Thursday 1 July 2010

The Nature and Basis of 'Infinite Responsibility' in Levinas' Ethics

This is one of my recent MA Essays, on Levinas' theory of Infinite Ethical Responsibility.

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century.

Levinas's main concern as a philosopher was Ethics, morality, the way we should act towards and treat one another.  He developed a radical philosophy of love and compassion, based on an overwhelming respect for the importance of the unique value of each human individual.

Levinas' philosophy was profoundly shaped by the reality of the 2nd World War, his internment for 4 years in a Prisoner of War camp and the murder of his entire family in the Holocaust in his native lithuania.  A different man may have surrendered to despair, about the world, humanity or God, but Levinas came out of the experience of the prison camp and the murder of his people with a profoundly optimistic, almost idealistic ethical philosophy.

Against the horror of the vast collectivist machine that sought to eradicate whole peoples, purely on the basis of their race, with total disregard for their lives as individuals, Levinas reacted by building a philosophy that placed the  individual and the encounter of one individual with another as the core moment, the core judgement on which all other thought and philosophy depended.  Levinas put his entire career at the service of  building a philosophical structure that guaranteed the importance, place and dignity of the unique human individual against all attempts to make him or her a disposable means to the larger ends of a group, system or purpose. 

For Levinas, the encounter with another individual was the event against which all other events paled into insignificance.  In the encounter with another person Levinas described the appearance of infinity, of height and majesty, of a thing that could never be fully comprehended.  He described the realisation of an infinite duty to that other individual, based on the infinity within him, that captures you and leaves enthralled by the other person.  He openly talked about building a wisdom of love instead of a philosophy, the love of wisdom. 

 In a century marked by atrocities, collectivist ideologies that judged people by the colour of their skin or their class, and a popular philosophical contempt for the ability and choice of the individual, Levinas stood consistently for the worth and value of individual humanity and created a unique phenomenologically based ethics and critique of the destructive tendencies of human civilisation and thought.        


Kester said...

I know you meant the same, but I think Levinas would've objected to treating "individual" and "person" as synonyms.

'Individual' is a quantitative unit. 'Personal' is a qualitative characteristic.

John Zizoulas: “The person is otherness in communion and communion in otherness. The person is an identity that emerges through relationship; it is an 'I' that can exist only as long as it relates to a 'thou' which affirms its existence and its otherness. If we isolate the 'I' from the 'thou' we lose not only its otherness but also its very being; it simply cannot be without the other.
Personhood is freedom. In its anthropological significance, personhood is inconceivable without freedom; it is the freedom of being other. I hesitate to say 'different' instead of 'other', because 'different' can be understood in the sense of qualities (clever, beautiful, etc.), which is not what the person is about. Person implies not simply the freedom to have qualities, but mainly the freedom simply to be yourself.
And yet because, as we have already observed, one person is no person, this freedom is not freedom *from* the other but freedom *for* the other. Freedom thus becomes identical with *love*. We can love only if we are persons, that is, if we allow the other to be truly other, and yet to be in communion with us. If we love the other not only in spite of his or her being different from us but *because* he or she is different from us, or rather *other* than ourselves, we live in freedom as love and in love as freedom .
[In this way] personhood is creativity. Freedom is not *from* but *for* someone or something other than ourselves. This makes the person *ec-static*, that is, going outside and beyond the boundaries of the 'self'. But this *ecstasis* is not to be understood as a movement towards the unknown and the infinite; it is a movement of *affirmation of the other*.
This drive of personhood towards the affirmation of the other is so strong that it is not limited to the 'other' that already exists, but wants to affirm an 'other' which is [the product of] the totally free grace of the person. The person wants to create its own 'other'. This is what happens in art; and it is only the person that can be an artist in the true sense, that is, a creator that brings about a totally other identity as an act of freedom and communion.
The subject of otherness, then, is raised in its absolute ontological significance. Otherness is not secondary to unity; it is primary and constitutive of the very idea of being. Respect for otherness is a matter not [only] of ethics but of ontology: if otherness disappears, beings simply cease to be. There is simply no room for ontological totalitarianism. All communion must involve otherness as a primary and constitutive ingredient. It is this that makes freedom part of the notion of being. Freedom is not simply 'freedom of will'; it is the freedom to be other in an absolute ontological sense.”

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