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Ethics without Exit:
Levinas and Murdoch
Hearts open very easily to the working class, wallets with more difficulty. What opens with the most difficulty of all
are the doors of our own homes.
—Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings
. . . there is no debt to acquit. From the outset,
I am not exonerated. I am originally in default.
—Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time
IN HIS RECENT ARTICLE "Emmanuel Levinas and Iris Murdoch: Ethics as Exit?," C. Fred Alford highlights a number of insightful comparisons—and many important contrasts—between the respective conceptions of ethics proffered by Levinas and Murdoch. Alford's avowed objective is to "criticize Levinas sympathetically," or to "disrupt" what has come to be known as "the Levinas Effect" and the tendency of many commentators to make Levinas "become everything to everyone." 1 Given what one commentator calls "the facile 'postmodern' temptation to lump together all differences under the general rubric of the 'Other,'" 2 Alford's objective is, I believe, wholly commendable. (As Arthur Schopenhauer pithily remarks: "the man who is everyone's friend is no one's friend." 3) Nevertheless, in the following discussion I want to "disrupt" Alford's own reading of Levinas; not, I hope, to make the latter simply a conduit for saying "whatever. . . . [I] wanted to say in the first place" (p. 24), but to present a fuller picture of Levinas's singularly difficult, evocative and often puzzling philosophy. I shall do this by critically responding to and developing a number of points [End Page 456] Alford explicitly raises. To what extent my reading of Levinas aligns him with Murdoch, I leave for others far better qualified to assess.
Let us be clear from the start, Levinas is—as Hilary Putnam rightly notes—a "moral perfectionist." 4 But this is not to say that Levinas's work is "otherworldly." Although Alford does not use this latter term, it is clearly implied in his analysis. Thus, contrasting Levinas and Murdoch, he remarks that, "like Levinas, Murdoch's goal is to go beyond the limits of the self. Unlike Levinas, Murdoch is content to remain within a world of beings" (p. 37), and likewise, that Murdoch wants us to "climb the ladder of love only high enough to be free of their vanity and egoism, but never so high as to leave the world behind" (p. 38). According to Alford, "the other is an abstraction for Levinas. . . . Only at a distance is the other abstract enough to remind us of infinity" (p. 25)—indeed, a "barely contained passion for otherness, exit, and transcendence runs through Levinas" (p. 40). In a similar vein we are told that, for Levinas, "the self is remarkably real, a tangible fleshy thing . . . . and a barrier to infinity," and it is "for this reason, . . . a shattering experience is necessary, like that of Saul on the road to Damascus, an experience that does not bring me closer to my deliverer. . . . Only this can open me up—not to reality, but to infinity" (p. 38). More pointedly still, Alford asserts: "Levinas was never interested in the concrete reality of the other person, whose fleshy reality can only get in the way of transcendence" (p. 37). Thus, although he acknowledges that Levinas "often writes about ethical relationships as though they were real relationships with real people" ("what is not true is that Levinas is talking about some Other more august and transcendent than real other people . . . . we know the infinite only through other people"), Alford nevertheless defends his own "turning to Murdoch" on the grounds that she is "a theorist who remains strictly within the realm of everyday life, finding there subtleties of knowing, caring, and being that Levinas believes come only by way of the infinite" (p. 34).
While Levinas's attitude toward the "everyday" or "ordinary" is hardly transparent (after all, the imperative of the other's face is said to come "from most high outside the world" 5 ), Alford overstates the "otherworldly" aspect of the former's ethics. Against the allegation that Levinas...