Saturday, March 26, 2022

 544.The dilemma of benevolence and justice

 A prominent writer about self and other was Emmanuel Levinas (1991). He proposed that the other and the relation with him/her precedes the ego. ‘The relation is the liberation from the fortification  of the ego’ (Lipari, 2004: 129). He deviated fundamentally from the old idea, going back to Descartes, that the ego, the subject, has a pre-formed identity, and looks at the world, the object, from outside. Levinas objected that this turns the other into an object, to be used as an instrument for the benefit of the  self.

 De original meaning of ‘theory’, in ancient Greek,  was ‘seeing’, which yields ‘comprehension’. Levinas is suspicious concerning such seeing and comprehending, because they press things into pre-conceived moulds of conceptualisation, neglect what is invisible in the object, its background, its history and what lies beyond its horizon, its potential for developing.

 Nevertheless, Levinas speaks of opening up to the ‘visage’ of the other. It seems to be seeing, but does not pass by the idiosyncracy of the other that results in its shrivelling. That other seeing of Levinas precedes  rational categorisation. Levinas calls it a ‘trace’. Perhaps is a good term for the effect of the instinctive benevolence thrown up in evolution, as proposed by David Hume. That yields a potential which may not be realised. It can be smothered in adverse education or harshness in the struggle for life. Levinas himself says he following about it: ‘ it precedes every memory. It is made in an unrecoverable past, which the present, proposed in memory, cannot match, in terms of birth or creation (Levin, 1999: 321).

 For Levinas the other is ‘high’ by the epiphany of its face,  one must care unconditionally for him/her, in an asymmetric relation, where the other takes precedence over the self. The face of the other calls out, which precedes any action, with the imperative to care for him/her, in full dedication. It is not like opening the door of one’s house to the other, but letting him/her participate in building the house. Self and other differ, and cannot merge, and the other must be accepted and valued in its own identity. The letting the other in is unconditional. Levinas says that one must accept even one’s hangman.

 The evolutionarily given, instinctive nature of the trace can perhaps contribute to solving the dilemma that Levinas encounters, and admits, concerning on the one hand the unique individual whose face demands unconditional care, and on the other hand justice, which applies to all equally, brings humanity together, in a categorisation, putting in a box, which Levinas wants to avoid. I call this the ‘dilemma of benevolence’. Benevolence is individual, made to measure, while justice, requires implies equality under the law. This dilemma manifests itself widely. Sometimes inequality is required by benevolence. For example in inequal, progressive taxation, and benefits extended to the indigent and not to the well-to-do. It comes up in the present quarrel, in the Netherlands, to reduce the rising price of fuel and energy as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. Why let higher incomes also benefit from this, rather than focusing on people who are now in financial crisis?    

One cannot craft an arrangement that seamlessly suits individual taste and at the same time is the same for all. Care for every single individual person must make the transition to justice for all, with rules that apply to all and are impersonal. (e.g. Levinas, 1991: 113–15). One must somehow not only feel responsible for that unique other, but also for third parties, and ask oneself whether the unique other does not harm other others. The asymmetry of the ideal relationship vanishes, and equality under the law appears. Yet the Levinassian relation must be preserved as source of inspiration and standard for social justice. How can we ensure that law and justice, with all its institutions and power holders, can remain inspired by the responsibility of the self for the unique other? According to Levinas that is the calling for ‘prophetic voices’ that one hears sometimes, rising from the folds of politics, from the press and in the public spaces  of liberal states (Levinas, 1991: 203). Is that strong enough?

Levin, D.M. 1999, The philosopher’s gaze; Modernity in the shadows of enlightenment, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Levinas, E.1991, Entre nous, Essais sur le penser-a-l’autre, Paris: Grasset

Lipari, L.2004, ‘Listening for the other: ethical implications of the Buber-Levinas encounter’, Communication Theory, 14/2: 122-41.



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