[For the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the encounter with another’s face was the origin of identity — the reality of the other preceding the formation of the self. The face is the substance, not just the reflection, of the infinity of another person. And from the infinity of the face comes the sense of inevitable obligation, the possibility of discourse, the origin of the ethical impulse.
The connection between the face and ethical behavior is one of the exceedingly rare instances in which French phenomenology and contemporary neuroscience coincide in their conclusions. A 2009 study by Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained the connection: “Through imitation and mimicry, we are able to feel what other people feel. By being able to feel what other people feel, we are also able to respond compassionately to other people’s emotional states.” The face is the key to the sense of intersubjectivity, linking mimicry and empathy through mirror neurons — the brain mechanism that creates imitation even in nonhuman primates.
Without a face, the self can form only with the rejection of all otherness, with a generalized, all-purpose contempt — a contempt that is so vacuous because it is so vague, and so ferocious because it is so vacuous. A world stripped of faces is a world stripped, not merely of ethics, but of the biological and cultural foundations of ethics….]