“An Ethics before Ethics”


Emmanuel Levinas had a great impact on the ethical philosophy of recent years. His abiding concern was the primacy of the ethical relation to the other person and his central thesis was that ethics is the first philosophy.[1] In Levinas we encounter an unusual thinker, with his own personal experience[2].

He is outstanding in his claim, “Ethics is the first philosophy,[3] and his philosophy, in fact, revolves around the word ‘the ethical’.”[4] As Eskenazi, a Levinas’ scholar, rightly puts it, “Most of all, he (Levinas) places ethics as the first philosophy and interprets ethics in a distinctly biblical way, as the obligation to one who commands me, the other whom I face. He thereby replaces autonomy by heteronomy.”[5] However, he does not fulfil the ethical or meta-ethical philosophy to be called a philosopher of ethics. He does not enter into any ethical debate. Neither has he answered any basic ethical questions. Yet, perhaps no other thinker has contributed towards ethics as much as he in contemporary times.[6]

Levinas’ ethics is not based on universalism. Rather, it is based on the needs and demands of each and every idiosyncratic individual, ‘every other’. The ethical challenge of this other person would constitute a part of who I am as a self. For him, it is neither a movement towards light nor away from it, rather a trembling movement that cannot be measured. For him, moral force cannot be reduced to cognitive clarity, to acts of will, or to consciousness. Ethical necessity lies in a different set of refusals and the refusal of concepts. It lies in social obligations.[7]

i)   A Move from Totalization

Levinas’ ethics is built upon a critique of the Western philosophical traditions. His first task was to liberate the human objectivity from the clutches of tradition which turned ethics into some form of totality. According to him, the Western philosophy has mostly been an ontology. That is, a reduction of the other to ‘the same’[8]. The acknowledgement of the other was only to suppress and reconcile into a totality. Levinas in his first work Totality and Infinity replaces the traditional categories of “totality, being and ontology” with “infinity, exteriority and metaphysics.” Hence, he led the ‘egology’ of Western tradition which was based on ‘know thy self’, which in turn was incapable of addressing the problem of the other person, into a ‘know other’ philosophy after the example of Abraham, who responded to the voice of God and went out of his homeland never to return. So, he suggests, both the preservation of the same and the other, which is a move from ‘totality or infinity’ to ‘totality and infinity’.[9]

ii)   Recovery of Autonomy of Subjectivity

While reducing all things into totality, the human beings are ignored in their being-a-human being and their being-a-subject is endangered and their unique individuality is questioned, which causes the denial of genuine room for fullness or individual fulfilment. So, he (Levinas) considers the recovery of the autonomy of the subject as his first task. He attains this task by a shift from the totalizing autonomy to independent particularity. Hence, he considers the liberated self as independent and self-sufficient. For Levinas the human subject is not lost in the world rather celebrates its life.[10]

iii)   Levinas’ Ethics as a Foundation for Radical Pluralism

Levinas, right from his early essays, emphasizes one point: ‘my absolute responsibility for the other’. His writings are clearly formed out of the singular experience of the Holocaust, which helped to deal with the human experience. He gives a new insight into ethics as one without don’ts and dos. In his writings we see the limits of subject’s freedom which is ethics and limitless responsibility for the other. Levinas’ main project was to look for an ethical foundation of radical pluralism. But he did not base on Christian universalism (all of us are children of God) and modern liberalism (all of us are free moral agents capable of laying out our own projects and achieving them by granting the other the same freedom). Rather he says, it (radical pluralism) must be human and drawn from human experience. He is more interested in the social conditions of human multiplicity and difference which called for an integration of unity. Hence, he criticizes the Western philosophy which tries to reduce the other to my consciousness. For him, the other is an infinite which cannot be reduced to a totality.[11]

Levinas considers the one-for-the-other as the basic foundation of his ethics.[12] And his ethics turns out to be more demanding than the formal ones, because the moral subject is always found wanting. The moral self is the self that will always be hunted by the suspicion that it is not moral enough. Levinas’ ethics is not therefore, an obligation towards the other as meditated through the old universal maxims. As Thomas Kalary rightly puts it:

The deep structure of subjective experience is nothing but a relation of responsibility or, better, responsivity to the other, the other within the same, in spite of me, calling me to respond. The subject is me and nobody else not an abstract ego. My first word is not the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, but rather my voice. Ethics is entirely my affair, not the affair of hypothetical impersonal or universal I running though a sequence of possible imperatives.[13]

So to say Ethics is not a spectator sport, rather it is my experience of a demand that I both cannot fully meet and cannot avoid

[1] S Sekar Sebastian, “Ethical Foundations of Consciousness in Emmanuel Levinas,” Suvidya: Journal of Philosophy and Religion, 3, 1 (June 2009), 24.

[2] Levinas is an unusual thinker in many ways, first of all he is unusual in the sense that he never tried to bring sooth and comfort in the main stream of Western Philosophy. He in his turn sowed the seed of unrest, and disorder instead of bringing harmony and rest. Another reason, as a person, he had brutal experience during the Second World War. He had been imprisoned as a prisoner of war in Germany in a camp of French soldiers. His parents and siblings were assassinated in Lithuania. All these formed his thinking in a dramatic way. Soon after the war he started to write series of articles and books attacking the general traditions of philosophy. (Sebastian, “Ethical Foundations of Consciousness in Emmanuel Levinas,” 24-25.)

[3] He made this claim against Heidegger who said ontology is the first philosophy. (Sebastian, “Ethical Foundations of Consciousness in Emmanuel Levinas,” 25.)

[4] Thomas Kalary, “An Ethics before an Ethics: Levinas Awakening to the Otherness of the Other and its Contemporary Relevance,” Suvidya: Journal of Philosophy and Religion, 3, 2 (December 2009), 17.

[5] Sidney J Mascarenhas, “Levinas and Interpretations,” Divyadaan: Journal of Philosophy and Education, 16, 1 (2005), 80.

[6] Kalary, “An Ethics before an Ethics: Levinas Awakening to the Otherness of the Other and its Contemporary Relevance,” 18.

[7] Sebastian, “Ethical Foundations of Consciousness in Emmanuel Levinas,” 24- 25.

[8] The term ‘same’ (le meme) refers to the ego, the self-consciousness of the modern philosophy and to the traditional subject. This is a Platonic term referring to subjective thought. It is important to note that the term ‘same’ refers not only to the subjective thoughts but also to the objects of the thought. In Heideggerian terms the ‘same’ refers not only to the Dasein but also to the world (which part of the being Dasein, which is defined as being-in-the-world). So the domain of the ‘same’ maintains a relation with the otherness, which, in reducing the opposition reduces the distance between the ‘same’ and the other. (Sebastian, “Ethical Foundations of Consciousness in Emmanuel Levinas,” 25-26.)

[9] Kalary, “An Ethics before an Ethics: Levinas Awakening to the Otherness of the Other and its Contemporary Relevance,” 19-20.

[10] Kalary, “An Ethics before an Ethics: Levinas Awakening to the Otherness of the Other and its Contemporary Relevance,” 20-21.

[11] Seby K Geroge, “The Other’s Difference and Ethics of Pluralism in Levinas,” Journal of Dharma, 33, 3 (July-September 2008), 260-263.

[12] Sebastian, “Ethical Foundations of Consciousness in Emmanuel Levinas,” 30-31.

[13] Kalary, “An Ethics before an Ethics: Levinas Awakening to the Otherness of the Other and its Contemporary Relevance,”27-28.


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