The Poverty of Ethics

The Poverty of Ethics

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Why the left should reclaim ethics and morality for itself

The Poverty of Ethics stands the usual moral-political dichotomy on its head. It argues that moral principles do not in fact underlie or inform political decisions. It is, rather, the conceptual primacy of political discourse that rescues ethics from its poverty. Our ethical convictions receive their substance from historical narratives, political analyses, empirical facts, literary-educational models, political activity and personal experience. Yet morality, essentially, doesn’t leave room for relativity: not every ethos deserves to be titles ‘moral’. Hence the book argues further, it is the left ethos, as it has evolved over years, which forms the basis for ethics: morality is left-wing! Clarifying and justifying this seemingly odd statement is the main purpose of this essay.

Appealing to philosophical ideas on the essence of language, on meaning, on understanding and persuasion, this book scrutinizes the system of concepts and attitudes informing our common view of the relationship between the moral and the political. It argues that the traditional conception of morality is far too narrow to form a basis for political thought and political action. Its carefully unfolded argument concludes that none of the current philosophical accounts of morality can be translated into terms of political will, much less into direct political action. Being too general and elastic, neither abstract moral principles, ethical-aesthetic sensibilities, nor the ethical demand emanating from an Other, can fulfill these tasks. Instead, the false primacy of the ethical over the political and the infinite flexibility of vacuous moral discourse are often mobilized to launder wrongs and delegitimize radical left politics. Gratification of the moral high ground becomes an implement of de-politicization, and thus a powerful political instrument in the hands of those seeking to shore up the existing order.


  • The Poverty of Ethics, Anat Matar’s book, is a rich essay, full with insights, which manages to bridge the divide between a serious philosophical discussion and actions and values belonging to the political reality. The solidarity which Matar is interested in promoting ensues from the ability to detect historical-economical structures of injustice and to recognize their oppressed victims. Matar aims at establishing a kind of solidarity, whose model she finds in Karl Marx. But she also describes in detail the limitations of the explanatory power of the Marxist model. Matar has no presumption to prophesize that such a solidarity would indeed be established. Her optimism is the optimism of the political activist rather than the investigating philosopher.

    Dr. Rami GodovitzHaaretz
  • It is not easy to explain how a philosophy book can be so relevant and biting, while it’s based on close readings in philosophical texts. The Poverty of Ethics is a brave book, because it reminds us not only how important philosophy is for everyday political discussion, but also for the self-criticism of academia and its ties to the governing powers. In an exceptional manner, the book forges links between wide streams of thought and local action – and lack of action. Matar chooses to do this through a serious, non-compromising examination of the ideas and of the philosophers identified with them in the last hundred years. Unlike reference-loaded discussions in professional journals, she discusses these philosophers and their ideas in a direct and impartial manner; the intrigued reader will find here a fresh – almost respect-less – examination of “big names”. If this sounds hard to digest, the book presents alongside its criticism a clear optimistic vision and a huge love – for philosophical thinking (especially that of Wittgenstein and Derrida); for Left thinking, to which the book is explicitly committed; and to the people who create, alongside Anat Matar, possibilities of solidarity. The Poverty of Ethics is not merely an intellectually brilliant book, but a political and humane spotlight, which warns us against the penetration of fascism to everyday life, including everyday academic life. This is an exciting and magnanimous book, and I hope that the future generation of researchers and thinkers will be directed by its light.

    Prof. Nitzan Lebovic, Chair of Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values, Lehigh UniversityHazman Hazeh
  • In today's confusion, when the lowest form of political opportunism is regularly masked as the appeal to highest ethical principles, Anat Matar's book sets the record straight. It doesn't argue for the subordination of ethics to political pragmatism, quite the opposite. It demonstrates how authentic ethics are always grounded in a basic political decision. It is rare that one sees such a combination of progressive political engagement and deepest philosophical reflection as in The Poverty of Ethics. Matar's book is a guide for all those who are trying to survive with dignity in a topsy-turvy world that is our own.

    Slavoj Zizek