Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Towards a Cohabitation of Ethics

Butler’s third and final lecture, “Towards an Ethics of Cohabitation,” was the final piece in her troika on visibility, personhood, and democratic participation. Taking the notion of queer alliances—those alliances of groups or individuals with divergent or different attitudes and aims for furthering shared goals—a step further, Butler examined how visibility can force and also confound ethical behavior.

But what *is* ethical behavior? In a country as diverse and divided as the United States, is it even possible to talk about shared ethics? The Tea Party and Occupy movements—in their own queer alliance—maintain that the bank bailouts in 2009 were unethical, either because they were a meddlesome intervention into the free market, or because they rewarded reckless and possibly criminal behavior. Yet the board members of those financial institutions as well as a number of policymakers argue that bailing out the banks was completely ethical (as well as necessary). The existence of the Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine demonstrates that ethics among readers of the New York Times are various and often in conflict with one another.

The ethics of cohabitation seems to be less important than the cohabitation of ethics. Otherwise, how can the United States as a country (or global alliances) move forward and make headway against the many challenges now facing it? It’s also possible that forcing potentially mutually exclusive ethical ideals into alliances just won’t work. Perhaps, as Anand Giridharadas suggests, ethics (or principles) should be subordinated to facts, and we should all just “get over ourselves” and our precious ethics in order to get along and get ahead.

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