Academic journal article Journal of International Business Ethics

The Contribution of Emmanuel Levinas to Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Ethics in the Post-Modern Era

Academic journal article Journal of International Business Ethics

The Contribution of Emmanuel Levinas to Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Ethics in the Post-Modern Era

Article excerpt


Emmanuel Levinas developed an ethics of inter-subjectivity and responsibility. According to the phenomenology of Levinas, moral impulse and intuition are elicited by the encounter with the Other. Encounter with the Other, particularly the face and the voice of the Other, gives rise to a sense of responsibility for that Other. Business leaders are challenged by Levinas' approach, to move from a way of doing business that insulates the corporations and its constituent members from customers and other stakeholders to engagement with the other(s) in ways that enhance their wellbeing, by creating positive social effects from the work of the corporation and engagement with corporate stakeholders.

Keywords: alterity, business ethics, corporate social responsibility, ethics of responsibility, inter-subjectivity, Emmanuel Levinas, Levinas, the Other (Autrie), phenomenology, stakeholder, stakeholders


We live in the Post-Modern era.1 Post-Modernism is a philosophy developed in reaction to the experience of World War n. Those who reflect on the human condition, namely philosophers, were disillusioned by the experience of World War n. Immanuel Kant's reliance on human reason and rationality became distrusted. Rule-based imperatives were discredited with the rise of Phenomenology and Existentialism.2 Most of these intellectual developments occurred in Europe, the grounds of World War II. Phenomenologists and Existentialists were profoundly affected by the fact that Germany, one of the most intellectually and industrially developed nations, a home of the industrial revolution and of the development of bureaucracy, committed the human atrocities of the Holocaust. Emmanuel Levinas emerged in that context. Levinas was a Jewish Philosopher who was bom in Russia (now Lithuania) and who migrated to France. Levinas was a student of Martin Heidegger, a leading philosopher of Phenomenology. Although Levinas was fully engaged intellectually with the philosophy of Heidegger, Levinas became disillusioned with Heidegger because of the latter's affiliation with the Nazis: Heidegger served as chancellor of Freiburg University under Hitler's ruling National Socialist German Worker's Party, the Nazis. In Levinas' view, Heidegger's cooperation with the Nazis demonstrated his lack of authenticity and the failure of metaphysics, an intellectual concern for Being (Dasein) divorced from ethics.3 Levinas developed an approach based on encounter with the Other (Autrie) and responsibility for the Other.

Levinas' Ethics of Inter-Subjectivity and Responsibility

Emmanuel Levinas developed an approach wherein he rejected a Heideggerian analysis of being, or a subject-object analysis as "first philosophy." In "Is Ontology Fundamental?" Levinas understands that he breaks with "the theoretical structure of Western thought" when he articulates that "[t]o think is no longer to contemplate, but to be engaged, launched-the dramatic event of being-in-the-world...4 Levinas considered ethics to be "first philosophy." Ethics is concerned with the relationship of the self to the other (autrui), but ethics is other than knowledge. The Other ("autrui") is not an object of one's comprehension, and the fundamental being-ness of the Other is not reducible to one's comprehension.5 Levinas was particularly concerned that the otherness (alterity) of the other (autrui) would be diminished through intellectual comprehension of the universal human condition.6 Levinas understands that categorization and generalization, an inquiry of ontology and epistemology, whereby being and objects are classified as "the same," contains the risk that the ego seeks to reduce all alterity/ otherness to itself.7

Furthermore, and a reason that Levinas argues that ethics is "first philosophy" is that moral impulse and intuition are pre-rational and are elicited by the encounter with the Other.8 The encounter with the Face of the other elicits a sense of responsibility of the self for the Other. …

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