Ethical Monism: Yes, but why...?

I always hate it when people like John Stuart Mill talk about the 10,000-word essay they wrote at age 3 on the fall of the Roman Empire. Even just hearing a colleague casually mention how much they enjoyed reading Middlemarch "the first time around, when I was 13 or 14" sort of makes me freaked. But I'm not lying when I say that I've been wondering about Christian soteriology since I was about 14.

Of course, I didn't know what soteriology was back then (it's just the study of how one gets "saved"). But the explanation always seemed fundamentally unclear, even illogical, to me: I get to live forever because Jesus died for my sins (...if I believe that he died for my sins).

It seems like an unjustified equation.* That's not a technical term, it's just my way of saying, why? I mean, what does Jesus dying on the cross have to do with me? And why doesn't the fact that he died on the cross just mean that I live to be 900-years old or something? In other words, cause doesn't seem to necessarily bring about effect.

But this post isn't about Christian soteriology. It's about ethics. For the past decade or two, academics have really been winding up around Levinas' explanation for ethics. I've read two of his books, and I've listened to dozens of explications on his entire corpus, and I have to say: Levinas' ethics seem like another unjustified equation.

"The Other has a face, and I have a face, so..." Or, "I have a 'subjective constitution' so..." in other words, the final prescription (or description) -- that I must defer to others -- does not seem to necessarily follow on the preliminary propositions. I mean, why does it matter that the other has a face and that I have a subjective constitution, and so on?

I'm disappointed that nobody seems to be asking these questions (not to mention answering them). It's possible that I simply haven't read or heard a good description of the foundation of Levinas' Ethics. But for now, it looks to me as if someone simply said, "You should be kind to others because the sky is blue," and everyone stood around and politely applauded the prophet's genius.

Fortunately, until I get my explanation, I have a solution -- and one that makes sense. And better still, I just found out that I'm not the only person to offer this as a foundation for ethics... someone else has already termed this other solution for me: ethical monism. Published in 1899, Augustus Strong Hopkins' tract argues that we should be kind to one another because we are not separate in any meaningful way. There is only One, and you are it, and I am it... and because that's the case, doing good to you is doing good to myself.

It's true that whereas Christian soteriology and Levinasian ethics breakdown in their metaphysics (in my view), ethical monism may be very problematic in the epistemological phase (e.g., "I do not believe that you and I are one.") -- but it seems to me that ethical monism is no more or less probable than the Christian or the Levinasian explanation.

Something to chew on.


*Another great example of muddled soteriology is the case of Dostoevsky's Kirilov, who decides to commit suicide consciously -- that is, not out of despair, but to show that human beings really do have freedom of the will. Kirilov reasoned that if just one man did this, it would clear up the question for all future generations of human beings, and no one would ever kill himself again because there would be no more despair about whether or not we have free will. Circular logic, I suppose.**

**For fun, you might think about what would happen if Kirilov's reasoning were correct, but he only went through with the suicide in the course of Dostoevsky's fiction. Would a "real" human being need to commit that one conscious suicide, or would it be "good enough" that a fiction writer figured it out and depicted it?


Mark said...

Yeah it all sounds so very circular

"The Other has a face, and I have a face, so..."

As an argument that we ought to be ethical and nice to each other, it doesn't work because it requires us to accept as a premise that we ought to be nice to those who are similar to us ... in having a "face" or whatever.

Reasoning will never produce first principles. They must be taken on with faith, and nothing more. Therefore I conclude that if we believe ethical precepts mean anything, faith must be a valid way of knowing ... at least those matters.

Casey said...

Which means, rather depressingly from the perspective of the "seeker," that Levinas may be taken on faith just as the 10 commandments may be.

That is: which faiths aren't valid ways of knowing?

The ethical principles of Islam are based on faith as a way of knowing. Same essentially goes for the ethical principles of individual schizophrenics, I suppose? "The golden unicorn told me to..."

Kevin said...

Hey Casey--sorry just getting back on this, but--one large point here:

The 'formulation' you (rightly) complain of has this structure: an IS claim (a claim about how the world is, an asserted fact) from which an OUGHT claim is supposed to follow. So you say that FACT: We have faces, SO...and here you place some ethical injunction.

This IS-to-OUGHT formulation is, of course, notorious--THE slippery-rock in philosophy. However, I must say that that formulation has precisely nothing to do with anything Levinas said at any point in his career in any of his works. And no reputable secondary source I have ever read says otherwise.

In fact, it was Levinas' life's work to INVERT this formula, by showing that there are normative and interpersonal preconditions for our practice of making IS statements (rational statements of fact). And this means there is an ETHICAL relation we have with each other which is the CONDITION for rationality, which means that your argument is simply beside the point--arrives too late--as does any argument with the IS-therefore-OUGHT structure. For in order to make the argument, you (Levinas claims) already acknowledge an ethical relation you have to others.

Though of course it has its own challenges, Levinas' fundamental claim that there is an "Ethics before epistemology", an OUGHT before IS, is simply not a claim vulnerable to the formula you put forward--as are virtually every other system hoping to 'ground' ethics in some sort of ontology (such as ethical monism). In short, this objection is the one thing that simply doesn't apply. And if you're reading secondary sources on Levinas which say otherwise, it would be best to drop them immediately and re-read "Is Ontology Fundamental" or some reputable secondary work (recommend Morgan, Bernasconi).

Wrote that fast--sounded vaguely cranky--but I simply wanted to assure you that an escape from the tired IS-OUGHT formula, which you rightly take to task, is just what Levinas offers us.

Gretchen Pratt said...

I speak cranky, Kevin -- no worries. As usual, that's a clearer analysis of Levinas than I've heard before (although I was able to figure out from reading a couple of his books that he figures ethics to precede ontology). But for me, that interesting "move" really just begs the question.

So when the Levinasian suggests that "we" are always already in an ethical relationship, I wonder if he and I are defining ethics differently.

For me, it's very difficult to assent to a (re)definition of ethics that is not normative--i.e., that is not grounded in ontology. Ethics, it seems, must be prescriptive... because a descriptive ethics is not an ethics at all, but simply anthropology.

So I'm back to where we started (sort of/I think): 1) What am I supposed to do, and not do? 2) How do you know? 3) How do you know you know?

Something like that. Does Levinas prescribe/"forbid" certain human behaviors? If not, what do you mean by ethics? And if so... see my three questions above.

Once again: crankiness comes natural to me... don't worry too much about tone around these here parts. ;)

Gretchen Pratt said...

Sorry -- "Gretchen" = "Casey," in this case.

Kevin said...

Ok--I think I see what you want--not a philosophical account of normative force, but marching orders. There is a sense in which Levinasian ethics does and does not give them.

To cram the following into a few paragraphs--the sense in which he DOES give us loose guidelines-- is somewhat silly, but hey--when has that stopped me before...

When people discuss 'ontology' or the 'science of what is' they beg an enormous question: namely, they suppose questions of the form 'What is that?' have only one meaning. But they don't--they have at least two. (1) When I ask an 'IS' question, I might be asking about what something is made of--what are its 'properties' etc.,(here is science); OR I might be asking NOT what something IS but rather is what something IS FOR. Note what happens when we screw these up. If we ask the (very bad) Socratic question of 'What is a weapon, a boat, hammer, drink...' or anything else which is defined, not by some 'objective' composition, but by its USE or FUNCTION, we will end up with a hodge-podge. We get a mess because the ontological 'IS' overlooks this second 'IS' (IS-FOR). As a result, the traditional ontologist will always be frustrated when we ask how to get from 'IS' to 'OUGHT'.

But note: while this seems true of what most people call 'objects', this is NOT true with the kind of being ('IS-FOR') had by artifacts--things like weapons and hammers and boats and drinks. Because they are NOT 'what they are made of' but rather, are defined by 'what they are FOR' one gets a loose standard of USE for those sorts of 'beings'. Because a hammer IS what it is FOR, one can use a hammer 'badly', and something can be a bad hammer--so much so it doesn't count as one at all--because what a hammer is is what it is FOR.

But if this is right, the same goes for questions about what a human being is, or what a self is. Levinas insists (and this is the form of his claim, not a defense of its content) that 'IS-FOR' is the real question with regards to selves, and that what selves are FOR is not a project (like hammering is for hammers, or harming is for weapons); rather, selves are not FOR PROJECTS, but FOR other PERSONS (what he calls the 'for-the-other'; "the self IS responsibility"). So his claim about selves is NOT a claim without normative/ethical implications, even though it is, strictly speaking, descriptive.

Late in his career, Levinas said, in an interview, that his project was 'ethical metaphysics'. Yet given the structure of Western ontology (with the possible and partial exception of Aristotle) you are making a substantive and controversial claim that he is doing 'ontology'. And you are making an even more tenuous claim in saying that his description is normatively inert.

As to whether his ethic proscribes certain behaviors--most definitely. If humans are by nature responsive to each other prior to conscious choice, and if this responsiveness to others is what makes rational (perhaps ethical) deliberation itself possible, then, say, murdering someone for fun is an ab-use of the self, inverts its nature, unravels its internal structure, just as the ab-use of an artifact will eventually make it useless and broken. You can say "But why should I care?" But this question only works if you forget the 'IS-FOR' which 'is' your 'I'.

A final point: few persons still think that for ethics to count as 'prescriptive' it must DETERMINE right action. Most are happy with an ethic which simply DELIMITS the actions which are right to take. If I understand you, you may be asking for more--but then, few think that a system of any sort could deliver such, and so this lack of specific directives is not a knock on Levinas, so much as a complaint about ethics as such. You would have to show that asking for such is asking for something coherent and/or possible--and that is in itself a tall order.

Ok--there it is, crude, fast, and furious--all crankiness included!

Casey said...

(Thanks for sticking with this, Kevin, if you still are--)

That was awesome. I love the hammer analogy... I feel like I "get it" now in a way that I hadn't before.

But let's take the hammer analogy. I understand that a hammer is defined by what it IS-FOR (pounding nails and such) rather than what it IS (shaped metal and wood)... but the fact that a hammer IS-FOR pounding nails and such does not even remotely keep me from using a hammer as a door stop. Needless to say, the same goes for a drink, a boat, and weapons.

So back to human-terms: even if a being realizes/recognizes that he IS-FOR other beings, I don't see where the ethic arrives...

...or perhaps more precisely, I'm almost convinced now that we mean different things by the word "ethics." (There's also this problem of how Levinas knows what I'm-FOR... take something like sex as a corollary: is sex for both pleasure and reproduction, or only for reproduction, as some believe? How do we know?)

Needless to say, that's fine. In fact, I'm happy to have an understanding (finally) of where the heart of the disagreement lies between the Levinasian and the traditional ontologist.

[On that final paragraph: if I understand you, you made an important point there... I'm not looking for a determinative ethics, only for a delimiting ethics. "Thou shalt not murder" need not become "Thou cannot murder."]