In The Machinery of Whiteness: Studies in the Structure of Racialization, Steven Martinot outlines their definition of ethics in relation to anti-fascist activism and society as a whole.
What is an ethics? Simply put, an ethics is what one thinks is the right thing to do or say to others. It is always relational. And it always involves a question of permissibility. One can discover a person’s ethics, what they have determined is permissible for themselves, in what they do with respect to others.
If we accept the presupposition that ethics is more of a philosophy (a method of thinking about a particular system) than as a code of conduct, in which a code of conduct is defined as a guide for the behavior of individuals and people within a sociological framework) then having a set of ethics is fundamentally useless in relation to combating institutional and societal inequality. Having a code of ethics is only useful if it is applied and followed by both the individual developing the code of ethics and the society in which that individual finds themselves in, which is exactly what Martinot says cannot be done. They claim that self-universalization (the process of applying one’s code of ethics to others) is in itself, unethical.
Arguably, working from the definition provided by Martinot, a code of ethics requires both a strong sense of self-awareness and the individual integrity to hold oneself to their own individual code of ethics. If, for example, an individual claims that abusing drugs is against their code of ethics, and judges others harshly for doing drugs, while abusing prescription drugs themselves, it can be said that they themselves do not follow their own code of ethics. Therefore their code of ethics is fundamentally useless, or they themselves by their own definition are an unethical person. You cannot, as Martinot claims, get an accurate understanding of that individual’s code of ethics by their own behavior easily, as their behavior conflicts with their own stated ethical code.
More specifically, if a code of ethics is the “right thing to do or say,” then by definition ethics are universal, unless you allow for the presumption that the right thing to do or say varies from person to person. However, this variation allows and in fact encourages systemic inequality. Using the example before, if it is permissible for that individual to abuse drugs but it is not permissible for other individuals to abuse drugs, that individual’s ethical code would resemble something like this for their ethics to not be contradictory.
It is okay for me, as an individual, to abuse drugs in the same manner as other individuals, but it is not okay for others to abuse drugs. I am an exception to this rule.
The exception to the rule is the key phrase here. Normally, when dealing with the “exception to the rule,” these exceptions come along with a lack of self-awareness and a lack of knowledge as to the universality of particular human experiences. These exceptions also highlight thoughts of dehumanization and a lack of empathy for others. Here are some other examples, paired with their contraries and justifications.
- It is okay for me, as an individual, to choose what consenting adults I have relationships with, but it is not okay for a queer person to choose what consenting adults they have relationships with if these adults are of the same gender as they are. I am an exception to this rule, because my code of ethics states that same-sex/same-gender relationships are wrong.
- It is okay for me, as an individual, to choose to modify my body through plastic surgery and hormone treatments in order to be more comfortable with how my body looks, feels, and interacts with others in society. It is not okay for a transgender person to modify their body through plastic surgery and hormone treatments, because my code of ethics states that modifying your body through these purposes in a way that does not align with your gender assignment is wrong.
Obviously, individuals with a sense of empathy for others coupled with basic levels of education in human psychology can provide counterarguments for the first example, because it is commonly accepted that a relationship between two consenting adults is not morally wrong, and the variables of gender and sex do not interfere with one’s ability to consent or have a happy, psychologically fulfilling relationship.
The same holds true for the second example. It is commonly accepted that individuals of sound mind and judgement should have a right to control their own bodily autonomy. Attempts to control other’s bodily autonomy without due cause are inherently abusive, and the causes that we typically claim that are legitimate involve prevention of suicide and permanent life-risking harm. In addition, if we do not prevent others from achieving the same results through body modification, it is unfair and unjust to discriminate (for example, we do not prevent cisgender women from receiving breast augmentation, so preventing people of other gender identities from paying for breast augmentation is discriminatory). Therefore, the end goal of modification does not matter.
If you pay close attention to the justifications for most of those examples, we find societal norms in regards to codes of ethics, as well. It is ethical for two consenting adults to have a relationship with each other, and it is ethical for a person to modify their body. In opposition, it is unethical for an adult to have a relationship with a child, and it is unethical for a person to modify someone else’s body without their consent. We have laws preventing these behaviors, such as age of consent and assault laws. Our laws are created based on generally popular ethics.
Therefore, when we talk about ethics, we cannot say that it is unjust to impose ethics upon others, without conceding that without imposing codes of ethics upon others, we wouldn’t have any laws.