Sizing up infinite alterity: The possibility of a Levinasian practical ethics

Stephen Minister, Fordham University


This dissertation investigates the possibility of developing a practical ethics from the work of the twentieth century phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas. I argue that such a development is both possible and desirable since it offers an ethical theory that escapes the negativity of much postmodern and contemporary anti-humanist thought without repeating the errors such thought exposes. Rather than conceiving of the subject in terms of rationality or freedom, Levinas argues that the subject is fundamentally constituted by responsibility for others, though all subjective lived-experience remains mediated by contingent sociopolitical structures. Thus, Levinas advocates both the unconditioned nature of responsibility for others and the conditioned nature of all experience. Ethically, Levinas's persistent concern is with the justness of the laws, customs, beliefs, and values that structure our interactions with others. Responsibility demands rational reflection on these structures and institutions, while also recognizing the limits of rational reflection, which is always conditioned by these very structures and institutions. Hence, Levinas regards both reason and the critique of reason, both rational construction and deconstruction, as having ethical value and thus recommends that we practice both in an alternating movement that makes possible, though does not guarantee, the progress of justice. As I argue, Levinas's own "rational construction" includes both a theory of obligation and an account of the good life since, on the one hand, he sporadically endorses human rights theory and, on the other, he characterizes responsibility as the experience of goodness. From the first, I develop a uniquely Levinasian theory of human rights that views rights not as peculiar metaphysical entities, but as fallible interpretations of our obligations to others. This view allows us to acknowledge the validity of the criticisms of the Western, masculine, and capitalist biases of human rights, while still maintaining that they are at present an indispensable conceptual resource for ethical response. From the latter, I develop a non-eudaimonistic, Levinasian account of the good life as a life for others. This account formulates a positive conception of the good that is adequate to make possible meaningful ethical life.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Political science

Recommended Citation

Minister, Stephen, "Sizing up infinite alterity: The possibility of a Levinasian practical ethics" (2006). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3216920.