Laurie Zoloth came to Syracuse University to talk about Jewish bioethics. As always, Laurie’s remarks took on the appearance of a seamless fusion of theory and practice, rabbinic reflection and contemporary ethical exigencies.
From the Talmud Laurie introduces a theoretical language of uncertainty and care into a discourse that is too often only and simply ends-oriented. But uncertainty and care is only half the picture. Also introduced by way of Talmud is a language of necessity and obligation.
Usually, I’m pretty allergic to the introduction of these latter themes into ethical theory. These rhetorics of necessity and obligation are too often picked up as a cudgel by conservative ethicists to wield against liberal freedoms and the rights of the individual.
But there are at least related two points that distinguish Laurie’s work from conservative ethical theory.
First, this kind of rabbinic moral thought is based upon a methodological ant-foundationalism. The normative impulse in Laurie’s work, in her understanding of rabbinic moral reasoning, is always internal to the ethical act, not external to it. There is no Big Other backing up the moral act, and imposing itself upon it. The possibility of error “supplements” the language of necessity.
Second, as I understand it, this version of rabbinic ethical theory may, in fact, depend upon the values of obligation and necessity. But the normative impulse, the language of necessity and obligation, is anterior to the value of care for the other, care for the sick and the poor.
And these two points, I think, make all the difference between liberal and conservative moral theory, or rather, liberal and conservative heteronomy.
One further point. Laurie’s work depends, is utterly dependent, upon Levinas, but without the moral grandstanding that you might often find in Levinas himself and others who grab for his mantle. This may have to do with the real-world commitments at work in Laurie’s work as a practicing bio-ethicist.
The idea of a non-foundationalist ethics that nevertheless has a place for necessity of obligation is a major theme in the ethics of Cora Diamond and others taking their lead from Wittgenstein (not talmud, not Levinas). It’s a view implicit in my Excursions with Kierkegaard. Happy to hear it is ‘hitting the streets’ in the reflections of a bioethicist. You can find the substructure in Braver’s GROUNDLESS GROUNDS on Wittgenstein and Heidegger, as well as throughout Cavell.
Ed: You would like Laurie’s work a lot! It has that same kind of musing excellence found in, let’s say, your mode of thought. The Wittgenstein is an important link I hadn’t considered.