I'll quote from two useful sources in my discussion: Adriaan Peperzak's To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, which is available in its entirety online, and Benjamin Yost's "Responsibility and Revision: A Levinasian Argument for the Abolition of Capital Punishment." Any misrepresentation of their work--or of Levinas--is entirely my own. (Debaters who lack the hours to peruse Peperzak's exegesis will find use in Bettina Bergo's capably brief summary of Levinas's life and work.)
For debaters who are tired of the same old Utilitarianism vs. Deontology arguments, Levinas' approach offers a way out. It is profoundly humanistic, and critical of all-encompassing formulas or categorical imperatives. Although Levinas' prose (translated from French) can be intimidating, his core idea is understandable with a little effort.
The Core Idea: Responsibility
A human's first encounter with another human--the Other--shocks us out of our unreflective egoism, an egoism that other ethicists confuse with selfhood. According to Levinas, it is not until we recognize the existence of the Other--and their infinite claims to our attention, resources, and time--that we develop a sense of responsibility to them, and understand our own nature. As their needs are infinite, our responsibility to them must be infinite; and, as Yost explains,
...responsibility is asymmetric--meaning that the other has no responsibility to me--and radically singular--my responsibilities are mine and cannot be passed of to, or shared by, anyone else.Or, as Peperzak puts it,
[a just] being does not concentrate on its own happiness or even on the sublime form in which this happiness can present itself within the framework of a belief in human immortality or soul... [since] it has turned from egoistical injustice in order to dedicate itself to the service of the Other.Levinas' critical project is aimed straight at Kantian and contractualist defininitions of justice as reciprocity between free agents. Yost again:
This is because Levinas puts responsibility where Kant, and the liberal tradition more generally, would put freedom--to be human is to be responsible, and the other’s needs constitute the fundamental value. Being responsible for others is about transcending the drive toward self-preservation and self-enhancement.... As a result, our responsibilities for others cannot be determined by, nor limited by, the responsibilities others bear for us. Duties are not cut from the cloth of reciprocity. This view is in sharp distinction to liberal justice.
Levinas' position, square in the critical camp, makes using his ideas a challenge for LDers, as on the one hand, it places justice and ethics at the first priority, but on the other hand, makes no specific normative claims. As Peperzak explains,
[Levinas'] ethical terminology... does not point the way to a system of commands and prohibitions. It describes the situation of responsibility that precedes every ethics--a relation that "constitutes" me even before I can ask: "How should I conduct myself?" or "What should I do?" As an adequate description of the subject, insofar as it escapes the order of Being, ethical language is pre- or meta-ontological. As characteristic of a situation that precedes freedom, it is also pre- or meta-ethical.Levinas rankles against the systematizing impulse of most ethical theorizers, framing such an impulse as a sort of abdication of moral responsibility. Back to Yost:
Now, if responsibility is singular and asymmetric, it is non-generalizable, and cannot be used to deduce moral norms that bind anyone other than oneself. Indeed, to convert singular demands into generalized norms will turn out to be, in some sense, a betrayal of responsibility. In doing so, one shirks one’s responsibilities by passing them off to others.... Levinas cannot, therefore,address the basic concern of mainstream normative ethics, which is to establish a catalogue of moral duties. Instead, Levinas encourages vigorous criticism of these catalogues, on the grounds that they justify limits on our responsibilities.
... And How to Overcome Them
That doesn't preclude what Yost calls "Levinasian" arguments in favor of universal human rights (or, in Yost's own view, against specific policies such as the death penalty). Justice itself is a universal principle, as Peperzak explains:
The simultaneity of many others distances me from the infinity of my responsibility. The contradiction caused by an infinite claim that is multiplied can only be overcome by the opening up of a dimension in which all others are served, respected, and treated justly: the dimension of universal justice. The infinite "principle" of transcendence... necessitates its own universalization and therewith a certain limitation. This is the "origin" of justice as the concern for a universally just order. This justice demands comparison (of unique and incomparable others), coexistence (of those whose "truth" can only "appear" in a face-to-face), gathering, equality (of the differents), administration, politics (which necessarily includes totalization), and so on.Or, as our house's resident ten-year-old Keira summarizes, "There was a dimension where he went into a dimension, and then found the face-to-face of justiceness."
Can we go farther, and link this "justiceness" to the lived reality of political justice? Peperzak says that Levinas says yes.
The infinite obligation now becomes the duty of justice. I must be just in the distribution of my attention and devotion. I must compare and calculate, correct and order, treat others as equals and conduct myself as a judge.... The ethical relation of the One-for-the-Other obligates us to the rational organization of society, in which justice is exercised and violence is suppressed.Yost adds,
Those who argue that Levinas’ philosophy has political implications include (Burggraeve 2002), (Caygill 2002), (Critchley 1992), (Critchley 2007), (Perpich 2008). Critchley and Perpich defend very general implications. Caygill and Burggraeve derive more concrete ones, especially with respect to the extension and protection of human rights.The full cites:
Burggraeve 2002. "The Wisdom of Love in the Service of Love : Emmanuel Levinas on Justice, Peace, and Human Rights. "
Caygill 2002. Levinas and the Political.
Critchley 1992. The Ethics of Deconstruction : Derrida and Levinas.
Critchley 2007. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance.
Perpich 2008. The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas.
I haven't read them, but you're welcome and encouraged to.
And, for extra credit, compare and contrast Levinas' idea of responsibility with Sarte's "anguish."