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?

Levinas’ statement, “This dog was the last Kantian in Nazi Germany”, can be appreciated as being bitingly ironic. In referring to the dog as a Kantian, Levinas is certainly praising the dog, but he is also belittling some all too common “Kantian” perspectives – including Kant’s notion, quoted by Clark, that “Man can … have no duty to any beings other than men.”

Can Levinas praise the dog while belittling the very term used to laud the dog? Does the praise survive the belittling? Yes, it does, because what Levinas does is indicate that it is the end (such as that manifest in the dog’s action) much more than the means (relying on concepts about universalized maxims) which highlights (what Levinas thinks should be) the ultimate Kantian interest.

By Clark’s estimation, “Levinas almost exactly reproduces Kant’s estimation of animals” when Levinas allegedly waves off the possibility of the ethical dog inasmuch as the dog was “without the brain needed to universalize maxims and drives.” Clark cites Kant’s contention that “we know of no being other than man that would be capable of obligation”, where obligation is meant to be understood as indicating a rational capacity – which is to say at least a capacity for utilizing those concepts which lead one to put aside one’s own interests out of respect for the interests of an other. According to Kant’s notion that “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind,” (GDT, 153) the dog in Levinas’ essay is ethically blind precisely because the dog has – so far as we are aware - no notion of concepts and, therefore, is not free to not express its gladness. The dog is (supposedly) not really being dutiful to anything other than its own drives.

But is this Kantian position truly representative of Levinas’ position? If the dog is more Kantian (in a good sense) than are the prison camp guards and the local passers-by, then what does this tell us about the rational capacity that is so very honored in Kantian thinking? Is Levinas indicting Kantian thought?

Yes, he is. Elsewhere, Levinas warns (GDT, 153), “To think is to subsume an intuition under a concept, and the concept without intuition can only lead to an aberration.” In other words, with the manner of its emphasis on rationality, the Kantian perspective has itself become blind to - and has lost - that very intuition which originally gave the content to Kantian thinking about the ethical, and, when that intuition is not maintained, Kantian thinking becomes empty. (Levinas provides essentially the same warning about the pursuit of justice: Justice derives from the ethical, but, whenever acts for the sake of justice fail to reconsider and refer back to the ethical basis of justice, what results can often be an aberration, even if it still happens to be called justice.)

In the case of the prison camp dog, if Kantian thinking denies that the dog is acting ethically, this is because, in genuflecting to rationality and moral laws, the Kantian perspective loses sight of that goodness to which those laws – and even dutifulness - are supposed to refer and lead the way. The dog is “Kantian” in a way that the guards, the local passers-by, and the Nazis were not inasmuch as the dog, as Clark says, “is as good as goodness gets.” This dog’s response to the prisoners was clearly better than were the actions of the presumably less stupid, more rational humans. This suggests that the ethical and the response to the ethical event are in some way more basic than - and prior to - the rational which is, after all, ultimately a matter tied up with calculation.

In that case, when Levinas says “that the human breaks with pure being” - when he says that the human is that being which breaks out of its over-riding concern, its obsession with its own continuing-to-be and recognizes a responsibility for each encountered other - what Levinas means by human is something other than beings engaged extensively in rational calculation. Whatever else Levinas means by human, it is quite clear that he did not always use that term to indicate a biological condition. He makes that quite clear not only when he says, “I do not know at what moment the human appears” but also when he tells an interviewer, “I cannot say at what moment you have the right to be called ‘face’.” (PoM, 171)


Despite the particular way of interpreting Levinas which Clark emphasizes, it is only fair and proper to note that Clark is aware that something more like the contrary reading presented here is well possible. In a footnote, Clark says:

We should recall that, for Levinas, Kant’s understanding of “obligation” is insufficiently scandalous. As Jean-François Lyotard … argues: “If I am obligated by the other, it is not because the other has some right to obligate me which I would have … granted him or her. My freedom is not the source of his or her authority … Obligation through freedom or consent is secondary.” Perhaps one way in which Levinas signals the “secondariness” of Kantian obligation is by ambivalently attributing it to an animal … The fact that respect has, as it were, gone to the dogs, may say … much about the inherent limitations of Kant’s conception of obligation …

What is it that gives rise to the sense, noted by Clark, that Levinas only “ambivalently” attributes goodness to the dog? Is it that Levinas does not syllogistically conclude with either Therefore, Kant is wrong; non-human animals can be ethical or Therefore, Kant is wrong; humans can and do have duties to beings other than humans?

That might explain the ambivalence sensed were The Name of a Dog to be considered by itself, apart from everything else Levinas wrote, but Clark does not actually isolate that essay from the rest of Levinas’ works. In an interview to which Clark refers, Levinas explicitly states (PoM, 172) “that … the ethical extends to all living beings.” Where is the ambivalence in that statement?

When Levinas furthermore points out that the ethical extends to non-human animals “without considering animals as human beings”, where is Levinas’ alleged ambivalence? After all, at the very least, Levinas’ statements mean that humans have a responsibility towards and for the sake of animals even if it is not possible for those non-humans to ever be (let us just say intentionally) ethical towards and for humans or any other beings. Responsibility, after all, is wholly independent of reciprocity. In other words, whether non-human animals can be ethical is utterly irrelevant to (what is for Levinas) the fact that humans have a responsibility towards and for the sake of animals.

Perhaps the supposed persistent ambivalence on the part of Levinas arises from some sense that his ethics notions are not merely incomplete but egregiously insufficient. Take, for example, the following remark which Levinas made:

We do not want to make an animal suffer needlessly and so on. But the prototype of this is human ethics. Vegetarianism, for example, arises from the transference to animals of the idea of suffering. The animal suffers. It is because we, as human, know what suffering is that we can have this obligation. (PoM, 172)

It might be that some critics find in the above reference to animal suffering an offhandedness which suggests that Levinas regards the response to animals to be a comparatively trivial matter. Relatedly, other critics might take exception to the manner in which vegetarianism is characterized.

Those critics might think that Levinas is regarding vegetarianism as – not just dubious, but - improper inasmuch as it is based upon an anthropomorphizing of animals. Clark notes that, according to Heidegger, “those who object to the impropriety of anthropomorphic projections … presuppose a punctual [precise] knowledge of what it is to be properly human.” However, that Heidegger analysis is frankly inapplicable to Levinas’ position.

The closest that Levinas comes to laying out “what it is to be properly human” is when he says that to be human is to break with pure being, to break with the persistent obsession that a being has with its own continuing-to-be, to break away from the indifference generally had for the encountered other – an indifference which is typically concomitant with an obsession for one’s own continuing-to-be. To break with pure being is to cease being for one’s self and, instead, to respond – to act - for the sake of the other, in particular the encountered other.

This acting in a way that is otherwise-than-being is not a matter of knowledge. It is based on an “awakening to the other … which is not knowledge” and which is “irreducible to knowledge” (EN, 145). This awakening to the other does not arise from the knowledge which one already possesses; the awakening occurs according to what one receives from the other, and that which is received is more like a revelation about the other than it is knowledge about the other.

The point here is that, according to Levinas, one need not have a precise knowledge of what it is to act in a way that is otherwise-than-being in order to act for the sake of an other and, thereby, “be properly human.” In itself, this Levinas understanding of what it is to be properly human is sufficient for validly brushing aside the Heidegger argument (such as it is) against anthropomorphisms, and, yet, despite this, Levinas never explicitly endorses vegetarianism or the anthropomorphisms which he seems to see as its basis.

Clark suggests that this is because Levinas is concerned that such “sentimentalizing anthropomorphisms [would] make genuinely ethical thought … impossible because” those anthropomorphisms would “peremptorily annihilate differences in the name of the (human) same.” But Clark’s suggestion is hardly sensible. Levinas’ notion regarding the possibility of ethics - the possibility of the non-indifference for the sake of an other in the otherwise-than-being of ethics - does not depend on there being no similarities whatsoever with an other, whether the other is human or not.

Indeed, to act non-indifferently for the sake of an other is always to act in some way that is for the sake of the other’s continuing-to-be; those for whom one would act are all concerned for their own continuing-to-be and the conditions of their own continuing-to-be. The others for whose sake one would act are each individually all in that same known as being, but this similarity does not mean that there is only a same but no otherness. This is to say that recognizing ethically relevant similarities, including those between non-humans and humans, does not annihilate those differences from which one becomes more fully aware of the otherness of the other – the otherness for the sake of which one would act in the otherwise-than-being of ethics.

Levinas never makes the dogmatic turn which would insist that no anthropomorphism is ever to be countenanced, and he never takes that dogmatic turn precisely because not every sort of anthropomorphism absorbs the non-human other into some supposed “(human) same” - not every anthropomorphism produces a blindness to the otherness of the other. Accordingly, an anthropomorphism is just an attribution of subjectivity.

By definition, an anthropomorphism regards a human attributing to a non-human something of the human’s own (sense of) consciousness and subjectivity. But is there necessarily a functional difference between that anthropomorphizing and an occasion in which one human attributes to an other human something of the first human’s own (sense of) consciousness and subjectivity?

No, there is not a functional difference, and it is not possible to respond for the sake of an other without attributing to the other something like one’s own consciousness and subjectivity. Subjectivity is not attributed in order to assimilate the other and its otherness into a same with one’s self; rather, the subjectivity is attributed in order to provide what will end up serving as a contrast which will make more apparent the otherness of the other in its differing from the attributed subjectivity.

Continued in Heidegger, Hypocrisy, and a Ruse of Rhetoric

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

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.

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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.

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2 Responses to Levinas, Kant, Animals, and Anthropomorphisms

  1. Pingback: Ethical Responsibility and Non-Human Animals | The Kindly Ones

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

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