The ethical priority of infinite obligation: Levinasian vulnerability as the condition for the possibility of virtue

Katherine E Kirby, Fordham University


My argument throughout this project is that, while virtue ethics can provide a necessary alternative to modern moral theory's application of universal laws, it is problematic to understand the ethical relation as grounded in the symmetry and reciprocity of friendship-type engagements. I therefore argue that virtue theory, and any rational conception of the "good," must be grounded in a more primordial moment of fundamentally asymmetrical obligation, which is revealed rather than rationally constituted. I draw on Levinas' account of ethical encounter as arising out of the address of the Other, which awakens in the subject a Desire for peaceful contact with the unique and precious Other. Desire leads the subject to willingly undergo a transformation in her orientation, as she devotes herself to genuine concern and loving care for the Other. My argument is driven by an exploration of the nature of heroic action, with a particular focus on accounts of rescue during the Nazi Holocaust. I introduce the problem of asymmetry through an examination of contemporary virtue ethics. I then turn to Ricoeur's endeavor to ground ethics in virtue theory, making preliminary suggestions as to the proper role for rationality in ethics. In order to locate my discussion in reflection upon actual ethical experience, I then discuss accounts of rescue during the Holocaust, in light of Aristotle's understanding of ethics and Levinas' description of what guides and motivates self-sacrifice. In turning to Husserl, I return to the problem of rationality's role in ethics, arguing that Levinas' notion of the Other as not merely an "alter-ego" provides a necessary explanation of the urgency of the moral endeavor. Finally, through a discussion of Buber's work, I return to the problem of reciprocity, arguing that such cannot be required of ethical relations. I conclude this work by pointing in the direction of the following further developments: (1) A notion of ethical care related to feminist care ethics; (2) A proper understanding of friendship; (3) A new kind of freedom, understood as a liberation from the constraining world of the Same; and (4) A new notion of happiness to be found in sacrifice.

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Recommended Citation

Kirby, Katherine E, "The ethical priority of infinite obligation: Levinasian vulnerability as the condition for the possibility of virtue" (2006). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3201131.