Levinas's ethics as a basis of healthcare – challenges and dilemmas

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Abstract

Levinas's ethics has in the last decades exerted a significant influence on Nursing and Caring Science. The core of Levinas's ethics – his analyses of how our subjectivity is established in the ethical encounter with our neighbour or theOther – is applied both to healthcare practice and in the project of building an identity of Nursing and Caring Science. Levinas's analyses are highly abstract and metaphysical, and also non-normative. Thus, his analyses cannot be applied directly to practical problems and questions. Theorists in Nursing and Caring Science are generally aware of this. Nevertheless, many of them use Levinas's analyses to explore and solve questions of practical and normative character. This article focuses on the challenges and dilemmas of using Levinas in this manner.

The article is divided into two parts. The first part presents some central ideas of Levinas's ethics based on the latter part of his authorship. The main focus is on the radicalism of Levinas's critique of the symbolic order (which includes concepts, categories, knowledge, etc.) – or as he puts it ‘the said’ – as a basis for subjectivity and responsibility. Levinas's notions of saying, anarchy, and singularity accentuate this point of view. These notions refer to conditions in the language, which counteract the symbolic order in the ethical encounter to such an extent that it becomes an incomprehensible. Levinas gives the argumentation a metaphysical frame: The encounter with the incomprehensible is an encounter with the Holy, which is not the ontological God, but a metaphysical desire. It is a mystery as to what this means, and herein lies possibly the main challenge when using Levinas's ethics in science and research: How to maintain the radicalism of his critique of the symbolic order when this is to be communicated in a scientific context that expects clarification of statements and ideas? The second part of the article explores this question by examining how some theorists use Levinas's ethics on questions and problems in the area of healthcare and Nursing and Caring Science. The focus is especially on the theorists' reception and use of the just mentioned notions. The study reveals that these theorists to a large extent transform Levinas's ethics according to their own approaches, with the result that his ethics loses its critical radicalism. Thus, I question the reason why they use Levinas.

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