Home > philosophy > I hope this makes sense (Levinas Paper)

I hope this makes sense (Levinas Paper)


Essential to the understanding of how citizens can be compelled to ignore their duty to each other that they encounter is the tension that is an essential aspect of the state. Whether that tension exists between those that have and the have-nots as in Marxism, the more subtle haves versus wants of Machiavelli, or just simply the conflict of desires in Hobbes the tension that exists is a persistent aspect of the state itself. The tension, which breeds conflict is not a detriment to the development of the state but rather a necessary part of its evolution and development. Those political entities which attempt to deny such conflict through the imposition of conformity to a system or an ideal, seek a condition in which the state is already perfected thus stifling any sort of movement forward.

            There is a paradox here which needs to be unpacked. If progress only occurs through the conflict of competing desires then the assumption is that the desire to win totally is what drives the development. If this is the case then why ought not the victory of one side over the other not be a good thing? This is for the fact that progress toward a goal is more important than the actual goal itself. The supremacy of one idea leads not toward the infinite just as a painting cannot be produced with one color but rather the mingling of colors which produce the infinite spectrum. Unless those who have conflicting desires try to win, they can’t in other words “throw the game,” attempt for the elimination of the competing desires the state cannot move forward.

            Although it may be considered more civilized to use ballots, debate, and dollars rather than violence it can be argued that this type of conflict still places us in a mitigated Hobbesian state of nature.[1] The dialect, in which we recognize the conflict between each other, requires “the dialogue, contact, even struggle[2]” by which we can define ourselves through which we must recognize the importance of the other. Indeed, if we are to transcend the finite we must recognize that the “idea of infinity is produced in the opposition of conversation, in sociality.[3]” Only in a relationship with the other can any progress be made.

            What occurs in the realm of politics is a change in relationship. Politics is not simply about the self and the other, but many others and many selves. In the introduction of a third, “the other to the Other,[4]” there is a shift in the consideration of our ethical obligations. The question raised with this new other is in the understanding that while I am aware of the duty to “my other” do I have an obligation to the other’s other? It is in this new situation that the ego begins to ignore the other in that while I may have a face to face encounter I may begin to think that this other is someone else’s obligation.

            Incorrect as this is, the face-to-face makes that person our other, in a state our obligations are often imposed on the state removing our duty. The purpose of the state, it’s reason for being, ought to be the administration of justice. This conception means more than just the administration of the laws by which those who transgress the rules of civilization are punished more than just the enforcement and protection of property rights but also the well being of the citizens.

            For example, one familiar to anyone living in a city, in walking down the sidewalk I meet a man in shabby worn clothing, with matted hair, and dirt on his face and hands. This person asks me for money for food, instead of giving it to him I point him in the direction of a shelter or soup kitchen then proceed along my way. While I was perfectly able to give him what he was asking for, my thought process was that this other person who is in need can be supplied by a third other. While I assume that I did help in some way, I did not fulfill my duty in acceding to his request as my assumption was a third other would help. This is, of course, a violation of my responsibility. The existence of a third while not changing, in any way, my responsibility to the other has changed only my sense of responsibility. Ultimately I have failed, in this case, the other who requested of me and we see the eroding of my sense of responsibility. This is one way in which the duty toward the other is ignored.

[1] Pg. 149 Alford, C. Fred “Levinas and Political Theory;” Political Theory vol. 32 no. 2 April 2004.

[2] Pg. 154 “Levinas and Political Theory”

[3] Pg. 197 Totality and Infinity

[4] Pg. 155 “Levinas and Political Theory”

Categories: philosophy
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