Naud van der Ven


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Review of Aasland, D. (2009) Ethics and Economy: After Levinas. London: MayFlyBooks

(Published in: Journal of Business Ethics Vol. 67, Issue 3 (2009), page 437)

With Ethics and Economy: After Levinas Dag Aasland presents another thought provoking work based in readings of Emmanuel Levinas. Aasland offers his own critique of mainstream Business Ethics discourses and using Levinas he suggests a different and  plausible relation between business and ethics.

Aasland’s position with regard to contemporary Business Ethics discourses opens by clearly distinguishing between business for ethics and business in ethics: the latter being incidents found in business that are different from simply pursuing self-interest. According to Aasland this is not an accepted conceptualisation because in conventional Business Ethics there is no room for the idea that it is possible to do anything but pursue one’s own self-interest. Ethics “has moved from being primarily a humanistic discipline about what it means to be a human being, to becoming a required professional and business ethics, expected to be a useful tool for professionals, for industry and for public authorities” (37).

Aasland refuses to acknowledge this as ethics: “Business for ethics is not an ethics (because it is for oneself) but instead a part of business administrative, instrumental knowledge”(20). Aasland counters with what he claims to be a more credible concept of the relation between business and ethics.

To find such a concept he turns to Levinas and in this manoeuvre he formulates two points of departure (4). The first is that he doesn’t want to be moralistic and the second that he wants to search for the good which is already there, small as it may be.

Aasland’s principle concern is to explore the rationalisation of homo oeconomicus: why would one be interested in doing something other than that which gives one the highest gains? He then divides this question again: “1. From where does the idea (come) that it is possible to do otherwise than privileging oneself over others?” and “2. This idea, which we may call ‘the idea of the good’, or, as we will call it here, ethics – how is it transformed into practical conduct?”

The motive for the author to turn to Levinas in his consideration of these questions is that Levinas’ philosophy – differing from mainstream Business Ethics – respects the uniqueness of the individual and the encounter with the Other, and moreover pays attention to the embeddedness of that encounter in a society where there is not only one, but many Others. Aasland names the phenomenon of being touched by the unique Other as mercy; the organization of a plurality of Others in society he names as justice, and Levinas helps us “in finding a meaningful, general connection between mercy and justice” (61).

This implies that Levinas, through his discussions of society, pays attention to the urge for self-maintenance of the individual (the conatus) and accords it legitimacy. “What is often denoted as greed is an expression of the same conatus and should thus be easy to understand; expressions of the opposite may easily seem hypocritical” (82). It is this precisely this kind of realism that Aasland values in Levinas.

In order to accept Levinas in this context we have to create some distance from a number of traditional interpretations of Levinas. For example, in Aasland there is no room for the particular kind of pious interpretation, in which the self always has to give way to the other. Such a view could not easily be connected to economics. A certain amount of self-centredness “is neither meant here as something negative, nor as being morally blameworthy. Your understanding must be self-centred” (30).

Furthermore “most presentations of his philosophy concentrate on the encounter with the Other, and may thus cause the misunderstanding that this is his ethics, and consequently a quite impossible one” (70). They forget about Levinas’ emphasis on the encounter with the third. “Levinas addresses here an issue that is often neglected in ethical literature: I face not only one other person, but other others as well” (71).

Finally, Levinas’s philosophy is often treated as dogmatic teaching and Aasland wants to guard against that for “[Levinas’] philosophy does not end up with a certain ethical theory, presented as an addition to knowledge and its understanding of empirical reality” (76).

Aasland’s reinterpretation of Levinas seems to be entirely plausible. I agree with him that a certain – let’s say the pious – kind of interpretation of Levinas doesn’t bring us any further. I share his worry about making Levinas end up with an ethical theory. If nevertheless I need to expand a bit on that, it is because I am not so sure whether the author pays enough attention to this concern and I doubt whether he manages not to make a new ethical theory.  Is formulating a general idea, be it the Idea of the Good, not too much of a concession already? Cannot Aasland’s idea in its turn lead up to an ideology?

It’s undeniably true that Aasland is conscious of the dangers of formulating ideas and theories. Before you realise it, you may have fallen “into the ‘moralising trap’ of an ethical perspective. By what right do I ask another person why he or she fails ethically?” (5). But despite this awareness, at times Aasland comes dangerously close to such new ideology. For instance when he wonders what consequences ethics in the sense of Levinas will have “on how we behave, or, rather, how we should behave, towards others and in society” (84). I wonder whether the word “should” is adequate here?

And is it not close to moralising to say “I cannot choose not to respond to the call of the Other. I cannot escape the appeal in the face of the Other. I have to respond” and if you don’t respond it means you “pretend that the Other is invisible, which is a violation of him or her” (69). Rudi Visker protests about such absolute claims which can be derived from Levinas’ work. Visker (2003: 263) analyzes that one can very well think of a kind of irresponsibility and insensivity for the other which do not have to be called unethical. Visker may well be right on that point.

I wonder whether Aasland’s coming so close to this pitfall may be connected with an inclination towards universalizing and ontologizing which he cannot get rid of completely, despite his awareness of its dangers. When the author makes it clear (23) that general theories cannot explain the occurrence of the idea of the wrong, he nevertheless clings to the universal. For he continues by saying that “[t]he answer must be found in some universal human reactions that are not contained in conventional knowledge. There must be something in humanity which causes our negative reactions to such acts” (23).

The following is also an indication that Aasland creates his own ontology. He says, (87) that language games or ontologies show the tendency to consider themselves as more ontological than other language games. “They deny the responsibility that actually is more ontological than these linguistic constructions” (88; italics by the author).

The paradox that becomes visible here – of fighting ontology by means of new ontology – is already visible in (especially the later) Levinas himself. What happens when Levinas in Otherwise than Being enters into the structure of the subject? His conception of the subject as consisting of an underlying layer which comes first and a later following superlayer appears to me as an ontological operation. Here Levinas comes near to his own kind of dogmatics. We hear its echo in Aasland (47) when he describes the subject in Solveig (from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt) as I-for-the-Other, a layer which is prior to her self-centredness.

I know, my objection that critique of linguistic constructions in its turn makes use of linguistic constructions is not original (even if it is no less true on that account). It is simply very difficult in countering universalism, to not reconstruct a different universalism. At some places the author is explicit in embracing this new universalism. I would suggest that we need to restrain ourselves in calling things universal.

I may be too quick in perceiving them as such, those theories and concepts that seem to hint at general truths. For I fancy that I perceive them even where Aasland says they are probably not around.  In this connection I single out one passage towards the end of the book. The question is asked whether business theories should be considered as theories in the usual sense of the word. Critical dialectic authors think they should be when, for instance, they criticize the global market economy, they, mostly tacitly, presuppose that “business life is also based on some kind of dogmatic ideas, theories and/or ideologies. The apparent lack of effect of these attacks on common business life and the global market economy, however, may be caused by the possible fact that business conduct is not based on any dogmatic thought, nor any ideology – it may not even depend on a theory” (87).

I do not share these doubts. In my view, at business schools a lot of think-work is being performed. I would go further and say that the concepts created there have many features in common with the conceptuality of critical dialectics. They both work with theoretical models, practice academic debate and examination, and maybe most important, arouse a kind of euphoric faith in their own thoughts and theorising. Even a so limited set of theories, consisting in ideas about deregulation, financial innovations and riskinsurance models, turned out to be able to mobilize a gigantic mass of believers, from academics to ordinary people. That the criticism of those ideas from any number of right-minded people did not have any effect, does not prove – as Aasland wants to say – that there was no dogmatic thinking at the business schools. Perhaps these fashionable ideas embody in an outstanding way the blindness of thinking which cleaves – according to Levinas: by definition – to all theory, ideology and dogmatics.

From this perspective management science as well as philosophy and ethics are just language games, ideologies, ontologies. The relativization which is implied in this observation may, I would propose, lead us not to attach great value to any idea – neither in management nor in philosophy. Not even to the idea of the good or to a Levinassian ethics. Any idea may grow rampant and turn into ideology. The idea cannot replace the experience: so it seems better to take continuing ethical experiences as our point of departure.

This is what Aasland does when he presents the idea of the good as an event, which appears now and then, rather than as a concept, which always has the character of something stable and permanent. “It is an important observation that this idea of the good does not always occur to the subject, nor that it always arouses attempts to find more just solutions” (83).

This view at the same time offers the opportunity to conclude that the pragmatics, which Aasland proposes (87) as a basis for business instead of theory, could also be considered as the supporting ground of critical dialectics. Namely: the pragmatics of the interaction between people in which sometimes for a moment somebody feels responsible for somebody else.

Or is ‘supporting ground’ too much ontology already?


R. Visker (2003) Is ethics fundamental? Questioning Levinas on irresponsibility. In: Continental Philosophy Review 36, 2003, pp. 263-302.