March 30, 2020 - 2:00pm

The philosopher that has began to corner my attention of late is the French thinker, Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), and in particular his idea that ethics should be understood as primarily rooted in the face-to-face encounter. Whereas philosophers in the tradition of Descartes worried that there is no reliable basis for establishing the full reality of other people — there being some unbreachable epistemological distance between us and others — Levinas argued that it is through the face of the other that their full reality, separate from us, but nonetheless unquestionably real, is established.

The face is where we are exposed to the other, where we are most defenceless, expressive. The face is where we come alive to other people, and they come alive to us. This, for Levinas, is the basis of all ethics. The face of the other exerts a moral claim upon us. It contains a kind of request or plea: “thou shalt not kill”. The face can also contain the demand: help me.

Of course, the question as to what sort of claim is being made here is a particularly tricky one in philosophical terms. Behind these deceptively simple statements is a rather complex phenomenology about the nature of the relationship between reality and appearance. But bracketing out this huge question for the time being, what Levinas’ emphasis on the moral charge of the face-to-face encounter does raise, especially at this time of lockdown, is whether the face of the other has the same moral charge when mediated via Facebook or Facetime (significantly named) or indeed Zoom.

On the Moral Maze last week, the psychotherapist Hilda Burke made the observation that she has found it so much more difficult to conduct her sessions with clients over the internet. The sort of clues that therapists pick up on, how people walk into the room, their facial expressions etc. are so much trickier to read over when digitally re-presented.

And this makes me wonder about the moral impact that the current restrictions on face-to-face encounters might have. If Levinas is right that this is where morality is rooted, will the fact that we are conducting so much more of our business with each other through various forms of digital mediation serve to impede or disrupt the moral valence of the face of the other? I don’t know. But if the nastiness of so much social media is anything to go by, there is some reason to think that it might. And so it is something we need to watch out for.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.