Since Levinas and Derrida the question of ethics and ontology has been called into play for a variety of reasons. As a matter of fact, one can trace this effort back to Heidegger and his fundamental ontology, as the question of Care and Being was cast in order to deal with issues of Authenticity and Integrality.
Heidegger, of course, couldn’t care less about the well-being of others, the happy life or decency in general. His concern was with a fundamental question of neutralizing modes-of-being as concepts and dealing with these modes to stablish a ground that would make it possible for all beings to be. Dasein and the care for Dasein arise in this context. Authors like Loparic, Arendt and to a certain extent Agamben, try to show how this movement might have something to say about ethics, case in point, the relationship between Care and Moral Epistemology – Care would be the basis of moral behavior in the same way that Existence is the basis of being-oneself.
The question of ontology is then recast also by authors like Levinas and Derrida in the context of Ethics as first philosophy, the concreteness of the Other would give rise to dynamics of recognition and capture that give the sense of Ethics as ground – Ethics would then ground Being and Care. The self emerges as an emotional response to the Absolute Other, to this immanently given alterity. Levinas moral epistemology (that I assume to be to a great extent shared by Derrida) has some quite interesting points, most of them would be related to the incarnation of moral perceptions and the substitution of the Other in the Same – the so-called movement of Totalization. Indeed, some of Levinas’ descriptions of moral constitution and self-constitution seem to be spot-on. Problems arise, however, when we are faced with the conclusion of such ontoligization (sic) of morals.
And this is true both to the construction of Care as the basis for moral epistemology and to the attempt to expose the Ethical core of everydayness. Because the question of Care in Heidegger is completely neutralized in order to give rise to the issue of Authenticity – there is no emotional ground to Care in Heidegger, there is no Ethics at play there, and we must question the consequences of taking such dry notion as grounding to a moral epistemology. Moreover, one should not ignore the sheer anachronism that claiming to ontology as the fundamental question of contemporary ethics brings.
As for the exposure of the Ethical Core of everydayness, it brings problems when we are faced with the perfectionism of Levinasian morality. Levinas philosophy is deeply conservative in its conceptions of behaviour, emotion and obligation, and this conservative background is not purely coincidental, it is a consequence of the attempt to ontologize Ethics. In order to create an Ethical ground one needs moral facts that are not temporalized, one needs a deeply rooted notion of Good and Goodness, one that is fully incompatible with the subtlety of modern life. If Levinas was able to point at issues of Moral Epistemology fittingly, he was not able to develop those issues in order to narrate forms of being-moral that are compatible with our current lifeworld, moreover, he was not able to scape an exoteric and hyperbolic view of moral facts and obligations that imply on behaviour that most of us would rather not seek – the life of a Saint is fitting to some, but not to all , and it is quite clear Levinas is a perfectionist because he trusts we could make ourselves Holy, we could make ourselves more like the moral facts out-there.
Derrida seems to be a little less radical as he points to the enforcement of morality in the dynamics of recognition, as well as to the construction of a moral field. In this, he aims at a similar point to the one forwarded by Arendt. The moral world is built linguistically, and we are as moral as the predicate assertions we use to describe the world. Acts of signification are always moral acts. To a certain extent, its hard not to agree with this point – that Husserl already pointed in the notion of representation in Idees I. However, the question becomes rather complicated when the issues of ontology are again brought to play. Arendt tries to associate her linguistic turn with the Kantian normative turn, and in this she lets go of some of the ontological presuppositions of Heideggerian care. Her political philosophy – if problematic – is still able to deal with most of our problems without resorting to anachronism – but it still seems to be haunted by a ghost, one that is even more apparent in Derrida.
This ghost is the claim that from linguistic forms of predication we can derive moral behavior. There’s more at stake here, even if expression does indicate linguistic ethical forms it does not imply that the forms it indicates are fittingly constructed to deal with issues. Though it is an interesting movement in terms of – again – moral epistemology, I am not sure as to the extent these descriptions of how we assert morality are helpful in order to identify moral problems. Moreover, I am no sure if there is not a huge step backwards in this attempt to establish the concreteness of moral problems.
If we admit morals are constructed in time and accordingly to forms of living, we must also recognize that the moral problems that we identify are always at hand, they are not expressive forms of substantial Being, but ever-modified expressions – given in multiple ways and hardly reducible to ontological relevances. In this, we must recognize the genius of Husserl when he points that different forms of givenness call for different descriptions of phenomena. And phenomena are not simply controlled by a dry ontologization of Care or hyperbolic imposition of Otherness. Certainly, that was part of Derrida’s point, but when he fell into the question of Alterity and Moral Obligation, he fell into an abyss of ontologizing forms of moral expressions that must be so, and that’s a steping back 400 years of moral philosophy. It sacrifices a great deal of the progress in moral discussion that were had since Hume showed us that where we once found predicates that Ought we could actually find predicates that are – and since Rawls has shown us that even this distinction between realism and emotivism could be best dealt with if we first recognized that the issue of morals is not metaphysical, but political.