In Levinas, Kant, Animals, and Anthropomorphisms, it was noted that, with regards to non-human animals, Levinas essentially contradicts Kant when Levinas states that “the ethical extends to all living things” whereas Kant insists that “Man can … have no duty to any beings other than men.” It was also noted that there is no necessary functional difference between anthropomorphizing a non-human other and attributing to the encountered human other something like one’s own consciousness and subjectivity as is necessary as a step in being able to respond for the sake of the other.
Why then does Levinas seem so tepid in his remark about vegetarianism (discussed in Levinas, Kant, Animals, and Anthropomorphisms) being based upon attributing to non-human animals a consciousness and subjectivity relevantly similar to that of humans?
Is it because he worries that if the ethical responsibility which humans have towards animals is at all significantly similar to the responsibility that humans have towards other humans, then, especially in light of the human penchant for voracious carnivorousness, the result will be thinking along the lines of a remark by Heidegger to which David L. Clark refers – “… a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps …” – a remark which is repulsively odious insofar as it normalizes the wholesale slaughter of humans as much as it condemns the way in which animals get treated?
What is most worth noting about the Heidegger remark is how very exemplary it is of rhetoric which “approaches [the] neighbor with ruse … approaches the other not to face him, but obliquely” in order to solicit “his yes” (TI, 70). The Heidegger remark has no substance beyond its being utilized as a challenge against any ethical sensibility that ever seems to allow for the privileging of the human. The Heidegger remark is useful prototypically for the initial move in a strategy which seeks to situate the alleged ethical privileging of the human precariously on the very verge of irrationality in such a way that the only apparent salvation for the very possibility of (a fully rational) ethics is to admit to the ethical substantial equivalence between humans and non-human beings.
The remark drives any privileging of the human towards irrationality by, in effect, requiring of those who would ever privilege the human that they be able to provide non-arbitrary warrant for the ethical privileging of the human. In itself, a biological definition of human provides no information which would assure the ethicality of the privileging of humans. Consequently, in order to avoid the unreasoning – and, thereby, the irrationality – of arbitrariness, it is necessary for there to be reference to some other basis for the privileging of humans. The problem is that there is no established (or apparently establishable) non-biological characteristic common to all biologically human beings which warrants the idea that each human is necessarily (or even probabilistically) to be treated with preference over non-human beings.
Having thus placed on the verge of irrationality anyone who would ever ethically privilege the human, the strategy in favor of the idea that there is ethical substantial equivalence between humans and non-humans seeks to seduce those concerned about ethics into adopting the notion that the irrational arbitrariness upon which is based the favoring of humans must be replaced by a manner of thinking and understanding that provides the consistency which is necessary for (thinking about) ethics to be a matter of rationality. Here the seduction relies upon irrationality being associated with disreputableness.
This is to say that the seduction in no way depends upon the characteristics at the core of the ethical concern itself. It replaces concern about the ethical with concern about the rational where the concern about the rational is in no small part a concern about the possibility of being embarrassed for appearing to think in a disreputable manner.
The strategy promoting the ethical substantial equivalence between humans and non-humans makes itself still more seductive by readily providing the means for a sort of absolution. All that is needed in order to expunge (the appearance of) irrationality is accession to the apparently less arbitrary, more consistent, and therefore more rational position which denies the appropriateness of privileging humans and instead holds that there is ethical substantial equivalence between humans and non-humans.
The very same challenge used to depict the irrationality of ethics in which humans are ever privileged provides the consistency which is missing from the arbitrariness upon which human privileging has been made to seem to depend: To be consistent, the person who would be ethical simply has to hold that “the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps” is “the same thing in its essence as” the wholesale annihilation effected by “a motorized food industry”.
Those who – despite the threat of being charged with irrationality – continue to object to the claimed essential equivalence of human slaughter and the annihilation of non-human beings are susceptible to being castigated – not for mere irrationality, but worse – as hypocrites. It is an easy matter to allege that their recalcitrance indicates a persistence in being hypo-critical of their own thinking whereas were they eu-critical towards their own thinking they could then be rational (since being eu-critical is thought to be both necessary for rationality and a result of being rational). Were they eu-critical, they could (with an implied would) embrace the consistency afforded by holding that there is an ethical substantial equivalence between humans and non-humans.
Of course, being hypo-critical just is a way of being irrational inasmuch as to be hypo-critical is to fail to be as rational as possible. This means that – for the sake of consistency – there would have to be some reason for ratcheting up the vehemence against those who would be called hypocrites; there would have to be some non-arbitrary way of distinguishing between those who are hypo-critical but merely irrational and those who are hypo-critical but also hypocrites.
It hardly seems likely that the simple fact of recalcitrance would provide the needed basis for a rational distinction. Recalcitrance, after all, can indicate not just resistance but also persistence; it is a persistent resistance. So, is the fact of resistance itself sufficient to warrant castigation? If it is, then, from the perspective of those asserting the ethical substantial equivalence between humans and non-humans, castigation would be justified as soon as the challenge to the privileging of humans is presented completely. If castigation does not seem always and everywhere appropriate, then it might not be the resistance so much as it is the persistence which is key. The problem then has to do with being able to come up with a consistently applicable way – a formula – for determining at what point the persistence becomes inappropriate.
This suggests that there might be another feature of the recalcitrant which makes them offensive: their visibility, their noticeability. The castigated hypo-critical would be regarded as merely irrational if the objector who makes himself noticed were to become more quiescent, less noticeable, since the relative reservedness could indicate a move towards being more eu-critical certainly inasmuch as it indicates less of an interest in being noticed.
The entire strategy (and all of its techniques) for objecting to an ethics which ever privileges humans is based upon the suspicion that apparent irrationality is, to some extent, always deserving of being condemned – certainly if there is any alternative which can be posited as being capable of eliminating the apparent irrationality. In the case of an ethic which privileges humans, while such an ethic could – in theory – be consistently effected with regards to humans, the arbitrariness of the privileging itself at the very least suggests the possibility that the privileging could itself be an instantiation of inconsistency, an inconsistency – the very possibility of – which is eliminated from theory when the idea of the ethical substantial equivalence of humans and non-humans is substituted for the privileging of humans.
However, such a strategy only works if consistency (maybe even rationality) has priority over ethics. But how could consistency have priority over ethics?
If ethics is originary and personal in being for the sake – not of some anonymous other(s), but for the sake – of an encountered other rather than being for the sake of being, or being for the sake of one’s own continuing-to-be, then it is patently obvious that consistency cannot be prior to ethics in the sense of coming before – or being a necessary prerequisite of – ethics.
Indeed, ethics itself is an inconsistency relative to being, because ethics breaks apart – it interrupts – the consistency of the indifference which characterizes the process that is being. Enjoyment (generally speaking, a respite from concern about continuing-to-be) is also an inconsistency relative to being, but enjoyment is for the sake of the one who enjoys; ethics, on the other hand, is for the sake of an other, in particular when the other is encountered face-to-face.
Of course, whosoever would be ethical would not ever be satiated in having acted for the sake of an other. This is because the ethical is but an occasion; it is an event which passes away without establishing a persistence for ethics – without establishing for the ethical an inertia of its own. The ethical interrupts the indifferent process which is being with non-indifference for the sake of an other, but the ethical does not halt – and can hardly be said to even divert – being in its processual indifference. As an event, the ethical does not persist from occasion to occasion; rather, ethics – each ethical event – tends to be absorbed or enveloped by the process of being. Accordingly, whosoever would be ethical becomes concerned not so much about how consistently he or she is ethical but, rather, how often, how frequently, and how opportunely.
Concerns with consistency are concerns about sameness or uniformity, but ethics is always concerned with and focused upon – not sameness, but – otherness, the otherness of the other encountered. Ethics is most fully ethical according to its customization for the sake of the other in its otherness. This does not mean that ethics is a matter of acting to preserve all of the differences found in the otherness of the other, but it does mean that ethics is absolutely incompatible with any and all attempts to (be able to) regard the other in any way that is unconcerned with the uniqueness of the other.
The fullness of ethics is not determined by its consistency. This is not to say that ethics denies or ignores sameness as it manifests in similarities; this is not to say that in order for ethics to be most fully ethical there must never be any utilization of concepts abstracted as or from noticed similarities. Yet, this is to say that consistency is never sufficient for ethics, and, in a sense, consistency is not properly regarded as necessary for ethics.
This is the case inasmuch as the ethical is concerned with taking into account the differences within the otherness of the other. The relevance of these differences precludes the adequacy – the sufficiency – of consistency while, at the same time, necessitating some extent of inconsistency in order that the ethical might be re-created or created as new (anew). After all, as has been noted previously, the ethical must always be repeatedly effected anew within being since “with each instant, moral progress begins again from zero. There is no other ethical continuity than this exhausting continuation of ‘relaunch’ and resumption.”
The entire strategy for highlighting the irrationality of ethics in which the human is ever privileged amounts to a mere ruse. It seeks to exploit the fact that those who would be ethical already expect that they do not act for the sake of others as frequently or as well or as effectively as they might. The strategy plays on the fact that those who would be ethical ultimately have no demonstrable or indubitable non-arbitrary basis for concentrating their ethical concerns primarily upon humans. In this way the strategy for the ethical substantial equivalence between humans and non-humans seeks to elicit from the ethically concerned “his yes” as an admission not only with regards to the unethicality of having failed to be ethical as frequently or as opportunely as he might have been but also for having been irrational in being more devotedly opposed to the slaughter of humans, for example, than to the annihilation of non-human beings.
Yet, it is important to note that this strategy – if consistently applied without an arbitrary endpoint – leads not only to the elimination of supposedly ethics-relevant differences between humans and non-human animals but also to the elimination of ethics-relevant distinctions between conscious living beings and non-conscious living beings. For that matter, the very same strategy can be employed – for instance, by noting how very problematic it is to establish precisely what is the alleged unicity to which such a term as self is supposed to refer – to argue that there is no purely rational, non-arbitrary basis for ethics-relevant distinctions between living things and non-living (or inanimate) things.
But, then, given that living things in particular cannot for long persist in being without acting in some way that is contrary to the sake of some elemental, molecular, atomic, or sub-atomic other(s), this strategy – taken to a purely non-arbitrary extreme – necessitates, for the sake of consistency and rationality, either the denial of ethics or (and this is essentially the same thing stated differently) the proclamation that life – even the process, the non-stasis of being – itself is unavoidably non-ethical.
Actually, rather than describe being as non-ethical, it could be said alternatively and possibly more precisely that the processing which is being just is a matter of beings utilizing or exploiting other beings. In that case, reference to ethics – and all thinking in terms of values and valuing – is ornate redundancy inasmuch as values can apparently be reduced to or substituted with descriptions of acts simply in terms of how they effect the continuing-to-be of being, a continuing-to-be which proceeds on its way as if unconcerned about and indifferent towards the beings within being:
Does every intrigue that is tied up in being merely cause the epic of being to unfold, merely write the epic of being? … This reduction of every question to being can be seen both in Heidegger’s struggle against and his irony in regard to every philosophy of value. (GDT, 63)
The sort of reductive thinking at issue – this apparently thorough or extreme rationalism – might seem to succeed in assigning ethics to non-being inasmuch as ethics cannot consistently or rationally accommodate the utilization or exploitation of beings which is necessary for the continuing-to-be which is being. However, what such reductive thinking cannot establish, in itself, is that non-being is assuredly a matter of non-reality or unreality. This is because all that this reductive thinking does is establish that ethics (of the sort purported to interrupt the indifference of being with non-indifference towards and for the sake of an other) is not an occurrence inherent to the process of being itself. This is to say that, with regards to ethics, non-being is only a matter of non-inherence within being, and what the reductive thinking does not establish is that this non-inherence is sufficient for non-reality.
Continued in Ethics and the Witness
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GDT – Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, translated by Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).
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.
TI – Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2003).