In 2013 I was awarded a PhD by the University of Manchester for my thesis, “The Rights of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas’ Meta-Phenomenology as a Critique of Hillel Steiner’s An Essay on Rights”.
In contemporary philosophy about justice, a contrast between empirical and transcendental approaches can be identified. Hillel Steiner represents an empirical approach: he argues for building an account of justice-as-rights out of the minimal inductive material of psychological linguistic and moral intuitions. From this opening, he ultimately concludes that persons have original rights to self-ownership and to an initially equal share of natural resources. Emmanuel Levinas represents a transcendental approach: he argues that justice arises from a transcendent ethical relation of responsibility-for-the-Other. This relation underpins all subjective cognition, and makes rationality, reasoning, and rights possible.
Analysis of each of these positions reveals certain problems. On the one hand, Steiner’s argument contains a number of latent methodological, conceptual, and structural presuppositions. These include the pretheoretical concepts of “person”, “equality”, and “consistency”. These presuppositions prefigure and condition the conclusions which Steiner reaches. On the other hand, Levinas fails to provide a convincing account of how the self comes to be an object of my own deliberations about morality and justice. This amounts to an annihilation of the subject which undermines his argument for the subject as a site of responsible action. As Steiner identifies, justice encompasses equal moral agents. Levinas’s hyperbolic description of the ethical relation’s asymmetry must therefore be revised.
Nevertheless, what remains is the strength of Levinas’s argument for the priority of the ethical relation over thematization, rationality, and consciousness. The hidden presuppositions supporting Steiner’s work are evidence of Levinas’s plausibility in this respect. Steiner’s account of justice-as-rights requires a prior ethical relation in which we recognise one another as separate persons, each possessing an ethical status of their own; an attitude of justice motivates Steiner’s description of justice. This attitude is evident in language, which is communication before it is thought. In that individual rights can be conceived only on the basis of a relation of responsibility, rights are primordially the rights of the Other.
Download full text (PDF, 292 pages, 6MB)
Released under academic open access license