Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Rethinking Response Ethics: A Response to Leonard Lawlor

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Rethinking Response Ethics: A Response to Leonard Lawlor

Article excerpt

I'd like to thank Leonard Lawlor for his thoughtful engagement with my work on ethics. Given my commitment to response ethics, I'm already feeling guilty that my response to his attentive remarks will be inadequate, which is not only a side-effect of response ethics, but also the stuff of the ethical insomnia at its heart, the Levinasian ethical insomnia that haunts both waking and sleeping, namely, the fear of not doing the right thing, of not doing the fair or just thing, of not responding to others with compassion, of not responding in a way that acknowledges, respects, and opens up response from others. In short, not living up to my responsibility.

Since my book Witnessing (2001), following Levinas and Derrida, I embrace a radical ethics that goes beyond the notion that I'm responsible for my actions, or the Kantian proposition that I'm responsible for my intentions, or even the Sartrean addition that I'm responsible for my emotions, or even further the Levinasian idea that I'm responsible for the other, and further still beyond Derrida's hyperbolic ethics that I'm responsible for what I cannot know and do not recognize. Within this radical ethics I'm responsible for what I do, what I intend, what I feel, for the other, and for the other's response, and for what I do not know and cannot recognize, and in addition, for my very unconscious desires and fears. Ultimately, then, I am responsible for what Freud calls the interminable analysis of my own motives and investments, desires and fears, both conscious and unconscious.

This is not an ethics of dependency and vulnerability. As Lawlor astutely describes, what I take from Eva Kitty's ethics of care is the notion that we are obligated to that which sustains us, which I incorporate into a very different project from Kittay's. Namely, arguing for an ethics in which we are obligated to that which sustains us, including relations with other people, with nonhuman animals, with language, literature, and philosophy, and with the earth itself. This is not an ethics based on altruism although its effects could be called altruistic. To the contrary, it is an ethics based on survival. A new naturalism whereby ethics is built into the very nature of human relationships. In my earliest work, I was attempting to infuse philosophy with new metaphors to counteract the violent and masculinist metaphors so popular throughout the history of philosophy. I believed that we needed to change the way we see or conceive the world, and by so doing, we could change the way we see ourselves and our relations to others. So, if we could articulate a compelling counter-narrative, a counter-ontology, then more loving, cooperative, compassionate, and more ethical relations would follow. While Levinas may be right, ethics is first philosophy, I believed that how we described the world had everything to do with how we lived in it. In sum, ontology is already political, a lesson feminists learned early on. Sandra Bartky's feminist classic, Femininity and Domination, is a powerful example of how descriptions of women's bodies and natural beauty are not only political but also demand that women "take up as little space as possible."

Working against what I see as the flip side of Hegelian recognition, namely an ethics based on vulnerability, I have argued for response ethics or what Lawlor identifies as an ethics of ambivalence. While the ideal of mutual recognition is admirable, my central argument has been that in practice, recognition is experienced as conferred by the very groups and institutions responsible for withholding it in the first place. In other words, recognition is distributed according to an axis of power that is part and parcel of systems of dominance and oppression. In Women as Weapons of War (2007), and several essays, I take up more recent attempts to link recognition to vulnerability rather than to self-consciousness. I both challenge the concept of vulnerability as exclusive to, or constitutive of, humanity, on the one hand, and criticize the concept for leveling differences in levels of vulnerability, on the other. …

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