Emmanuel Levinas’ Face of the Other
The moral philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas differs from traditional ethical theories like that of deontology which focuses on duty, or utilitarianism which advocates happiness for the greater number of people, or the virtue-ethics which emphasizes on the role of individual’s character and virtue as the basis for moral act. Levinasian ethics does not legislate nor propose any moral laws or rules as advocated by the traditional theories but emphasizes on endless responsibility to “Others”. While Buber is immersed in relationship, Levinas is concerned more on our infinite and unconditional duty to “others”.
Though Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) is commonly known as a French philosopher, he was actually born in Russia, in Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania in 1906 to a Jewish family rich in Jewish cultural traditions. At the event of World War I, the Levinas’s family immigrated to France where Levinas became a citizen. Being a French citizen, he joined the French army when World War II began. During the war, his French uniform saved him from deportation to the gas chambers when he was captured by the Germans, while all his family were murdered by the Nazis. Levinas’ exposure to the barbarity of the Nazi was instrumental to the creation of his 1961 book entitled Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority where he strives to bring people to the meaning of life through heteronomous relation to the ‘Other’.
Levinas grounds his ethics in a criticism of Western philosophical tradition which subordinates the personal relation with concrete person who is an existent to an impersonal relation with an abstract “Being” (Levinas, 1961/1979, p. 36). For instance, whenever we deal with someone, we use the values and beliefs that we inherited from our society and used them as our basis in relating with “others”. Certain times, we use them also as standard in which we judge “other’s” actions and character as good or bad. For Levinas, these social values and beliefs are abstract “concept” that blurred our sight and hinder us in seeing, accepting, and relating humanely with “others” for we give more importance to those concepts than to “concrete person” who deserves more our attention. In relating with others, we also apply our own “analytical or judgemental categories” focusing more on what “I think” is good behaviour, right living, correct thinking that the “other” must elicit for him/her to be accepted (Levinas, 1961/1979, p. 46). This, however, for Levinas, is turning the other’s otherness into a “same” or like everyone else. This attitude also brings back the other to oneself in a way that when one means to speak of the other, one is actually only “speaks of oneself”, that is, of his own image (Levinas, 1991, pp110-111). It is in this case, that the other’s “otherness” is radically negated. To this kind of ontological approach, Levinas wishes to substitute a non-allergic relation with alterity, that is, one that caters for the “other’s infinite otherness” (Levinas, 1961/1979, p. 38). What Levinas suggests is for us to adopt a genuine face-to-face encounter with the “Other”. He believes that it is only in responding to the command of the face of the ‘Other’ that an authentic ethics could be made. He even claimed that the meaning of ethics is in responding to the needs of the “Other”, to be subjected to the “Other”, and to be responsible to the “Other” without expecting anything in return (Levinas, 1982, pp. 98-99). Levinas declares that it is through a face-to-face encounter with the “Other” that an imperious moral urgency is raised: “My humanity is grounded in my subjectivity and this one is in turn grounded in my face-to-face with the other…. As a human being, the face that is in front of me summons me, asks for me and begs me” (Levinas, 1961/1979, p. 96). Thus, the encounter with the “Other” is not simply an encounter that one experience as one encounters other worldly objects. Rather, the encounter with the “Other” calls on the self to respond to his/her need or summon and not to leave him/her alone for the appeal is made in his/her weakness and vulnerability (Levinas, 1991, pp. 9-10). This responsibility for the other is immediate and not only a matter of perception. As soon as someone looks at me, I am responsible for him/her. This responsibility is mine and I can neither ignore nor refuse it (Levinas, 1961/1979, p. 100). This “Other” that Levinas refers to are the stranger, the widow, the destitute, and the orphan to whom the self is obligated (Levinas, 1961/1979, p. 215).This reveals that Levinas’ concept of responsibility to the “Other” has preference for those who are poor, weak, and marginalized by the society. Thus, for Levinas, doing something for the “Other” and fulfilling one’s responsibility even to the point of sacrificing one’s life for the sake of the “Other” is the identification mark of one’s humanity and spirituality. Levinas even says that “the ‘Other’s’ right to exist has primacy over my own” (Levinas & Kearney, 1986, p. 24). Even if one tries to deny his responsibility to the “Other” by justifying his right to freedom, one cannot escape the demand of the “Other” because the demand is done even “before the self can claim its own freedom” (Levinas & Kearney, 1986, p. 27). Levinas also emphasizes that one’s relationship and responsibility to the “Other” is “asymmetrical” or non-reciprocal in a sense that one does not respond to the “Other” and expect or demand that the “Other” be also responsible in return (Levinas, 1982, p. 95). Levinas’ ethics keeps redefining the terms of an unlimited personal responsibility that would start and end beyond ontology, beyond the “being” of the “Other”, and beyond the existence of the “Other’s” radical otherness. It is in this sense that ethics is, for Levinas, first philosophy because of the primacy of human relationship and intersubjectivity which reveals the fact that in the beginning was the human relation.
Levinas offers lots of good insights for achieving authentic intersubjective relationship and, in a way complements what lacks in Buber’s I-Thou relationship. First, Levinas’ ethics reminds us of our moral duty and infinite responsibility to people with disabilities, the underprivileged in the society, and even to LGBT community whose weakness and vulnerability has always been taken advantage by the society. In US, it is no longer uncommon to find members of LGBT community becoming victims of verbal, physical, and psychological violence. In our country, it’s always part of everyday news that mostly poor people die due to drugs or that crimes mostly are blamed to the marginalized in the society. Some groups of people with disabilities have become a means for charitable institutions to gain financial support. It’s a clear indication that the “other” has become a means for someone’s ends. Surprisingly, only few realize it and even have the courage to defend them, like the politicians who, unfortunately, have some “string attached”, while most in the society are just indifferent. This, for Levinas, is not the right way. We have to go beyond our self, our needs, our rights and demands and focus more on our duty to the “other”. We have to go beyond our common school duty of having once a year “reach-out” program for those people, or organize activity for them, or just join them in demonstration. Levinas reminds us to embrace the fact that our responsibility to “other” is personal (“mine alone”). Hence, we should not wait for others to organize activities for us to join but we rather do it by our own and try to be sincere and consistent in dealing with them. The vulnerable “others” are not necessarily the one in the street but sometime they are simply our neighbours, members of our family, and even our class/school mates. Usually, the “other” does not actually need “something” from us but only companionship, someone to talk to, someone who has the heart to listen.
Secondly, Levinas also reminds us that being ethical is being open for, prepared to, and impassioned with the radical difference of the other. Our society has taught us what is moral and immoral, good and bad, right and wrong. They serve as standards of living in order for us to live together harmoniously. However, Levinas is also correct in saying that they could also be instruments for “uniform” behaviour, thinking, and living. It’s an undeniable fact that people are not the same and even science confirms that each individual has its own unique DNA. This only proves that it is impossible that one rule or policy applies to everyone where in fact we are different from each other. There should always be exemption to the rule. The rule is made for people and not vice versa. It’s also unfair to human nature that the rule that was applied before should also be exactly the same rule, without modification, that should be applied to people of modern times. People change in thinking, behaving, and in living. Society’s rules and policies should adapt, adjust, and be open for change as human evolution constantly advances. Some social norms and customs in the past were created due to certain situation which only implies that new situations require new or modified norms and customs. The point of Levinas is that the “other” or the human person must first be given primacy before any “abstract standard”. We live in the society with people who are different from our way of thinking, feeling, and even behaving. They deserve respect and acceptance because, like us, they also have rights and dignity as human person as well as being members of the society. Their differences are actually not a threat to harmonious living but serve more as the source of dynamism in relationship.
Lastly, Levinas wants us to look at the reason why we give, care, and help the others. Human, as we are, we always find ourselves motivated to do good things for “others” when they appreciate the help we give and even return the favour to us. We also are encouraged when we realize that our assistance has improved the life of the “others”. But what if the help is not return? What if the assistance is not appreciated or does not bring improvement to “other’s” life? Should we stop helping? Should we limit our giving? Levinas is clear that our responsibility to others is non-reciprocal. Reciprocity is not and should not be the reason in fulfilling our responsibility to others for “reciprocity is his affair” (Levinas, 1961/1979, p. 95). Duty loses its sense when we expect and demand from “other’s” appreciation, recognition, or return of favour. We give, help, assist because he/she needs and no other reason. Romantically speaking, this is unconditional love, loving without condition and selfish intention. Unfortunately, this is the hardest thing to do. Whenever we extend our help to another or even just to sit down to listen to someone, there are often times selfish-interest, that is, we get at least something from what we do to “others”. Politicians as well as those who are fond of public recognition are very good in this. “Donated by…” is almost seen in every town or villages and even in church’s benches. It seems that “helping” for them is more for status quo rather than responsibility. Unfortunately, it is also the common people who made them like that due to their unending request “for the improvement of the community”. This kind of system has become part of people’s behaviour that in today’s time, it’s almost impossible to help without string attached. Only when we learn to go beyond ourselves, our needs, our rights and start to focus on the plight of the “others” that, perhaps, we could treat them fairly. However, it will need deep faith in God and genuine love for others to be able to fulfil an extra-ordinary responsibility. Luckily, we have lots of exemplary people – saints, missionaries, leaders, doctors, teachers, simple villagers, ordinary mother – in the history of humankind in which we can get inspiration. It is through those people’s lives that the world remains “human world” due to their unconditional sacrifice in order that others may live.