The place of justice in the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas

Michael H Gillick, Marquette University


Emmanuel Lévinas proposes to uncover the basis of meaning for human existence, and, therefore, to provide a ground for the notion of justice that applies to every human being. Lévinas's most radical stance is that morality is not the product of the self's personal structure or development, but that rather morality is an election, a being-called, and that call is from a level beyond the self. It is the call of the other human being, the evidence for which is the everyday event of human discourse. The radical nature of Lévinas's thinking is that this event of election takes place at a level prior to cognition, prior in fact to any ontological structure. It is a metaphysical event, and so, he says, the ethical is the metaphysical. Ethics is first philosophy. This remarkable position provides a possible resolution to the conflict between the triviality of the accidental events of life and the search for intrinsic, or absolute, meaning, and therefore intrinsic, or absolute obligation. If each human being has, simply by virtue of his existence, inalienable rights, then worth is somehow a fact, and I am obliged to that other person as a matter of fact. In other words, Lévinas solves Hume's query as to how any number of facts can generate an obligation by stating that obligation is itself a fact, a part of existence itself. This dissertation is an attempt to show that Lévinas has correctly identified the source of moral obligation and that he has therefore provided a ground for justice as we ordinarily understand that term. The author hopes that he has at least raised an issue that needs to be faced by any philosophy proposing to identify a ground for justice. Lévinas never intended to say either that he was the first or that he is the only person to identify this priority of the ethical over the true, and he frequently cited the works of others where the same thought is found--Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant and others among them. If this dissertation makes any serious contribution, it may perhaps only be to bring one to a greater appreciation of the depth of our philosophical tradition and the hope that tradition can bring to the question of the meaning of human existence. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Recommended Citation

Gillick, Michael H, "The place of justice in the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas" (2004). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3153713.