The Priority of Ethics and the Relevance of Subjectivity

Emmanuel Levinas directly challenges the predominant philosophical thinking (certainly as it has evolved in the West) when he insists upon ethics as first philosophy;1 when he maintains that ethics is prior to, has priority over, is ultimately more important than ontology; when he asserts that “ethics is … more ontological than ontology”.2

By ethics, Levinas does not mean the formal branch of philosophy designated by that same word; he does not mean those attempts at systematizing relational and behavioral prescriptions and proscriptions into moral theories and guidelines or theories of justice. Rather, by ethics, Levinas refers to those occasions when the impersonal and indifferent process known as being can be interrupted by an individual entity acting with non-indifference and entirely for the sake of a being other than itself, his self, or her self. This is the ethics – the event – which is prior to the generalized and systematized thinking typically encountered in ethical and moral theory as well as ontology, politics, and justice.

In order for a being to act non-indifferently for the sake of an other being, it has to be the case that the acting being is a being with consciousness. At the very least, this means that only (and maybe only some) living beings can ever be ethical; any being which is never conscious can never act non-indifferently for the sake of an other being.

Whatever else might distinguish the living from the non-living, Levinas makes special note of the fact that at least some entities evidence a concern with being, specifically and most often with their own continuing-to-be, what Levinas refers to in terms of a survival instinct. And, on occasion, some of these beings also exhibit concern about the manner – including the quality – of their continuing-to-be.3 They appear to take pleasure in being. They appear to enjoy.

This is simply to note that at least some beings appear to be subjects which (or who) experience and are aware of themselves as subjects experiencing subjectivity – even if their own subjectivity seldom, if ever, extends beyond their own preferences and beyond a concern for their own continuing-to-be.

Given ethics as the concern with acting not only non-indifferently towards an other but also acting for the sake of the other being, then, if it is the case that the other being is an experiencing subject (hence, a subject with consciousness), to act for the sake of that other being is to act in a way which takes into account – and is in some way for the sake of – the subjectivity of that other being. It might be to some extent contrary to ethics to ever be indifferent towards any other thing, but it is most definitely contrary to ethics to regard and act towards an other conscious being as if it were an entity without conscious, subjective experience; it is likewise contrary to ethics to be indifferent to the subjective experience of the other.

This is to say that ethics – certainly this way of understanding ethics – makes a distinction between living and non-living beings as well as between living beings which are (or seem to be) conscious of themselves as subjects experiencing subjectivity and those living beings which do not ever seem to have consciousness. The distinction between beings which subjectively experience their participations in being and those beings which do not (seem to) is ethically relevant.


More than a few thinkers have criticized Levinas with regards to his stance on ethics. Many of these thinkers criticize Levinas for the allegedly inadequate manner in which he takes ethical account of non-human beings (usually meaning animals). Others seem never to recover from being off-put by Levinas’ purposively provocative claim for the priority of ethics and his claim that ethics is a matter of otherwise than being inasmuch as it is the interruption of being where being is an impersonal and indifferent process.

For instance, Graham Harman proclaims that Levinas’ extensive focus upon the human subject in conjunction with his supposedly “half-hearted” essay, The Name of a Dog,4 amounts to a philosophical “evasion of the problem of animals”. Harman goes on to say that “even a more full-blown celebration of animals” on the part of Levinas “would not have changed the basic point: consciousness for Levinas has the same ontologically magical character that it has in most non-naturalistic philosophies since Descartes.”5

Of course, it is the ethical relevance of consciousness – not its ontological character – which most concerns Levinas, and, to this point in this discussion, what has been shown to be relevant about consciousness is that it is contrary to ethics to regard and act towards an other conscious being as if it were an entity without conscious, subjective experience. Indeed, it might be even more precise to say that, in an encounter with an other conscious being, it is contrary to ethics to fail to take into account the conscious, subjective experience of the other being. This ethical relevance is in no way dependent upon consciousness having any sort of “magical character”.

Likewise, there is nothing about this consciousness that is necessarily “non-naturalistic”. Levinas’ notion of otherwise-than-being suggests a reliance on the non-natural, but the non-natural is relied upon only insofar as it is insisted that the natural (or a presumably strictly natural processual being) is necessarily impersonal and indifferent. As Levinas says, “otherwise than being isn’t a ‘something.’ It is the relation to the other, the ethical relation.” (EN, 99) Accordingly, any naturalistic philosophy which entails (or even if it merely seems to tack on) the ethical as of especial importance for essentially being the interruption of the impersonal and the indifferent would be a philosophy which acknowledges a priority of the ethical.

The priority of the ethical is precisely what Harman avoids in the above-cited discussion. In effect, he does so as well in his paper, Aesthetics as First Philosophy: Levinas and the Non-Human, where Harman says:

As Levinas teaches us, the real problem of metaphysics is not how beings interact in a system: instead, the problem is how they withdraw from that system as independent realities while somehow communicating … without touching … If we identify this event with “aesthetics” in the broadest sense of the term, it becomes clear why first philosophy is aesthetics, not ethics. The ethical relation to other humans is merely a special case of substances communicating without touching. (p. 30)

When Harman refers to ethics in terms of being “a special case”, does he mean a distinct or distinguishable – yet not especially important – (philosophical) case? Or does he mean an especial case, a case of particular importance? If he means to acknowledge the particular importance of the ethical – even the human ethical – then Harman does accede to one sense of priority attributed by Levinas to ethics, despite Harman seeming to think that he has denied priority to ethics when he presents aesthetics as first philosophy.


Ian Bogost says, “Despite the fact that Levinas claims ethics as first philosophy, what he gives us is not really ethics, but a metaphysics of intersubjectivity that he gives the name ‘ethics.’” Bogost’s assertion about Levinas is not quite accurate inasmuch as the term inter-subjectivity in itself and without the benefit of appropriate context suggests that Levinas’ ethics is at all dependent upon reciprocity.

Levinas explicitly denies that reciprocity is in any way necessary for ethics. Since the ethical act is entirely for the sake of an other being, this way of acting does not derive from some sort of preference for the other being, and it is not done so that the other responds favorably to the one who acts ethically. According to Levinas, ethics is the matter of responsibility for the other. It is, as he acknowledges, an unconditional love for the other, and he says, “It is originally without reciprocity, which would risk compromising its gratuitousness or grace or unconditional charity.” (EN, 198)

Accordingly, Bogost’s remark would be more accurate if he had referred to a metaphysics of asymmetrical inter-subjectivity or, as Levinas might have preferred, a metaphysics of dissymetrical inter-subjectivity. (PoM, 179)

This understanding of ethics lends itself to the possibility that a being might be responsible for all (sorts of) other beings – whether living or not, whether exhibiting consciousness or not. Still, the effecting of the ethical necessitates a discrimination according to – and for the sake of – how the other can and does participate in being.

Despite this, as Bogost notes, “Levinas’s other is always another person, not another thing, like a soybean or an engine cylinder”. If the term person is understood as indicating an other aware of having subjective experience(s), then the Bogost statement is sufficiently accurate. Of course, as has already been discussed, this is just to note one way of distinguishing between living and non-living, and conscious and non-conscious things – a distinction which, as has also already been noted, is relevant to ethical action and to the different treatments generally accorded living and non-living things.

Bogost complains about the fact that this ethics finds a relevant difference between living and non-living beings. He says, “… appeals to feeling and suffering” – which would be to say appeals to subjectivity – “exemplify the correlationist conceit: … that life itself is an existence of greater worth than inanimacy.”

Yet, Bogost does not deny the ethical relevance of subjectivity.

Even though he facetiously imagines “scores of bizarro Levinases … Their mission: to characterize the internal, withdrawn subjectivities of various objects”, Bogost does not deny that subjectivity is of great worth or relevance. Instead he pursues the possibility of apparently non-living objects actually having their own sorts of subjectivity. In effect, Bogost acknowledges that subjectivity is central – is necessary – to ethics when he wonders, “Could an object characterize the internal struggles and codes of another …?” That same question also captures the sense that ethics is the matter of one subject taking into account – and being concerned about – the being of an other and acting non-indifferently for the sake of that other being according to how that other can and does participate in being.

Ethics is originally a responsibility for an other, but, because it is for the sake of that other, ethics quickly entails a response based on the being of the other, the manner in which the other participates in being. Whether that other is a being conscious of its own subjectivity or whether that other is an object without subjectivity, the being of the other always exceeds all awareness – all thoughts and ideas – had about that other by the subject who would be ethical. And, yet, if there is to be an ethical response to the ethical responsibility, this response must include, as Bogost indicates, “a means of sense-making”.

This sense-making will be necessarily less than a total awareness of the other in terms of the other, but this does not mean that the sense-making cannot be contingently or temporarily appropriate or reasonable with regards to a preliminary ethical response which is for the sake of that other. At the same time, this does not mean that all less than total awarenesses are equally (in)adequate.

Speculating on an “ethics of objects” (meaning specifically an ethics in terms of the relations between non-living things), Bogost admits that when we refer to the “violence or ardor of piston and fuel … It is not the relationship between piston and fuel that we frame … but our relationship to the relationship between piston and fuel.” When we refer to the “violence or ardor of piston and fuel”, that matter is “not the ethics of an object”; instead, it “is the human metaphorization of a phenomenon”.

Such a metaphorization is unavoidable with any human positing of an ethics of objects, because that positing – that speculating – cannot occur without imagining that an apparently non-living, an apparently never conscious thing might have some sort of subjectivity, and the subjectivity (even hypothetically) attributed to the non-living object cannot help but be – especially initially – very much like the subjectivity experienced by the human who is imagining that a non-living object has a subjective aspect to its relationship with an other thing.

Bogost and Harman (amongst others) might think that, with more extensive concentration on relations between and with inanimate objects, it could be possible to put aside consciousness and subjectivity in order to assimilate conscious living things into a totality of mere things, and they might think that with such an approach more basic details about ethics could come to light. But that possibility does not in any way detract from or diminish the propriety of Levinas’ own concentration upon ethics in terms of the subjectivity of human persons.

Indeed, it is well arguable that Levinas’ approach provides for an inherently superior investigation into ethics and, for that matter, beings. In particular, by focusing primarily on ethics in the relations between humans, Levinas sets about to emphasize how very critical it is to be always concerned with ensuring that the being of an other is not attributed a subjectivity which is not in fact its own.


For Levinas, only a being with consciousness – only a being with a subjective experience of encountering an other – can be ethical (and even then it might be that only some conscious beings can be ethical). The ethical is effected – it comes to fruition – when the conscious being (even tacitly) recognizes a responsibility for the encountered other and then responds to the other for the sake of the being of that other. If the encountered other is one – such as a human – who seems, on the face of it, to have its own subjective experience of participating in being, then the ethical response is reasonably cast in terms of being for the sake of the subjectivity – the subjective experience – of that other.

In the case of humans, the response to the other is typically predominated by thoughts had about the other. As has already been noted, the being of the other always exceeds all thoughts had about that other. Of course, this means that the subjectivity of an encountered other remains to some extent always beyond what is thought about that subjectivity of the other (even if the extent of that beyond-ness can ever be lessened).

Nonetheless, the responsibility persists, and a response for the sake of the subjectivity of the other cannot commence except by attributing to the subjectivity of the other a likeness to the subjectivity of the person who would act for the sake of the other. However, because Levinas recognizes ethics as based upon a taking into account of the supposed fact that the other is ultimately defined in terms of a different-ness that cannot be eliminated, any subjectivity attributed to the other which is a likeness to the subjectivity of the person who is responding to the other is to be a most extremely provisional attributed-subjectivity.

Subjectivity is attributed to the other in order that teaching might occur. In response to the ethical event (the possibility of acting non-indifferently for the sake of an other), subjectivity is attributed to the other so that there might be teaching. This is not the sort of teaching which is intended to be proffered by the systematized thought which is most commonly thought of as ethics. It is not the product of moral theory; rather, this teaching is prior to – it precedes and serves as a basis for – genuinely ethical and moral theories and processes. As Corey Beals notes:

… teaching allows for speech with the Other without ‘containing’ the Other in my conceptual reductions of him. … teaching does not come from within me … teaching is what I receive from the Other … Levinas argued that teaching is more than a Socratic maieutic [the method used for eliciting the thinking of a person by interrogation and insistence on close and logical reasoning]. … The reason for this is that a merely maieutic model of teaching allows for learning to be derived from that which is within me already. But in contrast to this, the Other is able to provide me with something that was not already in me.6

This is to say that subjectivity is attributed to the other not so that the other might be taught but, rather, so that the person who would be non-indifferent towards the other and act for the sake of the other might receive teaching from the other, might be taught by the other, might learn about the otherness of the other.

Attributing to the other a subjectivity with extensive likeness to the experience of one’s own subjectivity risks the consequence that one’s own self might end up ignoring the differences – the otherness – of the other such that what results is that the other is engaged as if the other were, in effect, simply an alternative version of one’s own being.

This risk, this risk of failing to be ethical – of not responding to the otherness of the other for the sake of the other – is significantly mitigated for so long as it is kept in mind that the attributed subjectivity is only extremely provisional. By keeping this extreme provisionality in mind, one makes one’s self more capable of being aware of – of recognizing – in what ways the other differs in its being from one’s own subjective experience.

Ethics is never primarily an interest in (discovering or acknowledging) similarities with the other. Since ethics is for the sake of the other, ethics remains primarily devoted in its concern with the differences which constitute – or contribute to – the otherness of the other. These differences within the otherness of the other are deeper than having “a different nose than mine, different colour eyes”. (PoM, 170) The deeper differences are what Levinas refers to as the alterity of the other – which is not merely the uniqueness of the other but the “strangeness” of the other. (PoM, 179)

This is not to say that similarities are of no ethical interest. Indeed, similarities – even those which are projected onto the other when the other is attributed a subjectivity akin to one’s own – are what (make it possible to) highlight the differences of the other. But it is those differences – rather than any similarities – which teach one how best to act for the sake of the other’s own subjectivity. Those differences might be strange; they might be repulsive; they might be laudable, but, in any case, those differences are invaluable to being able to respond to the other for the sake of the other.

And here it is worth noting that, whatever else there is to responding for the sake of the other, this response for the other is a response which never seeks as its goal a differences-elimination that would be sufficient to warrant regarding the other as effectively indistinguishable or to assimilate the other into some grouping in order to (seemingly) lessen the significance or the relevance of the other as an other.

This is to say that a subjectivity much like one’s own is attributed to the other in order that one might as quickly as possible replace it with what one has learned is more like the subjective experience and being of the other.

Continued in Ethics, Attributed Subjectivity, and Noticing the Face of the Other

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

EN – Emmanuel Levinas, Entre Nous, translated from the French by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (Countinuum: London and New York, 2006).

PoM – Emmanuel Levinas, “The Paradox of Morality” in The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, translated by Andrew Benjamin and Tamra Wright, ed. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 168-180.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

1 Seán Hand, The Levinas Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), pp. 75-87.

2 Emmanuel Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind, translated by Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 90.

3 See More than Justified.

4 Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, translated by Seán Hand (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 151-153.

5 It is not entirely clear whether Harman intends for his “half-hearted” remark to refer to Levinas’ essay or to my having noted that Levinas was very well aware – and was not entirely mute regarding the possibility – that humans might indeed have a significant responsibility towards animals. In either case, Harman’s criticism significantly misses the mark with his repeated references to such things as “an utterly wondrous human subject” and “magical human psyche”.

There also seems to be no basis for the attribution miraculous in Harman’s claim that “there is no question that Levinas grants the human subject a miraculous ability to break up inarticulate being (the il y a) into specific beings.” Even if it is assumed that miraculous is intended as a somewhat emphatic reiteration of Harman’s contention about Levinas’ privileging of the human, there is reason to question whether Levinas restricts to humans the ability to break up being. There is certainly nothing about Levinas’ musings which depends upon such an ability being reserved for humans. Levinas speaks almost exclusively in terms of humans and the human condition, but it does not follow from this fact that Levinas privileges humans by reserving for them the “ability to break up … being … into specific beings.” It is less the who and more the how that is of first interest to Levinas.

6 Corey Beals, Levinas and the Wisdom of Love (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), p. 116.

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5 Responses to The Priority of Ethics and the Relevance of Subjectivity

  1. terenceblake says:

    Harman in fact privileges subjectivity in various key aspects of his philosophy: while trying desperately to contain it within his conceptual reductions it seeps out and contaminates the whole with a geeko-esthetic compound subjectivity fusing cold intellectual manipulation and warm sensual enjoyment and thus proscribing the ethical encounter which can be neither merely conceptual nor merely esthetic nor some conflicted hybrid of the two. See:

    • Michael S. Pearl says:

      Thus far from eliminating subjectivity from the world of objects Harman’s OOO is subtended by an all-pervasive degraded subjectivity masquerading as its opposite. Harman then proceeds to re-subjectify his philosophical vision with expressions connoting a subjectivity that is ruled out by the strict application of that philosophy. He talks of how we must love the object: “The real is something that cannot be known, only loved” (THE THIRD TABLE, 12) [from ]

      Attributing subjectivity to every thing can (and may well be intended to) be equivalent to, as I discussed, putting “aside consciousness and subjectivity in order to assimilate conscious living things into a totality of mere things”. This is a way of not actually dealing with the place of subjectivity while, at the same time, not requiring thought from which subjectivity is eliminated. This veritable universalizing of subjectivity is also a means by which any so-called privileging of the human can be belittled – albeit too facilely. In any event, subjectivity is certainly degraded if it comes to be regarded and emphasized as a matter of universal sameness as if the great relevance of subjectivity did not reside in its variations, its differences.

  2. terenceblake says:

    Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
    Harman in fact privileges subjectivity in various key aspects of his philosophy: while trying desperately to contain it within his conceptual reductions it seeps out and contaminates the whole with a geeko-esthetic compound subjectivity fusing cold intellectual manipulation and warm sensual enjoyment and thus proscribing the ethical encounter which can be neither merely conceptual nor merely esthetic nor some conflicted hybrid of the two.

  3. Pingback: Ethics, Attributed Subjectivity, and Noticing the Face of the Other | The Kindly Ones

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