62. Levinas: justice?
Levinas posited his extreme surrender to the other as a counterweight to the absolute evil of Nazism and of other ideologies that subjugated the individual human being, and to be strong enough it must be absolute.
However, Levinas repeatedly recognizes that in the transition from the ideal, isolated relationship between self and other to a society of third and more parties charity towards the single other must make a transition to justice in society, with rules that are universal and impersonal. There I must also feel responsible for third parties and ask myself whether the single other does not damage the other others. There the asymmetry of the ideal relation disappears and reciprocity and equality under the law appear. How that compromise of the ideal relationship for the sake of justice can still reflect the ideal is problematic. How can we maintain the ethical force that Levinas considered necessary as a counterweight to absolute evil in the world? Levinas struggles with this tension and never completely resolves it.
The idea of justice and its content are not elaborated. However that is developed, of crucial importance remains the claim that the rights of people are in the first place rights not of the self but of the other. Justice and the law are not a social contract necessitated by the threat of war of all against all (as Hobbes proposed), but emerge from a feeling of responsibility for the other. Equality under the law is needed for justice but we must not forget that it does not do justice to the uniqueness of individuals. Note that this is in line with my critique of universalism, in item 17 of this blog. Where the other is concerned we remain anarchists at heart. The law must not forget its inspiration and ideal from the responsibility of individual to individual. In that sense justice has a ‘bad consciousness’ of never quite achieving its ideal and it must remain aware of its shortcomings, and stay open for improvement. The Levinassian relation to the other must be maintained as a source of inspiration and a standard, for personal relations and for social justice.
How can we ensure that law and justice, with all the institutions and power holders associated with them, remain inspired by the responsibility of the self for every suffering of the unique other? According to Levinas it is a task for ‘prophetic voices’ to remind the powerful. I quote from Among us, essays on the thinking of the other (1991): ‘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 ...’. And where justice can never be complete, the ‘small good’ that people can individually and personally muster for each other creeps into the holes that justice cannot fill. The disappearance of the asymmetry of responsibility in the law need not keep people from bringing that asymmetry of responsibility back into their conduct and their charity.