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Subjectivity as Conflict: Taking Responsibility for Ethical Dilemmas


In this work, I show that we face deeply troubling ethical dilemmas whenever we decide how to prioritize our time in response to the needs of others in the course of our entirely ordinary lives. These dilemmas arise as the result of conflicts between obligations to multiple others—for example between our loved ones versus strangers. I argue that contemporary moral literature misunderstands the nature and consequences of conflicts of this kind.

To work out a more comprehensive analysis of everyday ethical dilemmas, I utilize Michael Sandel’s critique of moral individualism as a springboard from which to make progress toward a theory that more adequately captures their regularity and force. Sandel’s project is both interesting and promising because it focuses its constructive efforts on the conception of the individual underlying modern moral theory, questioning the role and limits of autonomy and responsibility in determining our moral obligations to others.

Ultimately, Sandel’s project, while moving in the right direction, does not fully address the concerns that motivate his critique. A more satisfactory account requires a more radical rethinking of the relation between autonomy and responsibility, as found in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas’ conception of responsibility as a necessary condition for autonomy illuminates the nature and consequences of everyday dilemmas such that it becomes clear that, while they are necessarily inescapable, they require a proper response. This response, I argue, entails that each of us to take responsibility for the fundamental conflict of subjectivity by engaging in ethical discourse and navigating concrete dilemmas without appealing to predetermined moral norms.

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