Ethics and the Witness

In Heidegger, Hypocrisy, and a Ruse of Rhetoric, it was noted that, where ethics is essentially a devotion to interrupting the indifference with which being processes by acting non-indifferently towards and entirely for the sake of each encountered other in its concern for its own continuing-to-be, a particular thorough, 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.

It was also noted that 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 such 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.

On the face of it, the notion that ethics can be a matter of non-being and can also be real or can be part of reality will seem absurd to those who identify being as reality and reality as existence. The apparent absurdity derives, in large part, from the sense that the prefix non- indicates a negation, a nullification, and therefore the most stark sort of incompatibility. However, inasmuch as the non-being of ethics is only a matter of the non-inherence of ethics within being, to say of ethics that it is not an occurrence inherent to the process of being itself is not to say that ethics is incompatible with being in the sense that ethics can never occur within being. Accordingly, ethics is posited as an event which, when it is effected, is an occurrence within being which is non-inherent to being; ethics is itself something other than being; it is otherwise-than-being. Continue reading

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Heidegger, Hypocrisy, and a Ruse of Rhetoric

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? Continue reading

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Levinas, Kant, Animals, and Anthropomorphisms

(Continued from Ethical Responsibility and Non-Human Animals)

In The Name of a Dog,1 Levinas says about the “wandering dog” who entered [the prisoners’] lives” “for a few short weeks, before the sentinels chased him away” that:

He survived in some wild patch in the region of the camp. … He would appear at morning assembly and was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight. [In stark contrast to the prison guards and the local passers-by who “stripped us of our human skin” and regarded us as “subhuman, a gang of apes”,] For him there was no doubt that we were men. … This dog was the last Kantian in Nazi Germany, without the brain needed to universalize maxims and drives.

David L. Clark recognizes that Levinas intends for his description of the dog to serve as a “high compliment”; Clark is well aware that Levinas portrays the dog as evidencing something very much like the ethical interruption of being which is often and typically expected in the best human way of acting within being. However, Clark thinks that Levinas “qualifies” this compliment “to the point of retraction” when Levinas says of the dog that he is “without the brain needed to universalize maxims and drives.”

Clark reads Levinas as saying that the dog, in his actions:

is as good as goodness gets. But his actions are at best a moral addendum to and substitute for true dutifulness. Although he looks like a Kantian and sounds like a Kantian, and has a humanizing effect on the prisoners that is explicitly called Kantian, he is not Kantian. How could he be? … He is too stupid.

Clark says, “We might recall that, according to Kant, human beings elicit respect for each other out of a compelling sense that the other person is a rational agent … capable of operating freely and thus in a disinterested fashion under the aegis of the moral law.” The dog – even this specific dog – does not have a sense, so far as we are aware, that the prisoners he encounters are rational agents; so far as we can tell, whether the prisoners are or can be rational agents is a matter that is wholly irrelevant to the dog and his response to the prisoners. Furthermore, so far as we can tell, what else is irrelevant to the dog and his response is the very notion of maxims universalized as moral laws.

Does this mean that the dog is stupid and (therefore?) not truly ethical when he greets the prisoners? Or, much to the contrary, is Levinas’ primary point that being “as good as goodness gets” depends ultimately not on rational intelligence but, instead, on something more basic than and something other than an awareness subjected to or derived from concepts and maxims universalized as moral laws? Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Anthropomorphizing and Bestializing

As was noted in Ethics, Attributed Subjectivity, and Noticing the face of the Other, Levinas says that “with the appearance of the human” comes a relationship which is otherwise than being - not just the possibility but, indeed, the fact of acting non-indifferently and entirely for the sake of the being of an other.

Levinas’ association of the ethical event “with the appearance of the human” has been a cause of consternation for many thinkers. For instance, David L. Clark says that “Levinas’s experience” as depicted in The Name of a Dog1 “is informed by conventional assumptions about animality” and “triggers Levinas’s most dogmatic claims about non-human life and tests the limits of their coherence.” In support of this contention, Clark refers in particular to parts of two remarks Levinas made during an interview:

One cannot entirely refuse the face of an animal. It is via the face that one understands, for example, a dog. Yet the priority here is not found in the animal, but in the human face. We understand the animal, the face of the animal, in accordance with Dasein. The phenomenon of the face is not in its purest form in the dog. In the dog, in the animal, there are other phenomena. For example, the force of nature is pure vitality. It is more this which characterizes the dog. But it also has a face. (PoM, 169) …

The human face is completely different and only afterwards do we discover the face of the animal … (PoM, 172)

Clark interprets the statements above as indicating that, while “one cannot entirely say ‘no’ to the animal face … saying ‘yes’ is the exceptional rather than the categorically imperative act”. There is, however, a problem for Clark’s interpretation. In that same interview, Levinas says (PoM, 172), “It is clear that, without considering animals as human beings, the ethical extends to all living beings.” Since the ethical is the matter of responsibility towards an other, Levinas is clearly indicating that the responsibility for the other which is the heart of ethics includes non-human beings as others for whom one is responsible. Continue reading

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

In The Priority of Ethics and the Relevance of Subjectivity, it was noted that the ethical is effected – it appears within being by interrupting the indifference with which being processes – when a conscious being (even tacitly) recognizes a responsibility for an 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. Of course, the subjective being of an other always exceeds (and is different from) thoughts which a person has about the subjectivity of the other; accordingly, the response to the responsibility for the other commences 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. This attributed subjectivity tends to highlight the manner in which the other differs from what has been attributed to the other, and those differences are invaluable to being able to respond to the other for the sake of the other. This is to say that a subjectivity is attributed to the other in order that it might be replaced as quickly as possible with what has been learned to be more like the subjective experience and being of the other.

Harry Joy was suckled on stories in those long lost days in the little weatherboard house on the edge of town. … When Harry and his mother went to church, his father [Vance Joy] stayed in bed. … [Harry] would have rather stayed in the warm bed beside his father than venture out to the little wooden church with its gothic texts written on the arch above the nave … Here he heard about Heaven and Hell and the tortures of Jesus. He sat aghast at such terrible cruelty and more than once wept in sympathy for the tortured God or fear for what the God might do to him.

He preferred the stories of his father … Here, then, a fragment, dredged up from some dark corner of his memory: Vance Joy pretending to be a Hopi Indian.

“You may need a tree for something – firewood, or a house. You offer four sacred stones. You pray, saying: ‘You have grown large and powerful. I have to cut you. I know you have knowledge in you from what happens around you. I am sorry, but I need your strength and power. I will give you these stones, but I must cut you down. These stones and my thoughts will be sure that another tree will take your place.’

“The trees and the brush will talk back to you, when you talk to them … if you can read them.”1 [emphasis added]

The ethical event occurs whenever and wherever it is possible to act non-indifferently for the sake of an other – whenever and wherever one can respond for the sake of the encountered other. In order to respond for the sake of the other, it is necessary to (be able to) “read” - so to speak - the being of the other. This so-called reading is inseparable from a willingness to notice the being of the other, to notice the other as engaged in being, to notice the other in the way that the other is engaged in being. And, since an other can be noticed without the other having resorted to the use of words, the ethical event is itself prior to – and is independent of – words and language.

Because the responsibility towards an other is independent of words and language, Levinas locates the ethical event at the (possibility of a noticeable) face-to-face encounter with an other. He says that “the beginning of language is in the face.” Even then, the ethical responsibility towards and the response to the other does not require that the other exhibit anything like even a minimal verbal facility: “In a certain way, in its silence, the face calls you”. (PoM, 169) Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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