The Treatment of Ethics in Precarious Life by Judith Butler and Never Let Me Go

Last Updated: 04 Jan 2023
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Before I dive into the treatment of ethics that Precorious Life plays in Never Let Me Go, here’s some food for thought: what ethical demand does a person who has a precarious life make on you? Could the individual be asking for help or do you feel for that person? In Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, she thoughtfully writes to figure out multiple aspects of ethics. By using Butler’s Precarious Life as a theoretical framework for Never Let Me Go, I will discuss the treatment of ethics and how they are truly downgraded through dehumanization, Never Let Me Go boldly advocates dehumanization by “othering” the clones at Hailsham and the individuals they are trying to help. The thought of dehumanization came to me after reading Judith Butler’s Precarious Life in which she focuses on as a segment of her excerpt. In Butler’s excerpt she ventures off into multiple aspects of precariousness, one being that we “other” those who have a precarious life.

For this essay “othering” will be associated with dehumanization as I further elaborate on Butler’s ideas and how they are presented in Never Let Me Go. Dehumanization will also be the only regard since after re—reading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, the role of dehumanization becomes more apparent for the sole reason that Ishiguro boldly chooses to dehumanize the characters in his novel by “othering” them in her excerpt, Precarious Life, Butler states: “When we think about the ordinary ways that we think about humanization and dehumanization, we find the assumption that those who gain representation have a better chance of being humanized, and those who have no chance to represent themselves run a greater risk of being treated as less than human, regarded as less than human, or indeed, not regarded at all".

In other words, Butler is saying that when society thinks of the concept of humanization or dehumanization they assume that individuals whom have a better image will be treated accordingly and those who don’t have a chance of creating a better image are not regarded as much or at all. An example of the lack of self-representation Butler is speaking of may very well be the fact that the Hailsham students, the clones, do not have much knowledge of their own purpose or why such things affect them. In fact, they did not know what their purpose in life was before their guardian, Miss Lucy, had told them She began by saying “You’ve been told about itr You’re students. You’re special. 50 keeping yourselves well, keeping yourselves very healthy inside, that’s much more important for each of you than it is for me".

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The exaggerated pause when Miss Lucy Claims the clones are special brings to surface what Miss Lucy is aware of it is a morose and sarcastic compliment to ward off how they are being used At Hailsham the students lack the self-representation Butler speaks of therefore not having any chance of being humanized. To further elaborate on the idea of dehumanization, Butler uses Levinas’ theory of the face and questions how we come to the difference between the inhuman but humanizing face and the dehumanization that can also take place through the face (Butler 141). Butler is seeking the ethical demand when we are presented with precariousness. The real question is whether humanization is the response to the ethical demand or is dehumanization the response? Based on Levinas‘ theory there is a face we choose to respond too. It is not an actual face, it is an aura a person gives off when we see them. One response is choosing to help because we want too and the other is choosing to help because we pity the “other."

For the students at Hailsham they live a precarious life in which they‘re pitiedi. By taking Levinas’ theory of the face, the precarious life the Hailsham students lead is associated with the ethical demand the face is making. When their guardians are not able to identify with them because they see them as disposable creatures is the response that embodies dehumanization, but Madame hadn‘t nearly come up to the threshold she just went on standing there staring at me with that same look in her eyes like she was seeing something that gave her the creeps”. The previous quote is a part when Madame saw Kathy hug a pillow as if it were her baby. When Kathy describes the stare that Madame was giving, it signals the dehumanizing aspect.

The ethical demand is when Kathy hugs the pillow while listening to the song Never Let Me Got. Because readers are well aware that they’re clones and could not be humanly identified with, her actions are the face that asks for help. It is an unconscious and subtle precariousness that Madame responds to by crying later on Through dramatic irony we are aware that they are inhuman characters and so the world around them dehumanizes them because they pity their precariousness. In her article, “Ishiguro’s Inhuman Aesthetics,” Black points out that the reader will not identify with Ishiguro‘s characters through the sudden realization that they are just like us, but through escaping the traditional concept of what being human is Black goes against dehumanization occurring and suggests that empathy is the true connection of identifying with the precarious life that Ishiguro’s characters lead.

She states: "The act of identifying with someone else’s experience is deeply tied to our everyday understanding of what it means to be human”. Continuing with this notion Butler responds to Levinas’ theory by saying: “It seems to be that the “face” of what he calls the “Other” makes an ethical demand upon me, and yet we do not know which demand it makes” (Butler 131) What Butler is saying is the very precarious individuals give off an impression which makes an ethical demand upon those who are not precarious Butler complicates matters further when she quotes Levinas to elaborate on his notion of the face. “My ethical relation of love for the other stems from the fact that the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world. In ethics, the other’s right to exist has primacy over my own, a primacy epitomized in the ethical edict: you shall not kill, you shall not jeopardize the life of the other“.

Butler is bringing to the surface that society chooses to help others because they are moved by their hardships and want nothing more than to visualize them (the others) being stable just as those who are. My view, however, contrary to what Butler has quoted, is that the ethical relation an individual may have towards someone who cannot survive is dehumanizing. No matter how much one may want to help another, that one person unconsciously dehumanizes the “other.” What society sees as humanity is just a mask of dehumanization, Although not all readers think alike, some of them will probably dispute the claim that Never Let Me Go dehumanizes the characters in the novel by “othering” them. One thing that is certain in lshiguro’s novel is that the Hailsham students were made and given purpose so they can donate their vital organs to those in need.

While it is true that scientists and the guardians at Hailsham came up and executed the innovation of cloning in order to provide organs for a person in need, it does not necessarily follow that they are committing an act of humanity. In choosing to help those in need, by having the Hailsham students donate their vital organs, the scientists and guardians behind it all are also dehumanizing those they intend to help. Society in Never Let Me Go is responding to their own ethical relation and in doing so are “othering” those is need because they are precarious; living life on edge not knowing what’s going to happen nextt. If they do not receive the organs that they need death may become of them Lastly to further the idea of how “othering” ties into ethics Butler says: “If the Other, the Other’s face, which after all carries the meaning of this precariousness then the face operates to produce a struggle for me, and establishes this struggle at the heart of ethics“.

Here Butler is making comment toward the trigger of ethics. If somehow a person’s face carries the impression of some type of precariousness, or at least if the non precarious person notices, then it produces a struggle for the non-precarious being. The precariousness of an individual is the face asking another to assume the responsibility of helping. It is the very help that dehumanizes the precarious individual since it is seen as a struggle. The previous example is the epitome of how Never Let Me Go treats the concept of humanization and dehumanization Life around the Hailsham students continuously moves. To their society, the students present a struggle, and the duty to assume the responsibility of getting them out of such a precarious life. To respond to the ethical demand the clones are unconsciously making, society deems them inhuman and dehumanizes them as a response for the struggle they’re producing.

Butler was right when she quoted Levinas’ ethical relation of love for the other, however, the ethical relation taking place in Never Let Me Go is dehumanizing for the utmost reason that “other“ beings present a struggle that one feels they invariably must respond too. Thus, while Never Let Me Go advocates dehumanization by othering their clones to donate to those in need, we must also remember that by helping those in need they are also being dehumanized. There is no real humanity, for real humanity is an individual‘s ethical relation and the reason they choose to respond to both their relation and the ethical demand that precariousness makes. Alas by taking Butler‘s Precarious Life as an example we learn that the face is the trigger of ethics which ultimately leads to dehumanization.

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The Treatment of Ethics in Precarious Life by Judith Butler and Never Let Me Go. (2023, Jan 03). Retrieved from

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