Tag Archives: Levinas

The Importance of Responsibility in Times of Crisis


The importance of responsibility in Times of Crisis


In this paper I would like to show the importance of the concept of responsibility as the foundation of ethics in times of crisis; in particular within the fields of politics and economics in the modern civilisation, marked by globalization and technological progress. I consider the concept of responsibility as the key notion in order to understand the ethical duty in a modern technological civilisation. We can indeed observe a moralization of the concept of responsibility going beyond a strict legal definition, i.e. in terms of imputability. The paper begins by discussing the humanistic foundations of such a concept of responsibility. It treats the historical origins of responsibility and it relates this concept to the concept of accountability.  On the basis of this historical determination of the concept, I would like to present the definition of the concept of responsibility as a fundamental ethical principle that has increasing importance as the foundation of the principles of governance in modern welfare states. In this context the paper discusses the extension of the concept of responsibility towards institutional or corporate responsibility, where responsibility does not only concerns the responsibility of individuals, but also deals with the responsibility of institutional collectivities. In this way the paper is based on the following structure: 1) The ethical foundation of the concept of responsibility; 2) Responsibility in technological civilisation; 3) Political responsibility for good governance in the welfare state; 4) Social responsibility of business corporations in times of globalization; 5) Conclusion and discussion: changed conditions of responsibility in modern times.

  Continue reading The Importance of Responsibility in Times of Crisis

Levinas on dying – An interpretation of Edvard Munch’s The Death of Marat II (1907)

Edvard Munch made in total four oil-paintings on canvas of Marat. The one I am looking at is The death of Marat II(1907) – it is named number M 4 in the catalogue of The Munch Museum in Oslo. The painting is also part of the Google Art Project and available online here: http://www.googleartproject.com/collection/the-munch-museum-oslo/artwork/the-death-of-marat-ii-edvard-munch/469025/



Levinas’ thinking on death can be described as a phenomenological examination where the subject’s relation to the Other, the subject’s emotions suffering, sorrow and pain and the conditions solitude and loneliness are examined. But before going into all this something should be said about the role of the Other (person) in Levinas’ overall philosophy. Towards the end of his first major work Totality and Infinity from 1961, Levinas describes the Other with some examples: as a brother, as a stranger and as the poor.[i] Levinas explains that the Other presents himself as an equal to the subject. In meeting the Other the Other’s face calls the subject to responsibility. In meeting the Other not only the subject’s freedom is put into question, the meeting calls the subject to responsibility. With a focus on the Others face one could suspect the face disclose an inward world that the Other carries inside in Levinas’ philosophy, but it does not, rather the face “…calls to me above and beyond the given that speech already puts in common among us.[ii]” The Other’s face calls the subject above and beyond speech. In Levinas thinking every social relation leads back to the presentation of the Other like a shunt “…to the same without the intermediary of any image or sign, solely by the expression of the face.[iii]” In his thinking on death Levinas’ focuses both on the subject’s own death and the death of the Other, but not on the subject’s experience of loss when someone dies. Levinas begins with the subject’s proximity to the Other in his understanding of death. As an example of dying, Levinas refers to a scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I find this turn to Shakespeare amazing and will try to understand the relation between death, suffering and loneliness so important in Levinas’ thinking by looking into another work of art, one not referred to by Levinas. What I in the following more precisely would like to do is to use Levinas thinking on death as a key for interpreting Edvard Munch’s painting The Death of Marat II (The Murderess) 1907. Levinas exemplifies dying by using Macbeth, and exemplifies the Other as a brother, a stranger and the poor. I believe Levinas chose his examples with great care. But instead of dwelling on these characters in the following I will use the painting of Marat when trying to understand his thinking on death.



Despites the before mentioned fundamental proximity, Levinas holds that every human individual stands in a distance to other individuals and exists in solitude. Levinas describes existential solitude as one of the human individuals’ ways of being, but do not address the Robinsonade neither the problem of other minds in modern philosophy.[iv] Instead he thinks that the subject in its existence is isolated and might experience solitude as a consequence of isolation, and relates existential solitude to suffering, sorrow and pain. To Levinas suffering is the mode of being closest to death and an end of existential solitude, not because suffering can end in death, but because existential solitude is unbearable. This unbearableness represents by darkness in Levinas’ thinking – suffering is outside of all light, as he says. Death is unknown and cannot take place in in the light. Death is like a hollow and will always be unknown and surrounded by darkness. For the subject death is like a mystery, and the subject cannot relate to death as if death was something inside of himself. At the same time the subject’s relation to death is part of the subject’s relation to the Other, in Levinas’ thinking, and with this understanding he separates from thinkers he otherwise got familiarities to – and disagrees with – as Heidegger, Sartre and Kierkegaard. They all think that death gets into the selfhood of the subject and individuates it.[v] For Levinas it is the relation to the Other – the infinite responsibility – that is comparable to the subject’s relation to death. To him the subject relates to death as something on the outside of itself, as something never graspable, and through suffering, sorrow and pain the subject for himself and in himself make proximity to death graspable. This proximity to death in pain and suffering need not be the subject’s own, also the Others pain and suffering might do proximity to death graspable to the subject.

Levinas narrows his position by saying that the suffering and pain he wants to address in relation to death is physical, and not what he calls a moral pain. On moral pain he says that it is possible to remain dignity and innocence while suffer and simultaneously be free. Physical pain he relates to loneliness and says that suffering is not fully exposed in what we are shown through our suffering. One part of the suffering is veiled, and in a definite sense not known to us. This part of the suffering represents something outside of the subject and remains in darkness. Neither the physical nor the moral pain holds the clarity of the factual.       In his thinking Levinas associates light to joy, involvement and all attachment. Every reachable and absorbed object that can become knowledge got light.  Objects of sensation and emotion might tread into the light, while death and suffering remain in darkness. This lack of light should not be seen as a negation, as he says, but expresses that death is unknowable. Levinas tries to drag the concepts suffering, sorrow and pain closer to the subject’s reality in his thinking. Through the insight that death itself is not suffering or pain Levinas points to the relations between these concepts and the unknown darkness they got in common. There are some important differences between these concepts. Levinas holds that death will always be the future for the subject; that it is never here. Our inability to grasp death means that what he calls the end of the subject’s virility and heroism are out of reach too. Levinas illustrates a moment of death with a scene from Macbeth. It is the scene where Macbeth realize that the end is near; the moment when Wood comes marching. This makes Macbeth tell Macduff about his malediction, and Levinas sees this scene as the end of Macbeth’s virility and heroism. Levinas’ reference to this scene in Macbeth made me want to find another work of art to try to interpret here.


Dying on canvas

I will try to understand Levinas’ thinking on death while doing an interpretation of Edvard Munch’s painting of Marat. Generally we can say that Munch’s paintings often show personifications of abstract ideas through conceptualizations of emotions like love, loneliness, shame, anxiety and jealousy. Munch had a great talent for this, and this is why I thought of his paintings while reading Levinas; their availability of emotional expression. But I want to achieve another goal as well. I want to find out if another work of art than the one Levinas himself points to might give some insights to his thinking on death. Levinas uses Macbeth. I would like to see if another example might be possible. To me it seems like Levinas is making some kind of indirect explanations when he uses Macbeth as an example. Simply put it seems like dying becomes heroic because of Macbeth the hero. One could ask if not even Macbeth even in the chosen scene holds other additional characteristics than virility and heroism. Overall we find many scenes, and painting, about dying and in using one not mentioned by Levinas I want to dig a bit deeper into his thinking of death. It is not given that the painting suits Levinas thinking the way Macbeth does, but I hope an interpretation of the painting seen in relation to Levinas thinking might give new insights.

Munch painted a murder, and the picture of the murdered and the murderer gives an opportunity to reflect on death. In death Levinas finds darkness, he describes the dying persons suffering and solitude. I want to look for this in Munch’s painting. Munch made the painting while staying in Warnemünde in 1907. Warnemünde was a sleepy port at Germany’s northern coast. The theme of all his paintings from there is his own earlier experiences as in so many of his paintings. Munch himself experienced great loss in his early years. As 15 years old he had lost both his sister and his mother, and many of his best known paintings shows their sickness and dying. The factual starting point for the paintings of Marat and Corday is an episode with a gun. Munch shot his own hand in the turbulence around leaving Tulla Larsen to whom he was related the years 1898 – 1902. It should be said that the shooting episode never threatened the life of neither Tulla Larsen nor himself. If we take all the paintings that Munch made in Warnemünde into consideration it might be said that they express some specific negative emotion in all their commonness.[vi] With powerful and clearly marked vertical, but also some horizontal strokes Munch builds up plains in these pictures, and to great extend in my chosen picture of Marat and Corday. He’s strokes gives a small hypnotic effect. In his thinking on death Levinas describes, as mentioned, emotions he says got a common ground and a relation to death. In Munch’s paintings from the early twentieth century, and to a large extent the pictures he showed at his exhibition in Prague in 1905, a bit before staying at Warnemünde, Munch focused on painting his own emotions and experiences.[vii] In The Death of Marat II (The Murderess), 1907, we find the well-known characters from the French revolution, Corday and Marat. Marat became a well-known motive through Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting from 1793, and Corday became a well-known person by killing Marat. David dwells with Marat’s suffering in his painting. An understanding of his murder Corday’s action is hard to find. She is not part of David’s painting.

But in Munch’s painting we can see how Corday stands as if she likens a column in the room after her killing of Marat. Munch has placed Marat on his bed. Corday does not look aggressive where she stands in the foreground of the picture. To me it seems like some kind of inner silence that has sunken into her. Over Marat’s face lays a shadow. The darkness in the green area over his head contrasts the light falling on Corday, and in the paintings overall composition the laying Marat makes a contrast the standing Corday so that the two characters balances the painting. Munch painted Corday so that her feet are pointing a little bit outwards. It does not look like she rests on her feet. On the contrary it seems like she strives upwards in the vertical axis of the picture. The area to the left of her got a blue color, slightly brighter than the rest of the blue beside her. Corday looks downwards. It says that Corday fooled Marat by giving him names of the Girondins, and that the names were Corday’s excuse for visiting Marat with assassination as a hidden agenda. Corday came from a royalist family and fooled Marat to believe that she wanted to betray the Girondins. During the case against her after the killing resulting in her death she argued she prevented Marat from getting 100.000 Girondins killed. But in fact Marat had no such power. Marat supported the Sans-Culottes and was much of their link to the Jacobins. Munch’s painting should be seen as symbolic, but I think that this historical background is important for understanding this much used motif. Levinas, in his thinking, says that death is something hidden and unknown, something dwelling in darkness. A painting on the other hand is very direct and even displaying. When I look at Munch’s painting of Marat and Corday I get a feeling as if I have seen something that one in fear turns away from. I find the painting demonstrative, like an opening to something hidden and veiled that Munch drags out into the light; the murder Corday should be seen. The light falls on her body.

Marat lays dead in the background kept out from us the living by Corday who stands in the foreground. Can we find any guilt or regret in Corday? It says that Corday surprised Marat and strokes him right in the heart. In Levinas philosophy we got the imperative “Thou shalt not kill” as the first premise, the grounding premise. Levinas would probably not have any sympathy or understanding to offer Corday, but reject and condemn her action in accord with his starting point – our infinite responsibility to the Other.[viii] Levinas condemns all violence and every murder. In an interview from 1993 he points out very clearly that the core of justice is the demand never to regard the Other as mean,[ix] like we know this position from Kant’s categorical imperative. The death of the Other affects me into my identity as a responsible I, according to Levinas. It affects my, as he says, not-substantial identity and my endless responsibility. The death of the Other affects my identity as me. This is neither a second-hand experience nor a privileged death experience. It changes the subject in itself, it repeals the subject as the same, creates repealing into the subjects own self.  The subject’s self is no longer the same, as he says. And in thoughts like these Levinas narrows Heidegger’s view on death. Heidegger says that being-towards-death got an anxiety leading Dasein into proper (eigentlich) being. Dasein gets into a reflection of its selfhood. But Levinas thinks that the subject’s affinity for the death of the Other and its meaningfulness is stronger than any anxiety, and precisely this is what Levinas find missing in Heidegger’s approach. For Levinas the death of the Other is a message with a meaning that changes the subject. It is not an experience for the subject, but an exceeding that change the subject’s relation to itself. For the subject it seems like an influence, but at the same time as passivity, it is like an influence of something incomparable. The death of the Other is the influence of something not present, something more intimate than any intimacy, as he says.[x] If we should take these insights with us back to Munch’s painting, we would have to look for guilt or regret in Corday. But it seems like Corday has reached some kind of silence standing in the foreground of the picture surrounded by light, and it does not look like regret.


Murder in Levinas’ Philosophy

A sequence of time can be read into Munch’s painting. Marat lies behind Corday standing in foreground. As foreground one could say that Corday somehow gathers a future, a present and a past. The scene Munch painted is the aftermath of the killing. In my impression we get a propensity regarding the killing, as in the present. We know of the peaceful past when Marat was alone in his home. Seen in relation to the title The Death of Marat II (The Murderess) we have to regard the picture as the titles future. For at the canvas Marat is already dead. Another way reading a dimension of time into the painting is to say that Marat by lying in the background of Corday, is left behind her and can be seen as past to her. Corday seeks out of the picture, upwards and into the light with Marat placed behind her. The action of killing is a now, and what we see is at the aftermath of this present. Corday stands in the room looking tranquilly. In this way the painting captures actions where Corday through Munch’s title and composition becomes part of the three mentioned situations.

Death will always be the future, Levinas says, as he points out that death is never the present – as long as the subject lives death is future. Levinas’ does also think that death marks the end of the subject’s virility and heroism, as with Macbeth. But in addition to time and the absence thereof we got the existential solitude in dying according to Levinas; the subject’s loneliness and suffering, sorrow and pain. Trying to interpret the painting according to Levinas thinking, one have to ask if it is reasonable in any sense to say about Corday that she is experiencing existential solitude? Her calmness after the murder might give us an impression like these, but she murdered Marat, fooled him, was his enemy, so the reason for her eventually solitude is her own action; her killing. And what I have described as an inner silence, that in my view her closed expression, her closed eyes and her closed moth gives an understanding of, does not give the impression that she is suffering, in pain or sorrow, and most importantly; she is alive. So could it be wiser to search for an existential solitude, for loneliness and suffering, sorrow and pain in Marat? Before moving on to Marat something more should be said about murder according to Levinas thinking.

Surely the death of Marat cannot be seen in any other way than the death of an individual, but Levinas’ finds a universal aspect as well in his thinking on murder. On murder Levinas holds that we in the passion for it approach death as nothingness, and that the spontaneous intentionality of this aims at annihilation. In murder of the Other we identify death with nothingness.[xi] But, as he says, this nothingness present itself as a sort of impossibility, for the Other cannot present himself as Other outside of my conscience, and inside of my conscience the Others face expresses my moral impossibility of annihilating him. This impossibility looks at me from the eyes I want to extinguish, and therefor Levinas consider the annihilation in murder as a purely relative annihilation. And in this it seems most plausible to consider the Other inside of the murder’s own conscience as something particular. Further, Levinas says that my own death cannot be deduced from the death of the others by analogy, but is inscribed in the fear I can have for my being, and my fear of violence, because what I am exposed to in death is absolute violence, like a murder in the night.[xii]

Levinas’ thinking on the loneliness actualized in relation to death and pain is rightly not only the dying subject’s but also the Other’s, and even though Levinas is not addressing murder in this context here, I would like to hold on to Marat for a while. For Levinas Macbeth becomes an example of how death is the end of a person’s virility and heroism. What I want to do is investigate if Marat can exemplify Levinas’ view of death, eventually Corday, or Munch’s painting as a whole. Marat is dead, his face has a shadow and is surrounded by a dark green color, and Corday is alive and stands in the foreground and the light falls over her. Levinas says that death is like a hollow and cannot take place in the light. Death got some of the qualities of darkness, and it seems like Levinas holds that death got particularity in common with loneliness and solitude. To Levinas suffering, sorrow, pain, solitude and loneliness got proximity to death. Some of the qualities of the darkness surrounding death are attached to them, and this is what Levinas calls the unknown. Levinas holds that the subject in its existence is isolated and might experience unbearable existential solitude, and it is this state of solitude he relates to sorrow, suffering and pain. This suffering got a quality ungraspable for the subject and it is precisely this quality that is part of death, as he says. Levinas holds that it is possible to come closer to an understanding of the darkness in death through an understanding of the death of the Other. The way of doing this is by seeing how the others suffering, sorrow and pain relates to death, as he says. For David the suffering is the main topic when painting Marat, but Munch’s painting is different. When Munch did his painting the death of Marat was a well-established motif, and Marat’s suffering often expressed in paintings and sculptures. Did Munch paint Marat’s pain, sorrow and suffering, his loneliness and existential solitude? At the canvas Marat’s feet are pointing inwards further into the background of the painting away from the one looking at it. In this respect Marat is by himself and can be considered lonely, but on the other hand; Marat accepted Corday’s visit before she killed him, and it seems strange to consider Marat as solitude. Eventually we can understand solitude in a more abstract way – as a part of dying. We can consider that dying creates an existential loneliness and solitude. We must at least state that Marat by being murdered has been in pain and has suffered.


The Other’s suffering and death

There are two points underlying the subject’s relation to death that need to be addressed. The first is about duration: Levinas holds that for the subject death will always be the future. The second is about time: Levinas holds that the isolated subject does not relate to time, but that time should be seen as a part of the subject’s relation to the Other.[xiii] Levinas writes about a dimension of time when describing the relation to the Other in his second main work Otherwise than being or beyond Essence from 1974. Here he says that the proximity between the subject and the Other opens up a distance of diachrony.[xiv] The diachrony opens up as a result of the fact that the subject and the Other do not share a past in common. Levinas calls this difference in past the subject’s non-indifference with the Other.  The diachrony points to the infinite responsibility for the Other, and even though this does not explain why the isolated subject does not relate to time, it does tell how time is part of the relationship with the other in Levinas thinking.

Death and knowledge seems to be antagonists in Levinas thinking. Levinas says that knowledge holds some of the qualities of the light, by eating what is unique and outstanding.[xv] One reason for this is that knowledge is something universal contrasting the particularity of the subject in its existential loneliness. Levinas writes: “It [the subject] finds itself enchained, overwhelmed, and in some way passive. Death is in this sense the limit of idealism.”[xvi] Moreover death’s very existence is made of alterity; the subject’s solitude is not confirmed by death but broken by it, as he says, and this is the reason why the subject’s relation to the Other got aspects of the subject’s relation to death in it. We recognize the Other as resembling us, but exterior to us; the relationship with the other is a relationship with a mystery. The Other’s entire being is constituted by its exteriority to us and by its alterity. On the death of the Other Levinas writes:


“In the totality of the historiographer the death of the other is an end, the point at which the separated being is cast into totality, and at which, consequently, dying, can be passed through and past, the point from which the separated being will continue by virtue of the heritage his existence had amassed… What “still remains” is totally different from the future that one welcomes, that one projects forth and in a certain measure draws from oneself. For a being to whom everything happens in conformity with projects death is an absolute event, absolutely a posteriori, open to no power, not even to negation… the non-reference to the common time of history means that mortal existence unfolds in a dimension that does not run parallel to the time of history and is not situated with respect to this time as an absolute.”[xvii]


Levinas uses Macbeth to illustrate the subject’s time and experience in dying. Macbeth understands that he is going to die. Wood who comes marching is really powerful, and Macbeth says: “Ring the alarm-bell!…” To Levinas this exemplifies how death marks the subject’s limit of suffering and also the limit of the subject’s heroism and virility. Macbeth knows that he will lose the battle. Levinas sees his will to fight the one overpowering him as something virile and heroic. To this it might be remarked that not all dying is heroic and virile. We could point to Corday who does not think of Marat that she killed as a hero, and that we sometimes will find differences in perspectives on the one dying. Levinas tells that death got a future, but that this future is not the dying subject’s future. To the dying subject death is passivity.

At the canvas Marat’s face lay in the shadow, he looks death and peaceful. But the sheet of the bed is bloody, and the one arm of his hangs listless down against the floor. Levinas says that death makes the subject’s activity to passivity, and that death shares this ability with suffering. Marat has been in pain, suffered and now he is dead. He lies passively on his bed. Munch has placed him so that his body point inwards into the picture, like he’s moving into death and darkness away from us looking, away from Corday.

To me it seems implausible to look for an understanding of death in Corday whom murdered Marat. In Levinas thinking we might get insights on death in the death of the Other, but as mentioned Levinas regards murder as a relative annihilation and says that the face of the Other will still be in the murders conscience. Therefore it seems more promising to look at Marat himself in Munch’s painting, and leave Corday behind. Marat’s suffering is not the main theme of Munch’s painting, but seen as the Other in Levinas’ thinking it must be Munch’s ability to express Marat’s suffering, sorrow and pain, his loneliness and solitude that makes the death of Marat – as the Other according to Levinas – graspable for us looking at the painting. But even though this might give us some insights on dying Levinas describes our knowledge as light and death as something unknown, hollow and dark. Light and knowledge are something general in Levinas philosophy, something that reduces both darkness and particularity. Therefore, by getting knowledge you are at the same time reducing the particular by making what you examine – death – general. If we are given insights by looking at the painting it is by an understanding of Marat’s suffering. To Levinas suffering is the mode of being closest to death. The understanding must be seen as an understanding of something particular; as the death of Marat and not dying in general. Through the proximity to the Other we grasp something about death by looking at the dying Marat at the canvas, and what we see in this hollow and unknown darkness is, according to Levinas, a part of Marat’s suffering that belongs to death and that Marat himself does not recognize. To Levinas this insight is not an experience for the one looking at the painting but an exceeding that changes the subject’s relation to itself.



[i]   Emmanuel Levinas(1969):          Totality an Infinity    Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 212 – 214

[ii]   Emmanuel Levinas(1969):          Totality an Infinity    Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 212.

[iii]   Emmanuel Levinas(1969):         Totality an Infinity    Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 213.

[iv]    This presentation of Levinas thinking on death builds to large extends on the third of the four lectures       Levinas gave at Collège philosophique de Jean Wahl in Paris in 1946 and 1947. Emmanuel Levinas (1987): Time and the Other. Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, pp.67-79, for the theme solitude see page 42 ff.

[v]    Martin Heidegger (1962):          Being and Time.               Oxford: Blackwell. § 49, page 292.

[vi]   Sissel Biørnstad (ed.) (1999):    Munch og Warnemünde.  Oslo: Munch-museet Labyrinth Press, page 51.

[vii]  Sissel Biørnstad (ed.) (1999):    Munch og Warnemünde.  Oslo: Munch-museet Labyrinth Press, page 123.

[viii]    Emmanuel Levinas (1969):       Totality and Infinity.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 199.

[ix]     Jodalen og Vetlesen (1997):      Closeness an ethics.         Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, page 54.

[x]    Emmanuel Levinas (2000):       God, Death, and Time.     California: Standford University Press, page 12.

[xi]   Emmanuel Levinas (1969):        Totality and Infinity.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 232.

[xii]    Emmanuel Levinas (1969): Totality and Infinity.               Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 233–235.   Stanley Cavell points to a similar point regarding violence and the singular Other in Levinas’ thinking in his essay “What is the scandal of skepticism?” in his Philosophy the day after tomorrow, Harvard University Press 2005, page 145, but his references to Levinas’ oeuvre are others than mine.


[xiii]    Emmanuel Levinas (1987):       Time and the Other.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 39, 57.

[xiv]      Emmanuel Levinas (1974):     Otherwise than being…   London: Kluwer Academic publishers, page 89.

[xv]    Emmanuel Levinas (1987):       Time and the Other.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 65.

[xvi]   Emmanuel Levinas (1987):       Time and the Other.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 71.

[xvii]  Emmanuel Levinas (1969):       Totality and Infinity.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 56.

Responsibility and Capitalism. A Phenomenological Way to Approach the Economic Crisis

1. Capitalism as the economic expression of onto-theology


It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages[2].


The words of Adam Smith, originally used to justify liberalist economy, presently sound like an act of accusation. Classic capitalism encourages pure egotism, relying on an ‘invisible hand’[3], which should promote the public interest together with the individual one. However, the hand of the market is not invisible, is pitiless. Capitalism in nothing but a pursuit of money, of more and more money. Then, as time goes by, wealth accrues in the hands of fewer and fewer people[4]. Marx already predicted the concentration of capital as a necessary consequence of free competition. However, he could not predict the birth of financial capitalism. Neo-liberalism spread over Western countries, leading to financialization, that is ‘the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of the domestic and international economies’[5].



While classic capitalism links money to production, financial capitalism is based on uncertainty[6]. Money increases or decreases according to the Stock Exchange prices. Since they are unpredictable, people could gain or lose fortunes in a day: a risky investment is nothing but gambling. In this way, the concentration of capital in a few hands comes faster. Those who are not successful go broke and damage other people: bankers and brokers lose the money of whole companies and families, shopkeepers and businessmen close their activities and dismiss people who work for them. There are not only employers and workers who pay the price, but also small capitalists. Unemployment increases and consumes decrease. In this way, even production decreases and the system itself collapses.


This is a devastating situation, depending not so much on the structure of the system, as on its moving principle. Capitalism, in its classic definition, should stimulate production and consuming, appealing to individual interest. But the course of egotism is one-way: it aims to individual affluence, regardless of its impact on the others.


Capitalist economic systems are characterized by the private ownership of property and the consensual exchange of goods and services in a free market.[7]


According to this recent definition, common both to classic and financial capitalism, egotism reveals to be their driving force. The expression ‘private ownership’ refers to individual possession and power, while ‘free market’ indicates liberty of action.


Philosophically speaking, capitalism is nothing but the economic expression of onto-theology. Exactly like the Ego of Western philosophy[8], it is regardless of the Other. The theoretical I subjects everything to its structures and the practical I cares only about its freedom. In the economic case, the Ego subdues the Other to the main category of capitalism, that is profit. The practical consequence of this philosophical statement is that an indiscriminate pursuit of money causes the exploitation of environment, animals and people. The Ego prevails on the Other, but would be powerless without Him. Profit has to be made at the expense of somebody, who cannot be too weak, otherwise he will die or become a slave. The free market disappears without a certain balance: money can circulate only among people who produce, work, and consume. This is why, if the Ego takes too much power, then will lose everything.


The current economic crisis could be seen as a critical moment when, philosophically speaking, the I is capable of annihilating the Other. The next step would be the following: a few people with a high concentration of money, laying down the law to the majority and spoiling the environment of its resources.


There are two solutions to avoid this disaster: the first is destroying capitalism and adopting another economic model, communism for instance; the second is putting limits to capitalism itself. The former corresponds, in philosophy, to the annihilation of both the I and the Other, and to the birth of an anonymous subject; the latter would be the introduction of a different relation between identity and alterity, that is responsibility. If neglecting ethics is destroying capitalism, adopting ethics will save it.



2. A general lack of ethics


The present economic crisis is the symptom of a disease. Capitalism could be seen as a living organism, whose childhood, adolescence and youth were quite healthy. Some temporary illnesses, as the crisis of 1929 and the post-war situation, did not destroy it. Capitalism is, at the moment, in its maturity. After a fast and flourishing growth, it took a definite shape: at the top there are the investors (individuals, private and public institutions), who finance with their money the whole system; they fund producers and providers of services, who distribute their products and services through mediators and sellers; in order to produce, sell and put in operation, a great amount of manpower (workers and employees) is necessary; at the end, there are the consumers, who buy products and services. Every element of capitalism has to work correctly, like the organs in a living system. If one of them has problems, it affects the other elements and the system collapses.


Capitalism is presently affected by a disease and is in great danger. The most acute stage passed away, but the organism is not regaining its health. First of all, it is necessary to identify the illness and the affected parts of the organism. Fortunately, the diagnosis is not difficult: the crisis started from financial institutions and companies (Lehman Brothers and Bernard Madoff Investment Securities, for instance). Their collapse created a sudden lack of money and damaged producers, providers and money savers in general. In this way, there were indirectly affected also mediators, sellers, workers and employees, who saw their revenues decreasing or vanishing. And, since every member of the system is a consumer, products and services were bought to a lesser extent. The crisis of consumption caused, on the other hand, a new crisis of production and service-providing[9]. It is a vicious circle generating a gap between the majority of people, who progressively lose their wealth, and a few people, who hold money and power. This gap already exists, but is becoming greater and greater.


The crisis is due, primarily, to the heads of financial capitalism, but it would be a mistake to blame only them. There are also other people who are responsible in a similar way, people who hold a great amount of money and power: executives and owners of national and multinational companies, big traders and mediators. In Italy it happened, for instance, that Calisto Tanzi, President of the food company Parmalat, was guilty of bankruptcy fraud and criminal association. His immoral policy, nourished by the connivance of some politicians and bankers, led to the ruin of a great number of investors. The bankruptcy happened in 2003, four years before the collapse of the subprime mortgage market in the United States. Then the current crisis came, as a product of a diffused malpractice. When powerful people do not behave in a responsible way, they create a great damage to society. The crisis is not the disease of capitalism, but a serious symptom of it: the disease is what produced the crisis itself, that is a general lack of ethics.


Before giving a definition of what ‘lack of ethics’ means, it is necessary to define ethics itself. Capitalism is seen, in this paper, as the economic expression of the Ego of onto-theology. According to Levinas, the guiding principles of the Western I are intentionality and freedom: the former is a grasp of what is external to the subject; the latter is the ability to act through free will. Levinas takes position against Husserl, the father of phenomenology and of conscience as intentionality[10]. Even if his criticism could be considered exaggerated (Husserl had no intention to theorize a ‘tyrannical subject’[11]), the author of ‘Totality and Infinity’ is extraordinary in delineating ethics.


Morality is not added to the preoccupations of the I, so as to order them or to have them judged; it calls in question, and puts at a distance from itself, the I itself […]. The “vision” of the face as face is a certain mode of sojourning in a home, or […] a certain form of economic life. No human or interhuman relationship can be enacted outside of economy; no face can be approached with empty hands and closed home. Recollection in a home open to the Other –hospitality – is the concrete and initial fact of human recollection and separation[12].


Levinas points out the ‘separation’ between the Ego and the Other: the latter is not an alter-ego, another subject, but someone radically different. The other person is irreducible to the Ego. Notwithstanding this separation, there is an original relation between them: the subject approaches the other person in a particular ‘economic’ way. Since ‘economy’ means ‘management of a household’ (from the Greek words oikos, ‘house’, and nomos, ‘law’ or ‘rule’), every relation with something or somebody has to do with interiority. While the objects are included in the domestic dimension of the subject (as nourishment, tools or furniture), the other person cannot be grasped. The interhuman relationship is hospitality, is opening one own’s doors to the other.


According to Levinas, ethics is not only reception, but also responsibility. The identity of the subject is orientated to the alterity of the other, ‘without a prior commitment’[13]. Responsibility precedes freedom, it is independent from every choice. One is responsible of the other ‘despite oneself’[14], thus nobody can avoid responsibility.


From the economic point of view, it is a very important principle: it is not based on what one ‘chooses’ to do, but on what one ‘is’. Applying Levinas’ statements to capitalism, one could say the following: if one ‘is’ richer and more powerful, then one ‘will be’ more responsible, despite one’s choices. It does not mean that freedom is not important, but that responsibility founds freedom. Responsibility is the moving principle of ethics, while freedom is what makes it concrete. Behaviour depends on free will, which acts ‘according to’ or ‘against’ responsibility. This is the reason why a single action or a whole behaviour is responsible or irresponsible. Shortly, if ethics is based on responsibility, then moral activity will be responsible and immoral activity irresponsible.


Adapting Levinas’ phenomenology to economic analysis, one could state the following: intentionality and freedom exactly correspond to the ‘private ownership’ and ‘free market’ of capitalism. They are based on egotism and on an instrumental relation to the other. If egotism coincides, in capitalism, with obtaining profit, the other will be seen as a mean to make money. This relation to the other is absolutely unethical. Ethics, instead, is moved by responsibility and sees the other as the main addressee of action.


However, Levinas’ thought is too radical to be concretely applied: according to him, the subject should give itself unconditionally, because it is guilty from time immemorial[15]. Levinas’ ethics is oriented to non-reciprocity and, economically speaking, it is inapplicable. In order to move the market, a balance between one’s needs and the others’ needs is necessary. It would be better, in this case, to follow Ricoeur’s reciprocal ethics: one should see ‘oneself as another’, that is an intimate implication of otherness in identity[16]. Ethics requires both an original relation to the other (Levinas) and a practical bi-directional attitude (Ricoeur).  


The Golden Rule and the imperative of the respect owed to persons do not simply have the same field of exercise, they also have the same aim: to establish reciprocity wherever there is a lack of reciprocity[17].


The keyword is ‘respect’: respect of every person as the aim of morality, respect of oneself and the other in the same amount (it recalls the Christian principle ‘love your neighbour as yourself’[18]). ‘Reciprocal’ does not mean ‘claiming something in exchange’, since the logic of ‘exchange’ is based on egotism. Reciprocity is seen as a bi-directional respect, towards oneself and towards the other.


At this point, if ethical behaviour is respectful, unethical behaviour will be disrespectful. Unethical behaviour could be defined as a certain number of actions, fulfilling one’s aims and directly damaging (or putting in danger) the other. ‘Directly’ means that there could also be indirect consequences of one’s own action, not imputable to the agent. Unethical behaviour means betraying one’s responsibility towards the other. Phenomenology usually considers the other as ‘the other person’, but human actions do not effect only people. The other could be a human being, as well as an animal or the environment. They cannot do anything ‘in exchange’, but it does not matter, since reciprocity, in this case, does not involve exchange.


A concrete example of what unethical behaviour means is given by various bankers in the United States and United Kingdom. During the economic crisis, they violated ethics in this way: through ‘deception’ and ‘half truths given to authorities’ (lying), ‘violation of securities legislation’ and ‘allegations of fraud’, ‘misleading balance sheets’, promoting an ‘excessive bonus culture’, ‘ignoring internal corporate risk controls’, ‘conflict of interest’, ‘undue short-terminism’, ‘excessive risk-taking’, ‘callousness towards impoverished home owners’, ‘over-concentration of economic power by large banks’[19].


These actions are directly imputable to bankers, who violated both ethics and law. In this way, they caused a great damage to society, especially when financial institutions collapsed. Having an over-concentration of economic power gave an enormous amount of responsibility to the bankers, who used it, paradoxically, to escape responsibility itself.


Marx thought that the crisis of capitalism depended on over-production and concentration of money in a few hands[20]. The evolution of capitalism through financialization, together with globalization, changed the economic situation. The current crisis is not due to over-production, but to an indiscriminate pursuit of money. Capitalism is in danger not for its dialectical movement, but for a lack of ethics. The moving principle of ethics is responsibility, so ‘lack of ethics’ means ‘violation of responsibility’. Moreover, everyone is responsible of oneself and other people, and more power means more responsibility. For this reason, a lack of ethics is worst in powerful people than in common ones, because the consequences are more serious. An ethical revolution is then necessary and has to involve, primarily, the higher levels of the economic system.



3. A Phenomenological perspective on ethical revolution


An ethical revolution could be considered from several points of view. In this paper, a phenomenological perspective is adopted. ‘Phenomenology’ is here considered as an equivalent of ‘egology’: everything is considered, perceived, and felt ‘in first person’, from the point of view of the subject. On the ethical side, it has some interesting consequences. First of all, phenomenology claims an original responsibility towards the other.


The knot tied in subjectivity, which when subjectivity becomes a consciousness of being is still attested to in questioning, signifies an allegiance of the same to the other, imposed before any exhibition of the other, preliminary to all consciousness […]. This allegiance will be described as responsibility of the same for the other, as a response to his proximity before any question[21].


Ethics does not ‘proceed’ from consciousness, but ‘precedes’ it. The human subject has a moral character, so that he cannot avoid responsibility. The latter is part of his ontological (Levinas writes ‘pre-ontological’[22]) constitution. The subject is introduced, from its birth, in a relational world. When it lives distant from people, it is related with animals and nature. Loneliness is nothing but an abstraction. Using Sartre’s words, ‘the fact of the other is incontestable and touches me to the heart’[23]. Human beings are then relational (not only social) beings. The way in which they interact is based on responsibility. From the economic point of view, it is very important, because it implies the following: no one can avoid responsibility towards the other. An economic subject is responsible of the strategy chosen, of its application, and of its consequences. Violating responsibility implies paying for one’s own mistakes.


A second consequence of a phenomenological perspective is the singularity of both the ego and the other. Every subject has a common core[24], typical of human knowledge, perception, and feeling, but a concrete ego is absolutely unique. Moreover, it relates to an other who is absolutely unique as well.


Reason presupposes these singularities or particularities, not as individuals open to conceptualization, or divesting themselves of their particularity so as to find themselves to be identical, but precisely as interlocutors, irreplaceable beings, unique in their genus, faces[25].


Ethics refers to singular beings, either subjects and addressees. Every ego is different and relates to a different other. From the ethical point of view, no one can be replaced in assuming responsibility. Every person, here and now, is called to an original relation to the other. This relation does not consist in universal principles, belonging to universal subjects, and applied to universal addressees. Phenomenology does not theorize either norms, or rules. It does not matter ‘what’ the subject does (‘this act’, ‘that act’), but ‘how’ it does it (‘respecting’ or ‘not respecting’ the other). An ethical behaviour is that which follows one’s original responsibility towards one’s concrete neighbour.


In capitalism, it means that every single member of the system (executive, trader, worker, employee, customer) is not responsible for what the others do, but for what he or she does. The amount of responsibility is greater according to the amount of money and power one has. If, for instance, an employee behaves in a bad way towards a customer, he or she will have to pay for his or her single action. If an executive adopts an irresponsible strategy, he or she will have to pay not only for the action, but also for all that follows. In the case of people with great power, a single mistake has many consequences and involves many people.


Thirdly, phenomenology avoids two kinds of danger: anonymity and alienation. The uniqueness of both the ego and the other preserves them from the tyranny of universality. From the philosophical point of view, the singular avoids a subordination to the Same (or Being, or Spirit)[26]. In economy, it gets away from Hegel’s ethical State and Marx’s socialism. The difference between the former and the latter is that Idealism maintains private property, while communism abolishes it. In both cases, the ‘good’ of individuals is established by State institutions, which manipulate everything, from the economy to private life[27]. Equality is guaranteed, but at the price of making individuals anonymous beings.


Phenomenology also helps against alienation. In this case, it is better to adopt Ricoeur’s version: the thought of Husserl is inclined to alienate the other (‘all that which holds for myself holds, as I know, for all other human beings’[28]), while Levinas risks to alienate the subject (‘the-one-for-the-other goes to the extent of the-one-being-hostage-for-the-other[29]). According to Ricoeur, oneself is seen as another, implying respect on both sides.


This ethical principle is necessary to heal the plague of capitalism, that is the alienation of a part of the system. Marx thinks that there are only two classes, oppressors and oppressed. The former are capitalists, the latter proletarians. Workers are alienated by owners of companies, who make profit with the exploitation of proletarian labour[30]. However, financial capitalism is characterized by a more complex structure. Alienation usually concerns the parts of the system who own less money: workers, employees and small businessmen, for instance. Phenomenology leads, in its ethical and reciprocal form, to a balance between stronger and weaker members of the system.


Ethical capitalism, that is capitalism passing through ethical revolution, is a third way between communism and classic/financial capitalism. The former reduces all subjects to anonymity, the latter is a source of alienation. Phenomenology theorizes uniqueness (Levinas) and reciprocity (Ricoeur) between the ego and the other.


Fourthly, a phenomenological perspective warns against a pseudo-ethical behaviour. ‘Being ethical’ does not mean ‘having an ethical coat’. There are companies who put ‘something ethical’ in their product or in their policy, in order to attract investor, partners or customers. For example, an enterprise produces part of its eggs, breeding hens in open air. In this way, it attracts people who are sensitive to the living condition of animals. These customers will pay a higher price to buy this kind of eggs. However, there are also people who are content if hens are not in cages, even if they are bred indoor. And there are customers who do not care about animal conditions, but only about price. The latter will buy eggs produced by hens bred in batteries. This is exactly the case of the Italian company AIA:[31] its executives understood that better conditions for animals attract more customers. But the company is not moved by ethical reasons, otherwise it would limit the whole production to free-range eggs. Companies like AIA purely act for profit.


If the purpose of a behaviour is other than ethical, such a behaviour will be not really ethical. However, a moral appearance is useful to make money: being good pays. An ethical film enhances profit, even if the substance is unethical. First of all, not all the people are sensitive to moral behaviour, because most of them rather prefer to avoid an immoral behaviour. Secondly, they pay willingly an higher price up to a certain threshold (30%, 50% of sustainable production, for instance). This threshold is not clearly determinable and is different case by case.[32] This is why companies do something ethical, as much as it does not hinder profit.


Phenomenology rejects such a kind of behaviour. ‘Being ethical’ means ‘acting responsibly’. When a company follows a moral conduct, it does not limit itself to some good actions. Ethics is neither charitable, nor instrumental. An ethical producer of eggs, for instance, breeds chicken in open air, provides them with healthy food, leaves them space enough to live comfortably, heals them when they are sick, avoids to raise too many hens if good conditions cannot be guaranteed. This kind of behaviour is ethical because it respects both customers and animals: it provides buyers with eggs of the best quality and, at the same time, allows chicken to have a good life. This kind of behaviour is, philosophically speaking, oriented towards the other.


If moral behaviour is, on the contrary, money-oriented, it will not be moral at all. Since current capitalism aims to profit, it meets ethics only by accident. Ethics is usually a limitation to profit: the “obsessive materialism which capitalist economy promote is one of the weaknesses of capitalism when it is considered from an ethical point of view”[33]. An ethical behaviour is not necessarily ascetical and includes material goods and pleasures: in order to avoid alienation, the ego has to preserve itself. Capitalism does not purely promote self-preservation, but an indiscriminate pursuit of materialism. As the economic expression of onto-theology, capitalism is ruled by egotism.


Phenomenology goes beyond the tyranny of the Same, of the universal subject, of indiscriminate property and freedom. Stating the importance of ethics, of original responsibility, of uniqueness, phenomenology does not destroy the subject, but makes it ‘singular’. Definitely, it has to renounce to its tyrannical power, but not to itself. What is here suggested is not to alienate the ego in behalf of the other. Building one’s own identity is necessary to self-preservation and, moreover, to have ‘something to give’. If the subject is alienated, it cannot offer anything to the other. Ethics should not imply a fission of one’s identity[34], but an equilibrated inclination to giving.


The economic consequence of such a perspective is not the end of capitalism. If capitalism is based on egotism and egotism is ‘partially’ preserved by phenomenology, then capitalism will be ‘partially’ preserved by phenomenology. Phenomenology does not accept capitalism in its current form, because it is ‘wholly’ based on egotism, that is indiscriminate freedom and property. However, it accepts a different form of capitalism, which is only ‘partially’ ruled by egotism. This new kind of system is called ‘ethical capitalism’ and is based on respectful freedom and property.


Defining what is and what is not ‘respectful’ is the most difficult task to accomplish, due to the open character of phenomenology. Phenomenology is not a normative system, but a perspective. For this reason, it does not suggest a precise behaviour, but a different way to approach the world. Classic and financial capitalism are based on individual interest; ethical capitalism is based on responsibility. One’s freedom and property are not destroyed or ‘limited’ by the other’s freedom and property. One’s freedom and property is directed both to self-preservation and preservation of the other, that is the environment and its inhabitants. Ethical capitalism is not self-oriented, but other-oriented: it is directed both to the other and to the self as another. Responsibility is opposed to alienation, because it is bi-directional. This is why a responsible behaviour, on large scale, could save capitalism from its gaps and from its ruin.


[1] Cf. Hein, E., The Macroeconomics of Finance-dominated Capitalism and its Crisis, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2012, p. 1.

[2] Smith, A., The Glasgow edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. 2a, edited by R.H. Cambell and A.S. Skinner, Oxford: Claredon Press, 1976, pp. 26–7.

[3] Cf. ibid.,  p. 456.

[4] ‘It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals’ (Marx, K., Capital [Cap.], Volume 1, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1954, p. 586).

[5] Epstein, G. A., ‘Introduction: Financialization and the World Economy’, in Epstein, G. A. (ed.), Financialization and the World Economy, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2005, p. 3.

[6] In 1938, George Edwards already individuated finance as an element of instability: the current form of capitalism converts real equity in financial one. Edwards was even afraid of a conspiracy by financial institutions. See Edwards, G. W., The Evolution of Finance Capitalism, London: Longmans Green, 1938.

[7] Bishop, J. D., ‘Ethics and Capitalism. A Guide to the Issues’, in Bishop, J. D. (ed.), Ethics and Capitalism, University of Toronto Press Incorporated: Toronto-Buffalo-London, 2000, p. 4.

[8] ‘Ontology as first philosophy is a philosophy of power’ (Levinas E., Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority [TI], Duquesne: Pittsburgh, 1969, p. 9).

[9] For a specific description of this mechanisms, see Hein 2012.

[10] Levinas criticizes the thought of Husserl in several writings. Cf., for example, TI, pp. 109-110, 121-126; Id., Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence [OB], Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1981, pp. 8, 33, 63-66; Id., Discovering Essence With Husserl, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998, pp. 74-75, 124-126, 176-177.

[11] Husserl considers the Other as an Ego-subject, but neither identical, nor subject to the Ego. ‘Each has its place from which he sees the physical things present; and, accordingly, each has different physical-things appearances. Also, for each of the fields of actual perception, actual memory, etc., are different, leaving aside the fact that intersubjectively common objects of consciousness in those field are intended to as to having different modes, different manners of apprehension, different degrees of clarity, and so forth’ (Husserl, E., Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book  [Ideas I], The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982, pp. 55-56).

[12] TI, p. 172.

[13] OB, p. 153.

[14] Ibid., pp. 51, 54-56, 74.

[15] Ibid., pp. 26, 51, 87.

[16] Cf. Ricoeur, P., Oneself as Another, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1992, p. 3.

[17] Ibid., p. 225.

[18] Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27.

[19] Thomas, R., ‘Ethics – or the Lack of Ethis – in the Global Financial Crisis 2007-2010’, in Rosamund M. Thomas (ed.), Business Ethics, Cambridge: Ethics International Press, 2011, p. 75.

[20] Cf. Cap., p. 587.

[21] OB, pp. 25-26.

[22] Ibid., pp. 43-44, 78.

[23] Sartre, J.-P-, Being and Nothingness. An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, New York: Philosophical Library, 1956, p. 367. Even if Sartre is better known as an existentialist, Being and Nothingness can be considered as a phenomenological masterwork. Anyway, the constitutive inter-subjectivity of human beings was first stated by Heidegger, according to which ‘being-in-the-world’ (in-der-Welt-sein) is also ‘being-with’ (Mit-sein). Cf. Heidegger, M., Being and Time, State University of New York Press: Albany, 1996, p. 112.

[24] The phenomenological epoché, theorized by Husserl, searches for a pure consciousness, abstracting from the concrete Ego-subjects. ‘It therefore remains as the “phenomenological residuum,” as a region of being which is of essential necessity quite unique and which can indeed become the field of a science of a novel kind: phenomenology’ (Ideas I, pp. 65-66).

[25] TI, p. 252.

[26] Cf. TI, pp. 46-47, 143, 269-271.

[27] Cf. Hegel, G. W. F., Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, §§ 257-258; Marx, K.- Engels, F., The Communist Manifesto [Manifesto], New York: Russell and Russell, 1963, Chap. 2. According to Hegel, the State is the reality of reason and will, which coincides with individual freedom. According to Marx, communism implies centralization of credit, means of communication, production and education in the hands of the State. Both authors theorize, in order to guarantee equality, a strong Statism.

[28] Ideas I, p. 55.

[29] OB, p. 141.

[30] Cf. Manifesto, pp. 25-26; Marx, K., Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, New York: International Publishers, 1964, pp. 108-111.

[31] Products numbered B5110, for instance, come from hens farming to barn, while B5114 are free-range eggs. The other products come from hens bred in batteries. This is why, in 2001, AIA was condemned by the Italian Antitrust. The company showed on its egg-packages images of hens eating on lawns and the proposition ‘uova fresche allevate a terra’ (‘fresh eggs bred ashore’). It could led customers to think that they were free-range eggs, while hens were crowded into big barns (intensive livestock farming).

[32] Cf. Trudel, R.- Cotte, J., ‘Does It Pay To Be Good?’, MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 50, 2, 2009, pp. 66-68.

[33] Groarke, L., ‘Can Capitalism Save Itself? Some Ruminations on the Fate of Capitalism’, in Bishop 2000, p. 204.

[34] Cf. OB, pp. 49, 104, 141, 180, 185. 


The documentary “Enemies of the People” (2009) and the question of ethics


Enemies of the People (2010) was broadcast in July 2011 on More4 in the United Kingdom under a different title (Voices from the Killing Fields), having won a number of high profile international awards globally, including the Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2011.


In Enemies of the People we are told early on that it is the filmmaker’s painful obsession and a need to deal with his profound mourning, which drives this project. Thet Sambath is the victim of genocide, having lost his whole family in the atrocities committed by Khmer Rouge; his desire is to understand how the killers could have killed. That desire leads him to commence a 10-year mission to find the killers first and then learn on camera as much as possible about them, their motives for the murders and the exact forms these have taken. In order to achieve this goal, Sambath does not hesitate to conceal his true motives from those whom he tracks down. He does not tell them he is a victim of their killings. ‘I smile’ he says ‘so they tell me everything. I smile outside but there is pain inside’. Sambath is a character in his own film, we see him and hear his feelings and thoughts, recorded both as a kind of video diary and also by a British filmmaker who is credited as the co-director of the film and who turned up a lot later in Sambath’s journey, helping him create a film out of his footage.


Sambath Thet’s patient recording of the killers’ testimonies, through his tenacious and persistent engagement with those who were responsible in some ways for the disappearance of his whole family, appears to be his main reason for his living in the last 9 years. The most astonishing is his relationship with Khmer Rouge second in command — if Pol Pot was the ‘First Brother’, he was the Second Brother — Nuon Chea, a ‘very secretive man’, says Sambath, who spends 10 years of his life trying to get close to him in order to obtain the testimony.


Was Sambath’s project an ethical enterprise?


Does Sambath’s stated project of searching for the truth excuse his deceptions in actually obtaining the testimonies? In order to interrogate this further, I will now engage with the ethics of closeness, which Bauman (2007:88) also called the ethics of proximity, or the relational ethics linked to what Martin Buber called ‘the I –Thou’ ethics, and mostly with the work of Emmanuel Levinas, who breaks with the Cartesian supremacy of the ‘I’ in favour of intersubjectivity, albeit asymmetrical. I will look briefly at Kant’s categorical imperative, which demands the truth at all times (see for example Zupancic 2011 [2000]: 46) and also investigate Lacan’s call ‘ not to give up on one’s desire’ (Lacan [1959-60]1992: 321) in this context.



The Ethics of Proximity

The ethics of proximity is not a school of philosophical thought with an established tradition. One could argue that it is Emmanuel Levinas with his groundbreaking publication Totality and Infinity (1961) who put the ethics of proximity on the map. Cooper points out that Levinasian ethics is articulated ‘through critical dialogue with the western philosophical tradition’ (Cooper 2005:16). In Cooper’s reading Levinas ‘uncouples‘ the relationship between justice and ethics through the face of the Other ‘Levinas’s understanding of the visage is pivotal to his gradual re-thinking of the way in which subjectivity is constituted ethically by questioning ontology in a manner that shuns the light of justice without making either sphere invisible’ (ibid. :17).


Levinas draws from Martin Buber’s ideas of the ‘I – Thou’ relationship (Buber 1923). However, in Buber the ‘I – Thou’ relationship is reciprocal and reversible, and, to put it simply, depends, or at least might depend, on how the Other treats us. Levinas’s notions are emphatically different and more exigent.


Levinas’ originality lies in the depiction of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship as asymmetrical, beyond or outside, or prior to the logic of reciprocity (see for example Reinhard in Zizek, Santner, Reinhard 2005: 48). It is therefore prior to any choices (Kierkegaard) – it is pre-voluntary and pre-conscious. As we have seen already, in a documentary encounter the ‘asymmetrical ‘ element is important: one person makes a film about the other; one person has the power of the media apparatus behind them, one person is using the technology – in short, one person, i.e. the director, is more powerful than the other about whom the film is made..


In Levinas the infinite responsibility for the Other is set in motion by the Other whose arrival impacts on the ‘I’. The ‘I’ therefore, the ego, is not the prime mover – the power of the decision-making is shifted from the ‘I’ to the Other. In other words, the freedom of the I is constituted as receiving a challenge, an appeal from the other and that appeal is then transformed into a demand which organizes, or should do, the world we live in.


Clearly these demands are almost impossible to carry out and yet we are asked to try and keep trying. Critchley in his study of the ethics of proximity Infinitely Demanding (2007) stresses that, despite the apparent and stated passivity, in truth the Levinasian subject is never passive as his ‘ethical experience is activity, the activity of the subject (…)’ (Critchley 2007:14). Therefore, despite the responsibility for the other being there a priori before anything else might take place, what takes place might be the choice of the subject.


In his ethics Levinas lists two elements, which happen to be strikingly important in any documentary: the language and the face. The idea of the face, the ‘visage’, appears to have created another controversy amongst the scholars. Cooper argues that it is not an actual face and insists that ‘the face cannot be seen since vision is not a relation of transcendence’ (Cooper 2005:17). But many writers have taken ‘the face’ very much as the face so perhaps for our purposes it is fine to take it both literally (at face value) and as a metaphor of the Other. The point is, and Cooper agrees, that through the face the asymmetrical relationship is established: ‘the face takes us out of the very relation it simultaneously creates: the other always exceeds the idea I have of it, escapes my grasp, and thus breaks with the spatial symmetry that would equate my position with its own’ (ibid:18).


Significantly, Levinas states that one of the aims of his work is to demonstrate that the relation with alterity is language itself:


‘We shall try to show that the relation between the same and the other – upon which we seem to impose such extraordinary conditions – is language. For language accomplishes a relation such that the terms are not limited within this relation, such that the other, despite the relationship with the same, remains transcendent to the same. The relation between the same and the other, metaphysics, is primordially enacted as conversation (…)’ (Levinas 1961: 39).


Levinas uses the terms ‘conversation’ and ‘discourse’ synonymously in Totality and Infinity (1961). Conversation is a relation that maintains separation between self and Other but is also the indispensable link. Through the approach of the Other, my spontaneity is limited: ‘The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics’ (ibid.: 43). The spontaneity is reduced by the infinite responsibility for the Other, confirmed in the conversation.


In Enemies of the People the faces of of the subjects of the films haunt the audience; the former killers, including Brother number two, are now characters in the film. There is something uncomfortable about the project and the spectators are invited to share in the complicity of obtaining truth by deception.


In terms of the ethics of proximity, another thinker, Knud Logstrup, Levinas’s contemporary at Freiberg introduces the notion of ‘trust’ to the ‘I –Thou’ encounter which he also views as asymmetrical.


‘Trust’ is an idea that is vital in documentary film and Logstrup urges us to be very careful about what that trust might involve:


‘(…) No one has the right to make himself the master of another person’s individuality or will. Neither good intentions, insight into what is best for him, nor even the possibility of saving him from great calamities which would otherwise strike him can justify intrusion upon his individuality and will’ (Logstrup in Jodalen 1997:87).


In many a documentary encounter, the issue of trust becomes an uncomfortable burden: how do we interview a person who has committed bad things and yet he or she trusts us with their life story, and sometimes more, with their actual lives? How can we possibly do our work if the search for the truth involves a breach of the trust somebody invested in our encounter? How do we get that crucial testimony if at the last moment the witness simply says ‘no’ and cries? In the Levinasian system, the answer is not difficult to anticipate: the minute your extraction of testimony causes unbearable pain, you must stop. For Levinas, or for a Levinasian, Enemies of the People is clearly NOT an ethical project, despite its quest for the truth.


There could be other philosophical paradigms one could deploy which might offer remedies to the infinite demands of the responsibility for the Other, such as the epistemological drive or the Kantian quest for the universal truth. Surely, we, society, history, culture, have a right to demand the truth from the witnesses; do we not? If we do, then clearly the scene was ethical. Kant calls that which would produce the power to act ethically and morally, the motivational force that would dispose the self towards the good, ‘the philosopher’s stone’ as arriving through the fact of reason, which can be shared universally (see Bennett 2010:74, Bauman 2007: 37,Critchley 2007:26). Truth and duty are the highest values. He further states ‘autonomy in ethics entails universality: the only norms upon which I can legitimately act are those, which I can consistently will as a universal law’ (Critchley 2007: 32-33). Such is the argument for the categorical imperative in Kant. On the other hand, wouldn’t Samabath’s deception towards the former killers disqualify his effort as unethical – he is lying after all?


Within the ethics of proximity this need to search for reason and truth, as any other need, must be subordinate to the infinite responsibility towards the Other. From that point of view, it might appear that any encounter, which carries in it a risk of hurting the Other, including interviewing, never mind putting the Other’s pain on public display, might be simply unethical and immoral. Kant famously gives an example in which a murderer enquires of the whereabouts of a potential victim. The respondent knows that if he tells the truth, the murderer might well kill that person. Kant still demands a truthful answer (MacIntyre 2010[1987]:188, Zupancic 2011[2000]: 46-47). This very cold intellectual stance, some say, can be a basis for horrific justifications of torture and genocide (see Zizek quoted below, for example).


In Levinas, a personal choice (which is a cornerstone of other philosophical systems such as Kierkegaard )[1] and indeed Lacan), is a little restricted as the ethics of responsibility for the Other overrides all other possibilities. Cooper stresses that in Levinas ‘there is no stable position of knowledge, comprehension, vision, perception or understanding’ (Cooper 2005:23) as ‘each of these activities is vulnerable to disruption’ (ibid.: 23).


To sum up, Levinas is interested in developing a reaction to symmetry, hegemony of the I and the Other. His thinking is thus in stark contrast to Buber in which the responsibility of the I is accompanied by the hope that the Other will reciprocate. There is no such hope, demand or expectation in Levinas. As we begin to see, the ethics of Levinas, whilst highly relevant to documentary, will put extraordinary pressures on the encounter.


For the startling conclusion of the Levinasian ethical paradigm, and also that of Logstrup, is that the documentary filmmaker should be in continuous fear of being unethical as her epistemological pursuit will almost automatically, inevitably and perhaps unconsciously put the Other in danger. It might even indeed be that it is close to impossible to make documentary films and be ethical towards the Other [2]


We will see directly how the Levinasian notion of responsibility for the Other sits uncomfortably with Lacan’s notion of Desire.



Love Thy Neighbour versus Desire

Lacan in his Seminar VII on Ethics questions the whole project of ‘love thy neighbour’ and wonders whether a human being is actually capable of an act of altruistic love at all, therefore appearing at complete loggerheads with Levinasian ideals of the infinite responsibility for the Other. On the other hand, his command to follow through one’s desire has surprising meeting points with Kant – which I will elaborate on next.


Lacan reminds us that Freud has a problem with the Love Thy Neighbour notion and quotes from Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents, saying that man’s innate tendencies lead us to ‘evil, aggression, destruction, and thus also to cruelty’. Lacan quotes Freud mercilessly lest we want to forget:

‘Man tries to satisfy his need for aggression at the expense of his neighbour, to exploit his work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to appropriate his goods, to humiliate him, to inflict suffering on him, to torture and kill him’ (Lacan [1959-60]1992: 185).

Why is it difficult to love one’s neighbour? For many reasons, but mostly, Lacan points to the drives, which are repressed and spill over to jouissance, a selfish and sometimes destructive enjoyment, always tinted with pain, and ultimately, with death as it spells out the limits of the momentary fulfillment – of desire.


The Ethics in Lacan

The issue of the ethics versus desire in Jacques Lacan is a complex matter. For the purpose of this discussion I will contain my interrogation to Seminar VII, on the ethics of psychoanalysis. In it we find Lacan’s notorious and controversial notion, or the call ‘not to give up on one’s desire’: ‘ne pas céder sur son désir[3] translated as a confusing ‘not to give ground relative to one’s desire’(Lacan [1959-60]1992: 321) or as Zupancic (2000) and Zizek (1994[2005]) propose, as simply ‘not to give up on one’s desire’ or even as ‘not to compromise one’s desire’ (ibid.: 61).

Lacan in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis discusses at length the apparently self-destructive choices of Antigone and her father Oedipus in terms an ethical act which, once undertaken, demands to be seen through, no matter what the consequences. It is Oedipus’ unstoppable quest for knowledge, which is ultimately at the heart of his tragedy. And yet, according to Lacan, that relentless pursuit of the truth is rewarded too:

‘It is important to explore what is contained in that moment when, although he has renounced the service of goods [the Symbolic], nothing of the preeminence of the dignity in relation to the same goods is ever abandoned; it is the same moment when in his tragic liberty he has to deal with the consequence of that desire that led him to go beyond the limit, namely, the desire to know.

He has learned and still wants to learn something more’ (Lacan [1959-60]1992: 305) (my emphasis).

This is thus a radical definition of ethics: if you willfully betray your readiness as to keep discovering what your desire might be, or somehow submit to the demands of ‘the service of goods’[4], your very compromise is unethical. This is what Lacan goes on to say: ‘And it is because we know better than those who went before how to recognize the nature of desire, which is at the heart of this experience, that a reconsideration of ethics is possible, that a form of ethical judgment is possible, of a kind that gives this question the force of a Last Judgment: Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you? . . . Opposed to this pole of desire is traditional ethics’ (Lacan [1959-60]1992: 314]. And a few pages later, he repeats again, positioning the analytic encounter in the same terms: ‘I propose then that, from an analytical point of view, the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire. Whether it is admissible or not in a given ethics, that proposition expresses quite well something that we observe in our experience’ (ibid.: 319] (my emphasis – please note a different translation of the French, as mentioned previously).

Eleanor Kaufman’s (2002) illuminating paper stresses that in Lacan ‘desire may be not always self-evident; the important thing is not to give up on the quest to encounter it’ (Kaufman 2002: 141). Fink (1999) in his paper on Seminar VII reminds us that ‘human desire is very unwieldy, unruly, and unmanageable. First of all, we spend a great deal of time and energy pretending it is not there, pretending that what we want is not really what we want, keeping our desire out of sight-keeping it from others and from ourselves. (…) Lacan teaches us that our desire is such a precious thing to us that when faced with a possibility of its satisfaction, we often run the other way, preferring to remain unsatisfied so as to keep our desire alive ‘(Fink 1999: 532). Fink also points out to the fact that our desire is often initiated by the Other – so as we uncover these desires in the analysis they might feel foreign, strange, not our own. Given that ‘desire comes from the Other ‘(Lacan 1996: 419) Fink poses the question again, ‘how am I to know what I really want?[5] (Fink1999: 533), which remains the key question of Lacanian psychoanalysis throughout his work.

Fink also stresses Lacan’s suggestion that guilt arises when ‘I do not act on my desire – when I slip by the occasions to express my hostility, when I swallow my pride instead of lashing out.’ ‘The only thing one can be guilty of’ Lacan says’ is giving up on one’s desire’ (Lacan [1959-60]1992: 319) Fink goes on to say that in a clinic it is important to bear in mind that Lacan ‘tells us not to act in accordance with what we believe to be the good of our fellow man or woman’ (Fink 1999: 536). Fink reminds us that in Seminar VIII Lacan too urges the analyst not to aim at what he or she considers to be the analysand’s own good, but rather ‘at the analysand’s greater Eros.’ (ibid. :536) Eros of course is a broader notion than desire and will indeed include love. The ethics of the psychoanalysis is constituted in Seminar VII and VIII by the psychoanalyst’s work in helping the analysand’s uncover their desire – and ability to love. Fink concludes ‘the analyst must thus, from a Lacanian vantage point, direct the treatment not in accordance with some preconceived notions of the analysand’s good or best interest, but to facilitate the analysand’s greater Eros. (…) If Lacan provides anything by way of a possible ‘solution’ to the paradox of desire and satisfaction, I would argue that it is not via sublimation, but rather via a changed relation between desire and the drives in each of us’(Ibid.: 544).

This seems to be getting us closer to the situation the filmmaker can find himself in with his subject in a documentary encounter. Does this seeing through one’s desire give one a right to do what one wants? It is a little more complicated as we will see directly. Zizek (1994[2005]: 67) says that ‘the saint is ethical (he does not compromise his desire) and moral (he considers the Good of others) whereas the scoundrel is immoral (he violates moral norms) and unethical (what he is after is not desire but pleasures and profits, so he lacks any firm principles). Zizek then points out that the relationship between the horizontal lines could be far more interesting: for example, the hero could be immoral, yet ethical –‘that is to say, he violates (or rather, suspends the validity of) existing explicit moral norms in the name of a higher ethics of life’ that include the fidelity to his desire (ibid.: 67). Zizek (1994[2005] and Zupancic (2011 [2000]) take an even more controversial example of an ethical stance which would be utterly immoral, namely that of the Marquise de Montreuil and Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuse (1782): they have struck a pact in which Valmont seduces women and abandons them as a kind of proof of his love for the Marquise de Montreuil. It is in the end the Marquise who, in her consistency and fidelity to her desire, is the most ethical character in the novel, despite being also despicably immoral. Valmont, on the other hand, gets confounded by the unexpected love he feels for Madame de Tourvel, but he cannot see it through for the fear of humiliation in the eyes of Madame: he therefore fails on every count being neither ethical nor moral.

Zizek also makes a point similar to Fink, explicating the relationship between guilt and desire. Zizek clarifies that Lacan posits a relationship of ethical exclusion between the ethics of desire and the superego. The feeling of guilt ‘is not a self-deception to be dispelled in the course of the analysis: we really are guilty: superego draws the energy of the pressure it exerts upon the subject from the fact that the subject was not faithful to his desire that he gave up. Our sacrificing to the superego, our paying tributes to it, only corroborates our guilt’ (Zizek 1994[2005]: 68).

Lacan makes references to Kant, in part developing the link between Kant and Sade, which he suggests first in the same seminar (Seminar VII) and then in the Écrits ‘Kant with Sade’ of 1963.

Zizek reflects on the importance of this connection and suggests that ‘A lot-everything, perhaps-is at stake here: is there a line from Kantian formalist ethics to the cold-blooded Auschwitz killing machine? Are concentration camps and killing as a neutral business the inherent outcome of the enlightened insistence on the autonomy of Reason?’ (cf. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/kant-and-sade-the-ideal-couple/)

These are dramatic statements, which are highly pertinent to my interrogation with the testimony of a traumatized victim at its heart. Kant’s has a disdain for a desire vis-à-vis duty – a desire that is often pathologised in Kant as giving in to low instincts, which have nothing to do with his lofty ideas of pure ethics (see for example MacIntyre 2010:77).


Lacan in his Seminar VII analyses Sade’s devotion to his fantasy of the ultimate succumbing to the desire and going beyond the limit. Zizek insists however that the focus of Lacan is always Kant, not Sade: what he is interested in are the ultimate consequences and disavowed premises of the Kantian ethical revolution. (cf. Zizek in http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/kant-and-sade-the-ideal-couple/)


Is this in any way relevant to documentary filmmaking? It might be relevant to documentary filmmaking or any activity profoundly fuelled by desire, to the exclusion of a moral consideration for what might be good for other people. In the same paper Zizek continues, giving an example of an artist ‘absolutely identified with his artistic mission, pursuing it freely without any guilt, as an inner constraint, unable to survive without it.’ Zizek gives also an example of another artist: Jacqueline du Pré, who ‘confronts us with the feminine version of the split between the unconditional injunction and its obverse, the serial universality of indifferent empirical objects that must be sacrificed in the pursuit of one’s Mission’:


Du Pré’s unconditional injunction, her drive, her absolute passion was her art (…) She thus occupied the place usually reserved for the MALE artist-no wonder her long tragic illness (multiple sclerosis, from which she was painfully dying from 1973 to 1987) was perceived by her mother as an “answer of the real,” as divine punishment not only for her promiscuous sexual life, but also for her “excessive” commitment to her art…’ (Zizek in “Kant and Sade, The Ideal Couple”, web reference as before; capitals in the original).



Here we get very close to the film we are focusing on, Enemies of the People. The documentary film maker’s ‘excessive commitment’ to his work through the fidelity to their desire would definitely make them ethical in the Lacanian system. However, that does not necessarily mean that they are moral – they might well be immoral, meaning, causing pain and havoc in people’s lives.



Badiou in his Ethics; an Essay on the Understanding of Evil (2002[1993]) offers an approach to the issue of ethics which, by his own account, draws from Lacan’s ‘don’t give up on your desire’ but is clearer and more exigent . It also stresses the notion of evil. Badiou’s move is to dissociate himself in the strongest possible term from the Levinasian ethics of the responsibility of the Other, placing the personal decision of the I at the heart of his ethics, which he call ‘an ethic of truths’ (or sometimes an ethic of a truth process). He is very insistent that ‘there can be no ethics in general, but only an ethic of singular truths, and thus an ethic relative to a particular situation’ (Badiou 2002[1993];IVI)), although he did accept that one has to take into account the network of relationships it sustains.


Peter Hallward, in his introduction to the book, points out that the system of thinking that Badiou attacks has a couple of preliminary assumptions; first the assumption of an a priori evil (totalitarianism, violence, suffering), which Badious questions; then the imposition of an essentially defensive ethics, a ‘respect for negative liberties’ and ‘human rights’. Badiou argues that operating in the realm of consensus, this is intrinsically conservative ethics. Badiou lists two prevailing ‘philosophical poles’: first a ‘vaguely Kantian pole is grounded in abstract universality, general human attributes and some kind of vague acceptance of truth’. The second one is vaguely Levinasian attuned to the irreducible alterity of the Other. Badiou’s proposes a more radical move. His translator, also a philosopher, stresses: ‘The whole tangled body of doctrine associated with the Other (…) is here simply swept away. Gone is the complex “negotiation” of a multiplicity of shifting “subject positions”; (…) Gone is the whole abject register of “bearing witness”, of a guilt-driven empathy or compassion ultimately indistinguishable from a distanced condescension’.



The Immortal Versus the Victim

In his introduction Badiou mentions Hegel’s subtle distinction between ‘ethics’ [Sittlichkeit] and ‘morality’ [Moralitaet]. Hegel sees ethics as involving immediate action whereas morality is reflexive. Hegel, and Badiou after him, puts emphasis on ‘immediate firmness of decision. (ibid. :2) Badiou’s insistence on linking ethics to particular situations (ibid. :3) seems helpful in discussing an encounter in documentary film.


Badiou states that the reduction of a human being to the status of victim ‘equates man with his animal substructure’ (ibid. :11). Badiou then makes the point that many torturers of man begin to treat people as animals also because the victims begin to think of themselves in this way.[6] Badiou makes a point that any resistance to annihilation doesn’t lie in his fragile body but rather ‘in his stubborn determination to remain what he is’ – i.e. something other than the victim. (ibid. 110-11)


Badiou then introduces the notion of an Immortal, the rights of the Infinite, ‘exercised over the contingency of suffering and death’ (ibid. :10-11). For Badiou this is not a religious thought, as he says later in the book that there is no God – it is rather that the notion that the human being is more than the sum of his or her most basic needs; this is crucial in Badiou’s ethic of truths.


It is in his introduction that Badiou sets out a devastating critique of the ‘Western’, meaning capitalist, ways of thinking about the world: he gives an example of a doctor about to tend to a patient in distress, when he or she stops and begins to wonder whether he or she should treat the patient, due to his or her insurance status for example. Badiou says that a situation like this is a simple matter: of course you must treat the sick patient whatever the circumstance. The point is that the emphasis in Badiou is always on the I and the decision, which is still a decision, that everybody has to make for themselves (ibid. :15). ‘For the faithful to this situation means, to treat to the limit of the possible. Or if you prefer: to draw from this situation, to the greatest possible extent, the affirmative humanity that it contains. Or again: to try to be the immortal of this situation (ibid. :15).


So the key principles of Badiou’s ethic of truths are the following 3 theses:

Thesis 1: ‘Man is to be identified by his affirmative thought, by the singular truths of which he is capable, by the Immortal which makes of him the most resilient [resistant] and most paradoxical of animals (ibid. :16)

Thesis 2: ‘our positive capability for Good’ and ‘our refusal of conservatism, including the conservation of being, that we are to identify Evil – not vice versa’. (Ibid.: 16)

Thesis 3: The final point is, again, about thinking through of the ethics of ‘singular situations.’



The Ethic of Truths and a possibility of an evil event

Badiou’s notion of the subject is connected to ‘something extra’, which wrenches a person through his or her being as a near animal. It is something that happened, something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary insicition in ‘what there is’ (ibid.: 41). This is what Badiou call an ‘event’ (ibid.: 41), which compiles us to decide a new way of being. Badiou lists huge historical events as possible ‘events’ in the way he uses them: the French Revolution, Galileo’s creation of physics, but also a personal amorous passion, the invention of the twelve-tone scale by Schoenberg (ibid.: 42). The key thing for Badiou is the ability on the part of the subject to hence with relate to the situation from’ from the perspective of its eventual (evenemeniel) supplement (ibid.: 41). Badiou calls this fidelity. He calls ‘subject’ the bearer of ‘a fidelity’, the one who bears a process of truth’ (ibid.: 43).


Badiou envisages though a possibility of a false event which is evil and which he calls ‘simulacrum’ (ibid.: 72-73). He gives a dramatic example which wipes out any confusion regarding it: namely the example of the Nazis and the ‘National Socialist revolution’: ‘they borrowed names –“revolution”, “socialism” –justified by great modern political events (the Revolution of 1789, or the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). A whole series of characterizers are related to and legitimated by this borrowing: the break with the old order, the support sought from mass gatherings (…)’ (ibid.:72). Badiou stresses that such an ‘event’ might have formal similarities with a true event but the difference in this instance lies in its ‘absolute particularity’ (ibid.:73) of a community it only addresses itself too i.e. the Germans. A true event cannot have this kind of a restriction: ‘The void, the multiple-of nothing, neither excludes nor constrains anyone (…) although it is an immanent break within a singular situation, is none the less universally addressed’ (ibid.: 73).


Badiou calls such a mis-recognition of an event a ‘simulacrum of truth’ (ibid.: 73). It is here that Badiou and Zizek part ways, as the latter envisages a possibility of an act, which is ethical but immoral as previously stated. [7] Such a possibility does not exist in Badiou and he would certainly deem that pact between Valmont and Madame Montreuil not an event but a simulacrum: again, he does not use the word ‘pathological’ (neither does Lacan), but the pact between Valmont and Madame Montreuil stops them from a possibility of following a true event, namely the miraculous falling in love in the case of Valmont and Madame de Torveil. It is a sense of a closed set which privileges only a particular group: ‘Fidelity to a simulacrum, unlike fidelity to an event, regulates its break with the situation not by the universality of the void, but by the closed particularity of an abstract set [ensemble] (the ‘Germans’ or the ‘Aryans’)’ (ibid.: 74).


Badiou sees dangers in confusing the simulacrum with a true event and cautions again against any form of a closed set, which ‘works directly against truths’ (ibid.: 76). Having named love as one of the possible truth events, Badiou now says ‘we can see how certain sexual passions are simulacra of the amorous event’ (ibid.: 77). A person in the middle of a sexual passion might have a difficulty in telling the difference between a simulacra and ‘the event’ but love as an event in Badiou relies on a sudden experience of seeing the world differently together, through the event of love, and not just on a mutual desire.[8]



Concluding thoughts and questions

 If we could be certain that we can qualify the position of the filmmaker as a true event, would that constitute an ethical act on the part of Sambath?

Some questions remain: was this really an event or was the filmmaker simply ‘acting out’ – acting out his pain so that it becomes bearable? Could other people ‘join’ in his event or was it ‘an ensemble’ of one, i.e. him driven by his extraordinary pain which perhaps had tinges of revenge? Was it then just ‘simulacrum’ – something which is fundamentally evil but pretends to be good? These question might well remain and it is important to keep raising them in our society today, which is driven to a large extent by images and their meaning, like in Guy Debord’s ‘society of spectacle’.


Maurice Blanchot in his Infinite Conversation (1993) touches upon the almost unspeakable notion of the link between language and torture (and he is mentioning it in passing as ‘these things can only be said in passing’ (Blanchot[1993]2008 :42): ‘Torture is the recourse to violence – always in the form of a technique – with a view to making speak. This violence, perfected or camouflaged by technique, wants one to speak, wants speech’ (Blanchot 2008: 43) (my emphasis).


Once we somehow excuse this ‘forced speech’ or ‘forced testimony’ for whatever reason, the path is open towards real horrors of people being made to speak in various contemporary chambers of torture all over the world – where, according to the executioners, torture is but a necessary evil used for the good of us all. There seems a chasm of difference between an enthusiastic filmmaker and the apparatchiks of various systems, and yet therein lies a profound obscene danger of documentary project, which at least one needs to be aware of.




Badiou,A. & Truong,N. (2012) In Praise of Love. Trans by P. Busch. London: Serpent’s Tail.        

Badiou, A. (2000) What is Love? In Sexuation, R.Salecl (ed.) Durham: Duke University Press. pp.263-282.

Badiou, A. (2001) Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, P. Hallward, trans. London and New York: Verso.

Bauman, Z. (1993) Postmodern Ethics. Blackwell: Oxford and Cambridge.

Bennett,C. (2010) What is this thing called Ethics? London & New York: Routledge.

Buber,M. (2004) I and Though. Trans. by R.G. Smith. London: Continuum.

Cooper,S. (2005) Selfless Cinema?: Ethics and French Documentary.Legenda Press, Research Monographs in French Studies.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Critchley, S. (2007) Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (London and New York, Verso).

Fink, B. (1999). The Ethics Of Psychoanalysis: A Lacanian Perspective. Psychoanal. Rev., 86:529-545.

Jodalen,H. and Vetlesen, A.J. (1997) Closeness. An Ethics. Oslo, Scandinavian University Press.

Kant, I. (1964) The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, J. Ellington, trans. (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill).

Kant, I. (1998) Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, M. Gregor, trans. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Kaufman, E. (2002) Why the Family is Beautiful (Lacan Against Badiou) Diacritics 32.3-4 (2002) 135-151 (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/diacritics/v032/32.3kaufman.html)

Lacan, J ( [ [1959-60]1992) Seminar VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960. J.A.Miller, ed. D. Potter.trans, Routledge. London:Taylor and Frances.

Lacan, J. ([1981] 1998) Seminar XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (trans. A. Sheridan), New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Lacan,J. (1986) (1959-1960). Le séminaire. Livre VII.:L’éthique de la psychanalyse. Paris: Seuil. 

Levinas, E. (1969[1961]) Totality and Infinity, A. Lingis, trans. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers).

MacIntyre,A. (2010) A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the 20th Century: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge.

Žižek.S. (2005 [1994])The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six. Essays on Woman and Causality, New York: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2012) Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2012) Kant and Sade: the Ideal Couple (http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/kant-and-sade-the-ideal-couple/) last accessed 25th August 2012

[1] It is worth mentioning a connection between Levinas and Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, despite very serious differences, particularly regarding the notion of love for the Other which in Kierkegaard is equal but not greater to the love one has for oneself . Some scholars see the similarities in the question of singularity in the two philosophers particularly in contemporary world besieged by globalisation and commodification – ‘the Levinasian and Kierkegaardian insights continue to resound’ (Simmons &Wood 2008:4). It is also Kierkegaard who was the first one to bring up the concept of the idea ‘for which I am willing to live and die’ (Simmons 2007: 230) which resonates both with Lacanian ‘don’t give up on your desire’ and Badiou’s notion of fidelity In a classic text from 1935 Brock emphasises the Kierkegaardian notion of choice as crucial. The choice is what one does with one’s whole existence, this is what one must do if one ‘wishes to ‘exist’, that is to conduct, and not merely to be driven by life (Brock 1935: 78). Again this resonates with Lacan which I will discuss hencewith.

[2] Levinas does mention the Third but he is less interested in developing these ideas and delegates those to the duties of the state and the judicial system.

[3] It appears that Lacan doesn’t actually use this kind of invective but instead says: « La seule chose dont on puisse être coupable, c’est d’avoir cédé sur son désir» [ the only thing you can be guilty of is to give up on your desire – my translation] See J. Lacan, Le séminaire livre VII, L’éthique de la psychanalyse, Seuil, 1986. p.329.

[4] ‘the service of goods’ in this seminar stands for society, which relies on exchanges of systems and commodities.

[5] The ‘what I really want’ is not an invitation for a senseless pursuit of hedonism but rather an urging to explore one’s core fantasy which, one could argue, defines the very subject hood of each person. Lacan repeatedly criticizes both notions of some kind of altruistic conduct or conformity to the requirements of goods and services. Please note that the concept of l’objet petit a only arrives later in Lacan’s work. Lacan leaves the notion of evil purposefully open.

[6] This resonates clearly with Agamben’s discussion of Muselmann. Badiou does not mention ‘Muselmann’ but sends the reader to another book about camps, i.e. Varlam Shalamov Stories of Life in the Camps, which focuses on the notion of surviving through a denial of accepting one’s position as the nonhuman. .

[7] Zizek appears to have changed his reading of Lacan’s don’t give up on your desire’ somewhat in his latest book and appears to have got closer to Badiou Zizek 2012: 121). He still however gives a status of an ethical act to Don Giovanni’s final refusal to repent or regret a life of broken promises and broken hearts, knowing that that decision will result in his eternal damnation. Zizek seems to appreciate the steadfastness of a commitment. (ibid.: 123-124) ‘If hedonism is to be rejected, is Lacanian ethics then a version of the heroic immoralist ethics, enjoining us to remain faithful to ourselves and persist on any chosen way beyond good and evil? (ibid.: 123) However, one could argue that that notion is not really spelled out in Lacan but is rather a Zizekian adaptation of the dictum. Badiou of course would see Don Giovanni’s steadfastness as simulacrum – a false event.

[8] For a reading of Badiou’s notion of love as the event which can happen in a non erotic situation see Lisa Baraitser’s reading (Baraitser 2009: 116-8).

Beyond Subjectivity. Levinas, Kierkegaard and the Absolute Other


However, since the thinkers both passed away, there are two possibilities: to side with one of them, thus criticizing the other, or to analyze their writings, in order to individuate analogies and differences from a third perspective. I would be a very bad lawyer, so I prefer to be a peace officer, opting for the second choice. I will show that, notwithstanding the deep divergences separating Levinas and Kierkegaard, there are also clear points in common, that the former (and perhaps even the latter) would never have admitted. The tension of subjectivity beyond itself, toward Infinity, will be the key point of their encounter.

1. The refusal of impersonal totality

First of all, Levinas and Kierkegaard are thinkers of singularity. Their philosophical reflection starts with a critique to Hegel and to the universal Spirit. The latter manifests itself in history, knowledge and ethics. The so-called Totality involves all the aspect of human life, considering individuals as parts of a greater plan, the immanent becoming of the Spirit toward the highest awareness of Itself.1 Each man is considered as a necessary, but only functional element of a super-individual entity, whose norms rule thinking and action.

Kierkegaard strongly lashes out against Hegel and his oblivion of singularity. It does not mean that the former denies the existence of universal principles of knowledge and ethics. As a matter of fact, societies are ruled by norms that everyone is expected to follow. One of these norms is the respect of human life, especially of the members of one’s family.

When Abraham, in Fear and Trembling, is commanded by God to kill his own son, he falls into a deep crisis.

There is no higher expression for the ethical in Abraham’s life than that the father shall love the son. The ethical in the sense of moral is entirely beside the point. Insofar as the universal was present, it was cryptically in Isaac, hidden, so to speak, in Isaac’s loins, and must cry out with Isaac’s mouth: Do not do this, you are destroying everything.2

Abraham knows that the sacrifice of Isaac means both a transgression of Jewish ethics and an unbearable suffering for the lost of his only child. God wants His gift back, without giving any reason. Abraham, a man of faith, obeys to the divine command and prepares his son for the sacrifice. His knife is ready to get dirty of his own blood. God then decides to hold the hand of the patriarch, who has proved his obedience enough.

Notwithstanding the reassuring epilogue, Abraham makes his choice for God’s sake and despite ethics. Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym in Fear and Trembling, justifies this decision as the highest expression of singularity. Faith is defined as a paradoxical push, according to which “the single individual is higher than the universal” and “determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to absolute by his relation to the universal”3.

The highness of singularity is then due to its relation to the Absolute. Totality and God are the two extremes among which the individual takes place. To follow the former or the latter is due to a choice.4 The weight of each alternative is different: faith requires a leap, an act of courage and will directed to the highest task of a human being, ethics is a renounce to a real subjectivity. Shortly, the utmost duty of a person is to become singular, which requires one to be a believer.

Even if Silentio does not understand the movements of faith, because he does not experience them, he sees them through other men’s actions. The example of Abraham, and of other knights of faith, is the expression of a path toward infinity and real happiness.5 Silentio, talking about the story of the patriarch, admits the impossibility to know the secret of his interiority. He describes the experience of another man, without understanding it, without grasping the relation between the latter and God. Here two important aspects come out: the first is the irreducibility of an individual to another, the second is the uniqueness of the relation to Infinity.

Levinas seems to forget both when he criticizes Kierkegaard in Difficult Freedom and Proper Names. He denies every commitment of the latter with Jewish philosophy. First of all, the concept of faith as a leap, as a decision of free will, has to be excluded. Judaism believes in the Torah, in the law belonging to the religious tradition.6 Secondly, Levinas reproaches Kierkegaard to put religion above ethics. According to the former, the latter is guilty of the amoralism of Nietzsche and other contemporary thinkers, who philosophize with the hammer, regardless of everything.7

Defining ethics as belonging to Totality means confusing the tyranny of the Same with the one-for-the-other, the pre-original push of first philosophy. If the faith was an act of freedom, it would be considered prior to responsibility. And the latter is, in Levinas’ thought, the principal feature of ethics.

Subjectivity is in that responsibility and only irreducible subjectivity can assume a responsibility. That is what constitute the ethical. 8

Levinas does not agree with the concept of ethics expressed by Silentio in Fear and Trembling and proposes another view, which is not in contrast with religion. The author of Difficult Freedom is right in underlining the differences between Jewish tradition and Kierkegaard’s thought, but he seems to ignore what the latter writes in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

Here another pseudonym, Climacus, expresses his concept of ethics. If becoming a subject is the highest duty of a human being, as it was said before, it is what both ethics and religion ask him. While objective thought, and totality, demand the individual to become an observer, giving birth to an impersonal ethics, subjective thought does not claim to grasp external truth but inner one. Ethics is present everywhere God is, in the historical process as in the secret of inwardness.9 However, the individual cannot have a perfect knowledge of the former as he has of the latter. According to both ethics and religion, the man has to become a subject.

Therefore, says the ethical, dare, dare to renounce everything, including this loftily pretentious and yet delusive intercourse with world-historical contemplation; dare to become nothing at all, to become a particular individual, of whom God requires everything, without your being relieved of the necessity of being enthusiastic; behold, that is the venture! But then you will also have gained that God cannot in all eternity get rid of you, for only in the ethical is your eternal consciousness; behold, that is the reward! 10

Even if Levinas has read the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, criticizing the “becoming subject” of the individual,11 he does not consider that religion here agrees with ethics. He seems to ignore that Kierkegaard always writes through pseudonyms and that every pseudonym has a singular perspective, which never coincides with the perspective of another pseudonym. This is why Silentio and Climacus have different views of ethics and religion. What Climacus says seems to be more detailed and, perhaps, similar to Kierkegaard’s thought: he underlines the difference between objective and subjective ethics. While the former expresses totality, the latter belongs to singularity.

Subjective ethics is very close to Levinas’ one, since the individual is seen in his uniqueness of election. He emancipates from totality and objectivity, looking for his principles in relation to God, to Infinity. The criticism of Hegelian thought is strong both in Levinas and Kierkegaard, thus leading to singularity and to a responsibility which cannot be transferred to anyone else.

The philosophers both contest the absorption of the Other in the Same and state the necessity of an individual ethical answer. They are, generally, against every impersonal system, even if Levinas does not recognize this aspect in Kierkegaard’s thinking. Accusing the latter of violence and amoralism seems really unjustified.12

Anyway, Levinas is not always severe with his predecessor. He appreciates Kierkegaard’s scepticism towards objective truth and the immanence of thought. Actually, in the Postscript, Climacus points out the limits of disciplines as mathematics or history, which are inevitably incomplete and make the subject accidental. Becoming an observer deprives the latter of its individuality, whose existence is wholly indifferent.13 Levinas makes the same criticism to Husserl’s intentionality, which sees the ego as an impersonal “who”. The immanence of thought, the sleep of il y a (“there is”), is the greatest alienation for a human being. He becomes an individual only when he is independent from theoretical activity.14

Being subjective is thus a necessary task for both philosophers. It implies a separation from universal knowledge and, furthermore, a relation to absolute alterity. Kierkegaard states that subjective truth involves a passion of the infinite. What really matters is not the correspondence between the thought and the object, that is the idea of God and God Himself. Subjective thought is focused on inwardness, on the relation between God and the ego. Subjective truth is nothing else than faith. Objectively, it is a paradox and implies uncertainty.15 However, Kierkegaard gives it the highest value and Levinas clearly appreciates it.

Thus Kierkegaard brings something absolutely new to European philosophy: the possibility of attaining truth through the ever-recurrent inner rending of doubt, which is not only an invitation to verify evidence, but a part of evidence itself. I think that Kierkegaard’s philosophical novelty is in his idea of belief. Belief is not, for him, an imperfect knowledge of truth, a truth without certainty, a degradation of knowledge.16

Doubt implies a continuous retreat from certainty, presumed by the right sciences and historical knowledge. It pushes toward the pursuit of something else, whose existence is not proved. Doubt is inseparable from belief, from subjective truth. Objectively, it is an expression of an imperfect knowledge, while, subjectively, it is the expression of truth itself. The uncertainty of the latter implies justification, or even silence.17 The choice of “Silentio” as a pseudonym for Fear and Trembling reflects the impossibility of Abraham to communicate his behaviour to his people. Subjective truth is an individual experience, requiring a relation with an absolute and unknowable alterity.

The uncertainty of faith does not imply either degradation or negativity. The same can be said about the idea of God in Levinas’ philosophy. In Totality and Infinity, the Infinite in the finite causes a breach in theoretic intentionality, overflowing every concept. Human thought is imperfect, because it is incapable of containing God. It does not mean that the perfect (infinite) is a negation of the imperfect (finite), but that the perfect transcends the imperfect. The idea of Infinity is then positive: it is not a lack of relation, but a relation to the absolutely distant.18

This relation, according to both Kierkegaard and Levinas, cannot be expressed with an objective knowledge. Turning to transcendence means separating from universal thought and becoming a subject. Furthermore, recognizing one’s own individuality means, at the same time, recognizing the irreducibility of the other person.

Even if the philosophers agree on this general statement, there are some differences separating them. While Kierkegaard is more concerned for the subject, Levinas gives priority to the other. According to the former, truth is subjectivity because it is focused on individual experience: “that every human being is such an entity existing for himself, is a truth I cannot too often repeat”19. It implies that one is able to know one’s inwardness, one’s own existence, but is unable to grasp alterity.20 The irreducibility of the subject is the condition of the irreducibility of the other.

The author of Totality and Infinity thinks in the opposite way: the irreducibility of the other is prior to the individuation of the self. While Kierkegaard focuses only on the separation of the ego from totality, Levinas has two concerns: the individuation of the subject and the irreducibility of the other to the violence of the ego. Thinking through intentionality and acting through free will are means of power on the other person. This is why Levinas puts responsibility before freedom and the other before the self.21

The subject, in Kierkegaard, follows its own will: the leap of faith is an act of freedom. It does not mean that life involves egoism, since the other person is important. The relation to God does not make sense without a commitment to the neighbour.22 Levinas does not say that the subject is not free, but that responsibility precedes will. At this point, the subject is considered in a passive acceptation (“subject to”), not as an “I”, but as a “me”.23

The priority of the other on the self is what differentiates Levinas from Kierkegaard. That aside, they both refuse impersonal totality, conceived as a theoretical and/or ethical system. They also assert the relation to Infinity as a modality of subjective uniqueness, that leads to recognize the irreducibility of the other person.

2. The irreducibility of the Infinite

Another point in common between Levinas and Kierkegaard is the view of Infinity itself. It coincides with God, who is absolutely Other and distant from the subject.

Precisely because there is the absolute difference between God and man, man expresses himself most perfectly when he absolutely expresses the difference. 24

Kierkegaard’s thought is extraordinary. This sentence places him in the middle of Christian tradition and contemporary philosophy. The author of Fear and Trembling never hides his protestant culture and concern for the life of faith. Anyway, his thought is not strictly theological, but primarily existential. The relation to Infinity, apart from its religious meaning, gives the highest sense to individual life. It does not matter if God exists or not, if He is a supreme being or something else. This is a concern of observers, of objective thinkers. What is really important is the relation between the subject and the divine, the finite and the infinite. Turning to transcendence, to the absolutely Other, is the only way for the individual to be itself. God is distant and irreducible to the subject, but, at the same time, extremely close. Dealing with infinity means dealing with one’s inwardness, with one’s utmost secret (Deus in interiore homine).

This secret cannot be communicated, only justified or expressed with silence. Saying the difference means exactly this: going beyond thought and language, thus facing incomprehension. The only way to express difference is manifesting Infinity in a finite existence.

Becoming subjective means becoming an extraordinary being, in the middle of worldly immanence and divine transcendence.25 The individual is called by God to follow a vocation in everyday life, to be a witness of His will. It implies going against the universal systems of thought and ethics, against an established order, to affirm individuality and follow what is asked to inwardness.

Notwithstanding the impossibility to grasp Infinity, the finite being answers to its call. The relation between the two goes beyond ontology and leads to ethics (not the universal one, but the one following religion). Infinity manifests itself through the evidence of a singular existence, so that the latter is, at the same time, the object of transcendence and the condition for its incarnation.26 There is a sort of exchange between Infinity and a finite being: the latter gives space to the former through transfiguration, while the former knows itself through the gaze of absolute alterity.27 Transfiguration (Forklarelse) is not an explanation (Forklaring), but an expression without words, recalled by the witness of faith.

The separation between man and God, that initially causes anxiety and a sense of alienation, becomes a push towards one’s own existence. When Abraham raises the knife over Isaac, he is answering to the divine call, even if he does not understand it. Leaving aside his people’s ethics and his sadness for the lost of the only child, he directs his free will toward the will of God. Abraham expresses Infinity through a finite action. And, when his hand is drawn back by a new command, he rejoices. He has obeyed and, at the same time, his son is alive. The epilogue of the story gives sense to the choice of Abraham: only through the paradox of the patriarch’s action the goodness of God is revealed. The passion for divinity, that pushes the individual toward an incomprehensible choice, leads to transfiguration. Infinity is expressed through the existence of a finite being.

Even according to Levinas, the distance between the finite and the infinite is overwhelming, though the latter is inside the former. The subject is separated from God and lives an independent life. It does not need anything else, but feels a tension inside. The relation between the finite and the infinite is Desire, which is not directed to fulfilment, but to absolute alterity.

Desire is absolute if the desiring being is mortal and the Desired invisible. Invisibility does not denote an absence in relation; it implies relations with what is not given, of which there is no idea. Vision is an adequation of the idea with the thing, a comprehension that encompasses. Non-adequation does not denote a simple negation or an obscurity of the idea, but – beyond the light and the night, beyond the knowledge measuring beings – the inordinateness of Desire. Desire is desire for the absolutely other. 28

This tension towards the absolutely Other is primarily affective. It goes beyond the limits of thought and the adequation of the object to its idea. The Desire of Infinity originally belongs to subjectivity, which is affected by transcendence in an exceptional way. It is the trace of absence, of otherwise than being. It is called illeity (from the latin ille, “he”) and is nothing else but the mark of an original creation. It cannot be grasped by thought, because it goes beyond ontology and does not imply the existence of the creator. It is a semantic ambiguity, what unsays itself without negating. The trace of Infinity cannot thus be represented, since there is nothing in common between the subject and God.29 Levinas’ concept of transcendence refuses theology and every interpretation of the man as representing God. The affective relation to an absolute alterity, paradoxical and impossible to be explained in words, thus unites both Levinas and Kierkegaard.

However, the former does not agree with the latter, when he describes the nature of the metaphysical desire. First of all, it has nothing to do with need or passion. The subject feels a tension to Infinity when its separation is complete: the ego is wholly atheist and its material needs are satisfied by the external world (“without separation there would not have been truth; there would have been only being”30). The Desire of God is not looking for fulfilment, but pushes the subject to ethics. The command of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of moral action and establishes freedom on responsibility.31

Levinas’ desire of Infinity is thus very different from Kierkegaard’s passion of Infinity. First of all, the latter has its root in anxiety, the former in responsibility. The revelation of God strikes Levinas’ subject when it is quiet and satisfied, pushing it towards the other person. Kierkegaard’s individual, instead, is troubled by doubt and looks for the unity with Infinity. Secondly, Kierkegaard’s passion is oriented towards activity, Levinas’ desire to passivity. Even if they are both sources of morality, the former is based on freedom, the latter on responsibility, which precedes freedom itself.

Shortly, the infinite is, according to both the thinkers, absolutely different from the finite. The latter is moved by the desire of the former, even if the authors do not agree on its nature: the tension is active and passionate for Kierkegaard, passive and responsible for Levinas. However, the desire of Infinity leads, according to both, to the ethical/religious behaviour.

3. From the absolute Other to the singular other

The desire of Infinity is that which primarily constitutes the subject. However, according to Levinas and Kierkegaard, it is not enough for the fulfilment of individual existence. Being subjective means, at the same time, put in practice one’s tension to ethics, whose direction is indicated by the divine command. The relation to the absolute Other thus leads to the relation to the singular other.

Levinas accuses Kierkegaard of transcending the ethical stage and ignoring the other person for the sake of religion.32 He seems not to have read the Works of Love, where the neighbour is essential for the life of faith: “the single individual is committed in the debt of love to other people”33. Stating the irreducibility of the subject and of the other person is not enough for Kierkegaard. It could lead to an egoistic life, where the relation to Infinity would be purely ascetical. The love towards the other person, instead, is a commitment that cannot be avoided.

Levinas is the philosopher of alterity par excellence, since the relation to the other, both singular and absolute, is constitutive of the subject. And this relation implies a radical view, that is the impossibility for the I to exercise its power on the other person. Even if the latter can be partially reduced to phenomenality or submitted to freedom, there is something escaping the grasp of the ego. When the subject is wholly constituted as separated, the other person reveals, through the Face, the command of Infinity.

Freedom is then inhibited, not as countered by a resistance, but as arbitrary, guilty, and timid; but in its guilt it rises to responsibility. […] The relation with the Other as a relation with his transcendence – the relation with the Other who puts in question the brutal spontaneity of one’s immanent destiny – introduces into me what was not in me.34

Immanence is considered brutal, because it submits the individual to the anonymity of Totality. The violence of thought and freedom are nothing but expressions of the tyranny of the Same. The encounter with the other person makes the subject aware not only of its own individuality (already discovered in the atheistic separation), but even of its own uniqueness. The transcendence of the Face is a transfiguration, not an incarnation, of the transcendence of God. The call of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of ethics, pushing the subject to responsibility. The latter cannot be assumed by anybody else, it is the sign of a uniqueness in election. The transcendence undoes the deepest core of the ego with an unavoidable assignation.35

Ethico-religious life is then directed by the divine call to the other person. Both Levinas and Kierkegaard see absolute alterity as directed towards singular alterity. It is a threefold relation, whose terms are the subject, God and the other person. However, the two thinkers have different views about its modality.

Kierkegaard thinks of the subject as directly relating to God, who is the very link between the self and the other: “in love for the neighbor, God is the middle term. Love God is above all else; then you also love the neighbor and in the neighbor every human being.”36 There is not any mediation between the finite and the infinite. Paradoxically, the mediation is between the finite ego and the finite other. The relation to Infinity is then primary, the real condition of the encounter with the other person.

Levinas thinks exactly in the opposite way. Even if the infinite is in the finite as a trace of creation, one has to meet the other to be aware of illeity. The middle term is, in this case, not God, but the other person.37 Singular alterity is the place where absolute alterity reveals itself. The call to responsibility happens simultaneously to the encounter of the Face. The phenomenal dimension of the other man refers to what transcends phenomenon itself. The paradox is that, without seeing the finite, it is impossible to relate to Infinity. Kierkegaard and Levinas describe the threefold relation among the subject, God and the other in two opposite, but equally paradoxical ways: according to the former, the finite needs the infinite to relate to the finite, according to the latter, the finite needs the finite to relate to the infinite.

Other differences between the two philosophers concern their general view on the subject and on the other. These poles are both important, but, as it was stated before, Kierkegaard gives priority to the former, Levinas to the latter. The author of Totality and Infinity takes the risk of alienating the subject, while his predecessor tends to fall into solipsism.

In Fear and Trembling, for instance, subjectivity experiences its vocation without being understood. Abraham, going against the ethics of his people, feels a tension between his behaviour and the external judgement. Kierkegaard’s knight of faith cannot help but feel a deep solitude.

His behaviour leads him to detach himself from the system of needs of his community, in order to follow his vocation. He is extraordinary and, for this reason, runs the risk of being misunderstood. The “tribunal of the world” condemns his actions, which are oriented to please the “tribunal of God”.38 And, since the former is always there and the latter does not need him, the individual is always on the verge of falling into the abyss of nothing.

What has been said about ethico-religious behaviour is valid also for subjective thinking, well described in the Postscript.

The reflection of inwardness is the subjective thinker’s double reflection. In thinking, he thinks the universal, but as existing in this thinking, as assimilating this in his inwardness, he becomes more and more subjectively isolated.39

The risk of solitude is then unavoidable. Even if the individual thinks to universality, he is not an abstract entity. He is a singular and concrete being, whose thought cannot be separated from his existence. It does not imply subjectivism, because the truth of an object does not depend from the belief of the subject. It is possible to have a general concept of how a human being thinks, since it is a matter of observation. The latter implies the possibility of communication and is not submitted to anxiety or other emotional states. This saves Kierkegaard’s philosophy from the extremes of solipsism, subjectivism and irrationality.40 However, subjective truth is more important than objective one. The highest task of a human being is not becoming an observer, but becoming subjective: one has to focus primarily on the relation between oneself and the object, that depends on the perception of one’s own inwardness.

Levinas, on his side, is worried about the violence of subjective thought and freedom. This is why he develops an asymmetrical ethics and puts the other above the I. The latter is called by the Infinite to a pre-original and unavoidable responsibility. This election makes the subject wholly unique, but is connected to a risk of alienation.

The subject in responsibility is alienated in the depths of its identity with an alienation that does not empty the same of its identity, but constrains it to it, with an unimpeachable assignation, constrains it to it as no one else, where no one could replace it.41

In Otherwise Than Being, the very core of the subject is undone by the other, who is inside the ego as ipseity. It is an expression of Levinas’ mature thought, where ethics is took to an extreme and identity is destroyed from inside. In Totality and Infinity, instead, the risk of alienation is avoided, because ipseity is still a nucleus of genuine egoism.42

Levinas, as much as he strives to save the subject from alienation, gives way to it in his mature thought. Kierkegaard, on the other side, is able not to fall in solipsism, but is on the edge of a cliff. Focusing on the subject or on the other leads the two thinkers to opposite forms of extremism. Notwithstanding this and the modal differences, they are united by a threefold view of the relation between the finite and the infinite: the subject (finite) relates to God (infinite), who leads it toward the other person (finite).

4. A lifelong suffering

The last aspect of the relation between the infinite and the finite in Levinas and Kierkegaard is an unavoidable suffering of the subject. The latter, in its tension towards God, cannot help but experience a pathos, inextricably connected to the conscience of its own limits.

Individual existence is, according to Kierkegaard, a synthesis of the finite and the infinite. It is the place where transcendence reveals itself through the actions of an exceptional singularity. The subject is thus in the middle between its own needs as a worldly entity and the tension to go beyond the systems regulating these needs and their satisfaction. Becoming subjective means living in this world and striving for another world. The individual who follows his vocation knows already what his priority is: he has to renounce to satisfy his needs, when they hinder the pursuit of eternal happiness.43

It is not a matter of doing something and avoiding something else. The tension to Infinity is not only a limit to hedonism or to universal ethical life. It completely changes the existence of an individual, orienting it to that which is always there. A finite need disappears according to the subjective mood or to its satisfaction, while Infinity is eternal. It does not matter if it exists in an ontological sense, because it is constitutive of the individual and transcends his inwardness.

The choice of a religious life, of following “that which is always there”, causes an unavoidable pathos.

But suffering as the essential expression for existential pathos means that suffering is real, or that the reality of the suffering constitutes the existential pathos; and by the reality of the suffering is meant its persistence as essential for the pathetic relationship to an eternal happiness. It follows that the suffering is not deceptively recalled, nor does the individual transcend it, which constitutes a retreat from the task […] Viewed religiously, it is necessary […] to comprehend the suffering and to remain in it, so that reflection is directed upon the suffering and not away from it.44

The reality of suffering implies the persistence of the tension to Infinity. God is constitutively inside the individual, but following His will is a choice. Who pursues eternal happiness cannot avoid suffering and has to remain in it. The voluntary component of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is here strongly evident.

Levinas’ thought, on the other side, refuses the power of free will in relation to Infinity.

But giving has a meaning only as a tearing from oneself despite oneself, and not only without me. And to be torn from oneself despite oneself has meaning only as a being torn from the complacency in oneself characteristic of enjoyment, snatching the bread from one’s mouth. […] Signification, the-one-for-the-other, has meaning only among beings of flesh and blood.45

The suffering of the subject does not depend on a choice, but happens “despite oneself” and comes from one’s original constitution. Being sensible means being permeated by the other in the fibres of one’s own skin. The divine command, which urges upon responsibility for the other person, is directed to the spoliation of one’s flesh. There is no distinction between body and soul: the man, as a sensitive being, is affected by the enjoyment of its pleasure and, at the same time, by the indigence of the other person.

Suffering is then involuntary in Levinas and voluntary in Kierkegaard. However, both agree on considering pain as constitutive of the relation to Infinity and ethical life. The individual who follows the divine command puts aside the satisfaction of his needs, in order to give himself to the other person.

The reason for suffering is the same in Levinas and Kierkegaard. What really separates them is its aim. Accepting pain of one’s existence makes sense only if oriented to afterlife, writes Kierkegaard. The pursuit of eternal happiness is the reason of renouncing to one’s need and pleasures. According to Levinas, on the other side, it does not matter if there is life after death. Responsibility has to be undertook despite any other reason.46

However, there is no certainty of an eternal happiness, neither in Kierkegaard nor in Levinas. According to the former, it is an orientation toward Infinity, a relational modality, according to the latter it has nothing to do with responsibility. They both theorize a life of possibility, of uncertainty and doubt, which, paradoxically, has a higher value than objective truth.

Levinas recognizes the positivity of possibility in Kierkegaard,47 even if he does not acknowledge the existence of a religious ethics in the Postscript. As it was stated before, Climacus distinguishes universal morality from subjective one: the former constitutes a dogmatic system, while the latter is inconclusive and ongoing. The tension to God, driving force of religious ethics, does not lead to the certainty of beatitude, but at least deploys its possibility.

Levinas and Kierkegaard, notwithstanding some differences, agree in stating the singularity of the subject, which primarily explicates itself in relation to Infinity. The absolute difference between man and God hinders whatsoever objective certainty, but it does not make it less important. To face Infinity inside oneself is inevitable and leads to the realization of one’s own existence. What is more, the divine command indicates the other person as its real addressee. Life means giving oneself to singular alterity. However, in spite of a correct ethical behaviour, striving for Infinity is connected with suffering.

An intense and almost unbearable pain, involving the body and the soul, accompanies the subject until the end of its life. Levinas and Kierkegaard both assert the inevitability of suffering, due to a uniqueness in election. Individual existence is where God reveals Himself and shows the way of giving. This path never ends, until life stops, until worldly existence gives space to a new existence, or, if faith is meaningless, to nothing else (the anxiety over doubt never ends). Subjectivity, despite its finiteness, infinitely strives for what goes beyond.


1 Cf. Hegel G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by Miller A. V., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, §§ 793, 805, 808.

2 Kierkegaard S., Fear and Trembling (FT), in Fear and Trembling/Repetition, ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 59.

3 Ibid., p. 70.

4 According to Pojman, the leap of faith is an act of pure free will (cf. Pojman L., Religious Belief and the Will, London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 143-8), while Sagi asserts that it has its root in existence (cf. Sagi A., Kierkegaard, Religion and Existence. The Voyage of the Self, Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi B. V., 2000, p. 41).

5 Cf. FT, p. 33-9.

6 Cf. Levinas E., Difficult Freedom (DF), trans. by Hand S., London: The Athlone Press, 1990, p. 144.

7 Cf. DF, p. 117; Id., “Existence and Ethics”, in Proper Names (PN), trans. by Smith M. B., London: The Athlone Press, 1996, pp. 72-3; Id., “A propos of Kierkegaard vivant”, in op. cit., p. 76.

8 Cf. PN, p. 73.

9 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Concluding Unscientific Postscript (CUP), trans. by Swenson D. F., London: Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press, 1941, pp. 118-23.

10 Ibid., pp. 133-4.

11 Cf. PN, p. 76.

12 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., “Introduction: Good Fences May Not Make Good Neighbours After all”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), Kierkegaard and Levinas: ethics, politics, and religion, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008, p. 2; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 22-5, 32-9. According to Simmons, Levinas criticism of Kierkegaard is due to the influence of Jean Wahl (cf. Simmons A. J., “Existential Appropriation: The Influence of Jean Wahl on Levinas’s Reading of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 51-67).

13 Cf. CUP, pp. 175-9.

14 Cf. Levinas E., Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority (TI), Duquesne: Pittsburgh, 1969, p. 119.

15 Cf. CUP, pp. 181-2.

16 PN, p. 77.

17 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., op. cit., p. 3; Simmons A. J., op. cit., pp. 48-9.

18 Cf. TI, pp. 24-5, 41.

19 CUP, p. 169.

20 This is even the presupposition of Kierkegaard’s deconstructive readers, who are against logocentric and one-way interpretations. Cf. Jegstrup E., “Introduction”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), The New Kierkegaard, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, pp. 1-2.

21 Cf. TI, pp. 21-7, 203-4; Id., Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (OB), Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1981, pp. 15, 19-20, 88, 114-5, 138-9. Cf. also Janiaud J., Singularité et responsabilité. Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Levinas, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2006, pp. 311-4.

22 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Works of Love (WOL), ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 190. Cf. also Westphal M., op. cit., pp. 25-32.

23 Cf. OB, pp. 15-6, 50-6, 72-5, 142. Cf. also Llewelyn J., “Who or What or Whot”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), op. cit., p. 72; Lellouche R., Difficile Levinas. Peut-on ne pas être levinassien ?, Paris-Tel Aviv : Editions de l’éclat, 2006, pp. 81-3.

24 CUP, p. 412.

25 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 155, 158.

26 Cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 134.

27 Cf. Podmore S. D., Kierkegaard and the Self Before God : Anatomy of the Abyss, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011, pp. xii-xiii, 180.

28 TI, p. 34.

29 Cf. OB, pp. 12-3, 151-2; TI, p. 104. On metaphysical Desire, cf. Ciaramelli F., “Levinas e la fenomenologia del desiderio”, in Moscato A. (ed.), Levinas. Filosofia e trascendenza, Genova: Marietti, 1992, pp. 144-58; Baccarini E., Lévinas. Soggettività e Infinito, Roma: Studium, 1985, pp. 40, 46-7. Lellouche defines it as a hetero-affection (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 86-7). About the semantic ambiguity and non-representativeness of Infinity, cf. Baccarini E., op. cit., pp. 30-8; Chalier C., La trace de l’Infini. Emmanuel Levinas et la source hébraïque, Paris : Cerf, 2002, pp. 65-73 ; Moscato A., “Semantica della trascendenza. Note critiche su E. Levinas”, in Moscato A. (ed.), op. cit., pp. 58-9, 73-8; Plourde S., Emmanuel Lévinas. Altérité et responsabilité, Paris : Cerf, 1996, pp. 136-7 ; Rolland J., Parcours de l’autrement, Paris : PUF, 2000, pp. 1-2. According to Visker, the intrigue of the Infinite is anything but il y a, where the subject, being one-for-the-other, loses its individuality (cf. Visker R., Truth and Singularity. Taking Foucault into Phenomenology, Dordrecht-Boston-London: Kluwer, 1999, pp. 236-7, 241-6, 265-72).

30 TI, p. 60.

31 Cf. TI, pp. 50, 203-4. Cf. also Chalier C., op. cit., pp. 44-8, 56-60; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 19-21; Petitdemange G., “Au dehors : les enjeux de l’alterité chez Emmanuel Lévinas”, in A. Münster (ed.), La différence comme non-indifférence. Éthique et altérité chez Emmanuel Lévinas, Paris : Kimé, 1995, pp. 30-2 ; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 111-4. According to Westphal, Levinas’ transcendence is traumatic because it destabilizes the inwardness of the subject (cf. M. Westphal, “The Trauma of Transcendence as Heteronomous Intersubjectivity”, in M. M. Olivetti (ed.), Intersubjectivité et théologie philosophique, Padova : CEDAM, 2001, pp. 92-8).

32 Cf. PN, pp. 76-7.

33 WOL, p. 190.

34 TI, p. 203.

35 Cf. ibid., p. 279; OB, pp. 141-2.

36 WOL, p. 58. Cf. also ibid., p. 108. Gibbs points out that the alterity of the other person is mediated by the alterity of God (cf. Gibbs R., “I or You: The Dash of Ethics”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), op. cit., p. 146). Seeskin states that the transcendence of Kierkegaard’s God is anonymous and excludes every form of dialogue (cf. Seeskin K., Jewish Philosophy in a Secular Age, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, p. 134).

37 OB, p. 12. Cf. also Haar M., “L’obsession de l’autre. L’éthique comme traumatisme”, Cahiers de l’Herne : Lévinas 1991, pp. 444-5; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 119-24; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 106-9; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, op. cit., p. 24.

38 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 191, 197, 308-10.

39 CUP, p. 61.

40 Cf. Gouwens D. J., Kierkegaard as religious thinker, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 49-53, 56.

41 OB, pp. 141-2.

42 Cf. TI, pp. 39, 44, 60, 117-8, 208, 277-9.

43 Cf. CUP, p. 350-3. According to Sagi, the voyage to Infinity and to the self are the same, since obeying to God’s will means realizing one’s own existence. Notwithstanding its weakness in understanding Infinity, the subject has the strenght to follow it. (cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 16, 147).

44 Ibid., pp. 396-7.

45 OB, p. 74. Unlike Westphal, Lellouche defines Levinas’ ethics as traumatic because it coincides with suffering (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 54-7, 70-1).

46 Cf. OB, pp. 6, 117.

47 Cf. Sheil P., Kierkegaard and Levinas. The Subjunctive Mood, Farnham: Ashgate, 2010, pp. 4, 144-5.

Michael Reid Trice, Encountering Cruelty: The Fracture of the Human Heart (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011)

Trice offers a phenomenology of cruelty—that charts how cruelty is lived by human subjects—which exposes cruelty as a “fracture” of the human heart. The fracture can be traced through a series of “contours” that invade and corrupt the soundness of the varying spheres of human existence—the intrapersonal, the interpersonal, and institutional life. Employing as a lodestar to his study Friedrich Nietzsche’s charge that cruelty is concealed in Western ideals and is embedded in the systems of governance that enshrine these ideals, Trice tracks the sublimations of cruelty through the “closed teleological myths” that redefine cruelty as the good. Just as tragedies have a narrative structure—beginning, middle, end—that resolves the paradoxes of the human condition and permits catharsis of the audience’s frustrations, so “for instance, the enshrined sublime Ideal, once more of Justice, can conceal a thirst for revenge” (p. 5). With the death penalty, we cruelly murder our social offenders, but our ideal permits us to redeem this murder as an act of redemption. However, though cruelty is concealed, it remains active but sublimated. Revenge is sought in the name of Justice, Trice explains. Thus our very institutions of justice act to “transvalue” (contradict) our shared communal values; it allows us to act out our instincts for blood and cruelty and channel our thirst for revenge (instincts contrary to the ideal) through institutions that conceal their true nature. Beginning, middle, end. Offense, execution, resolution. We murder to express our disdain for murder.

The brilliance of Encountering Cruelty resides in the painstaking care of Trice’s detailed charting of the effects of cruelty through the inner life of the human person and out into the world of intimate relations and human interpersonal encounter. Trice’s use of geological metaphors to trace the wound lines through the human heart help us to visualize with aching clarity the costs of the concealed cruelties of our systems and our rituals upon individuals, intimate groups, and communities within the human world. He calls upon Bible stories that exemplify cruelty—Job, Abraham and Isaac, Cain and Abel—to demonstrate the god’s exemplary cruelty to men, and he draws from these myths the effects of cruelty that demand reconciliation—struggle, contagion, becoming an enigma to self, excision and ressentiment. His careful analysis of the contours of cruelty in the human heart allows us a broad view across the landscape of cruelty, revealing how the objectification that enables sensitive creatures such as we to engage in cruelty against our neighbors, the neighbors whom our holy books require us to love as ourselves, annihilates interpersonal reciprocity and transvalues interpersonal well-being. A therapeutic plan for reconciling communities and healing individuals in the wake of cruelty, argues Trice, must take into account the many agonizing and destabilizing contours that cruelty has carved out across the human psyche.

Trice’s objective in exposing each of the fault-lines, carved through the landscape of the human heart, is to offer a map to guide theologians in their efforts to help the psychically wounded, victims and perpetrators, move forward from their histories of suffering and harmdoing. Trice sees the theologian as the great reconciler, called to restore people’s well-being after cruelties have destabilized their core and eroded their inner resources. His anatomy of the contours of cruelty serves as a wall-chart of the human psyche, indicating where the hurt is stored up and where the theologian must apply his healing therapies.

Many kudos to Michael Trice! This book is beautifully written, despite its dark topic, and its painstakingly careful analysis of the effects of human suffering is virtually unmatched in the history of the phenomenology of violence. It is a must read for all educated persons who wish to understand why the victims of historical sufferings continue to visit their abjection upon innocent others. Though the book is meant as a guidebook for theologians, working as practitioners of reconciliation, it is equally useful to the secular philosopher, since the timeless truths of myth continue to serve as didactic vehicles for the human drama.