An Ethics of Atonement


A few years ago I presented a paper entitled “An Ethics of Revenge” (perhaps I’ll publish parts of it on the blog someday soon). In this paper I looked closely at Simone de Beauvoir’s essay “An Eye for an Eye,” published shortly after the Second World War. Beauvoir observed that victims of WWII atrocities felt little satisfaction from the judicial process of convicting war criminals. The punishment was so far removed from the crime, and at such a distance from those directly affected, that Beauvoir sought to develop an ethics that would fully do justice to/for the victims. Such a theoretical system would involve a more direct involvement on the part of the harmed, if not directly participating in, the sentencing and punishment.

At its limits this is an anarchic system whereby individuals are responsible for their own retribution. No fool however, Beauvoir leads us to aporia, stating that this would likely result in an indefinite cycle of violence. Yet, this violence would be the risk of persons involved, and most do not have the courage or fortitude to enact or endure harms anyway, says Beauvoir. I contend that if the parties involved mutually recognize the crimes and pains, and grant the victim his or her own means of punishment, the cycle would close itself after the first crime is reconciled. For the rape victim who punishes her rapist, the possibility of revenge from friends or family seems to close itself due to the historically, physically, and mentally harmful act of rape. In other words, would we really want to take our revenge on a victim who took her revenge on her rapist? While more pacifist or judicially-minded individuals would like to continue the cycle of violence, punishing the rape victim for her own crime without taking into account what brought it about, I am inclined to see the dormant possibilities in retributive violence (a controversial statement to be sure, a statement which needs further development and clarification).

Beauvoir’s point: this firsthand distribution of justice would satisfy one’s thirst for vengeance, although, she notes, no punishment will resurrect the dead, and so full satisfaction seems impossible. With this ethics of revenge nevertheless, the victim at least feels they have done everything in their power to make right, on their own terms, and in their own way.

One of the many difficulties inherent in an ethics of revenge would be the timeframe in which a vengeful act would be allowed or prohibited. Many films play with this idea of time and history, as the most interesting in the revenge genre depict characters who were harmed years or decades prior, and then develop a complicated plan to take their vengeance. These extreme cases aside, prior to an ethics of revenge, given the time between crime and its punishment – in judicial or personal forms – an ethics of atonement warrants some consideration. A chance for atonement precedes vengeance.

From the Middle English at-onen, to become reconciled (“at one” with someone), atonement is a bringing into accord or harmony relations between individuals. Harmony can be restored in two ways. The first is via what I have called revenge. A victim asks, or forces, their victimizer to make amends. But in this version of atonement we see a definite lack of authenticity that would perhaps grant the victim their satisfaction. The victimizer maintains his sovereignty because his hand was forced, so to speak, to make right. This individual did not see the harms caused, did not recognize the person(s) as harmed, and did not use his own will power to atone.

The second, and perhaps more personally satisfying for the victim, is an atonement that appears spontaneously, from the mind and will and body of the victimizer. In this fashion the victimizer destroys part of his sovereignty, sacrificing himself for the crimes committed (and we should see the Biblical Atonement here). The victimizer need not unwillingly put himself into the hands of his victim but does so for their satisfaction in order to become reconciled.

I would suggest that the first is the more often employed – as Georges Bataille has shown us with countless examples, to lose a part of our ego, even for a moment, leads to great anguish. It is frequently the case, and the easier one to be sure, to simply and unwillingly do lip service to our victim, thereby retaining our personally justified harmful actions.

The authentic sense of atonement, on the other hand, dispenses with our own sense of whether we were justified in harming another. In this account the harms done are on the side of the victim, regardless of victimizer’s intention or victim’s possible misreading of an intention. A spontaneous atonement (hopefully) reconciles. But the bigger question might be how to interpret whether a harm has been done. I believe the “I didn’t know” excuse to be conniving rather than genuine however. The emotional affect on the victim’s face, in gestures, in postures, in language, can be pre-cognitively interpreted many have argued (“Just as we may extend the circle of touched and touching hands (in shaking or holding hands with another), so our body can ‘annex’ or ‘incorporate’ the emotional body of another” [Sue Cataldi, Emotion, Depth, and Flesh]) – whether we choose to answer the other’s call is the important issue for an ethics of atonement.

An ethics of revenge is practiced more than an ethics of atonement. The latter is the more difficult, so we resort to the former; or, the former would be unfortunately descriptive while the latter prescriptive. I claimed our sovereignty is at stake in atonement in a way it is not in waiting for revenge to happen to us – this could also be called fear. Sara Ahmed writes, “fear responds to what is approaching rather than already here. It is the futurity of fear which makes it possible that the object of fear, rather than arriving, might pass us by” (The Cultural Politics of Emotion). Thus an act of revenge may happen to/against us in the future, but it also might pass us by. We do not answer to the harms we’ve done immediately because there is no fear in the present; we will not answer the call of our victims, out of our own volition, because it would deny our sovereignty, and because we impatiently await them to confront us about it instead (a further injury certainly). Fear has already prepared us to fight their claims of wrong-doing or to flee the scene before such a confrontation occurs.

We have never been ethical: Reflections on Freud, Bataille, and the New Monogamy


The commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” is the strongest defense against human aggressiveness and an excellent example of the unpsychological proceedings of the cultural super-ego. The commandment is impossible to fulfil. … What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defense against it [the unshakable super-ego] can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself! … [S]o long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will, I fancy, preach in vain. I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands; but the recognition of this fact among socialists has been obscured and made useless for practical purposes by a fresh idealistic conception of human nature [namely, that the abolition of private property will eliminate difference that causes aggressiveness].

– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, quoted in Stanley Cavell, “The World as Things”


I keep returning to Bataille’s work, less for its description or account of ontology, but for its status as a work of ethics. In a way Bataille engages in a dialogue with Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Bataille’s ethics is not prescriptive and it barely qualifies as descriptive – he mostly describes situations in which he does not know firsthand, e.g., Aztec sacrifices, potlatches, asceticism (not including eroticism, which he knew much about in practice). The (human) problem he is unraveling is the near impossibility of being ethical because, for him, to be ethical is to be a “madman [sic].” To be ethical is to sacrifice some part of a self, otherwise whole and impenetrable, for an other.

An impossibility because we are all a little bit conservative, solipsistic, neurotic (as a blockage to getting outside habits, safety, yourself – an anxiety about taking action in the world). Bataille, alongside Sade, asserts that there is no transgression of law or norm without recognition of that law or norm. One claims the existence of God to then destroy the claim, for instance. Ethics and transgression go hand in hand if we rigorously, and positively, consider Bataille’s philosophy. For Sade transgression was the surpassing of law for individual pleasure. What Bataille and Beauvoir discover, in her essay on the Marquis, is that within Sade’s own writing there is a definite lack of pleasure in sovereign transgression – pleasure is always better when shared.

Bataille has a strong sense of community, or what I prefer to call it, interpersonal relations. The ethical moment, however brief, is between individuals, one opposed or against an other (the scary kind of other), and then the coming together of these two (or more) individuals to create something new. If law or norm is to retain or secure an individual’s status as whole, sovereign, independent, the law is the above: conservative, solipsistic, neurotic (and all three are linked I would argue). Dissolving my self, in belief or body, for the other is radical (abnormal), interpersonal (transgressive), intimate (ethical).

The degree to which we let ourselves divest from tradition, solipsism, neuroses is the ethical moment; before this moment, in order to transgress what is normal and habitual, our recourse to traditional ontological, social, and cultural modes must be firmly situated and assessed (and we should see Bataille’s affinity with Nietzsche’s thought here).

More concretely: Staking a future in a slightly left of center political party is in fact conservative, for it plays within the confines of the dominant political and economic system; a lucrative career, even in the arts, suggests the same. The dreaded statement, subtly a criticism of abnormal romantic and sexual situations, “That’s fine for them by I could never do that,” is fundamentally solipsistic and neurotic because it entrenches the individual in his/her beliefs over and against individuals who stand outside them, forces them not to act or change the conservative position.

But rather than berate such acts and statements as the above, Bataille suggests instead that ethical behaviour is a matter of degree. Depending on the individual, reading detective novels for the thrill of Thanatos is the same as a transgressive sexual encounter. The degrees to which we can stray from traditional behaviour and ideas, always briefly – we must return from the summit to work, regain our strength, etc., says Bataille (a ring of the inauthentic/authentic of Heidegger similarly applies) –, we can call ethics. A traditional and normative tendency acts as the ground for the ethical encounter. In a sense, then, we have never been ethical – the moment has passed and must be attempted anew each time.


I have been asked why I retained the coinage ‘non-monogamy’ to describe alternative practices to monogamy; these practices should stand on their own or something to that effect, the criticism suggests. But as I outlined in a previous entry, that opposition is not shrinking nor is the dismissiveness of alternative practices by popular media aiding the cause (Rolling Stone‘s “Millenials and Sex”). Despite the historical truth of romantic and sexual relationships, that we have never been monogamous[1] (and if we would like to think we have been then a new definition of love would then be necessary), I want to hold on to that radical and oppositional coinage precisely because of its inherency to confront. On the other hand I suggested that non-monogamy, as a term, signifies a range of differing practices which allow for a strong sense of the term polyamory (many or multiple loves), which is of course the more challenging task.

I’m growing more comfortable with the phrase the New Monogamy to describe contemporary romance in general. We like our long-term single partner relationships but we are more inclined to negotiate the terms of that relationship/contract rather than adhere to some common sense definition. New Monogamy: not better, not all that strange, just a little different. This would imply that we have much work left to do, i.e., in our attempts, valiant and lackluster, to not entirely adopt the normalcy of a two-partner relationship and the contemporary gender, social, and cultural ethos that comes along with it. (This ethos, I’d argue, is a concern for political equality – the fight to allow individuals to appear as individuals in public – while neglecting ethical equality – forgetting goodness and love as personal expressions for one or more persons at a time. We protest Avril Lavigne’s racism but don’t seem to care about our neighbours or that our partners treat us terribly [or vice versa]).

Non-monogamy, given what I’ve quickly noted about Bataille’s philosophy, retains the normalcy that we unfortunately live in and with while simultaneously overcoming it. In this way our traditional tendencies are acknowledged; acknowledgment would be the first step towards ethical behaviour.[2] Where we go from there is up to the individuals involved.


[1] Monogamy would be something like Aristotle’s good life. Monogamy is achieved when both individuals reach their deaths, but even then, since chance plays a large part in the concept of the good life, both partners would have to be entirely secure and confident in their encounters with others, which would more or less suggest that no other person takes a sexual or romantic interest in either partner. The good life, like monogamy, is painfully distant and perhaps impossible.

[2] I prefer to discuss and model a theory of ethics on observable behaviour or action rather than ideas or Western complacency (relativism or ‘meaning-well’). Action implies an engagement with others, a necessary component of ethical theory.