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  • The Plight of Ethics
  • Kelly Oliver

Since Kant, ethics has been synonymous with moral law, grounded in Reason. As Kant’s heirs, we are still grappling with a tension he sought to resolve through his appeal to a rational God, namely, between ethics and politics. “Politics says, ‘Be ye wise as serpents,’” remarks Kant: “Morality adds (as a limiting condition) ‘and guileless as doves’” (1795, 338). For Kant, both the serpent of politics and the dove of ethics are bound by the same moral duty that has its source in the freedom of our sovereign rational will. The perfection of this good will is possible not as individuals but only from the perspective of what Kant calls “Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” which it turns out is a view from the cosmos, more specifically, from the perspective of the “dwellers from other planets” whom Kant imagines viewing us from their own place in the universe (1784, n. 2).

As we know, Kant insists that the concept of duty cannot be in conflict with doing our duty—or that ought implies can: “It is patently absurd, having granted this concept of duty its authority, to want to say that one nevertheless cannot do it. For in that case this concept would of itself drop out of morals. . . . [H]ence, there can be no conflict of politics as doctrine of right put into practice, with morals, as theoretical doctrine of right” (1795, 338). But what if the reverse were true? What if ought implies cannot? What if our obligations always outstrip our intentions? What if the sovereign will is fundamentally beholden both to other people and to the Other [End Page 118] of language and culture, such that Kant’s autonomous “I can” becomes “I suffer.” In other words, what if in order to save the ethical import of the concept of duty, morality itself must drop out?

I am alluding to Levinas’s notion of ethics as first philosophy, with all of the responsibility of modern ethics but none of its autonomy or self-certainty. Indeed, moving from Kant to Levinas we could say that autonomy and responsibility become inversely proportioned. For as rational law and self-sovereignty and everything that grounds modern morality slip away, our ethical responsibility increases. As we shake the ground from our soles/souls as so much dirt stuck there, as Deleuze (1968, 197) might say, and give up our illusions of putting ourselves into the shoes of others, nonetheless, we still have one more step to take, one more response to give. As we move from Kant’s moral law to Levinas’s ethical insomnia, responsibility becomes ratcheted up to such a degree that Derrida calls it “hyperbolic ethics” (2001).

At first blush, it seems that all that Kant’s duty and Levinas’s responsibility have in common is the appeal to God, but even that is radically different between the two. It is noteworthy, however, that Kant’s concept of duty, or Pflicht, could have been more literally translated as “plight” or even “pledge.” Indeed the English word plight has its origins in the Old German word Pflicht. And Pflichten can be translated as “obligation” or “responsibility.” Although I cannot follow the complex etymological connections that lead from Pflicht to responsibility, there are some forceful currents running through them, from the familiar connotations of obligation, promise, and binding to the extraordinary connotations of risk, danger, and hostage.1 Both plight and responsibility have their roots in the notion of pledge, in the sense of vowing a solemn oath and of one who becomes a hostage or bail for another. This history resonates with Levinas’s notion of ethical subjectivity as pledge or hostage.

It is also significant that Kant’s word for duty, Pflicht, originally referred to social or community bonds forged through care and dependency. Pflicht comes from Pflëgen, which means care for or look after and has strong connotations of community.2 There is, then, care, dependency, community, and social bondage, so to speak, already contained within Kant’s notion of duty as Pflicht or plight. Thinking of Kant’s Pflicht as plight sets us on a path...


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