Immanuel Kant insisted that ethics could be understood as a categorical imperative, which he viewed as necessary, and capable of being derived from reason, but he had at least three different ways of expressing this idea and insisted that these were all fundamentally the same. It is less obvious to the rest of us that Kant’s formulae really were equivalent. I’ve called the categorical imperative Kant’s yardstick, and summarised his three formula as ‘the ethical as the universal’, ‘mutual respect’ and ‘communal autonomy’. The first formula states that what we deem as ethical is what we would be willing to accept as binding for everyone e.g. we deny murder because we comprehend why no-one should be murdered. The second formula concentrates on not using other people solely as means to our own ends, that is, on respecting other people as people. The third formula imagines a “Realm of Ends” in which everyone’s goals in life might be harmonised – perhaps not in practice, but it is at least “merely possible” that they might.
Emmanuel Levinas (pictured above) insisted that ethics were primary to philosophy, meaning by ethics (unenforceable) obligation. He believed that ethical notions were explained by the fundamental phenomenon of the face of the Other, meaning not the literal visage but the aspect of another person that we encounter. This experience is prior to conscious reflection in Levinas’ account, and leads to a kind of guiltless responsibility whereby we are “responsible without being culpable” for the Other that we encounter. This responsibility can never be absolved, and is prior to any action that might be taken. Responsibility in Levinas’ account is not therefore for oneself so much as it is for the Other. Thus, for instance, we are all responsible for the hungry people in the world in a way that is more fundamental than the way we are responsible for our actions, because the ultimate source of our ethical obligations (for Levinas) is our need to ameliorate the suffering of the Other.
Now taking Levinas’ concept of the Other and using it to interpret Kant’s categorical imperative results in an interesting perspective. Our responsibility for the Other stemming from the Other’s infinite difference from us (the Other’s alterity in Levinas’ terms) is the source of Kant’s formula of mutual respect: to treat another being as a means to our ends would be to ignore the face of the Other. As long as we recognise the Other’s face, and the unenforceable obligation this represents, we have mutual respect for the Other. Joanna Zylinska raised a query to me in this regard, in that core to Levinas’ ethics is the idea that it is one-sided and non-mutual. She notes: “it doesn’t even matter whether the other will reciprocate or not, because this obligation – to respond, and be responsible – is solely mine.” However, Kant’s second formula seems to be compatible with this stance. Consider his original wording: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.” Although this formula leads to mutual respect, it begins with the obligation for the individual to treat the Other as an ‘end in themselves’.
Furthermore, since even through inaction we allow the suffering of others to take place, we inherit a guiltless responsibility whereby we have an ethical duty towards the Other in all its faces. Thus the needs of other people (at least in the sense of curtailing their suffering) become our needs – which is Kant’s formula of communal autonomy, provided it is constrained to dealing only with the alleviation of suffering, and in many respects it may even be possible to push this analogy further. Kant characterised this formula as follows: “Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal realm of ends.” This viewpoint is very different to that of Levinas, but both philosophers were gesturing in the same direction – to a communal engagement in well-being (the ‘realm of ends’) rooted in the responsibility of the individual (‘every rational being must act...’).
All that remains is Kant’s first formula for the categorical imperative: the ethical as the universal. But if our ethical duty is for the Other and not for ourselves, as Levinas asserts, this duty by definition must be universal, since we are all the Other for every Other (we are all someone else to someone else). Ironically, Levinas recognises (following Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling) that there is an inescapable conflict of interest in this universality: in any given moment, we have responsibility for everyone else but we can only act responsibly towards a particular Other, so to behave ethically is paradoxically to fail in our duty in some subtle sense. (Zylinska suggests this is also the moment when politics enters into the ethical domain). This circumstance does not alter the duty – it does not alter the universality – it is simply a recognition of its problematic limits.
Thus when Levinas’ concept of the Other is used to interpret Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative, the three distinct formulations that Kant proposes – which seem so distinct when interpreted through Kant’s overly rationalistic, almost computational stance – become simple consequences of Levinas’ approach of situating ethics as a responsibility without culpability resulting from our response to the face of the Other. Kant’s three formulae might indeed be one and the same – this perspective is simply obscured by the rigidly formulaic framework that Kant himself deploys. That Levinas’ approach also allows for Kierkegaard’s overturning of the necessary priority of the universal, freeing the individual to take the action they feel is right for them in any given circumstance, is simply an unexpected dividend of this speculative philosophical investment.
With many thanks to Joanna Zylinska for her feedback on this idea.