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11 ONE Alterity, Value, Autonomy Levinas and Environmental Ethics ChristianDiehm Within recent years, a number of attempts have been made to read the works of Emmanuel Levinas through an “environmental” lens.1 Oftentimes the goal of these attempts has been to discern whether or not there is in Levinas an environmental ethic, or at least some sort of an environmental consciousness, and to this end they have engaged in careful exegesis of his texts, sometimes even pitting him against himself, to discover whatever potential there may be for a distinctly Levinasian environmentalism. Given his prominent place within the Continental philosophical tradition, it is not surprising that in the course of these undertakings Levinas has frequently been drawn into dialogue with other figures in that tradition whose writings have, in one way or another, spoken to environmental concerns. What is somewhat surprising, though, is that these environmentally inspired readings of Levinas have tended not to draw him into dialogue with those thinkers outside the Continental tradition whose work is explicitly environmentally themed and who readily identify themselves as “environmental philosophers.” This situation represents a missed opportunity for both Continental and analytic eco-philosophers, but one that could be regained fairly easily if only a different set of guiding questions was to be asked. Where does Levinas stand vis-à-vis established positions in the field 12 Christian Diehm of contemporary environmental philosophy? Is he recognizable as an “environmental ethicist,” and if so, as what kind? If there is an anthropocentric orientation to his thinking, is it the same sort of human-centeredness as that about which environmentalists have had so much to say? Just as important, is his work at all compatible with the many non-anthropocentric positions that have been developed, or is a non-anthropocentric Levinasianism a nonstarter? This essay explores these questions, and in the process travels to some places that are relatively foreign to much of the existing Levinas scholarship . It begins, however, in familiar territory, with an examination of Levinas’s phenomenological-descriptive approach to ethics. A PHENOMENOLOGY OF ANTHROPOCENTRISM? One of the initial difficulties that confronts the project proposed is that Levinas uses the term “ethics” idiosyncratically and in a way that has seemingly little to do with what most environmental ethicists would likely take this area of philosophical study to involve. Although most of Levinas’s career was devoted to the study of ethics, at no point did he articulate a theory of value by which we could judge the rightness or wrongness of our actions or establish who or what ought to count in our moral deliberations. He never expressed interest in formulating rules to insure the fair treatment of others or in generating principles for resolving conflicts between them. He certainly never ventured to bring any of the more well-known ethical theories, Western or otherwise, to bear on specific problems of his day. Given all of this, and given the central place that such considerations have had in the thought of mainstream environmental ethicists, it would seem that Levinas could be situated only at the very margins of environmental philosophy, if indeed he could be situated anywhere near it at all. Generally speaking, the reason that Levinas leaves such issues aside is that his approach to ethics is phenomenological rather than normative .2 That is, Levinas treats “ethics” as an aspect of human experience that calls for phenomenological analysis; as such, his interest is not in providing arguments for why others should or should not be included in the moral community, or explaining what ought to follow Alterity, Value, Autonomy 13 if they are, but in describing ethical experience. This point might be encapsulated by saying that Levinas is concerned not with philosophical ethics but with the phenomenology of “the ethical,” something he indicates when he says, “My task does not consist in constructing ethics; I only try to find its meaning” (EI 90). Finding the “meaning” of ethics, for Levinas, does not amount to building a case for why or how others ought to matter morally but of explicating how it is that they do so matter, carefully characterizing the specifically ethical dimensions of our relations with others. Despite whatever else might be said about this approach to ethics, some commentators would worry that in the Western, industrial cultural context such an approach to environmental ethics is potentially problematic, as many of us in the West do not have significant experience with other-than-human entities and, perhaps more importantly , those...


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