Project of Negative Ethics

This is an english translation of Julio Cabrera’s Project of Negative Ethics (1989). As usual, this is a work in progress.
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Preface ………. 7
I.   Paternity and abstention ………. 17
II.  Suicide ………. 33
III. Small murders ………. 51
IV.  Concealment of non-being. Illusion and survival ………. 69
V.   Ethical discourse and indeterminacy ………. 85
VI.  Philosophy and the paradoxes of knowledge ………. 99


1. Throughout the entire history of philosophy, ethics has been the ethics of being, the basic moral imperative has always been “you should live”, and all the rest is a justification of this imperative. Ethics were always apologetic, beyond their own theoretical options. No philosopher faced the possibility of a morality of non-being, that is, the ethical consequences stemming from a radical rejection of being. This Project aims to initiate a conversation about an ethic of non-being, or a negative ethic.

2. That being is “better” than nothingness is the Grundsatz of all western morality. Being is never considered as a choice among others.

3. Man not only contemplates being, but lives it. The problem of being is, to him, the problem of life. A traditional ethic would be possible if man could not live the being, but simply contemplate it.

4. When man asks himself about the possibility of non-being, he already is. Therefore, the issue of non-being incorporates to him, while already living the being, two configurations, which I will here name suicide and abstention. The ethical issue of the existing life is different from the ethical issue of the life that does not yet exist. The traditional ethic has been constructed as if life were something compulsive, never facing the possibility of it being a choice. The traditional ethic has been an intelectual justification of that compulsion. Ethics never addressed the compulsive anguish that led it to self-build itself. Because being is, to man, life, that he never managed the strength to even put to himself the question of a negative ethic.

5. The huge philosophical “risk” is: that if there is a morality of non-being, to live can be seen as the maximum immorality, precisely in the same sense as defined by the affirmative ethics.

6. It is curious the fact that men, in the act of living the being, have considered abstention (not generating new life) so absurd and out of place as suicide (eliminating my own life). It would be understandable that men feared the romantic morbidity of suicide, without fearing the sober recuse of procreation. To be a child may be considered to be a destiny of some sort, but why would it apply to being a father too? Life – both the actual and possible – was always considered a duty, and the fundamental duty of all our morality.

7. The issue of the “moral obligation to be a father” has been put in the plane of theodicies: what would be the ethic of the creation of a world by God? Why did God have to create a world, knowing that it would be an imperfect world? My hypothesis is: because a divine ethic is profoundly affirmative. If he didn’t create an imperfect world, he wouldn’t create anything, and this nothingness is what an affirmative ethic – human or divine – is not in conditions of facing. Leibniz concerns himself, in his role of a lawyer in defense of God, of leaving him free of any blame, showing that this is, despite everything, the best of all possible worlds. Whatever! But Leibniz had to show, besides that, that this world is better than not creating absolutely any world. And this is demonstrable in exclusively affirmative categories.

8. What Leibniz demonstrates is that either this imperfect world was created, or nothing else could be created. Why did God not face this second alternative as a serious one, from the moral point of view? Couldn’t it be ethically good to abstain, to not create? Why create a necessarily (not circumstantially) imperfect world, to then construct all the moral paraphernalia?

9. When we ask ourselves about the moral value of life, this is also a question about the life that we are potentially capable of creating. In this case, we possess a possibility of abstention that we don’t have in the case of our own life. It was said by many philosophers (Schopenhauer, Adorno) that men are capable of bearing the pains considered to be inevitable much better, while they suffer more intensely from the gratuitous pains, that is, those that could have been avoided. But this assertion is never put in the radical level, applying to the intra-wordly sufferings (concentration camps, drugs, etc.) but never to the very suffering of living, that which the child complains after being born, that which suffers from neurosis. In fact, applying this assertion radically, all men, while children, should consider intolerable the pains and sufferings of their lives, given that they could have been avoided through an act of abstention by other people. In this sense, all suffering is useless. This conclusion can only be negated if life is considered intrinsically moral, such as the affirmative ethics argue. But in this case, the ethical reflection begins halfway, through a completely diminished philosophical reflection in its reflective strength. Not having children doesn’t indicate an act of morality towards them? Not creating any world, wouldn’t show a certain type of divine love? And, on the contrary, creating worlds, having children, couldn’t indicate an immorality, in the same sense defined by the affirmative ethics, by the ethics of being?

10. The “problem of life” arises only when life doesn’t work. The issues of theodicy only appear with the issue of “evil”, when we begin to think that the creation of the world was a huge mistake. If in the world there were no suffering, we would have never asked about its creator, we would have never sought him to require explanations.

11. There can be logical reasons to create this world and not that other world, but there can’t be any logical reason to create, in general, a world.

12. God even replies the suing from the “evils” of the world, and the fatal option for being creates, ipso facto, the kingdom of morality. The entire paraphernalia of perditions and salvations will have to follow from the anxious creation of an imperfect world, or, to say it better, the imperfect creation of a any world. Why would the creature not prefer to not suffer in absolute, instead of it being offered afterwards the possibility to “save itself” from suffering?

13. Our life is something that cannot work, precisely because to be a child is a destiny. If we didn’t have parents (radically, not in the sense of the orphan. The orphan has parents, in a radical sense), our life would work. Parents habitually present to their children arguments similar to those presented by God to its creatures: “life is suffering, but I will try to give you the best of possible lives”. But if the imperfection was structurally foreseen, not depending on circumstances, the safest way to get rid of it is, certainly, the non-living, not the “living the best life possible”.

14. The non-functioning of our life, that non-functioning that constitutes it, does not come from the fact that our parents made us this or that manner, there or here, today or tomorrow, but – purely and simply – from the fact that they made us. But in traditional ethics, being is stronger than imperfection. Both the christian God, that “loves the being”, as the God of Spinoza, from which being emanates necessarily, make it that being finally wins the “fight against the non-being”. In any case, nothingness has no chance. However, there is a vengeance of the non-being. Every being created is “full” of it, and men have never been able to live this being from which we “choose”. When we get ready to live the life that was given to us, we only manage to live the non-being that was hidden from us. Not being able to be, the non-being “appropriates” the being, and from that consists its vengeance.

15. Morality is born in conjunction with the world, intimately bound to the fundamental choice of being. If we accept the creation of a world as necessary, it should also be accepted as necessary the creation of a morality. If morality is not necessary, then the world is also not necessary.

16. In this point, it’s very important to insist that the ethical problem of being is radically different in the case of a life that already exists, and the case of the merely possible life. Because the moral paraphernalia can have meaning to me, since I am fatally in the world, the meaning of an inevitable survival (leaving aside at this moment the issue of suicide, which will be analyzed in the second chapter). But it can never have the same meaning to that which I will potentially be able to create. All the moral creations – liberty, responsibility, dignity, salvation, blame, coherency etc. etc. – are useful and meaningful to whom is already alive, to whom has ahead of him the not chosen task of dying, but they are completely innocuous to whom is not here, to whom whose possibility of life lies in me. The moral consideration towards that possible life should be something completely different. It can only be hypocritical to construct a morality to us, men who already who exist, however it will be simply absurd to construct it for that which does not exist (It can be immoral to construct morality to whom is not).

17. Given the contingency of our birth, all pain is useless. The useless pain is unbearable. Ergo, to have been born is unbearable. In this sense, being born is immoral. To be born carries a moral weight, a problematization: it is not about, as affirmative thinking usually thinks, of a brute fact, without stains, out of any suspect. The affirmative ethics are willing to sustain morality as the totality of the world only and exclusively to save the morality of its origin. Negative ethics suggests the opposite, the rescue of the morality of the world after the discovery of the immorality of its origin (and the very problem of theodicies inverts: how is the innocence of the world and divine wickedness compatible?).

18. The father knows that being can not be lived by the child, and this puts an initial moral situation between the two. When theologians ask themselves about how the “evils” of the world are compatible with divine goodness, they only visualize phenomena such as crimes wars, diseases, etc. But these are not the “evils” capable of immoralizing the decision to be a father, it is perfectly possible that a life won’t be affected by these “calamities”. The fundamental “evil”– if we express ourselves in habitual moralist terms – is the absence of being. But from where comes the idea that the absence of being must be read morally? In the theological plane, we possess a reference to an absolute perfection, but not in the strictly ethical plane. It seems to me that the evil, from the strictly ethical point of view, should connect itself with the suffering, the decay, with living the death. The pain is connected with impotence, and impotence cannot be lived positively.

19. What is shocking and imprecise about the very idea of “evil” is that the traditional ethic supposes imperfection as a type of exception, and promotes the idea of a “redemption”, of a “salvation”, of an avoidance of “evil” through a certain “process”. The really theological idea is not the idea of “evil”– while we understand it connected to suffering, pain and impotence – but the idea of evil as an “exception”, as being to be eliminated in a stage posterior to redemption.

20. Suffering is something that should be, purely and simply, connected to “being”. Something cannot be “put into operation” without pain. Thus, pain is not a curse, nor a punishment, nor an anomaly, nor a maladjustment, nor a deviation, but the conditio sine qua non of being. The option of being is necessarily the option to suffering. The affirmative ethics, insofar as they respect the value of coherency, should not proclaim as their concern the elimination of pain.

The disease usually appears equally as exceptional, inside a pretentious “state of health”. The difficulty to measure health is in the fact that the majority of existing indicators are negative, that is, to serve to ponder the absence of health. The good health, contrarily, can be seen as an accidental anomaly, not as an intrinsic attribute, and even less, as a “right” of the human species. Before the disease, what we habitually call “life” is a survival “to resist”, “to maintain oneself”, “to take foward”, “to prolong”, “to pull foward”. The fundamental ethical issue consists in that, as potential generators of a life of another human being, we can not make predictions about how will be the mechanisms of survival of the being who is born, his sensitivity before the structural pain. We have no moral right in making a standardized prediction about this sensitivity. The sinister happiness (sinister and superficial) with which our society receives pregnancy and birth, must necessarily face itself with the actual ethical categories, if we are profound in our reflection.

21. Structural suffering can be understood in terms of “weariness”, although we can understand the ecological problems caused by human intervention (and, therefore, avoidable), each one of us could be conceived as a problem of microecology, in the sense of each one of us being an ultimately depleting source of resources: our “life” is, necessarily, a self-devour, a consumption of natural reserves. To the wild joy of spending, the terror of lack will fatally come, from the aging of sources. That which we utilize most intensely (our brain, our legs), and therefore, that around which we build our lives (our “happiness”, our “fulfillment”) will be precisely the principle of our destruction, the content of our death. Our food system, whatever it may be, will have ultimately been our form of poisoning. In a certain moment of this course, curing a disease will be, at the same time, intensifying or creating another disease. Habitually, when all this objective information is put in the ethical plane, our opponent replies, irritated: “but what good is it to describe that structural pain? We can’t do anything!”. And here it must be replied: “Yes, we can’t, but not whom is not yet. He is not condemned to this”. When a father promises to his child a happy life, what does he do with the objective information about the structure of pain? What he does with it won’t have any ethical significance? To the opponent’s question, it should be answered: “Why describe the fundamental pain? Due to a morbid anxiety? Absolutely! We should describe it to be more sober in procreation. To make our attitude towards life more subtle and more profound”.

22. The world is mortal too. Life in the planet is more or less in half of its path, going through its crisis of middle-age, let’s say. Fossils demonstrate that life began approximately 3 billion years ago. 4.000 million from now, the Sun will consume life, and over time, the planet. Useless suffering. But, in any case, the life of the world is only a moral problem to God.

23. A fundamental assumption of affirmative ethics is that suffering is better than nothingness.

24. Always keeping us inside the voluntarist philosophical scheme (God wants to create a world, man wants to create a child) it could be said (it has been said many times) that God creates the world by kindness, because although it is not necessary for him, he thinks it’s good that others enjoy the “good of being”. From where comes the idea that being is “good”? And that nothingness is “bad”? The world would be considered “good”, in the affirmative perspective, not in the sense of lacking imperfections – inevitable in any being created – but in the sense of enabling the exit out of nothingness. Nothingness is, in this perspective, the supreme bad, worse than any bad of the the world. Thus, what is good wouldn’t be the created world, but the fact that it was created. The moral “goodness” of the father comes, in the affirmative ethics, from the fact of having saved the child from the gripe of non-being. But (revenge of non-being) the fact of having been born does not take us away, really, from nothingness, but only puts us in a new bond with it. The only ontological difference between not being born and being born is that, in the first case, I “am” in non-being, and in the second I shall live it. What is habitually called “death” is only an inessential separation between two forms of non-being.

25. It is almost impossible to continue to maintain the voluntarist conception. The other conception that plays an important role in the theological discussion is the emanationist conception that considers creation as a necessity. This conception has completely different moral implications than the previous one. In this conception, the creator sees himself, in some way, compelled to create, to know himself, to “complete himself”, by a kind of “excess of being”. Here we have the philosophical advantage of drastically decreasing the importance of notions such as “good” or “bad”. God does not create the world because that is “good”, and should not, therefore, answer the sue by allowing the “bad”. He creates the world due to an intrisic necessity of his nature. God, in this case, does not create to run away from nothingness, and the consideration about the possibility of abstention does not appear. In this scheme, the moral responsibilities of generation decrease drastically.

26. In the mimicry of paternity, the human father imitates in part the divine father, in the sense that the “education” of the child must somehow be his “salvation”, his “going for the good way”. “Dependency” is a structure common to human and divine parenthood. The fact that my parents have unilaterally exercised their liberties over my existence imprints on me an infinite dependence, whatever they empirically decide they will “allow me to do.” In the affirmative imagination, we feel that we “morally” owe something to our parents, that we have with them a kind of “debt,” though our parents are not ontologically able to “give us” absolutely nothing. The question: why give birth to me, to then pay the expenses of my salvation? Can not have an answer within the affirmative, negative categories are needed to respond to it. Once born, the outcome of the illusion will always be the same: the child will find no being to live for, because the structure of what is fundamentally “missing” is not only what constitutes evil in the world, but what constitutes the evil itself to create, in general, a world.

27. In the emanationist conception, the creator of the world needs his work to complete himself, to know himself, to realize his nature. Now, why should we consider a human being who refuses to procreate as “incomplete”? How could we base such “incompleteness”? At this point, social mediation must be done. In general, the bourgeoisie realizes a creationist and voluntarist construction of life, while the miserable ones are closer to an emanationist organization (Leibniz, for the rich, Plotinus for the poor). Procreation has, among the poor, miserable and marginalized, a more gratuitous character than in the bourgeois organization of life. Something that interests the bourgeoisie enormously is a person’s “origins” (in speeches such as “well-born”, “from a good cradle”, etc.). This organization plays a role not only in the wealthy class, but also in the bourgeois imagery of the poor themselves. Thus, it is nevertheless aggressive for “human dignity,” as defined in the bourgeois world, to abandon a voluntarist conception in favor of an emanationist conception: the idea of ​​parental lack of freedom is not socially accepted, as is the associated ideas of the child as an “accident”, etc. Ethics in its bourgeois configuration does not just want the being to be. It wants more: that being is wanted voluntarily and freely. The emanationist conception, that could give so much theoretical relief to bourgeois ethics in its problems with theodicy, the justification of “evil”, etc, is paradoxically the conception that is more connected with non-bourgeois organizations of life and, therefore, undesirable for that.

28. If we could live life, instead of having to live death, if we really had a life to live, we would feel no need to conceive of ourselves as being “bad”. Neither would we, of course, be “good.” This is precisely the case with God. God is not an ethical person. Just as God is not part of the world, in the creationist posture, he can also can not be part of ethics as well (the invention of the world and the invention of ethics go together).

29. A man could have nothing to offer his possible child. This lack was already lived by the father himself, he lived his death as his only possibility of “being,” despite the systematic concealment of the negative (see chapter 4 below). The child, – the birth of the child – is capable of renewing for the father the illusion of being, that illusion that gradually faded into the very death of his father. The father now lives the illusion that the being who “escaped” his fingers in his own lived death can now seize it in the life of his child. He – the father – resists until the end to recognize the structural character of what is missing, and is stubborn in considering it a contingency. And indeed, there is a well-founded hope in this expectation, while the life of the child is life contemplated by the father, not lived life. Life only contemplated from the outside – as in the theater – offers the strong impression of an authentic and positively lived life. But this is the effect of the “spectator.” The lived life is allowed to contemplate, but not to live. The child is, in this sense, a kind of work of art, he is born so that the father can apprehend this being that can never be apprehended in the father’s own life. But it happens that, in doing so, the father condemns the child to also live the non-being: the calmly contemplated life from outside by the father is an ardently suffered life in the non-being by the child.

30. The search of a being that is not there, that can not be, that never was – that is, the systematic and wild concealment of the negative – can transform itself in a bloodthirsty obsession. My affirmative ontological objectives will not be achieved even if I put two hundred children in the world.

31. The suffering of being can not be confused with the avoidable empirical sufferings. No man can see himself free of the pure suffering of having to live his death, even when his life is free – by circumstantial reasons – of certain empirical sufferings. The father, from the ethical point of view, should assume that what he will “give” to the child is the structurally inevitable suffering, independently of “pleasant” or “unpleasant” moments. It is not about, of course, of practicing any vulgar arithmetic, trying to calculate if the pleasant moments will be “more” or “less” than the unpleasant ones. Even a “happy” and “pleasant” life is a pure non-being lived. To love or to hate the child, to be totally indifferent or to carefully accompany his formation – none of this even touches upon the fundamental issue, important as it may be to differentiate between these attitudes, from a sociological or empirical-psychological point of view: whatever is the attitude of the parent, the morality of his paternity will always and inevitably be in question.

32. Our social organization uncritically ensures the morality of paternity, and procreation is presented as a naturally positive value. On the contrary, any problematization of these values will be seen as demoniac. But the reflexive situation is perfectly clear: either we abandon the value of “avoidance of useless pain”, or we problematize the uncritically morality of procreation. If the moral reflection is to be rational, to search for the truth, etc, it has to face this alternative.

33. If procreating is a free choice, life is the fundamental useless pain.

34. If liberty, according to traditional morality itself, is a fundamental ethical value, the very basis of ethics, one must admit that the creation of a child can be the first huge disrespect of the liberty of the human person. The issue of liberty suffers from the same problem as the issue of pain: it is about an ethical value that the traditional affirmative ethic is unable to radicalize.

35. The revolt of the child against the father is structurally inevitable. To be a child consists in this revolt. The revolt happens in the moment when the child takes acute awareness of being the attempt of being of his father: this breaks the moral relations between fathers and child, these relations consist in this rupture, in the empirical commerce with the parents, either the child gets along with them or not, is “understood” by them or not, etc. The child transforms the fictional being fabricated by the parent in a non-being that he is capable of living by himself: even his own life is only a non-living, he prefers this before being positively, if this positive being works only inside the lived death of the father. It’s in this moment that the father is aware of his second failure. In this sense, a child is, always, the second failure of the father.

36. Some theses – laterally supported by Schopenhauer, for example – on the incompatibility of paternity with philosophical reflection have been superficially rejected or turned into mockery. But the reflection here strongly nurtures such a thesis. Indeed, whatever critical and reflective level the father has achieved about the world, the child, his son, being in this very world that his father has often subjected to criticism, will be a pressing request for responses and attitudes on the part of the father. The child demands of his father a being of life. The construction of this being of life incorporates, in the bourgeois constitution of life, the form of what is usually called an education. But it is impossible to convey an education through the radical negative. In this sense, education can only be affirmative, even when it is intended to be “critical”, “open”, “liberal”, etc. Bringing a child into the world is a signed document in which I force myself to drastically reduce the critical levels of my own reflection on life. Now, if philosophy is conceived as a radical critical reflection, the thesis of the incompatibility between philosophy and fatherhood begins to be better understood.

37. The child that is born enters into the illusion because they are the death lived in the absolute manner. To grow up is to gradually walk away from death, live it increasingly, until, finally, die it. A child is the own incarnation of the uncritically accepted life. The child obligates the parents to reconstruct all the structures that its own living had problematized.

38. Shouldn’t the act of bringing someone into the world for them to survive produce a very strong sense of strangeness?

39. The “love for our children” only has authentic moral meaning when they are not here. After bringing them here, I lose all my right to talk about “love”: I can only rebuild my love inside of violence.

40. In every way, after being born, our parents, for all purposes, are people like any other: they don’t carry any particular kind of intra-wordly “blame” in relation to our impossibility of being. We can’t live not because our mother has been very reprehensible, or because our father does not understand us, etc – those are only erratic and arbitrary contents that we put in our constitutive impossibility of living.

41. The institutions that hold power carry out a company of production and systematized reproduction of all kinds of objects, and life is the fundamental object in this company. The sinister “love” of governments for childhood is only the institutionalized interest of tomorrow’s producers. Although particulars, from singular persons, are usually lazy from the point of view of productivity, when it comes to life they are uniquely productive. To such a point, that the government itself criticizes this high and uncontrolled productivity of life… to try to maintain the productivity of life within the limits of the official program.

42. The mere reproduction of life, along the years, fatally culminates in a horrible feeling of failure. The mere reproduction of life connects with the vital mediocrity. Negative and creative men are constantly bothered by the social structure. It is preferred to bet ad infinitum in the merely quantitative, instead of promoting now a qualitative increase. Victims of the cunning of the drive, the reproductors are merely faced with products essentially the same as themselves, with no progress. The indiscriminate production of life can not provide any profound and durable satisfaction, not until it explodes the own limits of human life, to attempt in doing something better, and not simply something more (why did Marxism make such a precise critique of the society of production, without ever thematizing the most alienated production of all, the production of life?).

43. To fulfill our lives of children, without this anxious despair of paternity. There can not be, under any hypothesis, any moral duty to produce more life.

44. In the arts, in literature, in cinema, etc, we are concerned with the the life of the protagonists. To us, spectators of the drama, the life of the characters is possible of being lived, and not simply died like our own life. The joy of the aesthetic can be understood as an encounter with a life that, finally, lets itself be lived! If we were characters, we could live. In the aesthetic fiction, morality finally has a place. Only in aesthetics is ethics possible.

45. No one can decide that I have a “right to life”, that “I deserve to live”. A right is something that I myself must obtain, conquer or claim. Life can only be accepted as a “right” (a singularly uninteligible idea, from the rational point of view) already within the usual affirmative assumptions. That pretentious “right” is the radical concealment originated from the moral violence of my birth.

46. Many philosophers – Descartes, Sartre and others – thought that it was good to not have children, and also to not build any ethics. These two abstentions could be profoundly vinculated.


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