Machines and the face of ethics


In this article I try to show in what sense Emmanuel Levinas’ ‘ethics as first philosophy’ moves our ethical thinking away from what has been called ‘centrist ethics’. Proceeding via depictions of the structure of Levinasian ethics and including references to examples as well as to some empirical research, I try to argue that human beings always already find themselves within an ethical universe, a space of meaning. Critically engaging with the writings of David Gunkel and Lucas Introna, I try to argue that these thinkers, rather than clarifying, distort our ethical understanding of how we stand in relation to artefacts. Drawing a distinction between how pervasive our ethical relationship to other human beings, and living animals, is and how the nature of artefacts is tied to us, I conclude by indicating that the aspiration to give artefacts an ethical face suggests a fantasy to avoid ethical responsibility and generates what I call a ‘compensatory logic’.

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  1. 1.

    While moral agency focuses on whether an entity can act morally, moral patiency asks whether the entity is capable of, in some sense, suffering a loss essential to its self-integrity and being.

  2. 2.

    I am not here referring to any unified tradition in western philosophy. Nevertheless, as far as I can see, there have been many thinkers who have conceived of philosophy itself as always and already not only an ethical task, for to such a conception many would ascribe themselves, but more importantly to an understanding of thinking itself as ethically charged and even constituted. Some of these thinkers would include Socrates (see Wallgren 2006), St. Augustine and the early Christian thinkers, Nietzsche, Kirkegaard, Levinas and Wittgenstein.

  3. 3.

    Although I allude to Gunkel’s reading of Levinas, the account given in this paper will depict Levinas in a slightly different light than Gunkel’s interpretation. Some things I say will also be extensions or modifications of Levinas’ thoughts.

  4. 4.

    See also Darley and Batson (1973).

  5. 5.

    Here it is clear that I part with Levinas who is prone to ascribe the repression of the openness to the other and the introduction of norms and justice not so much to the dynamics I tried to shortly introduce, but to a dynamics that unfolds because there are many others, not simply the one I encounter now (Levinas 1985). I should also like to add that my own account is in indebted to the writings of my colleagues Backström (2007) and Nykänen (2002, 2014).

  6. 6.

    One should also add that especially in small scale farming, farmers usually have had and still have more direct and even affectionate relationships to their animals—this is one reason why animals are for the most part not slaughtered by the farmer him-/herself, and in any case, the act of slaughter always has a bearing on one’s conscience.

  7. 7.

    My point here is not to advocate vegetarianism, although I am in sympathy with vegetarians. My point here is simply to say that we are in an ethical relationship to animals, and the nature of that relation (which I do not qualify here) will have its bearing on meat-eating.

  8. 8.

    See for instance Northup (2014), Elkins (1976) and Davis (1966).

  9. 9.

    The same applies to all kinds of social structuring where humans are ordered and organised under social identities and categories. Elsewhere (Toivakainen 2014, 2015) I have tried to articulate how social and collective identities form a dynamical relationship to the ‘face’. As Levinas writes, the face “is what cannot become a content, which your thought would embrace; it is uncontainable, it leads you beyond (Levinas 1985, 86–87)”.

  10. 10.

    It is of course important to bear in mind that the descriptions I am giving are not descriptions of a ‘pencil’ as reduced to a purely instrumental ‘thing’. That ‘pencils’ gain their meaning through being artefacts/concepts does not diminish or rob them of anything or reduce them to mere human purposes, but is rather part of their ‘grammar’.

  11. 11.

    And here the diminishment should be understood in a double sense: By lessening the need for projection of “life” onto the object, it also lessens the use of our active imagination (quite in a similar manner as a movie displays the landscape that the novel described).

  12. 12.

    For more on the statistics of loneliness amongst elderly people see Dykstra (2009).

  13. 13.

    Elderly people’s loneliness and seclusion is not only a societal problem because most of these people have their own relatives (children, grandchildren) who in turn face the moral dilemma of how to live with the fact that they do not themselves take care of their own parents or grandparents but nevertheless want them to have a decent life.

  14. 14.

    For more, visit the Paro website at

  15. 15.

    As the general manager of an elderly home in Japan (that uses Paro dolls) Taku Kato-ono notes in an interview, animal therapy requires that the animals be taken care of, which the already scarce resources could not possibly allow for. See Accessed January 4, 2015.

  16. 16.

    I will simply give the account as it came to me in the discussion. The main importance of this example is not that it is empirically accurate, but rather that it displays a structure of thought and attitudes.

  17. 17.

    I would like to point out that anyone who claims that cleaning robots ‘give us more time with our nearest’ should consider at least two essential points. (a) Is the source to our lack of time with our loved ones due to insufficient technologies or to the life-styles we have become accustomed to. (b) Cleaning is of course not essentially contrary to spending time with loved ones. One can clean together and for instance cook dinner afterwards, spending intensive moments with each other. The problem is not that we have ‘too little time’, but with what we do with the time that we have; how we live our lives and the social structures we abide with.


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Correspondence to Niklas Toivakainen.

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Toivakainen, N. Machines and the face of ethics. Ethics Inf Technol 18, 269–282 (2016).

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  • Ethics
  • Face
  • Relationship
  • Responsibility
  • Compensatory