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A philosophy for unpredictable times

Quote: „The above shows the absolute importance of Levinas' philosophy of not repeating the horrors of the 20th century in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the first signs of the lack of responsibility and of prioritizing the self-interest of the individual and of the group are not very encouraging."

The meaning of the Other according to Levinas

I exist through the Other. By answering the appeal of the Other, I exist. He who does not behave responsibly towards the Other does not know true life. We create our own hell and we go to eternal damnation if we fail to do good for others (whoever hurts or kills someone must live with the remorse for eternity).

Without the Other I would not gain access to what is beyond me (the Infinite). The Other comes into my life uninvited. He comes into my world unexpectedly and unforeseen. The Other precedes my freedom and my decision to act. I just have to answer by assuming my responsibility. I am, as it were, held hostage by the Other.

To be truly human, I can't help but be responsible. I am the servant of the Other. This is already expressed in the Gospel: Whoever wants to be great must be a servant (Matthew 20 ).

The true freedom

The drama of our time is the enchantment of materialism, consumption, technology through which we hardly hear the appeal of the Other anymore. This is not freedom. The real freedom is our freedom to answer or not to answer the appeal of the Other. In the consumer society we create our own totalitarian system. In the focus on satisfying our needs, we become satiated. Doing good for the Other, on the other hand, is a desire that is never satisfied. In the good we create or discover the Infinity .

The solution to today's crises and injustice will not come from technological progress, but from a massive conversion to responsible behavior, also towards future generations. A conversion that manifests itself in less consumption, a sober lifestyle, less travel,...

To let the Other be the Other is to strip me of what satisfies me. He is not the object I can use to satisfy my needs. Letting the Other be the Other is not a desire for reciprocity either. I don't have to do the right thing out of a sense of duty, but I do the right thing because it's my duty. In the first case, it's still about self-love (I'm proud to do my duty). To act morally is not obedience to my conscience, but it is an order.

It is not my death that instills fear, but the death of the Other. The life of the Other takes precedence over everything, including mine. We see this, for example, when someone saves at the risk of their own life (the vision of Levinas is not so unworldly, on the contrary, it is those who put self-interest first who are alien to the true world, to true humanity).

The Other as a principle of philosophy

In Levinas, the Other is the principle of philosophy. Philosophy begins as ethics. I am no longer the center of my thoughts, but the Other. This is called 'substitution': the Other becomes the center of my ego. My freedom is not a priority, but my passivity as a receptivity to the call to responsibility: ' Here I am ' . It is not my motives that make me act ethically, but the existence of the Other. All humanity looks at me in the face of the Other.

The Legitimacy of the State

We live in a community. This means that in addition to my neighbor, there is also the third person. Does the third person behave responsibly towards my neighbor? Here lies the responsibility of the State. The legitimacy of the State lies in protecting and respecting the relationship to the singular Other (could this be an argument against abortion?). Only the State inspired by the love of neighbor is a just State. Nothing can escape the responsibility of the Other. We must therefore assess the State (legislation, public institutions, administration) on the basis of this criterion. If necessary, we must resist if the State causes harm to others or that citizens are hindered in their responsibility for each other.

The importance of connecting people

Unlike Hobbes (one person is a wolf to another), Levinas does not see violence as the natural inclination of people. Violence results from the isolation of the individual, who lives as if he were alone in the world, as if the world were his alone. The war is a manifestation of this. Ethics builds a barrier against the permanent possibility of war. From this we can deduce how important it is that there is a connection between people. The individual who knows that others care about him will be less likely to evade his responsibility. Connecting with others is also the most important buffer against criminal behavior. For that reason, the family is the cornerstone of society, because in a well-functioning family people care about each other selflessly and unconditionally. In the same way, there must also be solidarity within society. A shared history, a shared culture and shared norms and values play a crucial and indispensable role here. I fear that a multicultural society undermines solidarity.

There is always the danger that the State will become totalitarian and demand obedience to an impersonal law. Politics left to itself becomes tyranny. Here the individual disappears in the sense that he does not take up his responsibility and hides behind the law. But the civil servant does not see the tears of the citizen, says Emmanuel Levinas. Only morality can stop this violence of the State. The alternative to war and violence is ethics that watch over politics from within; this means that the ego gives priority to the Other, possibly at the expense of its self-interest, if necessary at the cost of its own life. The latter is not so unworldly, because how many people are willing, at the risk of their own lives, to save someone else in a conflagration or by drowning.

With regard to the foreign national, the refugee or the asylum seeker, we have the responsibility of hospitality in the short term. However, they are also responsible for their own people, for their near and dear ones, so in the longer term they must take responsibility in their countries of origin. In doing so, they can count on the solidarity of peoples who are prosperous. In the future, if shortages were to arise all over the world, the economy collapsed and billions fell into poverty, including in the West, it will be vital to distribute what is available equitably. In these times, if ethics were not prioritized over politics, the world would be hell. 

The above shows the absolute importance of Levinas' philosophy of not repeating the horrors of the 20th century in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the first signs of the lack of responsibility and of prioritizing the self-interest of the individual and of the group are not very encouraging.

Politics is not enough

The main conclusion of this study is that politics is not enough to ensure peace and well-being. The citizens themselves must always assume their ethical responsibility, if necessary by combating the injustice of the State, of the legislation or of the administration. Philosophically expressed: ethics is transcendence that penetrates into the immanence of the State and must take precedence. The Infinite breaks through the political totality here. The totalitarianism of the State is broken if we behave ethically. We can free ourselves from the quasi-totalitarian power of technology by doing good for others, by loving others selflessly and unconditionally, and by defending their interests.

A totalitarian state is therefore not a totalitarian society

Ethics takes precedence over any ideology. The ethics of each citizen's responsibility to the Others is a safeguard against totalitarianism. Levinas is talking about 'little goodness', i.e. the daily actions in which one person gives priority to another, or puts aside his own interest to stand up for the interests of another. If in a country like China where the state is almighty and controls everything, the citizens practice the "little goodness" between each other, China may be a totalitarian state, but not a totalitarian society.

The little goodness in which many citizens mobilize for the interests of humanity seems to me a better strategy than action groups that are violent, sow destruction and turn groups against each other. I strongly believe in inspiring people through our own example. If, for example, whites stand up for black people in solidarity, if Muslims stand up for their fellow believers in the countries of origin or if black people are committed to good education, excellent health care and sufficient employment in African countries, we will all make the 21st century the best century. ever.

No misunderstanding of the separation of Church and State

There is no radical division between morality and politics, but a movement of transcendence into immanence. We must therefore not misunderstand the separation of Church and State. Politics is not about freedom with regard to ethical norms. The Church that represents ethics or for those who do not believe: the ethical basis for our actions is not the result of democratic deliberation. It is a truth that comes from elsewhere', not the result of human logic. For the Church, that truth has been revealed by God. Others take the ethical commandments as a given without involving God (I don't think it matters much; I see no fundamental difference between a religious person and one who behaves responsibly in a selfless and unconditional way).

The Other is always more than what the law prescribes. Doing good for Another is not mandated by law. It is about pure engagement, without end, in which the Other always takes precedence over the I. Goodness is allowing the Other to have its place in the world, where I am my brother's keeper. We must not forget that the future generations that will live on the planet we leave behind for them also fall under the heading 'the Other'.

Because of his view on ethics and politics, we can label Levinas' philosophy as a philosophy for unpredictable times. What is going on in the world now makes prioritizing ethics a matter of whether or not humanity survives.

see also: The lesson of the Prophet

Comments (send to juliaan.vanacker@gmail.comif you submit a comment or a short essay. All reactions will be included except insults and what incites racism or violence.

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   © Juliaan Van Acker 2022