Putting ethics first : reconsidering Emmanuel Levinas's ethical metaphysics / Joshua Shaw
Includes bibliographical references (p. 213-220)
My dissertation addresses a frequent criticism of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas is best known for his powerful claims about the importance of ethics. Many critics fault him, though, because he never specifies any useful, action-guiding ethical principles. Many also charge that he cannot offer any such principles. Levinas thinks there is an aspect of our encounters with other persons, one involving the responsibilities we have to them, that cannot be fully comprehended, and he criticizes philosophers for not respecting this fact. Yet it would seem contradictory for him, in turn, to develop ethical rules or norms that purport to be expressive of this side of human life. My dissertation shows that this criticism is misplaced. I argue, first, that he draws his epistemic conclusions about the transcendence of what he calls “the human other” by reflecting on the fact that our ethical responsibilities to others override other relationships we have to them. Another person is always, first and foremost, a being to whom I have certain obligations; Levinas uses the rhetoric of transcendence and infinitude to emphasize the way in which acknowledging these responsibilities differs from other acts of cognition. Nothing in his argument, however, prevents him from specifying a normative ethics. I develop this argument in part through a close reading of pivotal sections of Totality and Infinity. I also test it by reviewing claims he makes about the inexplicability of the Holocaust. My dissertation's later chapters show that Levinas does, in fact, specify a normative ethics in his work. I review several places where he endorses liberal ethical ideals. I also clarify his brand of liberalism by faulting recent efforts to assimilate his ethics to some form of Kantian liberalism.
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