Ethics, Racism, Sexuality, and Identity

Ken Monfort


What are ethics? Could they be moral guidelines? Are they possibly decisive implicit standards? Ethics are basically the glue that holds a power-knowledge regime together. Ethics are the fibers that guide each of our motivations, actions, decisions, and intuitions. Ethics are a guiding force that can be broken down into four categories, introduced by Foucault as (1) Ethical Substance, (2) Mode of subjectivation, (3) Ethical Work, and (4) disassembling the Self (Telos). These categories help bring ethics into a more clear focus and help us as human to understand more of ourselves as subjects, objects, power-knowledge "regimes". In the course of this paper, I will explain and discuss more the identity of ethics, the constructs of ethics, incorporate some of the genealogy of ethics, and include the four-fold categories introduced by Foucault as the categories of Ethics. As a final example, I will be introducing the concept of racism, through the construction of its institution and its theoretical boundaries. This essay at the end should give you more perspective on the construct of ethics and its impartial identity.

Ethics is identified with moral guidelines. Foucault tries to break apart this institution and incorporate new identities when ethics is discussed. Foucault discusses four categories that exist when describing the construct of ethics. Ethics has an ethical substance, that which he defines as, "the way that the individual has to constitute this or that part of themselves as the prime material of their conduct." (Rabinow, xxix). This methodology is used when we are trying to identify ourselves. A good way to describe this would be to look at exclusive identity groups e.g. Gay Asian Pacific Islanders Association. This is a way that these individuals have to describe their actions through their group. They make it a strong identity in their growing up process, and it's very common. I recently attending a Queer People of Color (QPOC) Leadership Summit, and found that these individuals were using this conference as means of finding identity as queer people of color. The construct came from the unity, the diligence behind their words, the pain behind their words, and the action behind their words formulating groups of "color" dedicated to portraying a unified identity.

The only question that I have regarding this formation of exclusive groups would be, "where does your own individual identity occur?" One of the speakers at the summit spoke about her experience as "Queer Chicana". In her discussion, she made the statement along the lines that if we organize ourselves into groups, formulating a similar identity, we have, in the end, taken on that group identity, and made our own individual identity very much invisible. If this construct of ethics in our system is purely based on group identities, we will never find our own self-identity, that which Foucault's strives for (even writing an entire book, The Care of Self)

A second category introduced by Foucault in the construct of ethics is the Mode of Subjectivation. This is "the way in which the individual establishes his relation to the rule and recognizes themselves as obligated to put it into practice." (Rabinow, xxx). This statement means that you have this common practice identity, basically, you have all these implicit rules about how one should act, be, desire, and so forth, and you force yourself to follow these rules. This is very prevalent in many cultures, especially in cultures that make subjection a part of their governmental regime. These standards can take the forms of tyranny, dictatorship, self-identity, group-identity, and the like.

One form of subjectification that I will elaborate on later in the paper is the institution of Racism. The power behind Racism is a very intricate phenomenon and its rules are unclear. It is different for everyone because no one can identify standards that define the experience of Racism. Angela Davis has some idea about racism, however, she assumes that the rule against hypocrisy should never be broken. She obligates herself to the rule that no matter who you are, oppressed or oppressor, you should never have a double standard. This obligation tends to cause many emotional reactions, however, we find that if we can alleviate those obligations, that maybe, just maybe, we won't have so much hatred and ignorance in the world.

Thirdly, we have Ethical Work as a category. Ethical work is "the work one performs to attempt to transform oneself into the ethical subject of one's behavior. (What are the means by which we can change ourselves in order to become ethical subjects?)" (Rabinow, xxxiii). For Foucault, this was the highlight category, because it incorporates all three categories (ethical substance, mode of subjectivation, and ethical work) into one. This describes the means, the methods uses to actually get to that form of askesis, the practices and uses of self-development and awareness. There are obviously many opinions out there about how to achieve self-awareness and self-acceptance. However, the opinion I want to focus on for this category is expressed in an interview with Foucault about homosexuality. The interview identified that "Foucault insisted that gays should not privilege the model of individual rights or heterosexual marriage." This told his readers, his homosexual readers and fellow identifiers, to stop trying to reinvent the wheel, but to incorporate new ideas and new identities for themselves. That way, they can be proud their accomplishments. If I created a new identity as a married homosexual, I would support it, and therefore make a part of my identity and construct it as an accomplishment in my life. This statement is not implying you obligate yourself to this new structure, but in fact, critically identify a new course of action and try to make it more progressive. You would want to have a structure that helps to create more awareness and helping hand for all individuals.

The fourth category in Foucault's four-fold ethical construct is the Telos, or the disassembling of the self. This is the "place an action occupies in a pattern of conduct. It commits an individual…to a certain mode of being, a mode of being characteristic of the ethical subject." (Rabinow, xxxviii) This would describe the place where this action would reside. For example, at the leadership summit for queer people of "color", it took place at UC Berkeley. This is definitive because of the implicit attributes that UC Berkeley has to offer: diversity, equality, education. This also encompasses the space that people consider themselves involved into, e.g. "safe spaces", "black spaces", "people of color spaces". Each of these identities constructs the place where the ethical subject is being formulated.

This category seems to imply a theoretical space and architecture identity. This might make one wonder, "do places make the individual?" If the place makes the individual, then it can be understand the external factors are mostly what make our identity, however, where does our own self-responsibility come into action, or occur? It made me wonder all throughout the leadership summit, obviously where these people came from, but more importantly why they had so much identity in the other. They have become the outsiders, and most of them seemed to want to be in this group identity. This desire only says something more about them, as individuals, however, the one thing that I picked up out this, besides that I needed to stop caring so much what people thought about me, but more the need not identity with a group, and more of a need to identify as my own individual person.

Ethics has much to offer when it comes to being a human being. I would like to discuss a couple aspects of where ethics originated. Foucault gives a brief genealogy of ethics in one of his articles, "On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress." In this article, he discusses that most of our ethics are seemingly stemmed from the Grecian and Roman identities. This is very plausible, however, not all of the identities in the Western hemisphere are purely of Grecian and Roman influence. Here in America, we have other cultures that are seemingly of different influences e.g. Arabian, African, Indian, Puerto Rican, Caribbean. Many of the existing cultures that are present in the United States of America demonstrate a melting pot of humanity and diversity. Its wonderful in my eyes to have so many perspectives, a little overwhelming for my head, but it educates each of us and destroys ignorance, which is sheerly beautiful. Foucault brings into the notion of ethics the Christian identity, theological concepts, and other religious affiliations. This brings to question of the sort of ethics that really exist in the United States and in us. Are we really trying to adapt our ethics to what Christian belief says? How did we get the ethics, the moral guidelines, that we have today to define ourselves?

Foucault brings in the identity of ethics in the previous article and a couple other articles, each describing and elaborating on the subject at hand: Ethics. In "The Ethics of the Concern for Self as Practice of Freedom," Foucault discusses the identity of liberation in our own ethical systems. Foucault would like to ask, "how free can we really be if we have already implemented our identities of the other?" This question asks whether or not you would prefer to take on the identity of the group or the identity of the individual. And if you take on the identity of the individual, what would be your standards? Are your standards actually your standards, or are they standards of previously adopted identities? Well, obviously, we are all products of our genetic make ups. We were raised in our environments for a period of time under one group identity, our family, and we eventually try to develop some sort of self identity. Over time, you as a human will probably find your own identity, but it will most definitely take a while. However, just remember, that you are probably still confined to the group identity to some extent, as much as anyone else.

In the "Hermeneutic of the Subject," Foucault gives a creative interpretation of the self as though it were an object or a text, a search for truth in the text, an imposition of truth onto the object. I believe this to be a part of the description of empathy because this discusses the concept of your own identity and what processes you need to take in order to fulfill self-awareness. This discussion of self-awareness seems to incorporate Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, as illustrated above. In this illustration, Maslow discusses the different human needs, and what our needs entail. As you can see, that in order for us to be full human beings and in that order for us to achieve this we have to experience all of these commodities before we actually identify with this need for self-actualization.

In one activity that Foucault presents in "Hermeneutic of the Subject", called askesis, he asks us to identify an activity that we would see as being self cultivating, something along the lines of exercising, sabbaticals, fasting, and the like. These activities are meant for us to expand our minds and help us to see what exactly we can do with ourselves. I came up with the idea of a sabbatical from masturbation. I found that it helped me to become more aware of my ability to stop seeing guys as sex objects and start thinking about the personality that may exist beyond sex. The idea had been given to me while in Catholic school as everyone kept telling me that masturbation is wrong and shouldn't be conducted. It did take me a while to try to stop masturbation, however, it was very difficult because I found it to be a sexual release. I tried many different ways of taking a sabbatical, e.g. running, reading, writing, meditating, and everytime that a sexual thought came into my head, I kept trying to use that motivation. However, my own personality kept telling me just relax and enjoy it, instead of focusing on what other people thought. If I was pleased by it, then I should do it. If it made me happy, I should do it. I recommend that everyone do the same, make themselves as happy as possible.

In summation, we find that Foucault identifies ethics as four-fold structure that exists inside a power-knowledge regime and are used within ourselves as constructs of our own personal, hermeneutic subject. Foucault outlined a genealogy of the current Western ethics that exist, and asked the question, why don't we just identify our own ethics instead of incorporating others' ethics? I can see a modern day example of this ethical structure, and it is the institution of Racism. Racism is a social construct that has been around for a while, and can obviously be broken down into many aspects of identity e.g. racism and appearance, racism and oppression, and the like. This institution of Racism has many of the characteristics of Foucault's four-fold ethical identity.

Racism first does identify that we are splitting ourselves off by the melanin in our skin. It has many rules of construct and a history of oppression. Racism recognizes people as being different and ignorant merely because of this one identifiable factor. In the first example I gave as "ethical substance", the way that the individual makes his conduct a primary factor of the ethical subject discussed. This methodology is used when people of any specific category make derogatory racial statements and/or discriminatory stereotypical identities about a mass majority. One identity that I was classified into while attending the leadership summit was that I was completely ignorant. The second example would be the guidelines of racism. This would ask the question, "what are the boundaries?" Does racism only come from an oppressor? Or can it come from the oppressed? Well, after experiencing the many remarks in my direction, I learned very quickly that we all have the capacity to be racist and at that point there needs to be rules to racism set that make it negative and not appropriate. Racism should never exist at all, however, it is fairly evident as long as stereotypes and slanders exist, that it will always be a problem. Racism should not be held as a double standard. Racism should not be viewed as being an "oppressor" idea. Racism should be eliminated in constructs of education.

The third attribute of Racism would be how far reaching it can be. Racism comes in many forms and it can happen practically anywhere you are, however, it does not condone anything. If the guidelines are set that racism is not allowed in areas of education and that respect should be required, then it should be understood that everything in that place of education is a question. A question implies arguments and answers; however, it is good to see both implications in a way that will help mold your mind.

The fourth attribute of Racism would be the places where Racism occurs. As I said before, racism can happen anywhere. The Racism that I experienced happened at a Queer People of Color Leadership Summit. I found this form of racism to be very inappropriate since it occurred in a place of where all were oppressed. However, I learned so much about people and their identities. The remarks that were made to me were obviously not directed at me personally, however, they were directed at my appearance. I was the social construct "white gay male", and they did not want to see me at a place of "color". My only reaction to the entire experience was that I had always thought that white was a color too. So, I had figured I could attend. I had anticipated some of the reactions that occurred, however, I did not expect to be an outcast because of it.

Racism has many attributes identified in the ethical four-fold analysis. It made me realize that these institutions are so socially constructed that they tend to define our own characteristics. When we realize that so much racial intolerance has encompassed us, it's a deepening realization. In my heart the day of the leadership summit, I wanted to get up on that stage and apologize for entire "white" race.

In summation, ethics are socially constructed boundaries that emerge in a four-fold identity, according to Foucault. These categories explain and define our characteristics, personality, and actions throughout our lives. Our ethics are practically what define most of our opinions, our decisions, and our actions. Foucault describes ethics in a couple of his works, there are probably many articles out there. However, I focused my paper on the description, the genealogy, and social construction of ethics. In the final segment of the paper, I gave a modern day example of racism and incorporated this concept into my own identity based on my experience. I found a new identity coming out of this experience at the UC Berkeley conference, I found more empathy, more understanding, and a new concept of the individual.

Works Cited

  • Rabinow, Paul. "Introduction" in Ethics (Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, Vol. I). Paul Rabinow (ed.), Robert Hurley, et. al. (trans.). New York: New Press, 1997, xi-xlv.
  • Seneca Valley Child Development. "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs." Internet. 17 March 2005.
  • Kim, Iggy. "The Origins of Racism: A Marxist Perspective." Internet. 18 November 2005, retrieved April 2006.