Theology and Philosophy

Simone Weil Lecture 2015

Tears the Civil Servant Cannot See:  Ethics, Politics, and the Individual
Professor Michael Morgan

Lecture details

Moral principles, political policies, and legal norms apply generally and, in liberal democracies, we believe that they ought to be formulated and implemented in fair and impartial ways.  One way we think about these features of moral and legal systems is that they should not respect persons; the individual’s particular circumstances should not influence how a rule or law applies to him or her, nor should they make a difference to judgments about a person’s failure to comply, to judgments about his or her culpability or guilt.  At the same time, we feel strongly that we ought to be concerned with the well-being of others and with attention to the very particular needs and circumstances of those persons with whom we interact.  We ought to care about others as individuals and not just treat them generically.  To many, these considerations are plainly and simply in conflict, and in thinking about morality and social norms we must choose one or the other to emphasize.  But to others, they cannot and must not be exclusive.  Caring about other people must mean more than respecting their general humanity; it must involve who they are in particular.  Both types of considerations ought to come into play in our moral, social, and political lives.  In this lecture, I will explore some features of this situation by considering how it occurs in the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas, both in his philosophical thinking about the human condition and in his reflections on classic Jewish texts.  I will also compare Levinas with Avishai Margalit and his conception of a decent society in order to clarify how Levinas is one of those for whom both poles – the general and the particular – must come into play, even if there is no uniform pattern or design for the ways in which they occur in our daily lives. 


Professor Morgan is a historian of philosophy, a philosopher of religion, and a political theorist, with interests also in ethics, film and literature. He has published widely in modern Jewish philosophy, from Spinoza and Mendelssohn to Buber and Rosenzweig, and he has worked widely on intellectual responses to the Nazi Holocaust and contemporary Jewish philosophy. He is co-editor (with Peter Eli Gordon) of the Cambridge Companion to Modern Jewish Philosophy, and over recent years has published a series of important monographs. These include Discovering Levinas (Cambridge UP, 2008) which places the work of Emmanuel Levinas within the philosophical world of Anglo-American philosophy, and his thought-provoking On Shame (Routledge, 2008) deals with shame as a response to genocide and the implications of such shame for moral and political conduct.