Are We Duped By Morality? Levinas’ Ethics As First Philosophy

“…everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.” Levinas, Totality and Infinity

It is to this question, the most important question of his time, that Levinas addresses his main work, Totality and Infinity (published in France in 1961 and translated in English in 1969). In this work, Levinas attempts to lay a new foundation for the chief question of morality: why should we be good? What he offers us is a theory of Ethics as first philosophy.

Ethics As First Philosophy

As Bettina Bergo writes in her entry on Levinas in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Levinas doesn’t offer us an ethics as previously understood:

“Levinas’s philosophy has been called ethics. If ethics means rationalist self-legislation and freedom (deontology), the calculation of happiness (utilitarianism), or the cultivation of virtues (virtue ethics), then Levinas’s philosophy is not an ethics. Levinas claimed, in 1961, that he was developing a “first philosophy.” This first philosophy is neither traditional logic nor metaphysics, however.[1] It is an interpretive, phenomenological description of the rise and repetition of the face-to-face encounter, or the intersubjective relation at its precognitive core; viz., being called by another and responding to that other.”

In earlier posts, we discussed how, for Husserl, the question of the other is an epistemological question having to do with how we can know the Other and the world. Heidegger re-frames the question in terms of his metaphysical project where he figures Dasein as a part of an amorphous, abstract “the They.”

Disagreeing fundamentally with Heidegger’s assessment of Being in “the They,” Levinas will make a claim for the priority of the encounter with a concrete (non-theoretical, non-abstract) Other as the foundation for not only our existence, a reversal of the usual hierarchy that subjugates normative areas of philosophy to questions of knowledge (epistemology) or questions of Being (metaphysics or ontology). The Other calls on our ability to respond (our response-ability) to the other. For Levinas, this is the fundamental experience of being in the world. “Metaphysics” Levinas writes, “is enacted in ethical relations.”

So long as morality is based in an ethical relation to the Other that precedes epistemology and meaning-making, we are not duped by morality. This is an ethics that is not based on principles, a calculus, or practices, but is, first and foremost, founded our absolute responsibility in the face-to-face relation with an Other.

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