Ethics in the Face of Asymmetry
Flexible Relationships between Changing Communicators
This paper argues that ethical communication is promoted within flexible relationships that attend to the ways in which communicators change as they interact in specific contexts. The ethical framework for this argument is drawn from Emmanuel Levinas’ description of the “face to face” encounter between self and other. Within these encounters it is the alterity between communicators that is the foundation for their communication, as opposed to the more commonly stressed need for commonality or sameness. This paper analyses interactions between humans and non-human others in order to emphasise the presence of difference, with a focus on human-animal and human-robot partnerships formed in order to complete joint tasks. The analysis of communication between humans and non-human others in this paper extends and clarifies Levinas’ conception of the face to face encounter, but its ideas also advocate the importance of noticing difference and change in supporting ethical human-human communication.
In Levinas’ philosophy the retention of difference between interlocutors is associated with the recognition that they are in an asymmetrical relation. The presence of this asymmetry might seem to undermine the face to face as an ethical interaction (the need for equality being something that is more often associated with ethics). However, from a perspective that understands ethical communication in terms of face to face encounters, asymmetry is not something to be overcome, but rather is an aspect of communication that must be seriously considered since it offers the opportunity to respect the alterity of the other. The central contention of this paper is that the asymmetry between communicators need not be regarded as fixed. Rather, by analysing specific examples of human interactions with non-human others, this paper identifies complex and changing asymmetries of power as communicators and their relationships develop and alter in response to the context of their communication.