Sunday, November 1, 2015


224. Ethics and justice

As discussed in item 62 of this blog, Levinas made a sharp distinction between his ethics of the face of the individual, and public justice that transcends individuals. Is this distinction viable? To quote Mari Ruti: ‘Ethics and justice are irreconcilable but also indissociable’.[i]  

There are good reasons for the distinction. Justice, in laws, should be regardless of interest or position, to avoid class justice, cronyism, corruption, … Laws are intentionally impersonal, without regard to the Levinassian face.

In this blog, I criticized the strict universality of Kantian duty ethics, but there is a kernel of truth in it. What is just should not depend on individual interests and emotions. However, while I would apply that to laws, I do not apply it to ethics.[ii]

While Levinas sharply distinguished between ethics and justice, he did not separate them. Voices from the ethic of the other should continue to inject their spirit in the formation and application of systems of justice. To repeat a quote from Levinas: ‘One sometimes hears them in the cries that rise from the folds of politics that, independently from official institutions, defend “human rights”; sometimes in the songs of poets; sometimes simply in the press and in the public spaces of liberal states ...’[iii] The ethics of the individual forms the conscience of collective justice.

There is a need to continually mediate between ethics and justice, to fritter ethically at the boundaries of the law. This is nothing unusual: judges do it all the time, trying to apply the law not only to the letter but also to the spirit behind it, taking into account personal conditions.  

For an illustration of the problem, see the present efforts to accommodate the hosts of refugees streaming into Europe. From an ethics of compassion, laws and rules are bent, but this imposes great stress on feelings of justice among the population, where people have to allow precedence to refugees in the allocation of housing and jobs.

So, what more can be said about how are ethics and justice are related? As elsewhere in this blog, I take a dynamic approach: how do they affect each other in their development? For this I have two proposals.

First, I go back to my discussion of meaning, earlier in this blog, where I picked up the distinction between sense and reference, taken from the work of Frege, but with a twist (item 32). As is customary, I took reference to be what a term or expression is intended to refer to (or the truth value of a proposition). Less customary, perhaps, I took sense as the way in which identity is identified, or truth established. Reference is public, outcome of intersubjective agreement. Sense is private, tapping from personal repertoires of associations collected along one’s life path. People individually construct what is to be intersubjectively agreed.

Could this serve as a model here? Could personal ethics similarly form, construct, reconstruct or break through public justice?

Second, to complement this, I go back to my stories about the ‘hermeneutic circle’ (item 36) and the ‘cycle of discovery’ (item 31). By applying existing general, publicly accepted, ideas in novel contexts, one detects their limitations or errors, and insights in novel opportunities from local practice, to arrive at experimental hybrids that may develop and consolidate in novel general ideas of wider scope and application.

In the present context: established normative ideas, principles of justice, taken as universal, are applied in new fields of society, new conditions, new cultures, to discover conduct that does not fit and yet somehow ‘works’ in the local context, raises empathy, and may yield new perspectives, in experimentation with hybrids, which may develop into a new, more widely shared moral universal. 

Here the distinction between normative and intentional universals (see item 222) appears. In applying norms as widely as possible, as one best knows how, the wider universality of intention opens up benefit of the doubt, detection of the limits or errors of norms, and new possibilities, which may yield hybrids, in experimentation, possibly yielding consolidation in new, perhaps more widely shared norms.                


[i] Mari Ruti, 2015, Between Levinas and Lacan; Self, other, ethics, Bloomsbury, p. 35.
[ii] Elsewhere in this blog I adopted an Aristotelian ethics of multiple virtues. How does that connect with Levinassian ethics? Perhaps the virtue of compassion is the prime virtue, instead of the virtue of reason,
[iii] In: Immanuel Levinas, 1991,  Among us, essays on the thinking of the other.