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Home arrow Sociology arrow Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster



When sympathy is experienced, it encourages responsibility. Modern twentieth-century phenomenologist philosophers like Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur interrogate human language, especially (and relentlessly) pronouns, to uncover the origin of ethics in our individual consciousness. Their complex philosophical studies of subjective experience and our original sense of "being” uncover deep ontological epiphanies about our bond with "the other”. In profound and often impenetrable prose, all three of these philosophers affirm that our deepest sense of being and meaning comes from our encounter with others and the sense of personal responsibility it creates.

In his book I and Thou, Buber observes that "the attitude of man [sic] is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words he speaks”. Because of this, Buber states emphatically: "In the beginning is relation.”15 So we find meaning first in others. We see in them what we find precious in ourselves. We only discover that we are human when we meet someone else, as happens at birth. In others we are then able to identify and recognize ourselves. This recognition explains the value we sense in our own being and also instantly establishes the value of others. It moves us from a mistaken and egoistic Cartesian consciousness whose mantra is "I think, therefore I am” to a relational mantra that is more like "I meet, therefore I am”. Ethics is born in knowing other bodies, not by knowing our own minds. As Buber puts it: "all real living is meeting”.16 From these interpersonal encounters, we develop a sense of co-humanity. Long before phenomenological philosophy, this insight was shared in the ancient moral rule of Judaism: "love thy neighbour as thyself’.17

The human face has become the original site and central image of our ethical encounter in this philosophical tradition. At the end of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Hans Lipps placed great importance on the human face as the essential and recurring origin of ethics.

He built his moral philosophy out of the idea of the unique look and face we have as human beings. Lipps noted that "the look” is how a human being is visible to others and how the soul reveals itself. In a very different way to other parts of our body, it is our face and its look that reveal us as unique individuals taking our place in the world and becoming someone. Lipps was particularly intrigued by the embarrassment that shows on our faces as blushing and awkwardness. In embarrassment, he saw a deeply primal awareness of the demands placed on us by others and the ethical awkwardness it creates in us. Our blushing proves our ethics. Lipps thought that our voices similarly distinguish us as unique beings. Altogether, he argued that face, look and voice affirm the unique reality of others, and that just by seeing and hearing them our encounter with others is instantly "born” as ethical.18

Emmanuel Levinas, the twentieth-century French philosopher, also puts the face of the other at the centre of his philosophy, as does Paul Ricoeur after him. For Levinas, coming "face to face with the other” is a call to a profound responsibility. This is responsibility in its fullest sense, combining a spontaneous emotional response with a moral sense of duty and obligation. For Levinas, seeing the look or face of another is the moment of conscience, and indeed bad conscience, because the very presence of another reminds us that in the struggle of life we might want to compete against them and do them harm. But this conscience also reminds us that we could equally reach out to them and do them good. Because of the primal existential shock of the other, Levinas is adamant that "ethics is the first philosophy” and that the presence of another person instantly reframes the main problem of human life from an ontological problem about death to an ethical problem about living fairly. Referring to Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy, Levinas corrects Hamlet to reframe the deepest question of human life. The question, says Levinas, is not "to be or not to be” but to be fair or not to be fair. The look from the face of the other means that:

Being and life are awakened to the human dimension. This is the question of the meaning of being: not the ontology of the understanding of that extraordinary verb, but the ethics of its justice. The question par excellence or the question of philosophy is not “Why being rather than nothing?” but how being justifies itself?19

For Levinas, questions of being and time rightly take second place to questions of ethics and responsibility.

This primal sense of responsibility to the other person, found so decisively in Buber, Levinas and then Ricoeur, continues a deeply original part of Jewish thought in which existence itself is a kind of permanent dialogue between me, my neighbour and my God. The great topic of this conversation is what is good and what is right. All three philosophers return again and again to the phrase in the Torah with which humans like Adam, Abraham, Sarah, Hannah, Isaiah and many others respond instinctively and immediately to God in three simple words: “Here I am.” This is how we answer when truly called by the other. We identify ourselves and make ourselves available. We take responsibility. These three words are the answer we must try to give to every ethical call, and they are implicit in humanitarian action. Responding is the first move in ethics whereby we recognize our responsibility to others.

Ricoeur goes further than Levinas in his interpretation of the original ethical moment in our face-to-face encounter with the other. Like Levinas, he sees the moment of our recognition of and by another person as “a summons to responsibility” and an “epiphany of justice”. But he does not see this summons simply as a duty born of bad conscience and fear, as it is in Levinas’ rather gloomy interpretation. Instead, Ricoeur sees our response to the suffering other as compassionate and life-affirming. He spots in the sudden reflex of our ethical response the “springing forth of goodness” and the “very moment of the golden rule”.20 He sees in it a “benevolent spontaneity” which he understands as a genuine “solicitude”.21 In his emphasis on intuitive goodness, benevolent spontaneity and solicitude, Ricoeur comes closer to Hume and his idea of sympathy being a contagious emotional manifestation of a strong and compassionate moral sense.

In all these philosophical traditions, we see the recognition that compassion (or sympathy) is a political emotion. It makes demands of us in relationship with others and influences the way we organize our lives together in society. If Aristotle rightly defines politics as “the science of the good for man”,22 then sympathy and compassion are strong drivers of politics, and humanitarian action is political action in the most profound sense of reordering human relationships around goodness.

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