Navigating the Maze of Ethical Relations

I have been recently thinking through the nature of the ethical relation between people in the work of Miroslav Volf and Emmanuel Levinas. I have come to somewhat of a wall in my thinking and would love any thoughts and engagement that anyone would like to contribute. You don’t have to have read either of them to add to the conversation because the issues at hand are far larger than these two thinkers. They have simply served as the impetus for thinking about ethical obligations in interpersonal relations.
Here is my dilemma: Both Volf and Levinas address the ethical demands placed upon a subject by the presence of the Other (i.e. my appropriate response toward all people outside of myself), and argue for an “embrace of the other” (Volf) or a “being-for-the-other” (Levinas). The difficulty is that they emphasize opposite aspects of the relation in making their ethical demands.

For Volf, the difference of the Other(s) shouldn’t be the point of focus in the relation, for such a focus often leads to an exclusion of all that are not like the subject (or his community). Volf calls this the “logic of purity” which he understands to be rooted in an “exclusive notion of identity,” that is, an notion of identity which is based in the elements of difference between myself and those around me. Therefore, if I happen to love the color blue and my neighbor loves the color green, then I understand who I am (my identity) as one who loves blue, rather than green. This “exclusive notion of identity,” Volf says, carries consequences that are often deadly in today’s pluralistic world. This, certainly, can be seen simply by turning on the news. There is no objection here on such consequences. However, I have recently been reading Emmanuel Levinas and have found his arguments for the nature of the ethical relation between the “I” and the “Other” to be rather persuasive in certain areas.
For Levinas, the nature of the ethical relation between the “I” and the “Other” is founded upon the difference, or “alterity” in his words, of the Other. In trying to move beyond the violent reduction of the difference of the Other into the sameness of the subject (a reduction he sees inherent in discussion of Western ontology in general, and in the writings of Husserl and Heidegger in particular), Levinas argues for an epistemological exclusion forced by the Other upon the subject. Now, this is no intentional act on the part of the Other but is instead an inherent iconoclasm within the relation that occurs as a result of the intentional act of consciousness of the subject. That is to say, when I, as a subject, try to conceptualize and understand (in cognitive ascent) the being of the Other (who they are), they forever allude my (cognitive) grasp in their othernesss, and shatter my concepts of who I understand them to be. Therefore, for Levinas, ethics is always critique: it is a critique of the subject’s understanding of the Other that takes place by way of the Other’s otherness (their difference that exists beyond the subject’s categories), eliciting a response of being-for-the-Other.
So, here is my question, with which I would appreciate any feedback: How is one to navigate through the maze of the ethical relation between the “I” and the “Other” without the violent reduction of absorbing the Other in the sameness of myself (Levinas’ position of preserving the difference of the Other) or allowing such difference to result in the violent consequences that often follow from what Volf calls an “exclusive notion of identity? As a side note, I must say that it is clear that there is always violence of some sort inherent in interpersonal relations. Nevertheless, how is one to move forward without being intentionally violent. I have some thoughts with regard to these questions, and some possible answers. However, I’m interested in bringing others into the conversation to open it up a bit more. Let me know what you think.

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7 Responses to “Navigating the Maze of Ethical Relations”


  1. 1 Patrick May 1, 2008 at 4:11 am

    Hey buddy-

    I’m interested to hear what you mean about the “maze of ethical relation”, especially since you seem to think that this relation carries with it a host of obligations, specifically the obligation to avoid violence. I think that I wonder where this obligation comes from. Is there something inherent in the other person that warrants such a non-violent impulse? I am inclined to say no, though I am also inclined to say that violence is neither a justifiable relational exchange with the “other”, but only inasmuch as my interpersonal contact is ruled by the “Other”. In capitalizing, I am drawing a distinction between orders of persons, and while both are other (in that they are not-I), there is a significant difference between those orders of otherness, I guess you could say, that is divine and human. It seems that a posture of non-violence requires a prioritizing of the I-Other relationship over the I-other relationship in order to make the human other an intelligible person at all.

    In projecting the category of person upon the other (big or little), we may still be doing the very thing that both Volf and Levinas are wary of. But, in designating a person as other, we are identifying ourselves in differentiation. The other is not I, because I am I, right? But when I start to understand myself in this manner, I start to sound like someone else, namely YHWH Almightly, maker of heaven and earth, and I feel less excited about understanding myself in this manner. The apparently static category of “I” seems to be the major problem in this discussion, though that difficulty is often projected upon the other as their own. What I mean is that a static sense of “I” tends toward idolatry, a self-sustained identity, rather than an identity that is contingent upon a vital connection with the other. The Christian view understands the self as one whose life is sustained by the Word which sustains all things, and as such, our identity is fundamentally as one whose life is given by the Other (a gratuitous existence).

    I am inclined to say that is it only in this context that violence can become a non-option. When I understand my life as derived from the self, my schemes of justification are anchored in self-preservation which will inevitably lead to the justification of violence against the other, intentionally or not. The movement to assimilate the other into myself is derived from a false notion that “myself” is somehow transcendent when it is actually contingent upon God. And so, I think that the only way of moving toward honoring the other is discipleship in that it trains the subject in virtue and identifies the self inextricably with the other as one among many who participate in communion with the three who are one. Thusly, my modof perceiving the other become less anchored in the self and more anchored in the Other, celebrating my contingency and non-necessity, and inviting the other to worship the divine Other in a realization of themselves as similarly contingent and knowable only by divine Light.

    Whew.

  2. 2 Patrick May 1, 2008 at 4:42 am

    I’m really sad. I wrote a really long response to this blog and it disappeared into the internet nether-regions. So, this will have to be the abbrevated version because it took a long time and I don’t want to rewrite it all.

    My main point of contention is that these schemes seem to contrue “I” as a category that is fundamentally knowable as is. This is just as problematic as the iconic projection that Levinas seems to be up in arms against and that the other always seems to break when given the freedom to be. To view “I” as fundamentally knowable seems to be, at least in my view, the greatest cause of relational exchanges marked by assimilation or exclusion in that it presumes a posture of autonomy prior to articulation. The apparent stability of the self presumes a transcedence that is unjustifiable inasmuch as our identity is not transcendent but gratuitous. The other forever eludes my grasp simply because I make the initiative to apprehend rather than to be given something. The impulse to take is e assertion of the self as independent, and that is precisely where I find my difficulties.

    In the Christian view, I think, the “I” as human subject only becomes intelligible by virtue of its relatedness with the divine Other. We are not ourselves by virtue of ourselves but instead receive the self by our creator and continue as a historic self (a self in continuity through time and space) by virtue of the Word that sustains all things. Stability, then, is derived not from transcendence of the self but in the fact that the self existsby virtue of its relation with the Other.

    Once the self is cast as autonomous, then the schemes which govern justification for modes of relating are fundamentally self-preservational. Because the self relies upon the self, A threat to its life is a threat to its existence, whereas a life that is given by a Creator and sustained by the Word is resurrected unto eternal life inasmuch as it participates in that life. The impetus toward violence seems to be the effect of self-preservation and instability. The I’s “I-ness” is always theatened by the presence of the stranger because it reminds the I that they are fundamentally not in control. It seems like assimilation is the movement to make the other less threatening to the icon that the self projects inwardly. It seems like exclusion is the movement to eliminate the other’s presense, which effectively is the same thing. One is just a bit more sneaky.

    I guess the long answer, then, is that right navigation of these waters requires an acceptance that my life is fundamentally not mine. I have been given life, and thus “I” must be oriented as proceeding from the divine Other as sustained creation. Fixing our eyes on Jesus helps to preclude preoccupation on the self and the deception of autonomy. Inasmuch as my modes of relating are corrected by the Spirit, only then will I find that my relation to the human other is anything more than two subjects displying the puppets of our respective projected selves, and the inevitable result of that is either direct violence or violent conspiracy directed at a third other, most often God Himself.

  3. 3 Patrick May 1, 2008 at 4:43 am

    Your frickin’ blog my comment twice.

  4. 4 Patrick May 2, 2008 at 6:12 am

    Hmmmmm…apparently, there is just a delay…I feel sheepish…

  5. 5 dave May 2, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Check out John Caputo’s Against Ethics. He might deal with this subject some.

  6. 6 ericroorback May 2, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation, Dave. I’ll check Caputo’s book out. I’m actually glad you recommended Caputo. I’ve been wanting to read him for a while now and this will give me an excuse to finally do so.

  7. 7 ericroorback May 2, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Don’t worry, Patrick. I will respond to your post today. I started to yesterday, but I found myself having to respond to it in parts and I want to try and address your comments in one post.

    In brief, I found your comments to be very insightful and helpful in thinking about this issue. It was just the sort of feedback I was hoping for. I feel like I have my thoughts adequately gathered now to be able to give your comment the interaction it deserves, so I’ll have my response up later today.

    Looking forward to our blogologue!


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