Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ethics of Care Revisited: Gilligan and Levinas

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ethics of Care Revisited: Gilligan and Levinas

Article excerpt

Discussions of ethics in the Anglo-American philosophical community often begin and end with three traditions: deontological, utilitarian, and neo-Aristotelian. Of course, other orientations are often considered, such as the ethics of care, pragmatism, and discourse ethics, but for the most part these traditions tend to dominate. Continental theorists have drawn on a number of approaches to challenge the limitations of this trinity, and Emmanuel Levinas obviously comes to mind as a figure to whom many have turned in this regard. He is not only important in his own right. He has been a crucial resource for other theorists, for example, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Yet, in spite of his growing appeal in certain circles, he is not a thinker to whom one can readily appeal in order to challenge the triumvirate. This is due not only to the difficulty of his writings, but because of his desire to privilege "saying" over the "said" or the thematic. Needless to say, from Levinas's vantage point the language of these other traditions has been that of the thematic. The Western world has followed a path of violence toward the other for Levinas, and thematic approaches, which often involve argumentative modes of discourse, contribute to this violence. Violence is, no doubt, the great ethical problem for Levinas.

Does not lucidity, the mind's openness upon the true, consist in catching sight of the permanent possibility of war? The state of war suspends morality; it divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives. In advance its shadow falls over the actions of men....The visage of being that shows itself in war is fixed in the concept of totality, which dominates Western philosophy.1

In one sense it is a shame that Levinas's writings take the form that they do, for there are clearly themes in his work that could serve as valuable counters to much of what is taken for granted by the reigning ethical traditions. Levinas asks us to turn away from assumptions regarding reciprocity to the asymmetrical, to a responsibility for the other that can not be understood in terms of principles or utilitarian calculus, and away from self-interest in the domain of the ethical.2 As a purely pedagogical matter it would be of some value if there were a figure in the Anglo-American world who spoke to these concerns and whose work was more accessible than Levinas's writings. And interestingly enough there is such a figure, although she has been misread and her work often misrepresented. We refer to Carol Gilligan. There has been relatively little discussion of how Levinas's insights have affinities to those of Gilligan. In part this has been due to the fact that Gilligan has often been misunderstood, and in part because it is rather hard to believe that someone who has passed through the fires of the phenomenological tradition can have a kinship with someone schooled in empirical approaches of the social sciences. It is also due the fact that it is hard to imagine how Gilligan could navigate the transcendental turns of Levinas's work, that is, grapple with Levinas as a thinker who appears to be providing the conditions for the possibility of ethical response. This essay addresses possible connections between Carol Gilligan's work3 and that of Levinas and offers suggestions on why such a comparison would be fruitful-one that would contribute to the understanding of the part of the ethical relation that is "a centrifugal relation to the other, not a centripetal one."4 It doesn't intend to suggest that these thinkers are engaged in identical projects, for they are not. Yet, if we turn to the elements of Levinas's thought that speak to the actual behaviors of persons, then we are convinced that a fruitful comparison can be made. we take the position that the ultimate goal of the study of ethics is to make persons behave ethically. If the study of ethics is framed in this fashion, then Gilligan and Levinas have more in common than one might suppose, and even their differences are illuminating. …

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