Before Foucault, ethics was focused on the finding of oneself within a predetermined moral order or the creation of oneself in terms of a great transcendental ought. Thinkers like Bentham believe in an ethical theory rooted in an empiricist account of human nature. Bentham’s ethics reflects what he calls “the greatest happiness principle,” where he implies that ethics reflects the moral obligation to seek out what produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. This thinking is a part of utilitarianism (Baujard, 2013). Furthermore, thinkers like Kant, believe in an ethical theory in which one has a duty to obey a set of rules, in order to exhibit moral personhood. Kantian ethics reflects that we are obligated to act in accordance with moral law to achieve the greatest good. This thinking is a part of deontology. Foucault’s work veered away from the previous focus of ethics and found a position in which ethics would not refer to a body of rules or principles, such as moral codes, but would rather refer to a “self-forming activity” or subjectivity, where one has the freedom to constitute himself as a moral subject of his own accord. In general, Foucauldian ethics puts emphasis on the type of relationship one ought to have with himself (Moore, 1987). According to Foucault, there are four different aspects that create the ethical self and define the relationship man has with himself.
Firstly, he says that one must ask “which is the aspect or the part of myself or my behavior which is concerned with moral conduct? (Moore, 1987).” This is that of ethical substance or the ontological element. Foucault deviates from the Kantian point of view, in which it is believed that the field of morality is intentions as indicated by the Christian point of view and says that it is our own feelings that are the main field of morality within society.
Secondly, he asks, “what is the way in which people are invited or incited to recognize their moral obligations (Moore, 1987).” This is called the mode of subjection. Foucault actually refers to this as the deontological component of ethics, in which one must decide whether they act because of divine law, natural law, the cosmological order, or a rational rule.
Thirdly, he asks, “what are the means by which we can change ourselves in order to become ethical subjects (Moore, 1987).” This is known as ethical work or ascetics. This aspect consists of self-forming activities which are intended to ensure one’s own subjection to moral authority and transform oneself into an ethical agent.
Lastly, Foucault asks, “which is the kind of being to which we aspire when we behave in a moral way (Moore, 1987).” Though Foucault later answers his own question, in saying that the modern person is characterized by a will to truth and thus aspires to recognize the discourses of its time. Here is where Foucault’s theory on power, truth, and subjectivity begins.
Foucault again deviates from the modern idea of philosophy and inverts modern questioning. Foucault aims to offer that scientific truths about human nature are in fact the outcome of contingent historical forces and not the previous scientifically grounded truths as modern thinkers have thought. Throughout his research, Foucault often found himself on the opposite of Kantian thought.
Deontology is the study of duty or obligation. It says that doing your duty is moral. In this, there are two duties with two associated extinctions. The perfect and imperfect duty to one’s self and duty to others. In class, we discussed four examples. The first being suicide. Suicide is categorized as a duty to one’s self. A deontological thinker would say that for the love of self, they have a duty to shorten their life in order to avoid future evil. However, this does not fit with deontology as suicide cannot be a law of nature because the act of suicide in itself eliminates the law of nature. Next, false promising, which is a duty to others. In which, deontological thinkers say you have a duty to falsely promise so long as the other is happy. However, this then leads to a lack of meaning in promising, and eventually promising will disappear. Thirdly, we have to neglect our talents, which is an imperfect duty to one’s self. Though we as beings have a natural will to nurture our talents and therefore this cannot be universalized. Lastly, the failure to help others, which is an imperfect duty to others. This institutes a universal moral law in which we mustn’t interfere but not help others. Society could not function this way either.
Alternatively, utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism in which it is an ethical theory that determines right from wrong by focusing on outcomes. The two most influential thinkers who contributed to this theory are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bethan proposes the greatest happiness principle, in which he states that a right or moral action is one that maximizes or ensures the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people. This pleasure principle makes utilitarianism intuitively appealing for most. The pleasure principle follows two obligations. Firstly, that all people are equal. In saying this, Bentham means that everyone’s pleasure is equal in worth. Secondly, it follows that the only things that matters are pleasure and pain. Though there’s a problem. In reality, how does one measure pleasure/happiness? It is impossible to objectively rank and therefore cannot in reality be put to use as a moral theory. This leads to Mill. Mill introduces evil desires. Mill asks does desiring something makes something a desire. Well in my opinion, yes, but not all desires can create happiness. This leads to the three major subjections to utilitarianism.
Firstly, in principle, it is just to condemn one if it maximizes happiness, regardless of innocence. For example, we talked about in class, putting an innocent man in jail in hopes of stopping the actual killer. Well, Utilitarianism says that this is just and can morally be done because the end creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, in which people find peace in knowing someone has been caught, although they do not know it is the wrong person. Secondly, utilitarianism can justify various forms of oppression. In other words, what’s good for the majority, might make the minority suffer. Again, in class, we discussed teaching Catholicism to a Muslim during school hours simply because the majority of the parent board would like Catholicism to be taught at the public school. Lastly, deathbed promises. Utilitarianism says that you do not have to fulfill these promises so if it inconveniences yourself because you cannot bring happiness to a dead person, though you can bring yourself pain or suffering.
Thus, Foucault creates his own ethical theory surrounding subjectivity, freedom, truth, power, and discourse. Foucault says that there are three ways in which a subject is created. But first, you must understand that individuals just are. Anyway, the three ways are the sciences, divided practices, and technologies of the self. The science or those who find themselves through scientific means, such as biology, like gender. Divided practices involve the exclusion of certain groups. Technologies of the self are the identification through means such as sexuality. From this, Foucault creates an implicit relation between the pattern of discourse and the relations of power. Foucault’s biggest clarity at this point is as follows;
The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power: contrary to a myth whose history and functions would repay further study, truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. There is a battle ‘for truth’, or at least ‘around truth’ — it being understood once again that by truth I do not mean ‘the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted’, but rather ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true’, it is understood also that it’s not a matter of a battle ‘on behalf of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays. It is necessary to think of the political problems of intellectuals not in terms of ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, but in terms of ‘truth’ and ‘power’. ‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation, and operation of statements. ‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces, and which extend it. A ‘regime’ of truth. The problem is not changing people’s consciousnesses — or what’s in their heads — but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth. It’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time. The political question, to sum up, is not error, illusion, alienated consciousness, or ideology; it is truth itself. (Foucault & Gordon, 1980)
This was an excerpt from a 1977 interview of Foucault himself, in which he explains the relationship between power and truth. I feel as though this is a perfect way to summarize Foucauldian ethics as it explains his foundation of power and subjectivity in truth. In short, Foucault says the use of the truth determines which belief is told and how that belief is used, and to Foucault, the acceptance of a specific truth, and its resulting actions of submission creates power. Foucault’s version of the truth is his notion that what we choose to believe influences what we believe we have to do, and in deciding what we have to do, we inherently abide by specific structures that create and reinforce the truths we allow ourselves to accept. It is a cycle of creation of an object, determination of subjective truth, and submission to the entities responsible for the creation of the initial situation, in the first place. Therefore power is created, and Foucauldian ethics exists.
In my opinion, Foucault’s ethics are more accurate and historically represented than utilitarianism and deontology. Both theories are good theoretical theories, but if they were actively participated in and enacted, they simply would not be realistic enough to hold up in our society, whereas I genuinely believe Foucauldian theory could have a chance at survival as it was founded through historical research and pattern observation and as we all know history is cyclic and is always bound to repeat itself over and over again, the same as Foucault’s theory on power and subjectivity being a never-ending cycle.