Why Ethics?

Why Ethics?: Signs of Responsibilities

Robert Gibbs
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 384
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Why Ethics?
    Book Description:

    Robert Gibbs presents here an ambitious new theory of ethics. Drawing on a striking combination of intellectual traditions, including Jewish thought, continental philosophy, and American pragmatism, Gibbs argues that ethics is primarily concerned with responsibility and is not--as philosophers have often assumed--principally a matter of thinking about the right thing to do and acting in accordance with the abstract dictates of reason or will. More specifically, ethics is concerned with attending to others' questions and bearing responsibility for what they do.

    Gibbs builds this innovative case by exploring the implicit responsibilities in a broad range of human interactions, paying especially close attention to the signs that people give and receive as they relate to each other.Why Ethics?starts by examining the simple actions of listening and speaking, reading and writing, and by focusing on the different responsibilities that each action entails. The author discusses what he describes as the mutual responsibilities implicit in the actions of reasoning, mediating, and judging. He assesses the relationships among ethics, pragmatics, and Jewish philosophy. The book concludes by looking at the relation of memory and the immemorial, emphasizing the need to respond for past actions by confessing, seeking forgiveness, and making reconciliations.

    In format, Gibbs adopts a Talmudic approach, interweaving brief citations from primary texts with his commentary. He draws these texts from diverse thinkers and sources, including Levinas, Derrida, Habermas, Rosenzweig, Luhmann, Peirce, James, Royce, Benjamin, Maimonides, the Bible, and the Talmud. Ranging over philosophy, literary theory, social theory, and historiography, this is an ambitious and provocative work that holds profound lessons for how we think about ethics and how we seek to live responsibly.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2373-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. INTRODUCTION Why Questions?
    (pp. 3-26)

    It is a commonplace that philosophy is defined by the questions it asks. Usually, the question is What: What is this? What is? What is the cause? What can we know? Often the question is How: How do we know? How do things occur? How does language refer? For others, the question is Who: Who acts? Who knows? Who has a place at the table? For us, the question is Why.

    Questioning, like being questioned, occurs between people. If philosophy is a practice of questioning, then its social setting is not merely a backdrop for the thinking of thinking, but...

  6. Part I: Attending the Future
    • CHAPTER 1 Why Listen?
      (pp. 29-46)

      Philosophy is the study of questioning. That questioning in philosophy, including what, how, who, and why, occurs in situations, and our primary situation is a conversation. We will begin in the situation of a simple dialogue, where someone speaks and another listens. Later that situation will be disturbed and the ontological conviction that the two people are present to each other attenuated. But we begin in a face-to-face dialogue, in part to discover several of the basic themes of this ethics in a context which is more familiar. We thus begin not from a theory of knowledge, where the task...

    • CHAPTER 2 Why Speak?
      (pp. 47-65)

      Since responsibility arises in paying attention to the other person, why we should speak seems obscure. Either I seem bound to keep silent in order to maintain the other as teacher, or if I speak I seem to usurp the role of teacher—and so cease to respond. What is the ethical responsibility to speak? Is there an ethical way of speaking, a way of saying something to another person wherein I remain responsive to the other? How can speaking make me open to interruption, to the other’s interpretation?

      Levinas deepens his account of my speaking in his second major...

    • CHAPTER 3 Why Write?
      (pp. 66-85)

      The previous chapter’s interpretation of my speaking attenuates my presence as subject or as author of my discourse. If the task of speaking is to hold myself open for the sake of the other person, letting my vulnerability and availability for the other person appear without making it into my teaching or myself into the teacher, then what will happen when we consider writing? A written text is a way of signifying that leaves the authority to interpret to the other. Writing requires a disruption of the face-to-face conversation: I am not there when someone reads my text. But, if...

    • CHAPTER 4 Why Read?
      (pp. 86-113)

      Despite the responsiveness in Derrida’s reading of Levinas, reading generally seems to lack the kind of responsibility required in writing. Since the first chapter ended, we have had less and less to say about how we learn from the other person’s signs. How can the other criticize me, challenge me, put me in question, when only a book is in the room? The very complexity of effacing self-presence and of the intending to say, the said, seems to make reading even more distant from the task of attending to the teacher, to the other person. If writing as the exposure...

    • CHAPTER 5 Why Comment?
      (pp. 114-130)

      Levinas and Derrida have taught us how reading and writing philosophical texts should be responsive. A second model of reading and writing will now come from the Jewish textual tradition, outside the philosophical tradition. Derrida cites Levinas’ Jewish writings in the midst of some of the texts we examined in the previous chapter. Those writings represent the second alternative in the disruption of the closure of philosophy: the appeal to something radically other. The undeniable similarity between Levinas’ account of the pragmatics of the Jewish textual tradition and what Levinas and Derrida have developed for the philosophical tradition will concern...

  7. Part II: Present Judgments
    • CHAPTER 6 Why Reason?
      (pp. 133-155)

      Responsibility arises in attending: listening, reading, drawing near to the other. Even speaking and writing are responsibilities that solicit the other, that make attending possible again. But there is a second dimension of responsibility: the responsibilities that are shared, responsibilities for justice and equality. The responsibilities to reason, to judge, and to mediate will appear here not as counterbalanced to the responsibilities of attending, but in a much more complex and sympathetic relation. For the asymmetric responsibilities instigate mutual responsibilities, even as they retain their potential for critique. Mutuality, instigated and required by asymmetrical responsibility, produces communities wherein a further...

    • CHAPTER 7 Why Mediate?
      (pp. 156-177)

      The responsibilities for justice exceed those found in a context where we sit face to face with each other. Justice not only requires us to respond for others who are not present, it also instigates responsibilities for social systems, and indeed even directs us toward systemic relations. Perhaps the most daunting task for social theory is just this relation of responsibility and systems—how I can have responsibility in a global economy that effaces my role, or in a mass media web that ignores a writer’s intentions. When we let the third person enter our ethics to stabilize the interruptions...

    • CHAPTER 8 Why Judge?
      (pp. 178-209)

      Our focus in the discussion of social theory now shifts to the complex matter of attribution, for while the use of signs coordinates society even without the face-to-face presence of interlocutors, the interpretation of responsibility requires not so much a theory of action as a theory of judgments. We will transform a logical theory or syntax of signs here by looking at the kinds of judgments that define a society—the judgments that determine the relation of particulars and generals (the responsible person and her society). While the more familiar kind of presence, agency and control over an action (call...

    • CHAPTER 9 Why Law?
      (pp. 210-224)

      The question remains of how Judaism or any other community interpreted as a representative society can maintain opposition within itself, a question that seems particularly confusing from a cooperative perspective. If being a community means pursuing consensus, how can a community form around disagreements? The answer takes us into the heart of the Jewish textual tradition, for as we saw previously, the Talmudic tradition preserves, even cultivates, disagreement. Indeed, much of the tradition is built out of love of disagreement and a struggle with the need for agreement in society. Given the infinite responsibilities that characterize both the social interaction...

  8. Part III: Pragmatism, Pragmatics, and Method
    • CHAPTER 10 Why Verify?
      (pp. 227-245)

      When ethics is based on a moral agent’s free will, moral responsibility is interpreted as being accountable for one’s own deliberate decisions. Reasoning concludes in a rational act for which one was responsible. But the ethics developed here focuses on the relations between people in the performances of signifying. The responsible one has switched from a rational being to a speaker and listener, that is, to a person signifying for other people. This shift produces radical ethical responsibilities, but it also requires a thoroughgoing change in method. In Part III, we must reflect on that change, not only in order...

    • CHAPTER 11 Why Thirds?
      (pp. 246-257)

      Experience seems to promise verification by an achievable present event, where something happens, so that we can know our theory is true. But responsibility, alas, does not occur in a realm of certainty—neither in relation to one other person, nor in communities, nor should it surprise us, in the theorizing about responsibility. Already in Peirce’s demand to recognize the generality of the meaning of a concept or symbol, we saw the reduction to immanence (either achieved or securable) contested. The space of would-be’s disrupts the certainty that we might associate with empiricism. The question, Why Thirds?, is one of...

    • CHAPTER 12 Why Me?
      (pp. 258-277)

      Despite the risk of losing the asymmetry of responsibility in formulating a theory of asymmetry, the need for justice forced us to think in general terms about the specific responsibilities that rest on me. But just as there was a motion back to attribution and judgment after the responsibility to mediate, so there is a need to see that even the responsibility to theorize and to generalize singles me out, indeed the task of thinking about ethics rests asymmetrically on me, even as my responsibility for other people produces the “me” who must respond. Responsibility invokes, even constitutes, me, the...

    • CHAPTER 13 Why Translate?
      (pp. 278-304)

      The pretexts for this book have largely been by Jewish philosophers. In addition, I have commented upon several Biblical and rabbinic texts. Nonetheless, the interpretations offered have not been presented as an account of Jewish beliefs and practices, much less has it been a Jewish version of dogmatic theology. Yet if the account of responsibilities has been successfully rendered as philosophy, it has also pushed at the normal boundaries of what philosophy is—not only by the texts read, but also through use of some theological concepts. What sort of philosophical book this is must have puzzled almost any reader....

  9. Part IV: Repending History
    • CHAPTER 14 Why Repent?
      (pp. 307-324)

      While the other parts of this book raised the unexpected question of why in recognizably philosophical contexts (Why Listen?, Why Verify?, Why Judge?), this part examines a context that itself is unexpected. For repenting is obviously a theological activity. For some readers the question, Why Repent?, may defy any reasonable answer. But the pragmatics of repentance is directly relevant for an inquiry into ethics, particularly an ethics oriented by responsibility. Repentance is one of a set of practices that repair damaged or broken relations. That set includes repentance, confession, restitution, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The question could be simple: Why repair...

    • CHAPTER 15 Why Confess?
      (pp. 325-337)

      While theological ethics may make significant distinctions among repentance, restitution, contrition, and confession, our task here is to explore distinctive contributions that focusing on repair and return can make to this ethics of responsibility. This chapter examines the performance of confession by considering four Jewish thinkers. The past here is my personal past, indeed, confessing is the performance where I discover that I am responsible for my past, responsible and also forgivable. We shift here back to theology, as confession to another person is not a focus for this tradition. For this ethics, however, the responsibility to confess is the...

    • CHAPTER 16 Why Forgive?
      (pp. 338-353)

      If we now focus not on the repenter or the confessing person, but on the past that is made into my past, that I respond for, we can also see that repentance has an unusual effect upon the past. It does not merely produce new attributions of responsibility (what was her deed becoming mine). Rather, the past itself is changed as past. It is also not merely the re-presentation of the past, making the past event now become part of the present. No, the past is changed as Resh Lakish indicated in the Talmudic text in Chapter 14. This susceptibility...

    • CHAPTER 17 Why Remember?
      (pp. 354-379)

      In this final chapter the goal will be to interpret the semiotic activities by which repentance becomes fully social, becomes a way for a community to return. Remembrance is not about recalling the past or about preserving it, but is needed to disrupt the present. The challenge in the present will exceed the image of the past, but that disruption transpires through the remembering. This chapter will explore social remembrance and the responsibility to interpret ourselves as survivors responsible for the past—not as the victims to whom the past happened, nor necessarily as blameworthy, the ones who perpetrated violence...

  10. EPILOGUE Postmodern Jewish Philosophy and Modernity
    (pp. 380-384)

    This book arose in a specific moment, a moment identified often enough as the postmodern. While postmodern in many contexts is an invention to address a crisis for modernist aesthetics or Cartesian subjectivity or the dreams of progress, for Jewish thought postmodern must mean post-Holocaust, after the Nazi destruction of European Jewry, after the Shoah. For over fifty years, the Jewish community has been struggling with what it means to survive and what the Jewish witness to the world can now mean. In more recent years, intellectuals have much more vigorously explored the limitations of memory in relation to our...

    (pp. 385-390)
    (pp. 391-394)
    (pp. 395-400)