For the purposes of this post, I define ethics as representing that branch of rigorous thinking that asks questions about human practice and behavior as that practice relates to the good. On this definition, two positions stand out as being at opposite ends of the same continuum. Bakhtin thinks of ethical interactions as being the state in which one is responsible to the Other. Levinas, on the other hand, thinks of ethical in terms of the face-to-face encounter in which one accepts responsibility for the other. The to/for distinction is found in the children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. Three characters help me to think in terms of this distinction. Charlotte, Templeton and Wilbur, each for different reasons, are characters with whom one can draw on the to/for distinction.
Templeton, the rat, represents the to of Bakhtin. In Bakhtin’s sense, one is responsible to the Other, however, as one accepts this responsibility one is acting in one’s own self-interest. For Bakhtin, a personal reward, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, is always attached to the act of being responsible to the Other. In the case of Templeton, usually at Charlotte’s urging, he accepts responsibility to Wilbur only when he is convinced that there is something in it for him. Charlotte, on the other hand, is purely Levinasian. She is responsible (better written as Response-Able) for Wilbur. On this stance, Charlotte accepts the idea that she is response-able even before the existence of the Other is known. Response-ability is a selfless act, pointing to the absolute imperative of action for the Other–even at the risk of one’s own existence.
Then there is Wilbur himself. In the story Wilbur is the one who waits. Wilbur is the recipient of Charlotte’s for and Templeton’s to. In a sense, Wilbur’s character provides the mediating tool allowing both Charlotte and Templeton to act to his benefit but Wilbur is not the agent of the to/for. He merely waits, anticipates what is to come. He prays without prayer while he lives his life within the boundary of (not)knowing. In a very real sense, Wilbur is us!