Ethical Responsibility and Non-Human Animals

Despite the fact that Levinas insists that “the ethical extends to all living beings” (see the discussion in Anthropomorphizing and Bestializing) such that the ethical is apart from – is otherwise than – distinctions within the biological, David L. Clark thinks “that Levinas resorts to the profoundest metaphysical humanism” when Levinas says:

The widespread thesis that the ethical is biological amounts to saying that, ultimately, the human is only the last stage of the evolution of the animal. I would say, on the contrary, that in relation to the animal, the human is a new phenomenon. (PoM, 172)

According to Clark, Levinas’ remarks show that “the oppositional limit between human and animal” occurs entirely “within the realm of the biological.” In support of his claim that Levinas’ statements contradict Levinas’ own insistence that the ethical is significantly other than the matter of biological distinctions, Clark refers to Levinas’ acknowledgment that a dog has a face in conjunction with his admission that “I don’t know if a snake has a face.” (PoM, 172)

Clark says that the difference Levinas admits to seeing between the dog and the snake is simply a traditional way of “evoking a biological hierarchy of relative ‘complexity’ that ranks warm-blooded mammals ‘over’ cold-blooded reptiles”. Clark asserts that by relying on that traditional way of categorizing animals, “Levinas naturalizes the superiority of the dog vis-à-vis the snake … mak[ing] the putative ‘biological’ proximity of the dog to the human substitute for a nearness in ethical essence … notwithstanding his explicit insistence that” the ethical (responsibility towards and for an other) is a matter apart from considerations in terms of biological differences and similarities.

As it turns out, Clark mis-takes Levinas’ remark about the snake.

In saying, “I don’t know if a snake has a face”, Levinas is not remarking on the superiority of a dog or the inferiority of a snake. He is not “evoking” the traditional and supposedly anthropocentric manner of categorizing (or assessing the “ethical essence” of) animals in terms of their “’biological’ proximity” to humans. Levinas is simply admitting that he does not have access to – does not know how to read – the snake as evidencing expressiveness of what seems most like (or most deeply characteristic of) subjective being. He is not even denying the possibility of finding an access to the subjective being of a snake, and Levinas does not proclaim that, owing to the fact that he is unable to recognize the snake as having a face, the snake is a mere biological automaton devoid of the experience of its own subjectivity.

More important than Levinas’ own inability to see and read a snake’s face is the fact that his inability is in no way intended to deny that it is possible for him to act non-indifferently and for the sake of a snake. This is to say that Levinas never denies that he is responsible for a snake. Furthermore, since responsibility for an other is independent of the other’s capability to be ethical, Levinas’ concern with regards to the snake has only to do with how Levinas is to respond to a responsibility for a snake if Levinas is unable to access the subjective being of the snake. Levinas is not assessing the “ethical essence” of the snake, because that supposed essence is utterly irrelevant to the matter of having a responsibility towards the snake; furthermore, that alleged ethical essence is wholly apart from the matter of realizing what sort of response could actually be for the sake of the snake.


A few years back, I was walking along a path which I take at pretty much the same time every day, and as I passed a large azalea I heard a rustling in the dry dead leaves which were under the bush. I looked down and saw a dark black snake swiftly slithering its way directly towards me. I reflexively stepped away from the azalea, away from the snake. The snake stopped at the edge of the bush. It lied there and seemed to be looking at me – or at least in my direction. It did not assume anything like a menacing posture. Realizing that this was a non-venomous black runner snake, I was quickly at ease enough to lean over in order to get a better look and just watched him for a little while before continuing on my way.

When I passed by that same azalea the next day, the snake again rustled its way to the edge of the bush, then stopped and looked. I stopped, too. I once again leaned over, and – I admit it – I spoke to the snake. The snake just looked.

This happened each day for at least a few weeks. What was the snake doing? Why would it act in a way that was certain to make me notice it? Was it being aggressive? Did it want me to feel threatened? Was it behaving like a biological automaton, one that might have some sort of (maybe just epiphenomenal) consciousness – but a consciousness which was in essence merely an evident concern for nothing other than its continuing-to-be (except for those periods when it would find itself as if compelled to reproduce – despite, presumably, not even having a concept of reproduction)?

The face of a snake, indeed the face of reptiles in general (not to mention amphibians and insects), is veritably utterly inexpressive – at least insofar as humans are ordinarily able to tell. For that matter, taking face in a broader sense such as Levinas clearly intends, even the body language of these animals seems to have an extremely limited expressive range.

Is it possible that the black runner which I encountered day after day was – maybe just eventually – coming to greet me? Is it possible that this snake enjoyed our meetings? Is it possible that it even occurred to this snake that I was enjoying its proximity? And might it have been the case that the snake eventually came to the edge of the bush with non-indifference towards me and for my sake – at least for the sake of my enjoyment? If the snake ever came towards me for my sake – even if only for the sake of my enjoyment, was the snake at those times being ethical?

It is commonly thought that Levinas (amongst others, of course) would maintain that the snake I encountered would not – indeed, could not – have been acting at all ethically. With regards to Levinas, it is commonly thought that, lest he were to contradict his notion that it is “with the appearance of the human” that the otherwise-than-being of ethics manifests, Levinas would have to deny that the snake was ever ethical at any of its meetings with me. After all, Levinas saw the utmost goodness in a dog who was delighted to see him and the others interned in a prisoner of war camp, but David L. Clark’s interpretation of The Name of a Dog1 has Levinas end up, in essence, denying that the dog was (capable of) acting ethically.


Clark’s interpretation spares Levinas from appearing to contradict his insistence that it is “with the appearance of the human” that the otherwise-than-being of ethics manifests, but it is important to note that Clark’s interpretation is wholly dependent on the term human necessarily meaning biophysically human. Yet, for Levinas, human does not always mean biophysically human. Levinas makes this most clear when he says (PoM, 172):

I do not know at what moment the human appears, but what I want to emphasize is that the human breaks with pure being, which is always a persistence in being.

Is this supposed to mean that if a non-human ever behaves in a manner which appears to be otherwise-than-being that Levinas would say that the non-human being were human or had exhibited human being? No. When it is kept in mind that Levinas, in putting forth the importance of otherwise-than-being, addresses himself directly – and only – to beings who are biophysically human, when it is kept in mind that the importance of otherwise-than-being is the possibility of being other than a mere biophysical dynamic process concerned with its own continuing-to-be while being indifferent towards others, then it is clear that Levinas intends for his audience – his (biophysically) human audience – to consider what it means to be human beyond and other than the merely biophysically human. Levinas says:

Most of the time my life is dearer to me, most of the time one looks after oneself. But we cannot not admire saintliness. Not the sacred, but saintliness … it is in saintliness that the human begins; not in the accomplishment of saintliness, but in the value.

It is in the valuing of the other, in the response to being responsible for an other, that otherwise-than-being can occur such that the human goes beyond the biophysically human. It needs to be noted that this notion of otherwise-than-being is in no way dependent upon – nor is it necessarily limited to – the biophysically human context. In other words, there is nothing about the otherwise-than-being concept which requires thinking that only humans can ever be ethical. What is most important to Levinas is the “break[ing] with pure being”, and his particular interest is in the human which is beyond the biophysically human, which is otherwise-than-being merely biophysically human. Accordingly, Clark’s claim that Levinas denies that a dog (or any other non-human animal) is capable of being ethical is not definitive.

The otherwise-than-being of ethics is not a matter of processual persistence as is the case with being and as is also the case with the biophysically human condition. Otherwise-than-being does not have a momentum of its own, so to speak, in the way that being does. As has been noted in a previous essay:

Moral progress advances only by the deliberate effort of a decision that is intermittent and spasmodic and in the tension of an indefatigable starting-over. The will, willing and willing again incessantly, does not rely in any measure on the inertia of the acquired movement, does not live on the laurels of accumulated merit. And thus, with each instant, moral progress begins again from zero. There is no other ethical continuity than this exhausting continuation of “relaunch” and resumption. Moral progress is thus laboriously continued rather than spontaneously continual or continuous, and it resembles a recreation rather than a growth.2

This means that the term human could sometimes be used simply to indicate the responses on the part of any entity which interrupt the indifference of being, and this means that the term human, as Levinas uses it, need not be tied always and everywhere to the biophysiology of homo sapiens. Instead, human is a term best understood as indicating an act in response to the valuing of an other that interrupts the indifferent processing of being with non-indifference for the sake of the encountered other.

If Levinas were asked, “Would it then be appropriate to refer to the dog who delightedly greeted him and the other prisoners as human?”, he could well respond with excerpts from his essay about the dog, saying: “But no, no! [T]he dog is a dog. Literally a dog!” Yet, this would not be to deny that the dog had indeed responded in a manner which interrupted the indifference of processual being with otherwise-than-being, with non-indifference for the sake of – and in veritable celebration of the presence in being of – others.

This is to say that, even when applied specifically to beings who are biophysically homo sapiens, the term human can be replaced with some sort of reference to otherwise-than-being or to the manifestation of an interruption of the indifferent process which is being. Whether beings that are not biophysically human can interrupt the indifference of being in precisely the same manner – or as frequently – as can the beings who are biophysically human is an entirely separate matter.

Ultimately, Levinas’ focus remains entirely upon the value, the importance of acting non-indifferently and for the sake of the encountered other – regardless of whether the other acts in a similar fashion.

Continued in Levinas, Kant, Animals, and Anthropomorphisms

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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.

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1 Emmanuel Levinas, “The Name of a Dog” in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, translated by Seán Hand (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 151-153.

2 Vladimir Jankélévitch, Forgiveness, translated by Andrew Kelley (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 42. Cited in Section 6 of Graham Harman and the Levinas Challenge

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3 Responses to Ethical Responsibility and Non-Human Animals

  1. Pingback: Anthropomorphizing and Bestializing | The Kindly Ones

  2. Pingback: Levinas, Kant, Animals, and Anthropomorphisms | The Kindly Ones

  3. Pingback: Heidegger, Hypocrisy, and a Ruse of Rhetoric | The Kindly Ones

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