Conflict Research Consortium ARTICLE SUMMARY

"The Face of the Other: Ethics and Intergroup Conflict"


Roberto Toscano

Citation: Roberto Toscano, "The Face of the Other: Ethics and Intergroup Conflict," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 63-81.

This article summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff.

After many years of practice in the field, Toscano turns to consider the ethical foundations of international relations. He has chosen to use the term "intergroup" rather than "international" in his title to emphasize two points. First, many non-state actors play important roles in the current world situation and so the term "international" is no longer descriptively adequate. Second, identifying a group as a nation has normative consequences. "In terms of conventional morals state-sanctioned group violence has been traditionally not only exempted from ethical stigma but has been morally exalted."(p. 63) Nations are allowed to use violence on their own behalf in ways that would be considered quite unacceptable for individuals, families, or other groups. Reference to nations then begs the very ethical question of when violence is acceptable.

In this article Toscano argues that "beyond all territorial issues, economic rivalries, mutual fears (necessary, but not sufficient conditions), violent conflicts are made possible only by the existence of partial ethics."(p. 64) Partial ethics are ethical views which favor one group over another, or privilege one identity at the expense of another. Nationalists, for example, espouse a partial ethical view. In order to resolve or prevent violent conflicts we must appeal to nonpartial ethical views. The author draws on the ethical theory of Levinas to describe such a nonpartial ethics.

Toscano argues that it is not simply identity that leads to violent conflicts. After all, some identity is a prerequisite for love, solidarity and altruism. It is a particular type of identity, the narcissistic identity, which leads to violent conflict. Narcissistic identities are generally based on some founding myth which describes the group's noble or divine origins, and which either celebrates their glorious past achievements, or broods on some past injustice which deprived them of their previous wellbeing. "In the end," Toscano notes, "identity is no longer sought in the hypothetical common bond shared within the group but in the real alien blood that is spilled outside it."(p. 67)

Narcissistic identities are conflict generating in at least four ways. First, such founding myths are unfalsifiable, and so disagreements over them cannot be addressed by reason or persuasion. Second, such myths are by their very nature not amenable to compromise. Third, the positive self-view of the narcissistic group entails a negative view of an other group. In order for them to be better, someone else must be worse. Finally, narcissistic identities over-value themselves, and under-value others, denying the ethical relevance of the others. "Thus, when real or perceived conflicts of interests, real or perceived threats originate with another group, the human individual, who as a rule abhorret a sanguine, reacts together with the group in ways that are totally detached from the ethical standards that she or he would uphold as an individual without seeing, as a rule, any contradiction between being 'a good person' and being a ferocious soldier for the group (be it the nation state or the tribe)."(p. 66)

Individual violence and group violence are different in nature. Individual violence is a concrete response to specific, personal characteristics or actions. In contrast, group violence is impersonal, a response to abstract reasons. Toscano explains, "Real individual neighbors are not necessarily loved, but they are loved or hated for concrete, not abstract reasons. And especially they are not hated en masse. On the contrary in order to apply group violence to the neighbor as belonging to a category, the concrete individual's face has to be erased: the person must become an abstraction."(p. 68)

Erasure of the other is not a natural, spontaneous occurrence. It is a political achievement by group leaders. Although the details differ, the basic process of erasure is generally the same. Leaders work to convince their group that they are special and valuable, that certain objective goals are intrinsic and necessary to their group's existence, that members of the other group are treacherous and despicable without exception, and that the two groups are engaged in a zero-sum, us or them, struggle for survival. As Toscano describes it,"'The last eclair on the dessert tray' is always described, in nationalist propaganda, as 'the last life jacket for your own child.'"(p. 68) Life becomes conceived of as a battle for survival. Actions are governed by necessity. There is no room for choice , and so no room for ethical choice, and so no room for ethics.

Toscano argues that conflict is not a more natural human condition than coexistence. The belief that conflict is the natural human condition stems from the dialectical paradigm of history. According to the dialectic view opposing positions (thesis and antithesis) are resolved by being extinguished in a new synthesis, or solution. Dialectics are intrinsically conflictual. The dialectical attitude tends to deny the opposing side's right to exist, seeing them as destined to be extinguished in the inevitable synthesis of the conflict.

Instead Toscano prefers a coexistence paradigm . On this view differences are unavoidable and irreducible. If differences are seen as necessary and inevitable, there is less motive to extinguish the other in the name of a resolution of those differences. This paradigm recognizes he other's right to exist.

Toscano also argues for a shift from mythic views of history to more honest, complete and well-rounded accounts. Notions of identity must shift from partial, narcissistic accounts to impartial accounts which recognize the reality of self and of others. One way to create this recognition is to emphasize the concreteness of others. Toscano concedes however that knowledge of the other is often not sufficient to compel recognition of the moral reality of the other.

Recognizing the moral reality of the other is necessary for ethics, but is not the whole of ethics. Ethics also requires accepting responsibility for the other. But what of distant others who we will never know as concrete individuals? How are we to deal with abstract, distant others? Toscano again turns to Levinas to address these questions. Our ethical relations with concrete others are to be guided primarily by solidarity. Our relations with distant others must be guided primarily by rules of impartial justice.

Ethics are substantive, and apply to concrete persons at the individual level. Justice is procedural, and applies to abstract other at the institutional level. And yet ethics and justice each set needed limits on the other. General laws are ultimately applied to real people, and so justice must be tempered with mercy. Ethical focus on the other can lead to unjust self-sacrifice and an unjustly narrow focus on proximate others, and so compassion must be tempered with fairness.

In dealing with intergroup conflicts we should seek more concrete knowledge of others, and a greater sense of recognition and responsibility for others. In the case of distant others this ethical impulse must be supplemented by laws of justice. In the case of international relations, where distant relations predominate, the legal approach must be primary. The goal is to secure "the equal submission of all to rules."(p. 76) Yet even at the international level ethical concerns for compassion and solidarity must temper the formation and application of laws.