The Ethical Importance of Being Human: God and Humanism in Levinas's Philosophy

By Gehrke, Pat J. | Philosophy Today, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Ethical Importance of Being Human: God and Humanism in Levinas's Philosophy


Gehrke, Pat J., Philosophy Today


The positioning of ethics as first philosophy, prior to ontology or epistemology, can appear to contradict Levinas's insistence that the other be another person, i.e., human. After all, if the ethical relation is one that precedes being or knowing, then on what basis might one claim that such a relation can exist only among or in a particular instantiation of beings, namely human beings? Scholars interested in environmental ethics and human-animal relations have grappled with this issue in Levinas's philosophy, but usually as a critical move that would contradict or correct Levinas (e.g., Benso, Clark, Diehm). This is of little surprise given that Levinas's moral universe is both resolutely and exclusively human, leaving little space for ethical relation to the nonhuman as more than merely derivative of interhuman relations.

This is not to say that one cannot attempt to recuperate an environmental ethic or an ethic that might extend to relations with nonhuman others from Levinas. Indeed, Levinas himself will claim implications for relations with nonhumans from his philosophy of ethics, but such implications are, for him, always secondary reflections of the more primary relation between humans.

The focus of this essay is neither whether Levinas's philosophy is right or wrong about its obsession with what is uniquely human, nor whether the philosophy ought more properly to take into account a primary ethical relationship with nonhuman others. This is neither an environmentalist nor vegetarian ethical treatise. Instead, I am concerned with one simple question: How does Levinas justify or substantiate the unique ethical status of the human without returning to ontology?

My hypothesis regarding this question is that Levinas's distinct notion of God and his insistence upon the unique status of the human are the glue that holds together his ethical philosophy. The culmination of Levinas's thought, from this vantage point, is not merely his statements on ethics and justice, but also his unique refiguring of humanism. In order to explore these issues, this essay begins with a brief clarification of Levinas's statements about relations to nonhumans then works through this distinction to clarify the concept of the face and God in Levinas's thought. Finally, I conclude with an exegesis of Levinas's unique position vis-à-vis humanism.

Non-Human Others

Silvia Benso, David Clark, and Christian Diehm have each taken significant notice of Levinas's insistence on a fundamentally different ethical category for the human and the nonhuman. Levinas himself has made this point on a number of occasions, though not entirely without equivocation. Part of the controversy comes from his short description of the experience of a stray dog wandering into the prisoner of war camp where Levinas was held (Difficult Freedom 152-53) and his subsequent discussions of the status of the face of a dog and a snake ("Paradox of Morality" 16973). While Levinas does admit that "the ethical extends to all living being" and that "one cannot entirely refuse the face of an animal," he is always quick to follow up these statements with amendments that the "priority" or the "prototype" for any ethical consideration of the nonhuman must always first be human ethics ("Paradox" 169,172). When asked directly about the matter, Levinas put it thus: "The human face is completely different and only afterwards do we discover the face of an animal" ("Paradox" 172). It was for this reason that Levinas criticized the philosophy of Martin Buber "not because he seems to be animistic in his relation to nature; it is rather that he seems too much the artiste in his relation to people" (Proper 33). The issue is not whether we bear some ethical responsibility for the nonhuman; Levinas easily concludes that we do. The issue is whether such responsibility is itself a direct ethical relation or merely derivative of a more unique ethical relation of the interhuman.

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