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Davis, W.A. (2005). Men of Good Will: Toward an Ethic of the Tragic. Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Stud., 2(3):197-219.

(2005). International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 2(3):197-219

Men of Good Will: Toward an Ethic of the Tragic

Walter A Davis

The Problem

Two examples will take us to the center of the ethical problematic I want to develop here.

On September 12, 2001 Pat Tillman, an NFL football player with the Arizona Cardinals, reached the decision to forsake an $8.5 million contract and enlist in an Army special forces unit in order to join the fight against terrorism. In keeping with the ethical character of that choice, Tillman refused all media efforts to publicize his action. Tillman's unit was deployed in Iraq and later in Afghanistan where Tillman was killed in action in April of 2004. Pat Tillman is rightly regarded by many as an ethical hero. His action also fulfills, as we will see, that criteria Immanuel Kant established in an ethical theory that remains central to contemporary ethical philosophy.1

My second example is taken from a play by Shakespeare. Hamlet, faced with a situation analogous to that of Tillman, makes very different choices. Called by his father to avenge his murder, Hamlet gives the moment of decision over to the delays and detours of reflection. In thinking, he discovers complications that overturn all the assumptions on which his father's command - or what Lacan calls the Symbolic order - is based. Hamlet discovers not just the impossibility of any direct or simple action but the need to overturn the central beliefs of his age. Out of that revolution of thought, which is also an existentializing process that completely transforms his relationship to himself, Hamlet comes to a new ethic, one shorn of all guarantees, given over to the contingencies of existence.

Both examples, as I will show, address the questions and criteria that Kant brought to the center of ethics. Kant's basic effort, briefly, is to ground ethics in the autonomy of the individual ethical agent by establishing the rational criteria that must be satisfied to attain a positively good will. All other foundations for ethics - religious belief, social norms, ideological allegiances, and pragmatic exigencies - are invalid because they compromise the principle on which ethics must depend: that one's values, choices, and acts be a function of one's freedom.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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