Posts Tagged 'Ethics'

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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