Death and the Other: The Origin of Ethical Responsibility

James Mensch
Charles University, Prague
What is the origin of ethical responsibility? What gives us our ability to respond? An ethical response involves responding to myself: I answer the call of my conscience. It also involves answering to the Other: I respond to the appeal of my neighbor. Is one form of response prior to the other? Contemporary thinking about these questions has been largely taken up by the debate between Levinas and Heidegger. Responsibility, according to Heidegger, begins with our concern for our being.1 The “call of conscience” originates in our responsibility for what we are. By contrast, Levinas sees this “call” as beginning, not with ourselves, but with our neighbor. Its origin is “the face of the other.” So framed, the debate can be expressed in the opposition: self-responsibility against responsibility for the other.2 My purpose in what follows is to establish two claims. The first is that behind this opposition, there is a fundamental agreement concerning the origin of our ethical obligations. Both philosophers hold that ethical responsibility ultimately springs from our encounter with death. Their real quarrel concerns its location. Where do we first confront death? Is the “first death” our own or that of the other person? Do I confront death in the anxiety I have over my own demise or does it make its primary appearance in what Levinas calls “the face as the very mortality of the other person”?3 My second claim is that, whichever we choose, we cannot really base ethical responsibility on this encounter. This is because death for both philosophers is nontransferable and, hence, ultimately isolating. Furthermore, to face it is a traumatic experience. A traumatised self, however, cannot act. It can only flee. Given this, the response death actually provokes is avoidance. To adequately ground ethical responsibility, we must, I conclude, turn from seeking its basis in death understood in terms of absence and passivity. We must rethink this ground in terms of life taken as presence and affectivity. §1..
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