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The Impossibility of Response-Ability?

I have frequently written about the very idea of ethical response-ability; that the foundation of ethical behavior rests on the notion that I make myself available for the welfare of the other (person). In this sense, to be response-able requires the interiority of the self to turn outward to the exteriority of the other, to expose interiority to the existential world in a selfless manner without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. In the ideal world, the world in which ego plays no part, this form of ethical behavior would seem to come naturally. It is, however, a fact that we do not live in a Utopian society. Quite the contrary, the world in which we live is anything but ideal; it is a world in which everything depends on everything, where things are messy and outside of measurable probabilies, quite unpredictable.

Let’s say that you agree with the idea of ethical response-ability, that your intent is to live according to the principles of ethical response-ability and you make yourself available to the other by announcing “Here I AM!” thereby achieving a state of proximity. Now you wait for the call of the other, the cry of response to your “Here I AM!” which, in turn, obligates you to action. It is precisely here where the rubber meets the road. Just what happens when you receive the call, the cry of response? Imagine you are walking in a park near a lagoon when you see someone splashing about in the lagoon crying out for help. You just heard the cry of response to your ethical announcement obligating you to jump into action. Because we do not live in a Utopian world a certain calculus begins to churn in your head. Is there someone closer than I am that can help? I am dressed in my best clothes and on my way to an important meeting? Can I swim well enough to help the person in distress? Am I trained to help the person in distress? What if the person in distress is a criminal attempting to evade capture? Is there an alternative to swimming out to provide aid to the person in distress, a life saving ring, boat, or pole I can use to offer assistance?

Each of the questions above turns the very idea of ethical response-ability on its head. Each question begins with exteriority and turns inward toward the interiority of self rather than beginning with the interiority of self and turning outward to exteriority. The questions are all geared toward notions of ego and self-preservation rather than a selfless act of providing for the benefit of the other (in need) raising the question of whether or not ethical response-ability is, in fact, even possible in a world in which ego and self-preservation are valued over self-sacrifice.

Other questions are also raised in a world in which uncertainty is the norm. Let’s say you were walking by a lagoon and you saw a baby flailing in the water. Without your assistance that baby would surely die. You save the baby however twenty years later that baby takes an AK 47 with several 100 round magazines to a school and murders 50 second and third grade students along with ten of their teachers. Did you do act ethically in saving the baby or would the ethical thing be to allow that baby to drown thereby saving sixty lives? While this is a different question than earlier posed, the problem remains. Is ethical behavior on the part of the self dependent on future bad acts of the other? If this were the case, would any act of ethical response-ability be appropriate?

The point of this post is that in an uncertain world, the very idea of Utopian ethical response-ability may be impossible. On the other hand, there is absolutely no reason that one cannot aspire to the ideals contained within the very standards of response-ability.

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2 thoughts on “The Impossibility of Response-Ability?

  1. Pingback: Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII | Surviving In This Very Moment...

  2. Pingback: Hineni, Here I Am, as the Foundation of Ethics: Thinking in Jewish 42 | Surviving In This Very Moment...

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