Naud van der Ven


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Bauman, Levinas and Business Ethics

(Published in Dutch in Filosofie in Bedrijf, 2001, 13(4), pp. 26-37, translated by NvdV)


One may wonder whether we employees in labor organizations – are not the victims of business ethics. That question is posed by the British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, and his answer is an affirmative ‘yes’: business ethics in his eyes is an instrument in the hands of managers in their efforts to attain the objectives of their organization. Business ethics contributes to reducing tensions, to streamline transactions and thus to better control the organization. But, says Bauman, the authentic moral is the big loser in this game. Because it escapes control, is by definition unpredictable and potentially subversive.

Zygmunt Bauman and business ethics

Bauman discusses business ethics in his book Postmodern Ethics. In that book the subject is embedded in his treatment of morality in general. He believes that morality should be considered as an emotional, anyway non-rational factor.
[M]orality is endemically and irredeemably non-rational – in the sense of not being calculable, hence not being describable as following rules that are in principle universalizable. The moral call is thoroughly personal” (1993: 60).

This could mean that morality and reason are not related and just peacefully co-exist, but Bauman goes further than that: he assigns reason an anti-moral character because it supplants the moral emotion:
Law and interest displace and replace gratuity and the sanctionlessness of moral drive: actors are challenged to justify their conduct by reason as defined either by the approved goal or by the rules of behaviour(1993: 124). This is done through the process of socialization, of which he says it by definition consists in neutralizing the disruptive and deregulating impact of moral impulse (1993: 125).

This socialization, occurring in society at large, he
encounters at a micro-scale in labor organizations. There it is business ethics that shapes the ordering of social relations through the establishment of codes of conduct and ethical rules and which thus drives morality out. To the extent those labor organizations are classical bureaucracies, Bauman takes for the foundation of his argument recourse to his book Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). In it he studied the bureaucratic mentality which he thinks made the Holocaust possible. He describes this mentality as instrumental-rational: it focuses on problem solving, regardless of the purpose and devoid of unpredictability, spontaneity and chance (1989: 90ff).

But there is no doubt that Bauman distrusts all ethical rules, including those in organizations that are trying hard to work non-bureaucratically, and to work in a flexible and people-oriented way instead. There too, people must conform to the roles that management has bestowed them, and there too managers in realizing their aspiration are supported by business ethicists and sociologists through the necessary legislation and the concomitant legitimacy. With the result that individual morality is repressed: “The organization may be (…) described as a machine to keep moral responsibility afloat
” (1993: 126).

Thus business ethics - in Bauman's eyes – is about controlling or changing people’s behaviour in such a way that organizational objectives are best served. This should be well organized, which means: rationally organized. Indeed, it cannot be done but in a rational way, because impersonal reason has to eliminate the personal character of the moral impulse.

Specifically, Bauman encounters this rational approach in the important role the concept of reciprocity often plays in business ethics projects. This reciprocity can take many forms. There are enforceable forms of reciprocity such as contractual arrangements in which the obligations of the participating parties against each other are spelled out. In case of non-observance of the obligations it is possible to apply sanctions.

But there are also non-enforceable forms. Bauman mentions as belonging to that category the decent, generous gestures towards employees or customers with an eye on being rewarded for it in the future in the form of motivated staff or a good image. To this category also belongs the encouragement of employees to make efforts for the company, perceived as something greater than yourself. The reward for their efforts in this case is the feeling of belonging they get in return.

Especially to the latter kind: the unenforceable reciprocity, often a moral nature is assigned. Wrongly, according to Bauman, because ultimately calculation and self-interest underly these forms of reciprocity. Precisely because of these features business ethics becomes a travesty of authentic morality which indeed is characterized by selflessness: it serves no rational purpose.

Bauman and Levinas

Bauman's ideas are radical and provocative, and that means he has a prominent place in the debate within organization studies on the nature and content of morality in labor organizations. That debate involves questions like: what is the relation between morals and emotion, how does reason relate to morals and how does business ethics deal with emotion and rationality in organizations.

But that also means that his ideas do not remain unchallenged. For example, Ten Bos and Willmott (2001) not only point to Bauman’s merits for the criticism of rationalism, they also stress the rigidity of the dualistic conceptual scheme that he uses. And Letiche (1998: 136) reproaches Bauman for working non-scientifically because he perpetrates metaphysics under the guise of sociology. The critique on Bauman, besides the great admiration he enjoys, is often rather sharp. I believe much of the criticism is right and I think that's regrettable, for the following reasons:

1. Bauman’s endeavour deserves support and success. The sometimes patronizing, sometimes tactical / calculating nature of a lot that is being produced under the heading of business ethics may generate a genuine distaste. It is in no way unlikely that these unpleasant aspects of business ethics are due to an overly rationalist approach and an underestimation of emotional elements. So Bauman has a point there, which makes his aspiration – to offer a reply to dominant rationalist schools of business ethics – worthwhile.  It's too bad if that reply lapses into radicalism or contains implausible elements.

2. For significant parts of his theory Bauman draws from the ideas of Levinas. He considers him, along with the Dane Knud E. Løgstrup, to be the only ethicists who really have developed a vision on morality for our times (1998: 109). In my opinion, the philosophy of Levinas offers a good basis indeed for a critique of the negative aspects of business ethics. But that requires a sound understanding of Levinas’s philosophy and such is, I think, in Bauman only partially there. Incidentally, Bauman himself states this is not his main concern, according to his exclamation that he is not Levinas's official spokesman (1998: 112). Yet this is a serious matter because, with the justified rejection of a number of Bauman’s positions, the risk exists that the usefulness of Levinas’s philosophy, precisely for the goals Bauman has in mind, becomes doubtful.

Herewith the purpose of this article is given: I want to indicate for which items and in which way the justified criticism on Bauman is linked to a questionable interpretation of Levinas by Bauman. Thus I hope to pave the way for a renewed attempt to achieve what Bauman aims at, namely: starting from the thinking of Levinas to criticize dominant rationalist schools of business ethics and to establish a theory of morality in organizations which does more justice to human subjectivity and to non-rational elements. That renewed effort will obviously be a task in itself and is beyond the scope of this article.

My approach

In this article I employ the following approach. First I want to identify a number of weak elements in the work of Bauman. I do this largely based on critical observations of Ten Bos and Willmott (2001) and for another part on the above mentioned article of Hugh Letiche (1998). This action produces four items into which criticism cristallizes.
Subsequently for each item of criticism I examine
a. What exactly is the position of Bauman;
b. To what extent Bauman is orientated towards Levinas and, if he is,
c. How Bauman’s presentation of the ideas of Levinas relates to these ideas themselves. If his presentation in my view is incorrect or incomplete I will try to indicate what exactly the differences are between the positions of Bauman and Levinas.

Bauman criticized

In their article Towards a post-dualistic Business Ethics: Reason and Emotion Inter Weaving in Working Life Ten Bos and Willmott (2000) give a description of how Bauman denounces the rationalism of dominant business ethics. They can partly agree with his analysis of the negative role that rationality plays, yet they have a lot to criticize Bauman for.

A major objection in their eyes is the frequent use of dualistic thinking schemes by Bauman. They point out that he constantly works with oppositions in which the two distinct poles exclude rather than complement one another (2000: 16). Examples include the oppositions social organization versus moral impulse, reason versus emotion, rules versus spontaneity, coercion versus empathy. In them Bauman applies a hierarchical mode of thought, similar to that of his opponents, with the effect that he cannot in a convincing way break free from his opponents. As an example Bos and Willmott (2000: 17) adduce that Bauman objects against the Kantian elevation of reason over emotion. Because he subsequently extols emotion at the expense of reason he only reverses the hierarchy. In fact he thus remains caught in the symptoms of logo-centric causal reasoning in which reason is so utterly supreme.

One objection that Letiche (1998: 132) brings up against Bauman is his anti-scientific approach. Letiche argues that Bauman intellectually does not proceed properly because his statements usually are not based on observations, descriptions and studies, but on a transcendental analysis of responsibility. Letiche calls that metaphysics rather than science. Letiche himself does not give quotes but I think his criticism is illustrated by the views of Bauman on human subjectivity: he assumes a strictly metaphysical, non-empirical basis of human subjectivity.

Following these criticisms of Ten Bos/Willmott and Letiche I arrive at my formulation of four objections against Bauman’s work. In the remainder of this article they will be discussed more closely in accordance with the procedure outlined above. These four critical points are the following:
1. Bauman distinguishes sharply between reason and emotion;
2. He makes a sharp contrast between rules and morality;
3. He expresses a desire for purity;
4. He assumes a strictly metaphysical, non-empirical basis of human subjectivity.

1. Opposition between reason and emotion

a. Bauman's position

A good representation of Bauman’s vision of the relation reason-emotion is found in his book Postmodern Ethics (1993). In Chapter 5 he discusses the
birth of the society, which he situates at the moment the moral connection which can exist between two people is shocked by the arrival of yet another person: the third. That original moral connection (Bauman speaks of the “moral party of two”) takes place according to Bauman in the atmosphere of affection, of emotions. Bauman cites Georg Simmel to show that the arrival of the third equals the destruction of the affective atmosphere because of the objectivity and interchangeability that with the third party make their entrance and which represent the atmosphere of reason. He says: Objectivity, the gift of the Third, has delivered a mortal, and at least potentially terminal, blow to affection which moved the moral partners(...)Reason – that ennemy of passion – must step in, lest there should be disorientation and chaos. Reason is what we call the ex post facto accounts or actions from which passion or naivity has been drained (1993: 114).

To what extent reason and emotion are mutually exclusive in Bauman is shown by a passage about the
moral impulse. This moral impulse according to Bauman belongs in an exemplary way to the sphere of emotion and (...)it ends the moment knowledge comes; at any rate, with the coming of knowledge it changes beyond recognition: it is now a reasoned decision rather than an impulse, it demands (or shows) explanations and guarantees (1993: 90).

Bauman emphasizes strongly the contrast which Kant makes between the atmosphere of emotion and that of reason. He points out how that contrast structures ethical debates: “Most ethical arguments followed unstintingly Kant
s invalidation of emotions as morally potent factors: it has been axiomatically assumed that  feelings(...)have no moral significance - only choice, the rational faculty, and the decisions it dictates can reflect upon the actor as a moral person” (1993: 67). Kant formulated the strategy of modernity, which is the substitution of reason-driven rules for love, sympathy and sentiment (1993: 98). Of course Bauman wants to reverse the hierarchy, but what concerns me here is that he apparently does recognize Kants scheme of the strong contrast of emotion and reason.

In the middle of what seems to be a categorical aversion against all reason and rationalism Bauman sometimes reflects a more nuanced view. In his discussion of the concepts of autonomy and heteronomy (1993: 132), he leaves room for a conception of reason that is different from the reason embodied in the power based laws of society. But, as appears from the repugnance he shows in all his books against
the modernity, defined as the age of reason, Bauman prefers to take over the narrow definition of reason from his opponents, and so to discredit all rationality.

A final impression of the way Bauman opposes emotion to reason we get by looking at the pairs of opposites he links to the polarity emotion-reason. In a discussion of Durkheim’s Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse Bauman speaks (1993: 133) about Durkheim’s concern for the decline of religious passions. The cause for that decline is assigned by Durkheim, but as is evident from his agreement also by Bauman, to modernity which they both associate with the attacks of reason against passion, of rules against spontaneity and of structure on anti-structure.

For the rest it is important to note that Bauman
brings in a hierarchy into the sphere of emotions and impulses. Thus there is the subsphere which Bauman calls the “aesthetic space” and the subsphere of morality. The first is characterized by pleasure, impulsivity, volatility and entertainment in various degrees of intensity, the second by responsibility and perseverance. The first is valued less by Bauman and placed in opposition to the second according to the following quote (1993: 180): “The moral stance, with its noxious proclivity to forge its own fetters in the form of responsibility for the other(...)is a sworn enemy of drift - that essence of aesthetic spacing”. Nevertheless he considers these hostile atmospheres, unlike the enemies reason and morality, as reconcilable. Such reconciliation he encounters in what he calls successful love: “Amusement value is in principle an enemy of moral responsibility - and vice versa. The enemies may, however, live occasionally in peace, or even co-operate, assist and reinvigorate each other. The model of successful love is the foremost example of such co-operation(...)” (1993, 180).

b. Bauman’s orientation towards Levinas

Of the above cited quotes there are two that, in terms of content and partly in terms of terminology, are to be found in the ideas of Levinas, even though at the appropriate Bauman does not mention him. These are passages in which the character of the original moral situation (designated by Bauman through the terms
the moral party of two and the presence of the moral impulse) changes because of the entrance of a rational element. That character change is definitely a theme in the work of Levinas indeed, which in particular he develops in his second major book Otherwise than Being but which he already articulates concisely in his first major work Totality and Infinity. To the extent the face of the Other is linked to third persons, the metaphysical relation of the I to the Other transforms into the shape of a We, which strives for institutions, for a state, for laws serving as the source of universality (Levinas 1991: 300).

At other places at which Bauman raises this theme he explicitly refers to Levinas (1993: 113, 1998: 116). On some of these occasions however he notes that in his view Levinas’s elaboration of the theme is unsatisfactory defective, because it is not sufficiently sociological and does not know how to handle the “reality of social totalities
” (1998: 118). But that does not interest me so much in the context of this article.  What concerns me here is to establish that in his books Bauman, like Levinas, adresses the transition from an initial to a more developed social situation and that, in that transition process he assigns a certain role to reason.

c. Bauman’s rendering of Levinas

This transition from an initial situation to a ‘societal’ situation – characterized by objectivity, regulation and impersonal structures, in short: the products of reason – can very well be derived from Levinas. Besides, it is possible to find in Levinas a few negative statements about reason in which he talks about the tyranny of reason and the cruel role which reason can play in society. But for the rest: the extensive disqualification of reason, the elevation of emotion above reason, the labelling of true morality as eminently an emotional affair, all these are matters in the work of Bauman which cannot be reconciled with the work of Levinas and against which the latter work in my view definitely opposes itself. It are precisely those elements which give Bauman’s work that simplistic dualistic character against which in the beginning of this article objection was made. Precisely those elements should be replaced by more credible standpoints if we want to make Bauman’s criticism of modern business ethics fruitful.
For that reason it is important to confront each of the above mentioned questionable positions of Bauman (disqualification of reason, elevation of emotion opposite reason, true morality as an emotional affair) with what Levinas says about these things.

Disqualification of reason

As mentioned, Levinas recognizes the dangers of reason, for example when he says that due to universal, rational thinking real communication gets lost: “Reason speaking in the first person is not addressed to the other, conducts a monologue” (1991: 72). But that does not refrain him, being a philosopher indeed, to value reason highly: with regard to his book Totality and Infinity he says: this work intends to be faithful to “the intellectualism of reason” (1991: 29). He explains the merit of reason as follows: “The essence of reason consists not in securing for man a foundation and powers, but in calling him in question and in inviting him to justice” (1991: 88). This is because reason is rooted in the moral relation: “Representation (ie the work of reason NvdV) derives its freedom with regard to the world that nourishes it from the relation essentially moral, that with the Other” (1991: 172). One could maintain that on balance Levinas has an ambivalent attitude towards reason, but that the negative aspects of reasoning should not lead to an aversion of thinking but to more and better thinking: “To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it” (1991: 51).
Elevation of emotion against reason

An important finding with respect to the relationship between reason and emotion in Levinas is that he does not play them off against one another. They are not competitors, the one does not diminish the other. “The rational is not opposed to the experienced; absolute experience, the experience of what is in no way a priori, is reason itself” (1991: 219).

True morality as an emotional affair

Levinas knows the depersonalizing, impoverishing impact of reason on morality: “(...)a society whose members would be only reasons would vanish as a society” (1991: 119). And about politics, which for him is a form of exercise of reason, he says: “But politics left to itself bears a tyranny within itself”, because it judges according to universal rules (1991: 300). Nevertheless, he argues that society is possible through reason (1991: 119) and he wants to give the “representational relation with things” a place, even in morality (1991: 69). Levinas sees reason play an important role as a critical moral authority. He designates reason as part of the inner life (“psychism”) of man that opposes inclusion in a neutral totality which does not tolerate pluralism (1991: 54, 119). Therefore, when Bauman wants to reduce reason to its totalizing impact, he can not rely on Levinas for that. Further Levinas relates the moral element par excellence, ie the encounter with the face of the other, directly to reason: in the face to face confrontation the first rationality gleams forth as “the first intelligible” (1991: 208). On the basis of the above quotations we can see that, although the terms that Levinas and Bauman use when describing the primordial moral situation and the origin of society display many similarities, nevertheless the dichotomy of reason versus emotion which Bauman connects to them does not exist in that way in Levinas. Neither does Levinas make a distinction within the sphere of the emotions between higher and lower emotions.

2. Opposition between rules and morality

a. Bauman’s position

For Bauman, there is an inextricable link between modern reason, legislation and regulation, socialization and societal obligations and conventions and he joins these things together under the heading of modern ethics. And then he says: that ethics has nothing to do with love, real responsibility and moral inspiration, which he brings under the heading of morality. Bauman sees ethics as a caricature of what is authentic: morality. He describes the contrast in strong terms: “duty is the death of love” (1993: 100), “It would appear as well, on occasion, that society supports the moral self much like the rope supports the hanged man - norms being the rope and reason the ropemaker” (1993: 116). Socialization for him boils down to making people follow a uniform code of ethics. And in order to achieve that goal measures should be taken “to reduce or eliminate the impact of moral impulses” (1993: 123). The opposition between morality and ethics does not keep Bauman from seeing connections or logical transitions between the sphere of morality and ethical rules: “Love cannot really fulfill itself without fixation” (1993: 101), but in the process of reason-driven regulation the precious moral core (the moral impulse / drive / sentiment) is nevertheless betrayed, because morality is “endemically and irredeemably non-rational”(1993: 60).

Here it becomes clear that there is a relationship between this dichotomy of rules versus morality and the one of reason versus emotion: authentic morality resides in the atmosphere of impulses, sentiments and affections, so of emotion. The opposing force is modern reason: it designs the rules, ethical codes and protocols that are so fatal for the original moral emotions.

b. Bauman’s orientation towards Levinas

In presenting the above position Bauman a few times refers to Levinas. Thus he quotes from Useless Suffering: “Marvellous alterity of the Other has been banalized and dimmed in a simple exchange of courtesies which became established as an ‘interpersonal commerce’ of customs” (1995: 56). This quote he lets be followed immediately by a statement of Løgstrup who says that we use conventions “as a means of keeping aloof from one another and for insulating ourselves” and therewith he colours Levinas’s words in a special way, which leads to the conclusion that “the rule-governed togetherness, with the being-exhausted in the observance of rules is a colony of hermits, an archipelago of one-resident islands. It also allows for interaction devoid of sentiments save the sentiments focused on the procedure or interaction”.

Another quote from Levinas is about whether social life results “from limiting the consequences of the war between men or from limiting the infinity which opens in the ethical realtionschip of man to man?” (1992: 48). Bauman places this citation in his discussion of the relationship between the reasonless obsession of the morally hurt person and the socially constructed realities (1992: 47).

In Postmodern Ethics (1993: 124) Bauman opposes in an absolute way Levinas’s description of the encounter with the Face to the response of organized society: “The organisation’s answer to such autonomy (ie of the face that does not let itself be reduced to something else NvdV) of moral behaviour is the heteronomy of instrumental and procedural rationalities. Law and interest displace and replace gratuity and the sanctionlessness of moral drive”. Which makes him conclude (1993: 126) that “[t]he organisation may be, in other words, described as a machine to keep moral responsability afloat”.

c. Bauman’s rendering of Levinas

What applied to the opposition of reason versus emotion is true as well of the opposition of rules versus morality: to some extent for stating this contrast support can be found in Levinas, as becomes clear from Bauman’s citations given above. And in his introduction to Totality and Infinity Levinas argues along these lines when he advocates a different view of morality than is customary. It is usual, he says, for philosophers to derive morality from reason and to found peace in politics, ie in regulation and exercise of reason. But, he argues against that view, true morality is not the same as politics (1991: 22).

However, the absolute character which Bauman then attributes to these contradictions is not consistent with the nuances that Levinas brings in and with the opportunities he sees to grant regulation and true morality each its own place. They are not mutually exclusive, but complementary as “behind the straight line of the law the land of goodness extends infinite and unexplored” (Levinas 1991: 245). And reason and morality come very close to one another when Levinas believes that the essence of reason does not consist in “securing for man a foundation and powers, but in calling him in question and in inviting him to justice” (1991: 88). Elevating the inner self (Bauman’s autonomy) at the expense of social regulation, is denounced by Levinas: liberty and justice cannot be realized outside the social and political institutions necessary for their development. To reject the latter equals violation of reason, says Levinas (1991: 241). 

We therefore must conclude that the way in which Bauman inserts statements by Levinas into the dualistic scheme of rules versus morality does not do justice to the spirit of Levinas’ argument.

3. Penchant for purity: the nostalgic longing for the pure primordial experience

a. Bauman’s position

Once there was the experience of a space that was filled merely with ethical responsibility, the proximity of the face-to-face. But something must have gone wrong. Something happened to the unfathomable, reason-less obsession with the face-to-face in the socialized world of everyday life. Something fatal, perhaps even irreparable. The primordial experience of responsibility is lost and the face-to-face as we know it (empirically, from everyday experience) is just a pathetic attempt to retrieve what was lost. That infinity has forever become inaccessible owing to the impact of social order and regulation. 

In these terms Bauman describes the moral state of man in the modern period on pages 47 and 48 of Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies (1992). We have no access any longer to the primordial moral source and hence we are cut off from the spontaneity of the moral impulse. The challenge will be, by struggling ourselves out of the grip of the temptations and pitfalls of reason, to give the pre-conscious experience another chance. That will be difficult because the Self looks for something to hold on to in the sphere of the logical and orderly, and definitely feels ill at ease in the encounter with the Other.

“In a world construed of codifiable rules alone, the Other loomed on the outside of the self as a mystifying, but above all a confusingly ambivalent presence”: for modern man the Other is both a challenge and an obstacle (1993: 84).  Bauman considers this tension between the Self and the Other in modern ethics as unbalanced, as the alienation of a more original, sounder situation.

But according to Bauman restoration is possible, the ambivalence and contradiction can be eliminated. Startingpoints for that he sees in postmodern ethics, as it tries to lift the banishment of the Self into the realm of calculated, reason-driven selfinterest. The moral self can return to its most authentic mode of existence: being there for the Other, it will be ‘of one piece’ back again. The artificially created distance between people will again give way to the original proximity of people to one another.

b. Bauman's orientation towards Levinas

For my discussion of Bauman’s orientation towards Levinas on this topic I distinguish two elements in the position of Bauman as described just now: the theme of the lost primordial experience and what I call the ‘morality of one piece’.

The lost primordial experience

Within the framework of the presentation of his ideas about a lost ‘pristine space’ Bauman quotes Levinas rather extensively. We touched upon one of those quotes already above, in full it reads as follows: “It is extremely important to know if society in the current sense of the term is the result of a limitation of the principle that men are predators of one another, or if to the contrary it results from the limitation of the principle that men are for one another. Does the social, with is institutions, universal forms and laws, result from limiting the consequences of the war between men, or from limiting the infinity which opens in the ethical relationschip of man to man?” (1992: 48). Bauman then indicates that he, unlike Levinas, is concerned with exploration and explanation of the mystery of the disappeared morality rather than with exploration and explanation of the presence or possibility of morality in society.

Morality of one piece

In making the distinction between the moral self of modernity and the robust moral self of postmodernity Bauman refers emphatically to Levinas. He says Levinas formulates an ethics “that restores the autonomous moral significance of proximity; an ethics that recasts the Other as the crucial character in the process through which the moral self comes into its own(...)In this sense, Lévinas´s is the postmodern ethics”(1993: 84)

c. Bauman’s rendering of Levinas

The lost primordial experience

In Totality and Infinity Levinas does not describe the face-to-face as a closed event in the past to which we no longer have access. It is true that according to Levinas the occidental philosophical tradition neglected or obscured that experience. Therefore he asks attention for it. But the experience is not less because of that, and certainly not something that occurred more in the past than it does nowadays and which only can be cherished as a nostalgic longing. Thus Levinas says in Totality and Infinity: “The relationship with the Other, or the idea of Infinity, accomplishes it (ie Desire NvdV). Each can live it in the strange desire of the Other( ...)” ( 1991: 179) and on page 53 he speaks of the responsibility for the Other as a practical and commonplace moral experience. Theo de Boer says in a footnote (1987: 122): “Although levinasian metaphysics is concerned with what is wholly external, nevertheless it is based on experience, even called experience par excellence”.

As shown Bauman himself at that point has already felt a difference in approach with regard to Levinas. The emphasis Bauman places on the almost nostalgic search for a lost pristine space is not reflected as such in Levinas I wish to underline that here.

Morality of one piece

Further in Levinas there is no support for a post-modern morality of one piece. I would even say: to the contrary, because Bauman’s statement, loaded with distaste, that “[i]n modern ethics the Other was the contradiction incarnate and the most awesome of stumbling-blocks on the self´s march to fulfilment” (1993: 84) may be read, exactly in opposition to what Bauman says about it, as a (partial) description of what Levinas thinks is a constructive human situation. Because Levinas values the possibility of a radically isolated individual, separate from others and from God, involved in sensory enjoyment and being shaped through objectifying thought – in short the Self – not negatively but positively. He considers it to be a condition of possibility for the occurrence of metaphysical desire, ie goodness. At the same time the Other puts the Self – which unabashed goes about his business – under criticism and breaks through its pursuit of enjoyment and self-interest.

So, contradictions and inconsistencies abound in Levinas. The large extent to which those elements of enjoyment, separation and (calculative) thinking, combined with the appearance of the Face, are in a crucial way characteristic of the human condition according to Levinas, can be simply read from the build-up of the first of his two major works, Totality and Infinity:

”Section I. The Same and the Other”; discusses ia desire, separation between people, atheism.
”Section II. Interiority and Economy”; discusses ia human sensitivity, enjoyment, thinking, dwelling and economy.
The sections I and II constitute a preparation to
Section III. Exteriority and the Face” which discusses the encounter with the Other and the ethical relationship.

The conclusion is inescapable that Bauman’s ideas of a primordial moral experience and of a (perhaps lost) unbroken moral self do not necessarily reflect Levinas’s thought.

4. The metaphysical foundations of human subjectivity

a. Bauman’s position

In line with his views on the original moral self Bauman arrives at his conception of subjectivity as based on the responsibility of the One for the Other: “I am I in as far as I am for the Other” (1993: 78) and: “Responsibility is what makes [humans] into individuals” (1993: 54).

As indicated above, that primordial experience of responsibility should be viewed as a metaphysical principle rather than as an empirical experience. The face-to-face as we know it, according to Bauman, is a poor echo of the original, transcendent face-to-face (1992: 48), because we are dealing with earthly beings and “everything that appertains to the Other in her capacity of being is absent from the Other as Face” (1993: 73). The call of responsibility, being a pre-conscious obsession, is pure, disembodied (1992: 44).

Therefore, in Bauman the Face by definition retains the character of a pre-conscious or unconscious primordial experience which has no counterpart in our empirical reality. The identity of man, according to Bauman, cannot be derived but from that metaphysical basis, as he indicates in Postmodern Ethics (1993: 1977): “There is no other awakening, no other way of finding out myself as the unique I, the one and only I(…)”.

b. Bauman's orientation towards Levinas

For his view that man derives his identity from the responsibility for the other Bauman refers to Levinas and Løgstrup. In response to Levinas’ statement that “[r]esponsibility is what is incumbent on me exclusively, and what, humanly, I cannot refuse” Bauman says that it is this responsibility that makes me into an I (1993: 77). In Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies Bauman cites Levinas as follows: responsibility is “the essential, primary, and fundamental structure of subjectivity” (1992: 43).

c. Bauman's rendering of Levinas

With regard to the question of the basis of human subjectivity – that is to say: the question to what determines the identity of persons – we find that Levinas is ambivalent. In his work we find two individuationprinciples. On the one hand there is what he calls ‘psychism’: the inner life of man which is realized in sensuousness, enjoyment, egoism and the use of reason. On the other hand there is the responsibility of one person to another: the call of the Other marks me as being an irreplaceable individual.

Examples of the second view have been presented above because those are Levinas’s statements towards which Bauman is oriented. The first view is reflected in the following quotations from Levinas: “It is the psychism and not matter that provides a principle of individuation” (1991: 59) and “Subjectivity originates in the independence and sovereignty of enjoyment”(1991: 114).

In the notes to his edition of Totality and Infinity Theo de Boer discusses a bit more extensively the ambivalence of Levinas as to the origin of subjectivity. He believes that Levinas’s work shows a development which runs from ambivalence in the above sense (especially visible in Totality and Infinity) to an unambiguous localization of the principium individuationis in non-exchangeable responsibility (visible in the later work of Levinas) (1987: 121, 130, 171, 172).

I want to stress that the two principles for Levinas have, at least in Totality and Infinity, an experiential component, ie they occur in an observable way in the empirical environment. For enjoyment this becomes manifest from the description by Levinas of the psyche as a sensuous self-referentiality in which the I appears as a sensing and experiencing being (1991: 59). And with regard to the responsibility that may be derived from the statement “[W]e maintain that the social relation is experience preeminently” (1991: 109).

If then Bauman designates responsibility as the defining principle of individuation and additionally assigns it a metaphysical – ie non-empirical – character, he makes the choice for the later Levinas, as expressed in his second major work Otherwise than Being. That is legitimate of course, but in the context of this article, it is important to note that thus the more descriptive, empirical approach to the subject, which we know from Totality and Infinity, disappears completely from Bauman’s horizon.



The comparison we performed in the above between the work of Bauman and that of Levinas shows that with regard to the four considered themes Levinas’s position is less simplistic and schematic than Bauman’s. Levinas leaves more room for nuances and for the diversity of human experience. The importance we assigned to the comparison at the beginning of this article read as follows. It is good to critically follow developments in business ethics. That’s what Bauman does, but he is rightly criticized for the linear thought patterns which he uses in his efforts. It is important to note that Levinas, towards whom Bauman is strongly oriented, is less linear.

This motive for the comparison may also be formulated in a different, more positive way: the  comparison reveals what are the components in Levinas’s works which permit him to be less schematic and dualistic than Bauman is. Those are the parts from which Bauman does not quote at all and from which many of the aforementioned nuances are taken. I refer to the Sections I and II of the book Totality and Infinity, the subjects of which include Desire, separation between people, atheism, enjoyment and economy. These two sections constitute an introduction to Section III, which is about the Face. It is undeniable that the appearance of the Face is the main theme of the book.

But precisely from that point of view is important to note that Levinas for two-thirds of the book takes the time to outline the environment in which this encounter takes place and which cannot be thought of in dissociation from the Face. That environment allows for everything which in Bauman, because of the absoluteness of the Face, has no longer a place. There is space there for the aridity as well as for the merits of reason. There also are valuable roles to be played by sensuousness, enjoyment, selfishness, dwelling  and working. Levinas describes them extensively  and because of these descriptions, the universe of Levinas is simply much broader than that of Bauman, which may explain why Levinas is less schematic.

If now it is our objective to find suitable starting points for a critical approach to business ethics, it may be worth while to take those descriptions of Levinas into consideration. By the way in which he takes precisely man’s corporeal and economic existence fully seriously, his ethics may possibly very well be connected to reflection on people working in labor organizations.

For instance, from the work of Levinas it is quite possible to grant a legitimate place to the phenomena of bureaucracy and instrumental rationality, or at least to make them understandable, without abandoning the criticism of the totalizing tendencies in those phenomena. That is something Bauman does not succeed in, due to his radical rejection of reason and of his vision of bureaucracy as an aberration of modernity. Because of that failure he comes to stand at quite a distance from the everyday reality of people in labor organizations.

Furthermore, the simultaneous occurrence in Levinas’s descriptions of the atmospheres of enjoyment and ethical relationship have the merit to somehow enlarge our understanding of the confusion and inconsistencies which people, including people in labor organizations, daily face. These inconsistencies and confusion in fact have a lot to do with the continuous mingling and colliding of these spheres. Business ethics (understood as ethical regulation) and Bauman do less justice to this problem. As regards business ethics, this is because ethical regulation addresses the problem only superficially, as regards Bauman because he recognizes only one legitimate sphere, which is the moral sphere.

This does not affect the allegation that can be made against Levinas – which actually is often made – that he is too little involved in concrete social and political affairs. His universe may be broad and take account of empirical observations, yet his analyses of those observations are rather abstract and reflexive. In contrast to Levinas, Bauman rather speaks the language of the sociologist who knows the ins and outs of the world.

But if it is Levinas's shortcoming that he speaks too little in terms of organized society, then, given the above, it is very doubtful whether that gap can be filled by Bauman. Paradoxically the sociologist, who is supposed to have an eye for concrete phenomena, reveals himself as a traditional schematic metaphysician. He presents his anti-reason message by means of the entertaining but coercive coherent argument in which he is so strong. Opposite stands the philosopher who above all is describer, and in being that wants to leave space, also for  inconsistencies, and who warns against a coherent argument. Not from revulsion against reason, but for the sake of what transcends it.

Both may prove to be unworldly and to be too far removed from the day-to-day reality of people in organizations to have a sensible response to the question of business ethics: what is the good working together? Still I think that Levinas’s work - more than Bauman’s – challenges to find an answer to that question.


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