Seeing Politics in the Light of Emmanuel Levinas’s Concept of Ethical Responsibility

Jay Michael L. Cordero
3
rd
Iloilo Philosophical Association (IPA) Inc. Conference
July 30-31, 2014
Theme: Ethics in Politics

Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish born French philosopher is one of the influential contemporary philosopher
who made the concern for the Other person the central topic of his philosophy. Ethical responsibility and
the concern for the Other are the main themes of his work especially in Totality and Infinity and
Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.
1
According to Levinas, one has a tremendous or infinite
responsibility to the Other whose face demands that one should not left the Other alone but one has to
respond to the need of the Other. “The otherness of the Other is concretized in the face of the other
human.”
2
One cannot not respond to the call of the face of the Other. According to Levinas “I
cannot…not hear the appeal of the Other.”
3
The relevance of Emmanuel Levinas‟ philosophy of ethical
responsibility in the political setting can be seen in relation to the background by which his philosophy
was developed, which is in a
millennia of fratricidal struggles, political or bloody, of imperialism, scorn and
exploitation of the human being…century of world wars, the genocides of the Holocaust
and terrorism; unemployment and continual desperate poverty of the Third world;
ruthless doctrines and cruelty of fascism and national socialism…
4

In this paper, I wish to evaluate politics and to situate the philosophy of Levinas in a more concrete and
practical way by applying his concept of responsibility as availability and service to the Other.
Politics is the concern for the Other. Simon Critchley even described politics “as the art of response to the
singular demand of the Other.”
5
Politics is not just a personal affair of politicians but rather it is
concerned with the welfare of the people, it is concerned with the common good of the society. The main
concern of politics is to provide people with a just and humane society. “Politics is at the heart of all
Levinas‟ work, whether as the traumatic background or as the changing context of his intellectual

1
By ‘Other’ Levinas refers to other human beings aside from one’s self. It indicates the ethical rather than
just the real object of self’s ethical meaning, see Emmanuel Levinas, Routledge Critical Thinkers by Sean Hand.
2
Adriann Peperzak, To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (Indiana: Purdue
University Press, 1993), 19. Hereafter, Peperzak, To the Other.
3
Rudi Visker, The Inhuman Condition (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2004), 10. Hereafter, Visker, The
Inhuman Condition.
4
Ezekiel Fana Mkhwanazi, “To Be Human Is To Be Responsible For The Other: A Critical Analysis Of
Levinas’ Conception Of ‘Responsibility’”, Phronimon, Vol.14, No. 1 (2013), 133. Hereafter, Mkhwanazi, To Be
Human.
5
Simon Critchley, Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity (London: Verso, 1999), 276.
development.”
6
The concern for the welfare of the people is the basic foundation of politics according to
Levinas and that we recognize the Other even before society is formed. Sean Hand wrote:
Levinas view of politics and society…is grounded in a primary and never surpassed
concern for the neighbor to whom I am connected by an original and non-contractual
bond…There is a primary command that establishes this proximity, a preconditional non
indifference to the neighbor, who is defined not geographically or biologically, but
morally. The neighbor is therefore already all of humanity, even prior to the introduction
of the society…
7

As Levinas is concerned with one‟s relationship to the Other especially with the Other‟s physical need
this led Levinas to consider politics as having the primary duty of promoting people‟s welfare. Levinas
thinking is greatly influenced and shaped by his “concern for the welfare of the people.”
8
Levinas ethical
concept of responsibility is intimately connected and applicable to the political context since “ethics is not
serious if it does not concretize itself in judicial and political institutions.”
9
Ethical responsibility to the
Other is concretized in one‟s responsibility in the face of the Other. The Other is presented by his
“face.”
10
In the vulnerability of the face of the Other, says Levinas, we experience an appeal: we are being
called, addressed. “For Levinas the face is the face of destitution and poverty.”
11
The response to the
vulnerability of the Other is experienced as responsibility.”
12
Levinas conception of “….responsibility has
a significant appeal to the marginalized, to the poor, and the excluded people of the world.”
13
The face of

6
Sean Hand, Emmanuel Levinas (London: Routledge, 2009), 94. Hereafter, Hand, .
7
Ibid., 55.
8
Nigel K Zimmermann, “Karol Wojtyla and Emmanuel Levinas on the Embodied Self: The Forming of the
Other as Moral Self-Disclosure”, The Heythrop Journal, Vol. 50, No. 6 (2009), 984. Hereafter, Zimmermann, Wojtyla
and Levinas.
9
Peperzak, To the Other, 179.
10
“The face is one of the most powerful metaphors that Levinas uses to speak about the …character of
the human Other (Autrui). The face…projects a gaze that overwhelms and makes demands of the subject. So, its
presence is also intimidating…The face call the Subject into dialogue...The face has a double character: As that
fragile part of the body, it is vulnerable and weak, and as such, calls for help. But the face also command or
obligate me against my will, as when the face of the poor person begging for money from me, makes me feel guilty
when I don’t respond favorably.” –A footnote from To be human is to be responsible for the Other.
11
Peter Atterton and Matthew Calarco, On Levinas (Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005), 29.
Hereafter, Atterton and Calarco, On Levinas.
12
Max Manen, “Phenomenology Online » Ethical Phenomenology”, Phenomenologyonline.com, last
modified 2014, accessed June 25, 2014, http://www.phenomenologyonline.com/inquiry/orientations-in-
phenomenology/ethical-phenomenology/.
13
Mkhwanazi, To Be Human, 144.
the Other is not just expressing a prohibition not to kill the Other but the face of the Other is also
expressing a command “to give with full hands.”
14

Adriaan Peperzak describes the command of the face in the following words:
…the other imposes its enigmatic irreducibility and nonrelativity or absoluteness is by
means of a command and a prohibition: You are not allowed to kill me; as you must
accord me a place under the sun and everything that is necessary to live a truly human
life. This demands not only the omission of criminal behavior but simultaneously a
positive dedication; the other‟s facing me makes me responsible for him/her, and this
responsibility has no limits.
15

The Other commands us to be responsible and to answer to the call of the Other. One is called to serve the
Other and to respond to the Other‟s needs. Responsibility is considered by Levinas as a service to the
Other. Politics is one of the most crucial aspect of human society that has the utmost duty of responding
to the need of the people. Government officials and politicians are task to be responsible to the Other,
who are in need, who are hungry, who are oppressed and persecuted. It is the politicians who are tasked to
be responsible for the welfare of the Other. Of course, all of us are responsible for each Other, as Levinas
would say, „I am responsible for everyone else-but I am more responsible for all Others.‟ However,
politicians are elected to the position as having the primary duty to serve the people and to be what
Levinas calls being-for-the-other. As politicians they have to serve the people and to make sure that they
promote justice and provide the need of the people. Politicians are called to serve the people, to be for
others, and not for itself. Levinas ethical philosophy shows that in facing the human Other it “inhabits the
horizon of one‟s experience and present themselves as a demand to oneself.”
16
In facing the human Other
there is a demand that one must answer the needs of the Other. The face expresses a command, “Thou
shalt not kill.” This command of the face of the Other can be translated as “be for me.” This command
from the face of the Other not to kill the Other is also expressed not just by the persecuted one‟s or
victims of political killing and injustices but it is also echoed by the poor and the destitute. The face of the
poor, the widow and the orphan calls us not to let him/her die alone. By turning away from the call of the
Other we are also turning away from ourselves. According to Levinas “„being for the Other‟ defines who
I am.”
17
Our relationship with others define us, it is our relation with the others that constitute our very
own being. The Other who calls us to be responsible “present themselves as a demand to oneself

14
Atterton and Calarco, On Levinas, 29.
15
Peperzak, To the Other, 22.
16
Mkhwanazi, To Be Human, 134.
17
Ibid.
and…call (some)one to get outside the sphere of one‟s own self-satisfaction and preoccupations.”
18

Being-for-itself according to Levinas “is a mode of being in which the Self is preoccupied with itself, and
therefore indifferent to the Other.”
19
This is the mode of being that is egoistic since it is simply concerned
of itself rather than the welfare of Others. When one becomes a public servant it is where “one lives for
the Other and no longer for „itself.‟”
20
“Levinas tells us, (that) the face of the Other appeals to us and this
appeals concerns us.”
21
The call and demand from the face of the Other concerns us and this concern for
the Other cannot be simply dismissed as Levinas would describe “ethical responsibility as an insomnia or
wakefulness precisely because it is a perpetual duty of vigilance and effort that can never slumber…love
cannot sleep, can never be peaceful or permanent. Love is the incessant watching over of the other.”
22

Politicians are called to serve the Others, they are called to get outside of themselves and not simply to
use their position to satisfy one‟s self satisfaction and desire but as a public servant one must get out of
himself and of his personal preoccupations. One cannot see the face of the Other, especially the face of
those who are in need if one is simply preoccupied of his personal satisfaction and of his own self. There
is a need to recognize the face of those who are in need. Since Levinas characterized responsibility as a
service to the Other. A public servant is one who is not only called to serve the Other but to be
responsible to the Other. As a public servant one is bind to the people he is serving. “For Levinas,
responsibility is a „place‟ where I (one) bind himself (oneself) to the Other.”
23

Levinas pointed out that responsibility is intimately connected with service. Levinas “makes an intrinsic
link between the words, „responsibility‟ and the „Other.‟ He maintains that to be responsible means to
make oneself available for service of the Other in such a way that one‟s own life is intrinsically linked
with the Other‟s life.”
24
Public servants must make themselves available to the service of the Other, this is
the most concrete manifestation of being responsible to the other. In being responsible to the Other one
must make himself available for the Other. It is in making one‟s self available to the Other that one can
respond to the need of the other. One cannot respond to the need of the Other if one is not available for
the Other. Availability to respond makes one capable of being responsible to the Other. When one is not
available, how can one respond to the need of the Other? The giving of oneself demands that one not
simply recognize the need of the Other but one must be available to the Other. This is a great challenge to

18
Ibid.
19
Ibid., 137.
20
Zimmermann, Wojtyla and Levinas, 989.
21
Visker, The Inhuman Condition, 29.
22
Richard A. Cohen, Face To Face With Levinas (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1986),
30. Hereafter, Cohen, Face To Face.
23
Mkhwanazi, To Be Human, 136.
24
Ibid., 136.
our politicians or public servants who must make themselves always available in order to respond to the
need of the people. Perhaps they fail to respond to the need because in the first place they were not
available to get to know people‟s needs, they do not make themselves available to get out of their
comfortable, air conditioned and luxurious offices to see the face of the poor, the orphan or the destitute.
Failing to be available for the Other is tantamount to failing being responsible for the Other. Isn‟t it the
case that we often fail to be responsible because we fail to make ourselves available to the Other? We fail
to make ourselves available and respond to our obligations and duties to the Other?
This unavailability to the Other and the refusal to acknowledge the face of the Other who is in need is
indeed a form of irresponsibility. Cardinal Tagle at the height of the pork barrel scandal admonishes out
politicians to at least make themselves available to go to the slums or the squatter areas at night and see
the faces of the people who sleep in a piece of cartoon or tarpaulin shivering in the cold night hoping that
at least by the faces and situation of these desperate people, the Other, the poor, the destitute, the orphans
their hearts will be touched. This is what Levinas means by substitution. It is not simply characterized as
compassion for the Other. According to Levinas substitution is not a “psychological event of compassion,
but it is putting oneself in the place of the Other, who is distinct from me.”
25
The call of the face of the
Other does not just remain in the mind but rather it pierces through the heart. “The suffering of the Other
would be intolerable, not just for him, but also for me.”
26

The Other is calling us to put ourselves in their place to suffer as they do, to be hurt as they were hurt.
We cannot simply turn our back away from the gaze of the Other for our own selfishness is also
detrimental and would lead to our own destruction. “One always „answers‟ to the appeal (of the Other),
one cannot escape the responsibility it brings-silence is not an option, it too will be a way to answer.”
27

Our inescapable guilt in toward our lack of responsibility to the Other is best characterized by Levinas in
comparison to a Nessus Tunic. Levinas wrote that the “irremissible guilt with regard to the neighbor is
like a Nessus Tunic in my skin would be.”
28
The Nessus Tunic is from a story in Greek Mythology where
Hercules, an ancient Greek hero killed Nessus the centaur by a poison arrow when he attempted to rape
Deianeira. Before the centaur dies he told Deianeira that she must kept his blood since it is a powerful
love potion that will keep Hercules in love with her forever. She kept a sample of the centaur‟s own blood
and applied it to Hercules own clothing when she was in doubt of his love. Alas, the blood was actually a
poison and Hercules clothes began to burn him. This depiction of Levinas wants to tell us that

25
Ibid., 140.
26
Visker, The Inhuman Condition, 113.
27
Ibid., 10.
28
Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans., A. Lingis (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne
University Press, 1998), 108. Hereafter, Levinas, Otherwise Than Being.
responsibility burn towards our skin that we cannot take it off, the “Other burns himself or herself into my
skin, and penetrates me.”
29
“Responsibility for Levinas is the Nessus Tunic I cannot take off despite the
pain it causes me.”
30
This story is also showing us how selfish desires can lead to one‟s self destruction.
Eventually, and perhaps it‟s becoming a reality that by stealing from the government would make a
politician send himself to jail.
In seeing the face of the poor one hears the command that is to be responsible to the Other. However, the
problem is that we don‟t see the face of the poor because we either hide from them or that we hide them.
We are afraid to see the face of the poor. In turning our back against the face of the poor we are turning
our back against our very own human nature Since according to Levinas, “I am a human being in the sole
measure that I am responsible for the Other (another).”
31
When we fail to treat our fellow human beings
as human beings do we not fail to treat too ourselves as human beings? Perhaps the traditional definition
of man as rational being that distinguishes as from other beings is best better complemented by Levinas
that we are beings who are responsible for each Other. We have the capability to respond to the need of
the Other who may not be related to us.
Levinas concept of “responsibility seeks the good of the Other. It does not look for the recognition from
the Other.”
32
To be responsible to the Other one must seek the good of the Other. Politics aims towards
promoting the common good, it is the common good that every politician must seek to advance and
protect. To be responsible to the Other we must protect the Other from harm and that entails that one must
be willing to sacrifice for the Other, “In responsibility…(one) is called to sacrifice his her autonomy.”
33

Public service is not to seek for pleasure and satisfaction of one‟s desire for power, wealth and influence
it is even the opposite. Public service demands sacrifice for the Other. In service one must learn to
sacrifice for the Other. Responsibility thus, aside from availability for the Other also entails sacrifice for
the Other, sacrifice for the good of the Other. Levinas in Otherwise Than Being even speaks of not just a
simple sacrifice for the Other but a sacrifice that one does not simply out of one‟s abundance. One‟s
responsibility to the Other entails that one must make sacrifice, he characterizes it as “the duty to give to
the Other even the bread out of one‟s own mouth and the coat from one‟s own shoulders.”
34
Notice that
Levinas does not simply speak that one must give one‟s extra or surplus. This form of sacrifice entails
that one must “give away the very ones that one has and depends upon.”
35
Ezekiel Mkhwanazi even goes

29
Visker, The Inhuman Condition, 84.
30
Atterton and Calarco, On Levinas, 68.
31
Mkhwanazi, To Be Human, 136.
32
Ibid.
33
Ibid.
34
Lvinas, Otherwise Than Being, 55.
35
Mkhwanazi, To Be Human, 137.
beyond this simple sacrificing of material things by declaring that “It extends to sacrificing one‟s life for
the Other.”
36
This surely is a very difficult and may even sound radical to many. Public officials are not in
the position in order to enrich themselves but rather to serve the people. Their powers and privileges must
be used to promote the common good and welfare of the people. According to Rudi Visker in writing
about Levinas says, “The rights I have at my disposal, which the State accords me, are only there to allow
me to serve the Other better. Just as the cry of the Other will always prevail over all the rules of a justice
that cannot serve as my excuse.”
37
The power that a public servant has as granted by the Sate must be
used to promote the welfare of the people and must be used in order to serve the Other better. Public
office is a service to the Other. “The Other, through his or her neediness and vulnerability, invites me to
offer myself and what I have in service and sustenance.”
38
In Totality and Infinity Levinas wrote, “To
recognize the Other is to recognize a hunger. To recognize the Other is to give.”
39

Levinas also reminds us that in responsibility one does not look for the recognition from the Other. This
is perhaps strongly and concretely in opposed to the actions of many public servants who are fond of
advertising their accomplishments and projects by putting their names in big tarpaulins. This is what we
commonly referred to as “epal”. Levinas reminds us that in responsibility towards the Other “bawal ang
epal.” We are responsible to the Other for the good of the Other not in order to gain recognition or
prominence. This is basic since service is something that one does for the Other and in its very nature
does not seek for recognition. One does not give service to the Other in order to be simply recognized by
the Other. The kind of service that Levinas talks about entails that one must be “under the control and
authority of another.”
40
Public servants as they are called to serve the Other must make themselves
available to the service of the Other. They are not the one who must control and subjugate the people but
since they referred to as public servants they must be the one who is under the control and authority of the
people. Levinas even describes the subject as the “hostage.” To be a hostage means one is put under one‟s
own control and held against one‟s own will. A public servant as a servant of the people is held hostage
by the people to serve them and to be responsible for them. When one is in the position of the hostage one
under the authority of the Other and thus it is the people who has the authority since it is the people who
are being served.

36
Ibid., 139.
37
Visker, The Inhuman Condition, 35.
38
Bruce Young, “An Introduction to Levinas”, last modified 2014, accessed June 25, 2014,
http://english.byu.edu/faculty/youngb/levinas/levinas3int.pdf. Hereafter, Young, Introduction to Levinas.
39
Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans., Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh:
Duquesne University Press, 1969), 75.
40
Mkhwanazi, To Be Human, 141.
The responsibility that one has for the Other is describe by Levinas as asymmetrical. We don‟t become
responsible for the Other and expect in return that the Other must also be responsible for us. In giving
service to the Other we do not demand that the Other must also be responsible to us. According to
Levinas the Other‟s responsibility towards us is not our business but it is theirs. “The relation between the
Other and me is asymmetrical. Its appeal concerns me. I am whether I like it or not, responsible for this
Other.”
41
This relation that I have with the Other is “independent of the fact that my appeal would
concern her or him, that s/he would in turn, would feel responsible for me.”
42
When we are asked to be
responsible to the Other it is not a matter of reciprocity according to Levinas, we are responsible for the
Other without expecting or demanding that the Other would also be responsible for us too. This is usually
the problem when politicians see their responsibility to the Other not as asymmetrical but as reciprocal
because they demand something in return to their service. It is the responsibility of the public officials to
improve people‟s life, it is the responsibility of the public officials to promote the common good, and it is
their responsibility to implement projects for the people. This responsibility they have to the Other is
independent of whatever they will receive in return. It is their responsibility to the people thus they must
not demand for kickbacks on the projects they implement. For Levinas, “To take care of the Other‟s need
without remuneration or reward is the very meaning of ethical asymmetry.”
43
They must not demand that
their responsibility to the people must also be paid by the people in return. This is what Levinas mean that
“Ethics is not first of all a matter of „reciprocity,‟ I do not owe certain things to the Other only in return
for what has been done to me.”
44
Levinas in referring to the act of responsibility declares that “virtue is its
own reward.”
45
This standard according to Levinas is not to be imposed to the Other, to demand that the
Other be also responsible for us is to exploit the Other.
46
Peperzak in commenting on Levinas concept of
ethical asymmetry writes, “I can and sometimes must sacrifice my life for some other, but I can never
claim that another should sacrifice his or her life for me, for this would be a sort of murder.”
47

Levinas on Justice
Levinas concept of justice is related to his concept of the “third party.” The concept of the third party is
the bridge from which Levinas thought crosses from ethics to politics. We are not only concern before the
Other that faces us but we are also responsible to the Others. Our responsibility to the Other who faces us

41
Visker, The Inhuman Condition, 156.
42
Ibid.
43
Atterton and Calarco, On Levinas, 30.
44
Young, Introduction to Levinas, 31.
45
Cohen, Face To Face, 31.
46
Young, Introduction to Levinas, 31.
47
Peperzak, To the Other, 172.
is not simply exclusive to the Other who is facing us.
48
Our responsibility to the Other reaches to all other
human beings and this “implies my responsibility for social justice and worldwide peace.”
49
The so called
third party is “revealed „in‟ and „through‟ the face of the Other, it follows that I am related to many others
who urge me with equal absoluteness to dedicate myself to them.”
50
In response to problem of how we
can be responsible to a multiple others (third party) who face us, Levinas talks about justice. How can we
respond to all the Others are facing us? According to Levinas, “I must divide my time and energy in order
to respond to more than one revelation of the infinite.”
51
Levinas notion of justice appeals to those who
are in charge of the common good and welfare of the society to be responsible not just to one but to all
Others. Political, social and judicial system is the one “that balances and guarantees at least the minimum
of the absolute demands expressed by the Other‟s presence.”
52
The appearance of the Other reveals one‟s
“duty of justice.”
53
It is with the introduction of the third party that “necessitates a passage to justice
which in turn calls into place the political state, with juridical institutions and bill of rights.”
54
The
political state has the primary duty to promote justice, thus, public servants are called too to relate to the
Other with justice. Thus, “Politics was born as the many „others‟ emerged as claimants of
responsibility.”
55
Since the introduction of the third party becomes essential to Levinas concept of justice,
thus “there is actually an inherent relation in Levinas between the ethical and political.”
56
Levinas
concludes that the aim of politics is to provide a just and human society.
As a conclusion, Levinas is calling on us to respond to the need of the Other to be a public servant means
to be responsible to the Other and to be responsible to be responsible to the Other entails that one must
serve the Other. Responsibility towards the Other implies that one must be available for the Other. Public
service is a way of serving and being responsible to the Other. This service to the Other is asymmetrical.
One is called to serve and to be responsible without demanding that the Other will return the same. The
face of the poor, the destitute, the orphan and the widow calls us to respond and to be available. We must
heed the call of the face, we must respond to the command of the face, we must be responsible to the
Other.


48
Ibid., 167.
49
Ibid.
50
Ibid., 168.
51
Ibid.
52
Ibid.

53
Ibid., 229.
54
Mkhwanazi, To Be Human, 143.
55
Ibid., 146.
56
Hand, Emmanuel Levinas, 94.
References:

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Cohen, Richard A. 1986. Face To Face With Levinas. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.
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Duquesne University Press.
___________. 1998. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Translated. A. Lingis. Pittsburgh:
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