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Summons of the Face: Morality Before and Above the State in Levinas' Ethics as First Philosophy


In social contract theory, the state, or sovereign, is positioned as the enforcer of ethical rules which have been agreed upon to ensure that self-interested individuals can live peacefully alongside one another. In this paper, I will explore the challenge that Emmanuel Levinas’ work poses to this model of ethics. I will begin by outlining core aspects of David Gauthier’s neo-Hobbesian account of social contract theory. I argue that this theory follows a model of knowledge where the thinking subject is uninvolved with the external world. I go on to explore the challenge that Levinas poses to this form of knowledge, which takes the form of a direct encounter with another person. For Levinas, this encounter provides the basis for ethical action.  By providing an account of ethics that emerges from a direct, pre-political encounter with another person, Levinas challenges the connection between ethics and politics that is central to social contract theory.  Ultimately, I argue that Levinas’ theory challenges a connection between ethics and politics by providing an account of a pre-political origin of ethics through a direct encounter with another person, in which the self is drawn into an inescapable ethical relationship with the Other. 

I. Introduction 

In social contract theory, the state or sovereign is positioned as an enforcer of ethical rules which self-interested individuals have agreed to follow in order to live peacefully alongside one another. According to these accounts of morality, ethical obligations are imposed on individuals as a form of external constraint. The thought of Emmanuel Levinas poses a radically different theory of the origins of ethics. In contrast to dominant political theories, Levinas proposes an account of ethical obligation that originates from a precognitive encounter with another person, which exists before and beyond the state. In this essay, I will discuss the ways in which Levinas’ thought challenges a model in which morality is imposed on people through politics by putting Levinas’ essay Ethics as First Philosophy in dialogue with contemporary work on social contract theory. Ultimately, I argue that Levinas’ theory challenges a connection between ethics and politics by providing an account of a pre-political origin of ethics through a direct encounter with another person, in which the self is drawn into an inescapable ethical relationship with the Other. 

II. Social Contract Theory 

Social contract theory proposes that morality is the result of self-interested individuals agreeing to follow rules of conduct in order to improve their own lives. Neo-Hobbesian philosopher David Gauthier outlines the ideological underpinnings of this. He argues that social contract theory begins with the premise that human beings exist as individuals, prior to society, and that their motivations are “presocial, nonsocial, and fixed” (Gauthier 332). Without a system of social order, each person will act to fulfill their own self-interested goals. This will inevitably lead to conflict, because it is assumed that each person’s goals are “distinct from and… opposed to” the goals of others (338). As each person attempts to pursue their own self-interest, they will come into conflict with others who are doing the same. This state of perpetual conflict is not ideal, so individuals will agree to give up some of their liberties in order to exist peacefully, which provides the basis for society’s moral order. For Gauthier, moral rules are agreed upon because it is rational for self-interested individuals to agree to them ( 2). Rationality and self-interest therefore precede ethics and provide the foundations of a moral order. 

While a moral order is agreed upon by a community of individuals, it needs a sovereign authority to uphold it. Human beings are self-interested, and are therefore not naturally compelled to give up their own interests for the sake of others. To establish order, therefore , a form of “external constraint”—a “coercive authority”—must be put in place in order to ensure that people follow the rules set down (Gauthier 337). Drawing from Hobbes, Gaulthier argues that the sovereign acts as the coercive authority needed to uphold society’s moral order. To live with one another, individual citizens give up some of their freedoms for the sake of following rules that will benefit them. These freedoms are transferred to a sovereign, who is authorized to do whatever is necessary to uphold the order of the community (107). This implies that a justice system which threatens people with punishment for their failure to abide by society’s moral code is therefore necessary (Nolan 231). According to this account, moral order is the result of a rational agreement, but it is upheld by external coercive authority. 

This account of the origins of morality understands human relationships through the logic of the political. In his paper “Toward a Political Theology of the Neighbor”, Kenneth Reinhard argues that politics is “a relationship among equals” (48), where each citizen’s responsibilities can be substituted by another. This substitution is possible because the political order relies on general rules of obligation that each person must follow. These rules come from rational deliberation and agreement, and they are enforced by sovereign authority. Political order, then, is an arrangement where individuals in a group of equals follow certain rules under the external coercion of the sovereign. Social contract theory explains morality through this logic: it is both rationally agreed to and externally enforced. 

III. Sovereignty as Knowledge as Appropriation 

The political logic of social contract theory presents a form of knowledge that reflects upon the world, and those within the world, without directly engaging with it. Levinas argues that Western thought has been dominated by a conception of knowledge as appropriation, where the world and beings in the world become objects that are grasped and reflected upon by a knowing subject. The external world is thus separate from the interior world of consciousness. This gap between the external and the internal is bridged through the activity of thought. In reflecting on something, beings—people and things that exist in the world outside the world of consciousness—are brought into one’s inner world and thus become objects of thought. A being, which exists in the world as separate from knowledge, is “appropriated” by knowledge and “freed of its otherness” (Levinas 407). A being thus becomes an object of thought. Levinas defines this as a process of “seizing something and making it one’s own” (407). Knowledge makes the object of thought its own, and in doing so “appropriates and grasps the otherness of the known” (407). As an “other” to thought, a being cannot exist on its own terms, and can only exist in relation to thought. Once a being is comprehended, it becomes an object of knowledge—a representation that exists within knowledge and belongs to it.  

If knowledge is an act of appropriation, then thinking is a sovereign activity. Here, a sovereign activity is something done alone and without reference to the external world. Through thought, the external world is reduced to an object that exists within the realm of knowledge. Levinas argues that thought is “an activity which is disinterested and self-sufficient” (408). This is because the thinking subject is sovereign and does not rely on anything but itself to define it.  It can thus affirm itself through its own will, without engaging with being. In this way, the thinking self exists on its own, without interest in or engagement with the external world. 

This account of thinking as a solitary, disinterested activity lends itself to a notion of thinking as freedom. Levinas uses the term freedom in contrast to responsibility. A free being determines his own goals. Thought becomes a source of freedom when it reduces the experience of relationships to objects of knowledge. When human lived experiences become objects of thought, they are “converted into accepted doctrine, teaching, and science” (Levinas 408). This means that experiences are replaced by representations and schematizations of that experience. Levinas states that this happens with “relationships with neighbours” and “with social groups” (408). Through replacing experience with a representation, relationships are grasped and appropriated by thought. Relational experiences are thus translated into a solitary, sovereign activity. This leads to a notion of knowing as a free activity, alienated from any goal beyond comprehension. Levinas states that “any goal alien to the disinterested acquisition of knowledge has been subordinated to the freedom of knowledge” (409). Considerations that are not compatible with knowing as a free activity are done away with. This asserts the sovereignty of the knower. Without any external goals, the thinker becomes “a sovereign who is merely concerned to maintain the powers of his sovereignty” (409). Levinas’ account of knowledge as appropriation thus leads to an ideology of freedom and sovereignty, in which people are unbound by any goal beyond asserting the self’s existence. 

Social contract theory reflects this form of knowledge as appropriation. This conception of knowledge connects thought with freedom, and makes ethics a secondary consideration. The sovereign knower is disinterested in the well-being of others, and is primarily concerned with pursuing his own goals. The sovereign knower is free from all ethical responsibility, but human beings cannot exist alongside one another without observing moral rules. If human beings are inherently free (i.e. unbound by internal moral rules), then these rules must be imposed externally. The state, which creates and enforces moral rules through the coercive power of the law, is therefore necessary for people to act morally. Since a conception of knowledge as appropriation lends itself to a vision of human beings as sovereign knowers who are not constrained by internal ethical rules, the state becomes necessary as a force which creates and enforces morality externally.

IV. Levinas’ Challenge to Social Contract Theory: Self-Justification Through the Ethical Encounter

Levinas challenges the above account of the knowledge as appropriation by showing that the sovereign self is always implicated by the world around it.  The concept of thought as a free and sovereign activity, which is both removed from the world and reduces the world to its own internal object, is called into question when the sovereign self interacts with the world around it. In the physical world, the Self “comes up against a sphere in which it is by its very flesh implicated” (Levinas 410). Levinas reminds the reader that the self is “present in the world and present in its own body” (410). In contrast to an understanding of knowledge as appropriation, where the self is disconnected from the external world, Levinas argues here that the self is always implicated in the world through the fact of its embodied existence. Through experience, the Self becomes implicated and involved in a world that exists outside of it. This calls the sovereignty of the Self into question. This is significant because Levinas’ ethical theory stems from a phenomenological experience with the Other, meaning another person, which disinterested knowing cannot account for. 

Levinas begins an account of meaning beyond appropriation by proposing that a non-intentional consciousness which demands self-justification operates alongside intentional consciousness that affirms the Self. Levinas defines non-intentional consciousness as “a non-objectivizing knowledge” (410). This can be contrasted with intentional consciousness, which is consciousness that directs itself towards particular beings and reflects on them as objects. Intentional consciousness operates with the goal of objectivizing everything external to it, to affirm its own existence (409). Non-intentional consciousness operates alongside intentional consciousness. As intentional consciousness affirms itself, through the act of objectivization, non-intentional consciousness operates as “pure passivity” (411). Non-intentional consciousness is unable to affirm itself in the same way that intentional consciousness does. Here, is it important to note that affirmation refers to an assertion of existence or presence. Intentional consciousness asserts itself through appropriation. While intentional consciousness is concerned with self-affirmation, non-intentional consciousness is concerned with justifying itself. Rather than asserting its presence, passive non-intentional consciousness must justify its presence. When non-intentional consciousness has not justified itself, and its existence is “called into question” (Levinas 412). Levinas argues that the central question of human existence is “how being justifies itself”, rather than “why being rather than nothing?” (416). This marks a shift from the self-affirming nature of intentional consciousness, which must assert its existence, to non-intentional consciousness, which looks for a justification for its existence. Attempts to assert oneself fail because non-intentional consciousness is always operating alongside intentionality, which demands justification. 

Consciousness must justify itself because, when a person encounters another person, they are reminded the Self is in debt to the Other for its existence. Levinas proposes that the Self’s being in the world is a result of the “usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man” (413). The Self only exists in the world because it has “oppressed or starved, or driven out” (413) the Other. Just from being, the Self has participated in violence towards the Other which it must account for. When the Self encounters the Other, it is reminded that its presence involves a violence to the Other. This reminder comes from an encounter with the face of the Other, in which they see “extreme exposure, defencelessness, vulnerability itself” (Levinas 413). Here, Levinas uses the face to signify the depth of the Other’s being, which cannot be fully grasped by the Self but which makes a claim on the Self all the same. An encounter with another person makes their mortality and vulnerability clear. An encounter with the Other’s face “summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in doing so recalls my responsibility and calls me into question” (414). When confronted with the face of the Other, the Self becomes implicated in their death. The Self is reminded of the power it holds over the Other, and that the Self’s being in the world is made possible through taking the place of someone else. The question of self-justification is thus raised by a phenomenological encounter with the vulnerability and morality of the Other, which the Self is called to account for.  

The Self is indebted to the Other for their existence, and must justify this existence or repay this debt through ethical responsibility. When a person confronts the Other, they are “inescapably responsible” for him and are thus “the unique and chosen one” (Levinas 414). Witnessing the Other’s vulnerability is the source of responsibility. Through an encounter with the Other, the Self is called on to “answer for the Other’s death” (414). The Self is accused by the vulnerability of the Other, and nothing can allow the Self to escape this accusation. The accusation that comes from the Other’s face, and the responsibility that accompanies it is non-transferrable. Because the burden of responsibility for the Other falls on the Self, the Self becomes “non-interchangeable” (414). This is because the Self’s encounter with the Other takes place between two particular people. There is no person who can account for the Other’s vulnerability in this encounter, except for the Self. Nobody substitutes the Self in its experience of the encounter with the Other, and thus nobody can take on the responsibility that this encounter creates. In this way, the self is both individuated and justified through responsibility and devotion to the Other. This is the justification that non-intentional consciousness seeks. This contrasts to a view of human existence where the Self is affirmed through its sovereignty. Instead, the Self’s inescapable responsibility to the Other justifies its existence.

Levinas’ thought poses a challenge to social contract theory by arguing that ethical obligations are inherent, rather than agreed to or imposed. For Levinas, obligation to another comes before anything else. Ethical responsibility is generated directly from an encounter with the Other, and it is this responsibility that defines the Self. This encounter establishes an ethical relationship that comes before all else (Levinas 414). Responsibility is primary and inherent. We are responsible for one another “before any present” (141), that is before we exist in any sort of ordered community. Responsibility for the Other is not imposed externally. Instead, responsibility is pre-cognitive and necessary to define the individual. A theory that connects morality with the state poses fully formed, sovereign individuals before all else. The state forms from these individuals, and morality is enforced by this state. In contrast, Levinas’ ethical encounter comes before individuals become themselves. Levinas’ account thus proposes that ethical obligations exist inherently, before the sovereign self, rather than from an outside coercive authority. 

Levinas’ thought places pressure on a connection between ethics and politics that extends beyond social contract theory. Reinhard argues that Levinas’ thought contradicts the logic of the political, which is a relationship of equals. In this formulation, the self is obliged to others in the same ways that others are obliged to the self. In contrast, Levinas argues that ethics is “based on my radically asymmetrical and non-reciprocal relationship to the Other” (Reinhard 48). The responsibility created through the ethical encounter cannot be substituted by another person. The self is uniquely responsible for the Other. Ethical obligations fall to the Self, while political obligations fall to the community. It is for this reason that Reinhard argues that there is an “unbridgeable gap between ethics and politics” (Reinhard 49). In Levinas’ thought, ethics and politics follow irreconcilable logics. 

Simon Critchley provides a more radical account of the relationship between ethics and politics in Levinas’ thought, arguing that ethics can act as a disturbance to political order. Politics essentially follows some form of order that “presupposes and initiates a sovereign political subject capable of self-government and the government of others” (Critchley 182). As a form of order, politics places subjects into roles that serve particular social functions. It also implies a distinction between those inside and outside of a political community and understands subjects through this ordering. Levinas’ ethical thought prioritizes an encounter with the Other that extends beyond the Other’s place within the political order. Ethics comes from a direct encounter with the being of the Other, that cannot be reduced to their social location. It is for this reason that Critchley argues that Levinas’ ethics should be understood as “an anarchic, metapolitical disturbance” of the political order. Direct encounter with the Other that extends beyond the political order not only follows a different logic than that order but, by shifting the ways that subjects relate to one another, it poses a challenge to the existence of that order itself.  

V. Conclusion

Social contract theory poses human beings as self-interested, sovereign individuals who must consent to giving up their freedom to gain the benefits of living peacefully alongside one another. Such is the origin of ethics. Levinas provides a radically different account by arguing that ethics exists prior to all other considerations. His account of ethics challenges a concept of morality that relies on the state and punishment, by showing that people are compelled to be responsible to one another through their encounters with each other. In this way, Levinas creates a sharp distinction between ethics and politics. This challenge should be taken seriously for two reasons. First, the idea that politics and morality are intrinsically linked raises concerns when states commit acts of violence. Secondly, this vision of ethics takes our social reality seriously. As embodied people, we rely on others and others rely on us. Recognizing this gives an urgency to ethics that is lost if morality is a disinterested choice made by sovereign individuals who can exist on their own. Levinas shows that ethics is not something to contemplate without engagement, but is instead a vital aspect of our existence which gives our lives meaning. 

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