responsibility to one’s neighbor

Zimmermann and Klassen compare Heidegger, Gadamer and Levinas:

Hans Georg Gadamer … emphasizes the point that ideas for our interpretation of the world do not simply pop into our heads from nowhere but are passed on to us through tradition.

…We must begin not with greater totalities such as Heidegger’s Being or Gadamer’s tradition but with our concrete social relation to other human beings. Philosophy does not come first in our reflections but the ethical relation to our fellow human being, and such a beginning is not Greek but Hebraic. It is in the Bible, argues Levinas, that we find the true ethical grounds for humanism: responsibility to one’s neighbor. It is this ethical demand of the other human being that limits one’s self-centered impulse for control over nature and others.

From The Passionate Intellect: Incarnational Humanism and the Future of University Education by Jens Zimmermann and Norman Klassen.


  1. Nathan Stocker says:

    Also, ideas do not simply pass on to us via tradition, but must pass through our heads. (heh)

    Responsibility to one’s neighbor is an *internal* ethical demand, and mistaking this point generates the (nominally) *humanistic* impulse for control over others. I’d have to know more than this excerpt to say, but “this ethical demand of others” can easily be read as supporting externalism here.

    Me, I’d go one further than grounding humanism in responsibility for one’s neighbor: humanism’s epistemological grounding is that of treating things as they are, which, in the case of humans, is as conceptual, volitional beings possessed of inalienable *wills*. We have a responsibility to our neighbor because humans, when nurtured and allowed to flourish as such, create and *are* the highest values attainable here in this world. We do *not*, however, have the authority, thereby, to control those persons we do not think are living the full measure of this identification–we cannot, in fact, do so and still treat them as they are. That is, we cannot do so by the very force of this identification. Externalism here drops the “human” from “human animal”, with sadly predictable results.

  2. Nathan Stocker says:

    BTW, I was taking “responsibility” here in the spirit of *positive* responsibility I took the quote to be using. We also have negative responsibilities to our fellow humans owing to their being ends-in-themselves, and this is more basic than anything like recognizing them as “values”, which I admit is mebbe odd language and is definitely not how this identification generally resides in human heads and hearts, heh. It may be temping to read recognition of humans as “values” as stemming from their usefulness in an instrumental sense. But while it is true that humans can (and should!) be useful to one another in many ways, that each is an end-in-herself means there is no need to look for further purpose or “use” instrumentally. Indeed doing so is incoherent; it’s saying “Yeah, I get that this is the ultimate value here, but I’m asking what this ultimate value is *for*. You know, *beyond* it.” Bzzt. The kind of “use” we can be to each other is constitutive, not instrumental.

    But yeah. Family, friendship, compassion, a sense of community and a commitment to mutual aid do not reside in abstractions like this, but in concrete relationships (and, epistemologically, it goes [concrete then abstraction], always, of course).

  3. I love the “of course” at the end. As if the abstract were not put before the concrete more often than not (to the detriment of us all). 😉

  4. Jesse says:

    Yes, my abstract commitments are damning too. 🙂 Loved this phrase in Nathan’s comments: “While it is true that humans can (and should!) be useful to one another in many ways, that each is an end-in-herself means there is no need to look for further purpose or ‘use’ instrumentally.” Love of neighbor is valuable simply because of the neighbor’s intrinsic value. The second greatest commandment is “like the first” because man is made in God’s likeness.

  5. Nathan Stocker says:

    If I’d wanted to be even more wordy and increasingly tangential, here are a few things I might’ve commented on further:

    A living being as an ‘end’ is an end that is an ongoing *process*, not a static state.

    Treating things according to their nature is a must for any system of ethics, but human nature is manifold and ethics must take this into consideration.

    Humans have individual inalienable wills, but they are social animals rather than atomistic islands. Their development does not occur, nor does their well-being subsist or flourish, in isolation.

    That we are conceptual, volitional beings means that the fullness of our nature is not *automatically* realized. A rock ain’t got a choice there; we not only do but we *must* choose. You *can* treat a human as something else, but by doing so you fail to get the full measure of distinctly, superlatively *human* value out of both others *and* yourself (and it is not primarily others’ nature you diminish, but your own!). A human animal qua human needs freedom to think and to act on his thoughts like he needs air to breath and food to eat qua animal.

  6. Jesse says:

    Our anthropology is very close, and I would second all these tangents. I especially appreciate that our “well being” and our “development does not occur … subsist or flourish in isolation.” The fact that “the fullness of our nature is not *automatically* realized” reminds me of several things including this classic little essay: Oration On the Dignity Of Man by Pico Della Mirandola (often called the humanist manifesto).

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