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«Mis-Reading Levinas: Amongst Others Levinas and Business Ethics. Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy, University of Leicester, 27th-29th ...»

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Mis-Reading Levinas: Amongst Others

Levinas and Business Ethics. Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy,

University of Leicester, 27th-29th October, 2005

John Desmond

Department of Management

Gateway Building

University of St Andrews KY16 9SS


Tel : 01334-462873

E-mail: jd26@st-andrews.ac.uk

“We are delivered out of evil unto the needs of others” Levinas

On the face of it promoters of Emmanuel Levinas have little hope of leveraging his

brand value in the marketing academy. For example Shelby Hunt, one of the most respected mainstream marketing academics, dismisses out of hand what he regards to be the metaphysical pretension of continental philosophy as a wasteful distraction from the development of marketing science. Which is a shame, because if one recognizes that egoism, in one of its guises, provides the moral compass for marketing practice, then Levinas offers a novel means not simply for recognizing this, but for getting beyond it. The general tone of this paper represents an attempt to go along with Levinas’s argument to see how this might relate to the egoism that prevails in mainstream management thought and to marketing theory. Towards the end of the paper there is a brief reflection on the ability of Levinas to fully relate to the notion of sadistic enjoyment that is present in narcissism and also on his relation to subaltern knowledge.

EGOISM Levinas would be of little use to marketing theory if he did not fully acknowledge the potency of egoist explanations. He describes a person who is generally caught within the framework of this ego but who retains a trace of an overwhelming sense of prior responsibility for otherness. He solders interests to essence (1981: 4); being’s interest takes dramatic form in egoisms struggling with one another, in a war of each against all. When peace breaks out this is a rational peace, the calculated peace of diplomacy, politics and commerce. Each agent acts as a totality that is self-present to itself, already assembled. The interests of each party are maintained by the promise of future compensation which will reciprocate what has been given or consented to.

Although the warlike (calculated, competitive) peace of commerce may be like real war, commerce is better than war because in (peaceful) commerce the Good can reign. There is nothing with the foregoing that would trouble any egoism, however Levinas then signals his intent by next enquiring if this difference (between war and peace) does not presuppose that breathlessness of the spirit (his italics) which bears a sense of what is beyond essence. And thereon it becomes clear that his explanation has an entirely different basis to that of egoism. Before discussing Levinas’s ideas in relation to egoism it is worthwhile making a brief detour to highlight the xtraordinary potency of egoist explanations.

Egoism is extraordinarily pervasive across the natural and social sciences, acting as a means for explaining how otherwise self-interested organisms or actors will cooperate by acting responsibly towards one another even to the point of altruism, where one apparently sacrifices her own self for the other. Of course within this explanation such behaviour is never selfless because within the egoist explanation each party is presumed to act in the pursuit of their own desires or interests. Thus even though I have not met you before, I may notice that your car has broken down by the side of the road and pull over to stop mine in order to help you change the tyre, not out of any act of selflessness, but perhaps because I have myself been in this same situation or, because I can readily imagine that I could be and can also imagine how useful it would be for someone to come to my aid if that situation arose for me in the future. I would of course much more readily jump to the aid of those who are kin or otherwise linked to me, as to a stranger. With respect to my aiding the stranger reciprocity is important to the explanation to the extent that I do not expect that my act will be immediately reciprocated but hope, and indeed expect, that it will be at some time in the future and not necessarily by the person whom I am helping. In biology ideas related to reciprocal altruism can be traced back at least to Darwin (1981 [1871) since when much attention has been devoted to this topic (c.f. Williams, 1966; Trivers 1971); influencing game theory (Axelrod and Hamilton, 1981); social exchange theory (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959; Homans, 1961 ) and neo-classical economics (c.f.

Roberts, 2003 – although one should point out that Smith [1754] (1984) argues that justice is essential to moral action in a market society). This explanation lends itself also to traditional explanations of gift exchange (Mauss, 2000 [1954]). Marketing theorists tend to conceive of the individual subject as a rational agent who seeks to satisfy his or her self-interest by maximizing their assortment, and who will enter into exchanges with others for mutual benefit (c.f. Desmond & Crane, 2004). Following in this vein one of the key early discussions in marketing was whether marketers should seek to satisfy desires, which can be destructive, or whether they should rather be oriented to serve the interests of consumers (Kotler, 1972). Trust arises as an issue within this explanation as, in the absence of some authority that is external to the parties involved, if I act first, I must trust that the other or another will reciprocate at some future time. Fairness is also important in determining what is appropriate to exchange and in terms of the actual fact of the fulfilment of the promise to reciprocate. Transactions cost theory (Coase, 1937; Williamson, 1975) takes off from this base by arguing that organization comes into being when the costs of gaining such trust are high. This has in turn influenced the development of institutional theory in management (Ouchi, 1980; Dimaggio & Powell, 1983).

Levinas and Egoism

Levinas’s notion of totality within sameness presents a view of egoism that is similar in many respects to those described above although it should at this stage be pointed out, to be discussed later, that this differs in important respects from psychoanalytic formulations which implicitly or explicitly bear an Hegelian stamp. In Levinas there is a surplus over and above the “I” that we gaze upon and the other that we totalize;

this surplus is the overflowing of the idea of the other. This manifests itself in those situations where, finding oneself in proximity to another who is indigent and helpless, whom we may never have previously met, another who looks to us, we are annoyed at this stone that threatens to plunge into the tranquil pool of our existence; upset at the prospect of being removed from our comfort zone, perhaps horrified when we find ourselves responding to this other against our better judgement. For much of our lives we contrive means for avoiding this prior responsibility; by avoiding situations where we might encounter such otherness, by blinding ourselves to the consequences of our actions for the other. So to return to the earlier example; I see a car broken down at the road verge and mean to drive on but am caught by their look or their gaze and find myself cursing and pulling over, or perhaps speeding up. The next section discusses some important similarities and differences between egoist explanations and that advanced by Levinas.

Self- Presence

Rational choice theories tend to assume that consciousness is present to itself in the sense that one lives in the present, as oriented by past experience and future expectation. Self-presence also relates to the idea of self-knowledge, that this self knows itself and does not lie to itself. However some egoist explanations allow for self deception by arguing that it can be in one’s self-interests to deceive oneself (Wright, 2001). For example if it is a sign of status to have a good reputation, to be seen to be a good person, then if I behave badly and admit to myself that I have been bad, this might harm my overall prospects. It would do me no harm at all to deceive myself by persuading myself that I did not in fact do so; self-deception is after all the most secure base to proceed from if one is to deceive others.

In “Totality and Infinity” (T&I) Levinas sums up his views on ideas of self-presence in the phrase; The world in which I live is not simply the counterpart nor the contemporary of thought and its constitutive freedom but a conditioning and an antecedence (1969: 129). This takes a little explanation. First freedom; through the development of representation we have the freedom to interpret, classify and thus dominate the other in our own terms. In T&I Levinas makes the point that we think that we possess freedom, but freedom possesses us. By this I think that he is saying that we believe that all we possess is freedom, which constitutes the limit point of our action. In construing ourselves purely as free moral agents we disown the prior responsibility that constantly niggles, that we strive to free ourselves from. By focusing on freedom we ignore its antecedent condition which is the relation to the world offered by the development of a sensibility that is open to the elements that bathe it; a sensibility - to the green of leaves, the redness of a sunset – that one does not know but rather enjoys. Through sensibility the body concretizes a way of being that is anterior to representation. Representation on the other hand, by grasping through vision, totalizes. Even though representation comes onto the scene after sensibility has created its precondition via the idea of interiority in dwelling, it steals the show by proclaiming “That’s it – I’m all there is and that’s that.” The phrase “I think, therefore I am” thus falsely privileges thought over being; the being that thinks at first seems to present itself to a gaze that conceives it as being integrated into a whole; in reality it is only so integrated once it is dead. Comparing Levinas to Wright (op. cit.) then the latter posits the paradoxical state of affairs whereby the self acts rationally and by calculation to advance its interests, even to the point of deceiving itself. By contrast Levinas describes a self that constitutes itself, de-limits its boundaries by grasping this “self” as an image, a re-presentation by which it also thematizes and controls others. The paradoxical nature of Wright’s explanation is that there is a calculative logic always at work, although this is unconscious or is otherwise denied by the agent who calculates. Thus in this explanation every moral act is always already an act of prior calculation. By contrast in Levinas the self acts morally despite itself. Or rather it would be more accurate to say that in T&I Levinas places more store on the fact of the other that does not wish to be assimilated and which I must account to in language whereas in Otherwise Than Being (OTB, 1981), he shifts his explanation in order to foreground the openness that is provided by sensibility to otherness.


Although Levinas’s target is not egoism but rather Hegelianism and others in the phenomenological tradition, his radical dismissal of the symmetrical equivalence and adequation challenges notions that are common to each. In this explanation Otherness is prior, and resists absolutely the demand of the self for integration into a mutually inclusive system of the selfsame. Levinas renounces every idea of adequation, not just the dialectic, which is discussed below, but also ideas of reciprocity and tit-fortat. Against these he states that what is truly human is the idea of enjoyment “without utility, in pure loss, gratuitously, without referring to anything else, in pure expenditure”; such enjoyment consisting of a “non systematic accumulation of occupations and tastes” (T&I: 133/4).

Need and desire

Levinas likens need to a hungry stomach, totally immersed in itself and deaf to the Other. He questions utility linked to survival as the motivation for need. Instead he describes life as a form of play, as carefree, consisting of “sinking one’s teeth into the nutriments of the world”; or more pithily stating that the need for food does not have existence as its goal, but food (T&I: 134). If marketers would have difficulty with Levinas’s conception of need, then surely his conception of a desire that is transcendent and metaphysical would be a step too far? As is discussed later it may be possible to explain the idea of sympathy developed by Adam Smith in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) as a form of transcendence beyond the self-interestedness expressed in the Wealth of Nations. However one should hasten to add that such sympathy does not form any part of extant egoist explanations. Levinas’s distinction of metaphysical desire as desire for the infinite (for nothing), from that of death, or fear of death, differentiates him, at least superficially, from the later Freud and from Lacan (1991) for whom death is present to the subject from the time of the inception of the ego from when it is borne into language. While marketing scholars have largely stripped such ideas of their interest in desire, there is nonetheless an intriguing possibility within Terror Management Theory, which is devoted to testing the central hypothesis that reminding a person of their death has a centrifugal effect of pulling them inwards towards the ego.

The Face

“Is not the face given to vision?” enquires Levinas (T&I: 187) immediately conveying a questioning of the taken-for-granted nature of the relation. Because of this the “face” of the other is the most distinctively recognizable yet paradoxical concept that he introduces to us. For the reasons outlined above with respect to non-adequation, the Face of alterity is that of the terror and awe experienced by Moses on the Mount;

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