Anarchic Ethics: Rethinking Obedience with Ruskin and Levinas
Carter, Sari Lynn
Obedience is a concept without much purchase in the modern academy, often assumed to be synonymous with totalitarian regimes and restrictive ideologies. Yet obedience itself, when closely examined, emerges as a content-less modality of relation, an unspoken assumption underlying the ought in any ethical judgment: critiquing an oppressive system as something that ought to be defied presupposes an idea of justice that ought to be followed. But whence this sense of ought? This paper offers a rethinking of obedience in light of this question, drawing upon two very different thinkers—nineteenth-century art and social critic John Ruskin and twentieth-century ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Their conceptions of obedience are multi-faceted, problematic and provocative. Understanding the contrasting ways in which these authors see these facets of obedience interacting underscores the complexity of the concept of obedience and may open a more perceptive ground to contemporary ethics whence to critique the totalitarian abuse of obedience, building from Levinas’s emphasis on an anarchic ethics whose source of obligation is irreducible to institutional closure.