Sade's Ethical Economies

By Martyn, David | The Romanic Review, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Sade's Ethical Economies


Martyn, David, The Romanic Review


Recent criticism has underscored the difficulty of coming to terms with the ethical consequences of literary interpretation. On the one hand, criticism seems unable to avoid ethical judgments. Tobin Siebers, recalling the etymological senses of the word criticism `to cut' or `to distinguish,' argues that literary analysis is obliged to make critical choices that reveal a certain character or ethos: "literary criticism is inextricably linked to ethics" (1). On the other hand, to embrace a deliberately "ethical criticism" would seem to compromise the disinterestedness that, beginning with Kant, is often held up as a prerequisite for aesthetic judgment. An interest in certain moral values threatens to restrict the freedom that is required for unprejudiced rhetorical or formal analysis. Stephen Heath, for example, writes of "a feeling that moral terms are an irrelevant weakening of analytic rigor" (129). Criticism, it would seem, can neither avoid ethics nor reconcile itself to the idea that it must promote a specific moral agenda.(1)

A possible way out of this double bind might be to center the discussion of ethics and literature on structures that are economic in nature: circular exchange, sharing, stealing, giving. Focusing on economic structures would seem, on the one hand, to preserve all the advantages of remaining comfortably within the confines of formal analysis, for an "economy" is a law governing a system of value and exchange that is inherently formal or formalizable in nature. At the same time, however, the phenomenon of exchange is necessarily tied up with issues of generosity and magnanimity, issues that seem, in other words, to be inherently ethical in nature. As Marcel Mauss's essay on the gift demonstrates, analyses of systems of exchange, of give and take, seem of themselves to lead to "ethical conclusions" (76).

If articulating ethics with economics seems like a good way to face the ethical dilemma of criticism, then two authors who might lend themselves particularly well to such an attempt are Sade and Adam Smith. Smith, the philosopher most closely associated with the law of supply and demand, also wrote a Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) in which many of the same structures that he later used to describe the mechanisms of the market function as the principles of a system of moral judgment (Raphael and Macfie 20-25). Sade, that most radical of eighteenth-century moralists, also has a particular interest in economic structures that has long been an emphasis of critical interpretation (Barthes; Henaff). The interest of a confrontation of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments with Sade's Justine, ou Les Malheurs de la vertu derives in part from the fact that the analysis of ethical interaction in economic terms seems to lead, in the two books, to diametrically opposed conclusions.

For Smith, ethics are essentially economic in nature. While David Marshall rightly insists on the theatrical aspects of Smith's moral philosophy (167-92), the privileged paradigm of ethical interaction in Smith is the marketplace. When distinguishing other human feelings from those sentiments he considers to be specifically moral, Smith often insists on the economic structure of moral sentiments as their defining characteristic. Love, for example, does not figure in Smith's system as a moral sentiment, whereas gratitude does precisely to the extent that it is inscribed in a strictly balanced system of give and take. Whereas love, Smith writes, is pleased with the good fortune of the person loved, "without regarding who was the author of his prosperity," the feeling of gratitude demands that one be personally instrumental in promoting the happiness of one's benefactor (68).(2) Gratitude, it would seem, is like a debt that has been incurred and that must be acquitted. Analogously, Smith uses the same argument to distinguish the feeling of hate, which Smith does not qualify as moral, from the specifically moral feeling of resentment: whereas hatred is satisfied by the mere knowledge that one's enemy has suffered some misfortune, the moral feeling of resentment demands that one be oneself the cause of one's enemy's distress (69). …

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