The Concept of an Ordinary Ethics or Ethics Founded in Man [1]
François Laruelle
Translated by Taylor Adkins


Ordinary ethics: the formula is ambiguous and perhaps must be abandoned. It does not designate the morality inscribed in everydayness, which is supposed to be that of man in opposition to a philosophical ethics. On the contrary, it is opposed to these two ethics taken together: it is opposed to their disjunction and their community. Philosophical ethics has always already decided what an ethics of everyday, common, vulgar or gregarious man would be, i.e. an ethics of mores; the philosophical is the disjunction of the common and the philosophical. The ordinary is something different, another thought which is not directly philosophical but does not deny philosophy: here it designates the point of identity and reality that renders the articulation of the philosophical and the common possible, a de jure identity prior to their disjunction and thus prior to their synthesis and presupposed by both. No reconciliation of the mores of philosophical ethics is attempted here because the latter is always already this reconciliation fulfilled or thought in its de jure possibility. The identity of the ordinary—this must be said of everything that follows—is not philosophically acquired, i.e. by a decision or scission, and it does not found a philosophy, i.e. a becoming and a reconciliation. If the ordinary is not a simple predicate that can be mastered philosophically, then it is an absolute experience of thought which only arises from itself, from its internal, immanent or transcendental nature, and for which an identifiable name is still lacking, if not the names of thought of the One or vision-in-One in opposition to philosophy as thought of Being or of the One in the prolonging of Being—i.e. as thought of scission and difference. Vision-in-One is more primitive or originary than ethics, and it is the ordinary that founds ethics here, not the other way around.

    Why “ordinary” for “One”? Because the One, such as we understand it as purely immanent vision-in-One rather than as the cornerstone of philosophical systems which is itself transcendent, is nothing but the essence of man, of every man prior to the scission or transcendence that Being—Being or Consciousness—places in him. What we call “ordinary man” is the essence of man such as it (is) given to itself and received without passing through the form of objectivity; specifically in a non transcendent mode, it is affect of itself and remains thus. This ultimate and transcendental life that man embodies is prior to his disjunction into common consciousness and philosophical consciousness, affected or pathological subject and rational subject of the moral law, body and soul, etc. There is no anthropo-logy here, whether it be ethical or not.

    This is therefore not the subject of the moral Law. The subject of the Law in general is subjected to the latter as well as identical with it. The subject is barred or divided by the form of the Law: empirical subject and rational subject, common man and philosopher, etc. Then the subject is doubled or redoubled by its necessary identification with the Law under the aegis of a universal subject which is the Law itself. In philosophy, ethics divides man (this is the condition of duty) and establishes itself in a real subject or in a supplementary ethics of the subject. Ordinary ethics refuses a priori (this is its foundation itself) every division of man as subject. On the contrary, it is founded upon the self-knowing indivision itself of man, an indivision or experience which remains in his own immanence and of which it will be said that it is non-decisional (of) self and non-positional (of) self. Ordinary ethics refuses to distinguish between two subjects, a distinction which is the condition of the “valid-for”… or of the philosophical type of normativity. Its problem is different: not to determine the will by the Law, but the Law itself by the specific reality of man. In the philosophical element, let’s recall that normativity or moral legality is not simply normative, for it exists two times, i.e. once as lacking (it is devalorized on behalf of philosophy) and once as excessive, in the sense that the moral Law, which is already transcendence and universality, in turn hovers in a supplementary philosophical transcendence beyond and above the most radical finitude of man. To bring the exercise and above all the truth of ethics from the heavens and the earth back towards its real base which is man’s immanence, to found it in man again rather than in itself and the autoposition of the Law: this is the effect of ordinary ethics.

    The guiding thread of the description and formulation of ethics is thus no longer the common moral judgment or its rational factum—i.e. a transcendent and authoritarian phenomenon. It is ordinary man, defined by his unique immanence (to) himself, by the lived phenomenon of immanence. Ethics can be founded in this man rather than in reason and in the moral law, in interest and calculation or in values, etc. Here founded means described by taking man as the guiding thread, rather than reason or moral judgment. This is to carry out the fundamental precept: the law is made for man, not man for the law. Man is not subjected to this precept, but instead he is what determines morality or what remains of it.

    By reality we therefore do not mean that which combines with possibility and is said of the latter in the sense, for example, that the moral law in Kant is the agency [l’instance] of the real itself and that the foundation of the real is ethical; instead, we mean that which is not itself ethical and thus is fully capable of determining ethics. Ordinary man does not have to search for the real in the possible of the Law, for it is he who gives his reality to the Law and can therefore transform it; he brings with him the primacy of the real over the possible, and the primacy of life over ethics. Contrary to rational man, ordinary man does not consent to the Law which is itself divided—this is the form of the Law as law of the Law—but de jure consents to the phenomenal reality of the Law, with the lived and immanent content of transcendence itself. Every ethics, every transcendent norm, is phenomenally lived “in” man in a non ethical and radically immanent mode. Thus, as Kant required, we do not found a new or another ethics, i.e. another philosophy. We describe, in a more radical way than any philosophy is capable of, the ultimate lived, i.e. transcendental givens of every possible ethics, whether spontaneous or philosophical.

    This is at the same time to liquidate the Kantian moralism in the position of the problem itself, because ethics will only be radically human on condition that the human essence of ethics no longer itself be ethical. Indeed, the condition of a rigorous thought of ethics, not itself impregnated by the moral, is to exclude every ethics, i.e. every possible transcendence—transcendence [la transcendence] itself rather than such or such a norm—of the conditions of man’s essence or thought, and to treat transcendence as a simple given. The essence of ethics is not itself ethical: this is an anti-Kantian and more profoundly anti-philosophical thesis that does not take on its broadest scope unless it can give a positive sense to the non- of this non-ethical determination of ethics. What does this mean?

    The problem is no longer to describe how finite human reason is capable of determining the will, but rather: how can absolutely finite human essence, more finite than any reason and autonomous due to its essence before any ethics, globally determine ethical acting or moral practice themselves. No longer: how to morally determine the will, but how to really or humanly determine ethics itself? Here the Kantian position of the problem is found again but transformed: since his radical immanence (to) himself is given, ordinary man, even more than Reason, manifests himself, describes himself and demonstrates himself as being by himself really practical, i.e. sufficient to determine ethics, to produce norms in accordance with their reality and not simply with their possibility. As internal transcendental experience, by definition he contains in himself a transcendental deduction of the entire sphere of norms, deduction not in accordance with a transcendental deduction of a transcendent experience, but with the immanent experience or reality which he is of himself.

    Concretely, how is the problem of determination, which is no longer ethical but of ethics itself, posed? Ethics is always a problem of the identity of transcendence. To determine the ethical sphere is to identify it in every sense of the word. What is it that allows us to recognize—in ourselves, finite men—for example, a non theological reality of ethics, a non transcendent reality of transcendence, a non normative reality of the norm, etc.? What is it that also allows us—this is the same thing—to say ethics [l’ethique], to isolate it in its identity rather than leaving it in its infinite philosophical autofoundation? To isolate it: i.e. to integrally subordinate it to man instead of letting it hover in its authoritarian auto-sufficiency?

   This problem is partially present in philosophy: pure form of the Law, or even the Other man are experiences of identity, either of Reason—purified of its empirico-theoretical manifold—or of the Other as liberated from the horizon of Being. But a thought of the ordinary pushes this demand further. The non ethical cause of ethics, that which must be able to determine it, is now the identity of man who is nothing but man, who is neither autonomous rational subject nor the Other. Man alone contains the condition of a purer experience of the identity of transcendence. The two contemporary attempts to renew ethics, i.e. the identity of the Other, either by the return to Kant and Fichte or in recourse to Judaism, remain philosophical operations that search for this identity in generalities too broad or too high for man, either ontological, religious, or in the mixture of the empirical Self and the rational Self, or in the exacerbation of an ultra-rational transcendence (reason as reason of the Other man) which remains without real foundation or immanence and suspended in the enigma of the Jewish tradition. In both cases, the absolute ground of immanence is lost or forgotten. We no longer seek the identity of Reason and the Will which are still worldly and ontological transcendent instances, but the identity of man in his ante-rational essence and of ethics which then is presented to him as a contingent and no longer determinant given. And we no longer seek it in the form of an a priori synthesis but in the form of an identity really given (to) self prior to any synthesis, which is itself a priori because it is a pure transcendental lived experience and acts in the form of a determination of ethics, which we shall call, for all these reasons and to be explained later on, a determination-in-the-last-instance.

    Philosophy is in general a system of doublets, i.e. unities which are divided or more than divided: which are differed or delayed; it is a system of unitary correlations where one term is divided and redoubled by the other term, and thus by itself in an approximate deviation, particular decision or economy: here it is a question of an invariant that every philosophical decision obeys—whatever it might be. Because it is so impeded or “blocked” by objectivity, for example by the moral law or its norms, a doublet or an empirico-transcendental circle continues to “circulate” and thus cannot bring about a rigorous thought of its object: the ethical thought of ethics will itself be approximately ethical due to various nuances, differences or delays. The moral law and every philosophically describable norm are so purified that they have the internal form of a doublet: somewhat empirico-aprioritic for the most concrete norms, somewhat apriorico-transcendental for the moral Law: its circularity is recognized in that the Law is what prescribes the obedience to laws; the essence of the Law is that there are laws and that to obey them is the object of this superior and constitutive law. This monotony of the Law is infinite like philosophy itself. The circular doublets—more or less interrupted and heterogeneous, more or less internalizing or productive—between common mores and philosophical ethics, between these mores and the moral judgment of “good will”, between popular or everyday morality and its philosophical reformulation, are to be found on a more elementary level . But the essence of ethics remains interpreted in the continuation itself of a given ethics, of a fact or a transcendence: whether or not this concerns sociological givens or a rational fact, the factum of moral judgment—it doesn’t matter. Reason, in its broadest generality and not simply in its ethical form, does not escape from this structure of the doublet: it is a mixture of philosophical decision and empirical mores. And since a philosophy always has a dimension or the equivalent of a transcendental or real dimension, it is a mixture of empirical mores and reality, a transcendental morality that forms a system with the possibility for every philosophy to detach from itself a section called “philosophy of ethics”.

    This ethical intuitivity has the gravest consequences. Since philosophy always begins by being given or by supposing such a transcendent fact to be given, it confirms, whatever the reversals and displacements carried out on it may be, that there are simultaneously unexamined empirical givens, purely statistical mores of immediate morality that it internalizes; and there is above all the claim of this fact—whether rational or not, theological or sociological—to be valid as thought’s point of departure and as the norm for the labor of the elucidation of essence. In every philosophy, there is not simply a load of “mawkishness”, as Nietzsche would say, or internalized mores: there is—in Nietzsche himself—a moral and more than moral authority which is never contested, the belief that there is if not a moral judgment, then at least there are givens of morality, the belief in the reality, sufficient despite everything, of a moral fact which philosophy transforms, transmutes and transvalues no doubt, but which it only destroys on the express condition of first confirming the authority of its existence itself, supposed necessary or co-determinant by and for the structure of philosophical decision. The moral thus penetrates into philosophy much more deeply than Nietzsche imagined, for it penetrates into the essence of the philosophical itself, which supposes the preliminary recognition of the authority of an object or a given—even to critique or destroy them, for it is the philosophical critique of morality itself that is moral rather than real, still impregnated by decision or practice, finality or teleology. Philosophical critique dissolves the most massive, most empirical forms of morality but conserves or internalizes the essence or form itself of authority—transcendence—and thus cannot really eliminate it in the description of the essence of ethics. It itself remains a part of its object, the essence of ethics remains a part of spontaneous or supposed ethics, and the latter not only becomes necessary as simple material or neutral object of philosophical labor, but as that which contributes to determining the essence of this labor itself.

    Only a rigorous, non-circular, scientific description can simultaneously suspend decision and finality in the description of the essence of ethics—i.e. the authority of a supposed given or of that which is given with and in the authority of exteriority (of tradition, mores, philosophy itself, etc.). An ordinary ethics is instead the result of a heteronomous labor upon this supposed ethics which would serve only as material here.

    In philosophy, supposed ethics is more than a material; it is a cause or a codetermination of philosophy itself. In non-philosophy, supposed ethics is reduced to the state of simple material or occasion. The ordinary implies an occasionalist conception of supposed ethics.

    The same description and analysis can be formulated on the theme of normativity. What is called normativity or legality is the specific causality of the norm or law, the fact of valid for…which covers all types of prescriptions beyond hypothetical or technical necessity: the theoretical or rational necessity of a functional system of rules; the normativity of “true” idealities; that of ideal norms themselves; and above all the categorical necessity of pure reason, etc. Our only interest here is the invariant of these various prescriptions, the valid for…Its phenomenal structure in philosophy is always the same: it is a universal that intentionally aims for the experience of a particular or of a singular simply in a mode of necessary application, or more exactly, of determination—with the reservation that the latter is neither conditional or technological, nor automatic and theoretical, but precisely to be realized. It is on the level of the should-be or of a necessity which has no type of technological or theoretical constraint. This is still a functional relation, but simultaneously impregnated by a categoricity superior to that of technical necessity and by an equally superior contingency or precariousness. What is important here? It is that the valid-for…is doubled and the same, simultaneously divided and redoubled in such a way that it is no longer known which is ethical and which is philosophical, since the two determinations switch places. The analysis of valence—of “value” [valance][2]—varies according to the philosophical decisions: from Platonic agathon to the Nietzschean type of valence-of-valence. The ideal itself of necessity or normativity, of the valid-for…in general, whatever its theoretical or practical mode, this idea of an intentionality of valence is ambiguous: it is simultaneously the specificity of ethics (that which every philosophy seeks to isolate and describe) and a philosophical operation of the most general specificities that come to take hold of it and redouble it. This mixture is characteristic of the philosophy of ethics and is inevitable, but it penetrates normativity or ethics itself, simultaneously devalorizes it and overvalorizes it in the same stroke—and in both cases on behalf of philosophy.

    No doubt it is characteristic of the philosopher to find virtue in the necessities or obstacles that he encounters; but man perhaps determines ethics, its special transcendence, without passing through philosophical mediation. The term “normativity” or “valence” hides an amphibology for him: the confusion of a purely ethical necessity with a philosophical necessity or necessity of an authority which perhaps does not necessarily reinforce the first, which attenuates it on the contrary by dissolving it and changing its nature. Ordinary man is the most radical way to do justice to the demand that appears in Kant and Lévinas without being clearly identified in their work, that of the autonomy of ethics in relation to the ontological. Is there a specific and irreducible nucleus or not, an original essence of necessity or ethical normativity? Or is it a simple mode of philosophical decision—rational or otherwise, yet still philosophical? Ordinary man is identically the postulation that there exists a specific, proper, internal essence of ethics and that it is not reduced to the invariants of philosophy.

    Is this then to entrust this care of ethics to itself rather than to ontology, rather than to a logic, an onto-logic in general? Is this to redouble it again, to devote it to autoposition, to the ethical-All, or even to the exteriority of a tradition, like the Judaic tradition? Precisely such an autoposition, but also such a care or concern, and even such a vigilance for the Other would be philosophical positions and procedures or would surreptitiously suppose one of these for the Other. Autoposition or extra-position—the extra-territorial position of ethics—are solutions chained to philosophical naiveté and could, from this point of view, always be deconstructed. Instead, it is a question of carrying out the following paradoxical gesture: the heteronomous foundation of transcendence outside itself, its non-redoubling, its absolute deposition, is the condition of its purest experience and is realized by the means and only by the means of the radical immanence or radical autonomy of man. Ethics can only be made autonomous in relation to philosophy by removing from transcendence its philosophical type of autonomy and authority through autoposition—through concern or alterity—in order to completely “found” it in the only non philosophical form of autonomy, which is that of the essence of ordinary man.

    Thus we shall distinguish between normativity, the normative or imperative function, which here will be suspended (but not destroyed), and the real or phenomenal content—the reality rather than possibility—of this function or of prescriptive statements. In a general way, it will no longer be explained by itself, by returning it to or philosophically re-folding it onto itself. If ordinary man is defined by a radical immanence deprived of all transcendence, he will not be allow to be grappled by ethical objects, by any normativity, but will experience the reality of the latter, i.e. ethical transcendence, in an immanent lived experience. He will distinguish the real nucleus of normativity or transcendence from its “transcendent” claim to be spontaneously valid for man and will dissociate transcendence from its traditional ethical usage as effective normativity, the supposed ethical causality on man.

    Let us specify that the problem that ordinary ethics poses and resolves is not that of spontaneous or philosophical ethics: namely, how to act according to whichever rules in the World, History and the City? But this problem: in accordance with whichever rules, how to act on the given of these ethical rules? The question is no longer: what to make of the ethical or moral, how to conserve and found the moral, how to act so that my action remains moral? But: what to globally make of the moral itself, of every possible ethics, be it spontaneous or philosophical, naïve or already founded by a philosophical decision? It is therefore not a philosophical problem because it supposes that it is possible to isolate and reduce to itself the sphere of ethics and philosophy, that of ethical decision. Ordinary ethics does not explain how and why we obey laws or not, an obedience which is an inheritance and an archaism: but that which we should and can make of ethics. The claim to explain the reason behind our obedience only comes from the domain of philosophy. This obedience and its difficulties are for ordinary ethics instead a given—but nothing more—that it needs as simple material. Ordinary ethics does not interrogate its possibility, it interrogates its reality and formulates rules of usage and transformation of this supposed given.

    Nevertheless, this is no longer a meta-ethics, an ethics of ethics, which would be a new philosophy. It is what could be called a “non-ethics”, i.e. the rigorous thought of the rules that are more universal than those of ethics, because they make it possible to transform the rules of ethics globally, and thus to produce a new meaning, a new “position” of the ethical sphere taken globally in relation to man as its real foundation.

    Ordinary ethics is neither Greek nor Jewish. Its foundation is no longer ontological or anthropological, for it no longer rests upon the tradition of a radical transcendence of speech or the text that ignores the necessity of an immanent or human foundation. It is the ethics (of) man as autonomous and solitary individual in his multiplicity; it is neither that of Being—a should-be—nor that of the Other man. Its point of view is that of science, of the pure description of reality; it is no longer the practico-teleo-logical point of view of philosophy. The latter, for example, redoubles the effect or causality of the norm in its essence; ordinary ethics, on the contrary, without denying the normative effect of the norm, the determination-effect of practical reason upon the will, nevertheless stops redoubling them and remains content with describing the nucleus of reality, of the pure phenomenal experience which is that of the norm and its effect, of the law and of its capacity to affect the will or determine it. If philosophy is a practice of determination—thus of decision and teleology united, of praxis and finality—science, such as it is practiced here, is a description of the already determined or of the real.

    Precisely because for it the essence of practice is not practical, or because the essence of ethics is not ethical, ordinary ethics is a radical phenomenology, so radical that it reduces the logos itself and its ethical variants by way of the radically thought phenomenon, by the most immanent phenomenal lived experience. It describes the phenomenal states-of-affairs of ethics, for example of the Other, the Law, spontaneous or supposed Mores, etc. and describes them by ceasing to take them directly as guiding thread—they are simple materials or occasions—but by taking as a guide the “noetic” immanence of the most radical phenomenal lived experience. If there is a noema of the Law, for example, it must be described not by phenomenological auto-reflection but from the strict point of view of human noesis, here understood as real immanence.

    We shall gather together all these problems by saying that ethical philosophy supposes an ethical intuitivity, an ethical objectivity or an ethical representation considered as necessary; i.e. transcendent ethical objects in which the thought of ethics or of its essence is supposed to be necessarily related as though to an intuition which supports the given from the outside; an intuition which does not give a simple material but is supposed constitutive of the essence of ethics itself. It is obviously such an intuitivity and such a naiveté that ordinary man suspends in order to unlock and describe the most immanent phenomenon of ethics.

    According to this destination of the ordinary, a double labor upon ethical transcendence is necessary:

1) purify its last empirical contents, those that philosophy still internalizes at least through their idealization; extract an absolutely pure “formality” of transcendence outside any “pathological” content. Nevertheless, it cannot be a question of a formalist purism and rigorism, a purism of pure reason, but a question of a suspension of all ethical intuitivity, i.e. of the necessary reference of thought to a supposed given ethical object that would constitute this thought.

2) for it is necessary to then simplify it of itself, i.e., more exactly, of its rational redoubling; to extract a transcendence which no longer has the form of a philosophical doublet, since every philosophy is founded upon such an intuitivity, objectivity or representation.

    Both of these tasks are in reality strictly the same: together they amount to describing an experience of transcendence which no longer has the philosophical form of the empirico-ideal mixture and is then delivered from intuitivity. Neither ethical rationalism nor ethical empiricism, but a non philosophical posture, simultaneously reducing the rational form of transcendence (i.e. its decisional and positional form—ontological in the broad sense) and its empirical contents or at least the empirical reference that is necessary to any formalism as philosophical decision. The true task is to transcendentally reduce or suspend the entire sphere of supposed ethics, in which formalism or rationalism, as well as the material phenomenology of values, still participates. The true rigorism is not itself moral but scientific, and ethics, i.e. autonomy, must itself be treated in an absolutely heteronomous way. It is a question of substituting scientific rigor for moral rigorism.

    The purest transcendence is thus neither confused with such a determined ontic norm, nor with the rational form of the law, which is still ontic, nor with the ontological difference to which any ethical decision whatsoever can be reduced. Formalism must prolong itself through the reduction of the form of the law itself, of the law of form, of practical reason and not simply of moral empiricism. What remains of it, what is the residue of this reduction of philosophical transcendence in ethics? It cannot be described in detail here. But all the aporias of the philosophical doublet are resolved by ordinary ethics:

1) The Law or Transcendence must be given in a human way and for man, i.e. by man, rather than by itself and on the grounds of ethical belief. Transcendence is founded in the purely immanent essence of man, not the other way around.

2) The Law, Transcendence, must be given in itself or as real: neither being ontic, nor ontological, or theological. That ethical transcendence be given in-itself, in flesh and blood or in its reality, can evoke a phenomenological realism. The greatest apriorism (empty of all transcendent content—including form) and the greatest realism (empty of all empirical content) are identical here. Neither formalism nor empiricism, but a priori realism will appear in the non ethical description of the phenomenal content of Transcendence or the Law.

3) Despite its human and only human foundation, not itself transcendent, the transcendence of the Law thus reduced is valid for man, but ultimately in a non authoritarian way. Indeed, it still determines, but it is instead the reality of the ethical (and super-ethical or philosophical) determination of man in the World, the City and History, etc. Better still: Transcendence is here the experience of a material or more exactly real a priori (neither formal nor material) which transforms the supposed ethical (spontaneous or philosophical) givens and thus determines neither man in general nor his action in the World, but the action of man upon the World, upon philosophy itself, and more particularly upon the fact of ethics taken globally.

    Ordinary ethics is no longer “sufficient” or authoritarian because it no longer claims to determine the essence of man himself, but instead is in turn given and determined by man. Only “radical” man by his essence can liquidate every teleology and finality and contain the non ethical essence of ethics. And likewise, it is not supposed ethics with its unassailable empiricism. Ordinary non-ethics is not the possibility, but the reality of human practice over philosophical or supposed ethics, a practice which does not itself obey the norms of the latter, norms which are not really absolute but always in danger of being involved in the more or less vicious circle of philosophy.

    By requiring a purely human or immanent non anthropological foundation, ordinary ethics not only rejects, for example, the Kantian position of the problem as too empirical, but sets out to protect Transcendence against its internalization and philosophical dissolution. In philosophy, which suffers from two contrary and complementary faults, there is still too much of the moral, too many simply idealized empirical mores and not enough authentic ethical meaning, i.e. Transcendence. Always too much Earth and Heaven at the same time. It is a compromise, a skillfully and technically regulated mixture of historico-social mores and transcendence. Ethics can only become pure if it reduces the form of the Law itself, Reason; but it can only be real, rather than another quasi-religious empiricism of the Other, if it is founded in the essence of man. Not between Heaven and Earth: ordinary ethics is neither of Heaven or Earth, but of man who is not their difference but instead takes his essence from himself. Only the greatest immanence, purely internal immanence with neither transcendence nor internal relation, can found the reality and validity of prescriptions in a non ethical way or outside moral authority. It is thus necessary to extract the rules and the nature of this practice that acts upon the given of ethical rules themselves.


[1] This essay was first published in Rue Descartes Vol. 7, 1993 as Le concept d’une éthique ordinaire ou fondée dans l’homme. The author has expressed his desire to make it known to the reader that this is an early attempt of ethically placing his project of non-philosophy which now goes by the moniker of non-standard philosophy.

Univocal would to thank the journal Rue Descartes and the Collège international de Philosophie for their generous support. Many thanks to François Laruelle and Taylor Adkins.