The Ethics of the Shrug

I have quite a fond memory of one particular high school maths class (an odd juxtaposition for most, I’ll admit). We were all handing in our latest assignment at the beginning of the class. My friend went last. His dog had just died, and he was understandably too upset over the weekend to finish it off. The teacher, not in much of a negotiating mood, told my friend he was going to fail the assignment, to which my friend, without really much of an expression at all, shrugged and left the class (I must remind you that this was at the beginning of class).

Anthropologist Kath Weston identifies the shrug as a gesture of resignation, and it is, for sure. But resignation of what? A shrug is as much an act of negation as it is a positive decision. After all, a shrug is to say, “hey, it’s not really worth the fuss.” Barring the nihilists among us, a shrug is not actually a retreat from the world (as the word “resignation” might suggest) but a focusing in on it. In that moment, what mattered to my friend, he decided, was not the assignment. Whatever he went off to do that day (I never asked), he was better off doing that. A shrug is an acknowledgement of our finiteness, the finiteness of everything. Our shrugs places us in the hyper-specificity of the moment; action extends neither forwards into consequence and explanation nor backwards into reason and motivation, it stays obstinately where it is, in the moment when it happens. It revels in its smallness. We are all finite, and to force us to be in-finite is an act of violence.

But is this not what normative ethics forces us to do (those that try to change the world at least)? To account for all our inconsistencies and contradictions, and to show that this somehow makes our actions “ethically nullifying?” This, for Naisargi Dave, is the “tyranny of consistency.” We are pulled outwards by our limbs, expanding from our finite bodies into the infinite ideal, and somewhere along the way there just isn’t enough of us to fill up infinity. Expansion is futile. We give out and we give up.

Yet we shouldn’t mistake the shrug as merely the act of giving up in the face of futility. Often it is a call to do something else, something different. It is what Roy Scranton calls learning how to die. In a sense, consistency is a sort of death. In a fully consistent world, much of what we take to be life has no more meaning: no more thought, no more love, no more choice. And in the face of this death (which for some have already arrived; it is almost 30 years ago that Fukuyama declared the death of history), hope is found in that ostensibly negative gesture of a shrug, of not caring. Ironically, ethics appears where we least expected.


Naisargi Dave, “Something, Everything, Nothing; or, Cows, Dogs, and Maggots,” Social Text 130, vol. 35, no. 1 (March 2017): 37-56.

Kath Weston, “Political Ecologies of the Precarious,” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 2 (Spring 2012), pp. 429-455.

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