (2013), xli.
  3. Foucault, (1990).
  4. Deleuze and Eribon (1995), 100.
  5. Deleuze, (2001), 27, 48-51. Here the verb ‘affect’ is used in Spinozist terms – at least, according to the Deleuzian reading of Spinoza. As such, ‘affect’ is used to illustrate the capacity of a body to affect or to be affected when it comes into composition with another body or another idea, that is its potential to decrease or increase its power and thus to evaluate the quality of an encounter in these terms and not according to notions of morality such as ‘good’ or ‘evil.’
  6. Deleuze and Guattari (1994), 89.
  7. Deleuze (1998), 136-137. Deleuze calls transcendence “the poisoned gift of Platonism.”
  8. Deleuze (2006), 91.
  9. Deleuze (2007), 266.
  10. Deleuze and Guattari (1994), 108.
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  1 comment for “Gilles Deleuze: Ethics and Morality

  1. Koen Van Reusel
    4 January 2019 at 8:47 pm

    Interesting analysis. But I disagree with Deleuze’s opposition between ethics and morality. Whatever our ethical options, the conscience will never stop to set a reference point. The conscience will always guarantee the possible link between ethics and morality.

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