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Ethics and Selfhood

Alterity and the Phenomenology of Obligation

James R. Mensch

Publication Year: 2003

According to James R. Mensch, a minimal requirement for ethics is that of guarding against genocide. In deciding which races are to live and which to die, genocide takes up a standpoint outside of humanity. To guard against this, Mensch argues that we must attain the critical distance required for ethical judgment without assuming a superhuman position. His description of how to attain this distance constitutes a genuinely new reading of the possibility of a phenomenological ethics, one that involves reassessing what it means to be a self. Selfhood, according to Mensch, involves both embodiment and the self-separation brought about by our encounter with others—the very others who provide us with the experiential context needed for moral judgment. Buttressing his position with documented accounts of those who hid Jews during the Holocaust, Mensch shows how the self-separation that occurs in empathy opens the space within which moral judgment can occur and obligation can find its expression. He includes a reading of the major moral philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Arendt, Levinas—even as he develops a phenomenological account of the necessity of reading literature to understand the full extent of ethical responsibility. Mensch’s work offers an original and provocative approach to a topic of fundamental importance.

Published by: State University of New York Press

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Contents

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pp. vii-

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-

Some of the chapters appearing in this volume are reworked versions of previously published articles. Acknowledgment is made to the following publishing houses, periodicals and persons for their kind permission to republish all or part of the following articles: ...

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Introduction

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pp. 1-16

The experience of the past century presents a remarkable feature. Its course was punctuated by attempts to eliminate entire populations. Given this history, the very least we can ask from an ethics is that it guard against the moral collapse that accompanies genocide. This seems like a relatively straightforward demand. ...

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1. Selfhood and Certainty

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pp. 17-36

It has long been a commonplace that while modern philosophers have excelled in the more abstract branches of their discipline, they still fail to come up to the standards of the Greeks when it comes to formulating a coherent theory of ethics. The difficulty does not involve their skills at argument or the subtlety ...

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2. Empathy and Self-Presence

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pp. 37-48

The division between the sciences and the humanities that begins with Descartes is actually one of two different types of understanding. To an extent far beyond what its founders could conceive, the understanding fostered by the sciences is global. Scientists all over the world share their results, collaborate, ..

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3. The Divided Self: A Phenomenological History of Ethics

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pp. 49-96

For Plato the duality of our selfhood is one of appetite and reason. The self that is determined by appetite takes pleasure as the good. The self determined by reason chooses pleasure only insofar as it leads to the good (Plato 1971, 105; Gorgias 500a). For this rationally directed self, to know the good is to do it. ...

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4. Rescue and the Origin of Responsibility

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pp. 97-120

The action of saving a life in a situation of mass slaughter is not called for in the normal functioning of society. Such functioning is, in fact, set up so that we are not faced with a situation of “playing God” in the sense of deciding if the person knocking at our door should live. The context, however, that demanded ...

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5. An Ethics of Framing

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pp. 121-146

Normally, when we use the terms “good” and “evil,” we take “good” to be what is useful or “good for” achieving some given subjective purpose or desire. The “evil” or the “harmful” is the opposite of this. It is what prevents our achieving our goals. There is, however, a difficulty in limiting ...

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6. Freedom and Alterity

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pp. 147-170

There is a ready objection to the description of good and evil in terms of the environmental categories of “in-placeness” and “out-of-placeness.” It is that “out-of-placeness,” rather than characterizing evil, is essential to ethics. This is because the possibility of ethics is that of freedom. To be free, however, ...

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7. Alterity and Society

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pp. 171-184

It is not at all obvious how the transition from ethics to politics is to be made. Often there is a surprising disjunction between the private ethical conduct of citizens and what counts as “just” or “fair” in the actions of the state. Victor Klemperer’s diaries of the Nazi years bear eloquent testimony both to the private decency ...

Notes

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pp. 185-204

Bibliography

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pp. 205-210

Name Index

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pp. 211-212

Subject Index

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pp. 213-215


E-ISBN-13: 9780791486696
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791457511
Print-ISBN-10: 0791457516

Page Count: 225
Publication Year: 2003