Heavy stuff, ethics ;-)

I spoke with my father about Levinas, and he asked me if all this reading about ethics has an effect for how I think about morality with regard to my own life. I said that it clearly has an effect, indeed. I said that I think that humans are always responsible for their actions, so this also applies to myself, others can always ask me why I did what I did and I should be able to give some kind of explanation to them.
My father asked me if that doesn't put a heavy weight on my shoulders, when I feel responsible for all that I have done wrong and if I try to be a moral perfectionist.
But my personal experience is that reading Levinas made my life lighter, not heavier. It is difficult to explain why that is so, but I will try it anyway.

1. The first reason is that ethics didn't come falling out of the sky for me when I started to read Levinas. My consciousness has always been strong, as long as I can remember. As a child it was already like that that I felt guilty a long time if I had done something wrong. So Levinas is certainly not giving me a heavy guilty conscience feeling that would be new for me, my attempts to be a good person have always been strong.

2. The second reason is that I don't demand of myself to be perfect. Everybody makes moral mistakes and so do I. What is important is that I try my best. Every human has the potential ability to hear the moral appeal that the other does to us. If I try my best to open my ears to these appeals and to take my responsibility upon me, the chance that my actions will be good is bigger than when I keep my ears closed and refuse to respond to the appeal of the other.

3. A third and related reason is Levinas' emphasis on forgiveness. I should receive the other with open arms, I shouldn't judge him, I shouldn't create an image of him so that I determine what he is like. I should respect him and treat him as a human. I should show empathy, I should try to help the other when he asks for help. I should be willing to forgive him, that's the only way that we can have a good peaceful and just relation. So the other should forgive me too, and this means that I should be able to forgive myself when I make a mistake, at least if I promise to myself that I will try to do it better the next time.

Forgiveness gives an opening to end conflicts and wars. I just read a very interesting article about forgiveness in Philosophy Magazine, which was about Levinas as well. It started with a consideration of time. For humans it is impossible to experience time - the past, the present and the future - in an objective way. When two people who experienced the same will both tell about that past experience, their stories will probably be different. What they will say about the past is always a story, an interpretation, never a purely objective description.

Now let's imagine that I did something wrong to another. When I tell others about what happened, I will deny that I did something wrong. But as long as I do so, the other will remain angry with me and so we continue to have a conflict. But when I admit that i am wrong and when I say that I am sorry, my own story of the past and the one from the other become the same, and then he can say: "ok, I forgive you". And then we have peace again.

So this emphasis on openness, dialogue and forgiveness makes my life less heavy. Forgiveness is a form of freedom, not of an unlimited totalitarian freedom, but a form of responsible freedom. To forgive is better than to pretend to have forgotten. When you try to forget something you put it away without doing anything with it. When you forgive you repair what was broken, and after that you can make a new start with the other. The pain and the sadness of the past are not put away in a dark corner of your heart, but they are really removed and replaced by happiness.

4. The whole philosophy of Levinas is very positive and confident, although it's a form of confidence which can never lead to arrogance, since anything you would ever claim with certainty can always be put into question by the other. But there are human rights which count for everybody, so also for me. I am unique, I have a right to exist and to be treated as a human. I am good the way I am, I can always be myself. I don't have to worry about negative images that others invent about me, only the real me counts, not these invented images. So in fact my life didn't become heavier because of reading Levinas, on the contrary, it became easier. Levinas offers protection against bitterness, and a positive attitude is very good to overcome dissappointments and to feel strong and happy.

5. I don't know how to make this last remark but I'll say it anyway. I turned my back towards religion when I was about 13 years old because I found it too dogmatic. Now I discovered that Levinas' religious philosophy is not dogmatic, and that his foundation of ethics is very strong because it is founded on a transcendental metaphysical infinite being: God. The God as Levinas imagines him, is a God that I can live with, that I no longer have to turn my back to. And the strange thing is that I can feel his strength again, his goodness and justice, and because I can feel that inside of me it makes me stronger and less uncertain. I don't know if he really exists or not, it is well enough possible that I make up for myself, unconsciously, that I feel his power and that I have the feeling that he supports me. But even if God is just a placebo effect, the effect is still that I feel less uncertain and that I know better what I want and how I can strive for that.

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