In 2005, Slavoj Zizek contributed an essay to a volume entitled The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology. The essay was called “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence.” In it, he offers what could be (or could have been) a very important corrective of Levinas’ ethical and political thought. And yet, the argument ultimately falls apart both because of, and in spite of, Hegel. Let me try to explain.
First, the genuine potential: Zizek argues, promisingly, that Levinas’ deferral of politics (i.e., institutions of justice and the countless others which they represent apart from face-to-face encounter) to a moment subsequent to ethics (i.e., the relation of responsibility which is mediated by the face-to-face encounter) is too neat. In short, phenomenologically, “the Third [the abstract, political alterity of law] is not secondary; it is always already here . . . ” (182).
But in addition to affirming the equiprimordiality of ethics and politics, Zizek corrects Levinas in another important way, by recalling Primo Levi’s repeated use of the term “faceless” to describe the Muselmaenner who have become symbolic of the powerful dehumanization wrought by the Shoah (161). There is a sense in which ethics cannot always rely on an encounter with a face that is immediately disclosive of humanity. Or, in Zizek’s words, “what if it is precisely in the guise of the ‘faceless’ face of a Muselmann that we encounter the Other’s call at its purest and most radical? . . . . What if . . . we restore to the Levinasian ‘face’ all its monstrosity: face is not a harmonious Whole of the dazzling epiphany of a ‘human face,’ face is something the glimpse of which we get when we stumble upon a grotesquely distorted face, a face in the grip of a disgusting tic or grimace, a face which, precisely, confronts us when the neighbor ‘loses his face'” (162)? One could easily read this passage in conjunction with Flannery O’Connor’s use of the grotesque, in stories such as “The Temple of the Holy Ghost.”
And yet, Zizek seems to take a false turn, both by following Hegel too closely and by not following him enough. In the first place, Zizek, like Hegel, sublates Jewish and Christian thought into a modern philosophical narrative which reduces them to sequential, provisional, dialectically positioned stages of a historical progression of spirit (187-8). Secondly, and perhaps even more problematically, Zizek departs from the Hegelian methodological principle of “speculative identity,” which Zizek himself endorses (187), in order to posit a rootless (and ruthless) justice which is liberated from its “contingent umbilical link that renders it ’embedded’ in a particular situation” (184). Somehow, Zizek thinks it is okay to promote a massively abstract dualism between universal justice and particularly rooted justice, which Hegel’s principle by no means allows. In short, Zizek appropriates the problematic narrative structure of Hegel, while rejecting, in one crucial instance, something which Hegel actually seems to get right: namely, that justice is necessarily embodied in and shaped by the concrete forms of community.
Ultimately, it seems one could correct Levinas in certain respects, as Zizek does, without following him along these more unsavory paths.
For a class covering some recent moral philosophy, I just finished reading Onora O’Neill’s Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning—a good book, not stunning, but clear and provocative. There was one argument in particular that I was surprised to find rather compelling: with respect to the structure of ethical principles, we should give priority to principles of obligation rather than to principles of rights.
On the whole, I find the polemic against rights-talk that’s gotten so popular over the past few decades to be really annoying. I don’t buy that it encourages individualism, or casts everyone as victims, or underdetermines moral action in some disastrous way (on the contrary, its indeterminacy is its strength). But O’Neill’s argument was of a different kind, I think. The issue wasn’t that rights-talk was inherently defective in any way, and certainly not that it hid the kernel of some insidious late-medieval ideology of individualism. The issue was rather the scope of moral concern. We can use the language of rights when we’re talking about goods owed to certain people. This is the domain where rights and obligations coincide: whenever someone has a determinate right to claim something from me, I have a corresponding obligation to provide it. O’Neill calls these “perfect obligations.” But there are also goods required of us that are not owed to anyone in particular. For O’Neill, this is the domain of the virtues: kindness, honesty, compassion, sympathy, etc., are in one way another obligations (for reasons she tries to identify), but nobody has any right to them. The problem with rights-talk is just that it has no way of speaking of these latter, “imperfect” obligations–which is part of the reason that people focused on universal human rights have frequently had to dismiss the virtues as relevant to moral consideration.
I find this pretty convincing. My one problem is that O’Neill seems to think this renders rights-talk unnecessary, except maybe when they work better politically (they have more “charm,” she says). But that underestimates the intrinsic power of the indeterminacy of certain appeals to human rights. Appeals to practically non-existent rights—Haitians’ right to clean water or food, the right to shelter for the homeless, dissidents’ right to free assembly, etc.—imposes no determinate obligation on any determinate agent, but nonetheless name something that is in fact owed to the set of people in question. If the virtues identify a set of goods required but not owed to anyone in particular, human rights identify a set of goods owed but not required of anyone in particular. The indeterminacy of rights-appeals therefore have the effect of implicating all capable agents in a kind of collective responsibility that has real moral force for the individual.
Posted by Brian Hamilton