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The Face of the Other September 13, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care, Science, Uncategorized.
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Those of you who have read my work in ethic know that I think the writings of Emmanuel Levinas are especially helpful in explaining moral authority.

One main idea in Levinas’s work is that ethical conduct is a response to “the face of the Other”. In less metaphorical terms, this means that morality gets its authority from our capacity to respond to the vulnerability and particularity of another person which place demands on us that we are compelled to acknowledge.

And now there is some scientific evidence supporting Levinas’s view. Here is John Cookson at Big Think:

Is a person’s propensity toward evil a matter of malfunctioning synapses and neurons?

Michael Stone, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and author of “The Anatomy of Evil,” says it is.  Ever-more-detailed brain scans are revealing the biological origins of psychological issues in “evil” people, from those who are mildly antisocial to serial murderers.

Under each brain’s wrinkly cortex lies the limbic system, an evolutionary heirloom controlling emotion and motivation, among other functions.  Within this limbic system is the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of nuclei that processes our feelings of fear and pleasure.

Murderers and other violent criminals have been shown to have amygdalae that are smaller or that don’t function properly, explains Stone.  One recent study concluded that individuals who exhibit a marker of “limbic neural maldevelopment” have “significantly higher levels of antisocial personality, psychopathy, arrests and convictions compared with controls.”

The amygdala is important because, among its other functions, it allows an individual to respond to the facial expressions of others.  When a person has an abnormal amygdala—one that doesn’t process the facial expressions of emotion—they can have an inability to register the fear and suffering of a victim, says Stone.  This lack of response to the emotions of others predisposes an individual to antisocial, even criminal, behavior.

Perhaps we should stop referring to the “face of the Other” as a metaphor.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Nina Rosenstand - September 15, 2010

It is interesting to note that the psychiatrist Stone, as far as I can tell, does not believe a brain anomaly automatically exonerates the perpetrator (otherwise the term “evil” would be too problematic–it’s problematic enough as it is). But the question is, how should an ethicist approach the issue? If “evil-doers” can’t help what they’re doing, what is the point of condemning their behavior? Ought implies can. The next question is, to what extent is the person with the brain anomaly capable of self-control? John Douglas, the famous profiler, suggests that even with brain issues, most criminals are perfectly capable of self-control until a more opportune moment arises. Which implies that they can be held accountable.

2. Dwight Furrow - September 16, 2010


Fischer and Ravissa’s distinction between guidance control and regulative control is useful. If an agent’s action is caused by her own beliefs and desires and they are responsive to reasons then the agent possesses guidance control. Most criminals (and some psychopaths) as you point out have this kind of control–they can avoid sanctions, put off an action for a better opportunity, etc. Regulative control, by contrast, is the ability to do otherwise. I doubt that psychopaths have this kind of control because I don’t think anyone has this kind of control. The ability to do otherwise assumes contra-causal indeterminism which I think is incoherent.

Guidance control is sufficient for assignments of moral responsibility. In other words, if an agent’s action flows from her character (in the case of a psychopath, a vicious character) then the agent owns the action. Of course the agent is not ultimately responsible for her character because no one is ultimately responsible for her character. This entails that in some sense psychopaths of the sort Stone describes “cannot help what they are doing”. The point of condemning their behavior is that social life requires we establish expectations for appropriate behavior and sanction egregiously harmful behavior. Assignments of responsibility are in part about establishing reasonable expectations.

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