CEPA eprint 1521 (EVG-234)

On ethics

Glasersfeld E. von (2000) On ethics. ASCD Systems Thinking and Chaos Theory News Letter July: 3–4. Available at http://cepa.info/1521
When we speak of things which, as Wittgenstein said, cannot be spoken of, we inevitably say things that in some ways are wrong. In writing (as I did several times) that the constructivist approach to knowing provides an epistemological basis for ethics, because it justifies the need for others, I clearly stepped on dangerous ground. The statement was open to (and has occasioned) interpretations I did not intend. I am anxious to correct this.
I need others to confirm the ‘reality’ I have constructed, the ‘reality’ I live in, that is, my experiential environment..This reality is my rational model of the world.In my view, ethics and esthetics are not rational domains; they are private and do not spring from confirmation. We may agree that something is good, but that must never be the reason WHY we feel that it is good.Ethics pertains to the choice of goals, and it is only relative to a chosen goal that a way of acting or thinking can be deemed viableEthics comprises my intuitions about values. It tells me what I should aim for – and therefore I am responsible for what I do.I have no right to impose these intuitions on others as guidelines (as Heinz von Foerster has often said, such prescriptions are morals, not ethics).My ethics entails the moral obligation to allow others to follow their own ethical intuitions and to develop their own moral rules. (This is fundamental if I want to maintain that the responsibility for our actions can spring only from the substance of our ethical intuitions.)If I don’t like the other’s actions, I may have practical reasons for fighting against them. but I must not pretend that these reasons are ethical.If I cajole, press, or force others to obey moral rules that I have derived from my ethical intuitions, I deprive them of their responsibility – and this is a form of enslavement (using others as objects, Kant would have said).To think of the other as your “brother,” as the Christian doctrine recommends, is easily turned into a political gambit. It is fine, if I am sure that the other’s goals are the same as mine (e.g. on a sinking ship, I may be justified in assuming that we both want to survive; therefore I will help you to swim. However, if you want to smoke, I may say that I consider it dangerous, but I may not take away your cigarettes, for this would encroach on your domain of responsibility and would therefore be a deprivation of autonomy, an enslavement)I can never know what is best for the other, because this depends on the ethical and esthetical intuitions of the other, not on mine. To assume that they are the same is colonialization.Dealing with children raises an immensely difficult question: at what point can I credit them with having developed lasting ethical intuitions, with having worked out what sort of world they want to experience, and what is basically important to them? In some ways, I have to assume that their likes and dislike will be like mine; yet if this assumption goes too far, it leads to enslavement. But where is too far? – Unfortunately parents’ intuitions about this boundary are very unreliable in practice.Patriarchal societies, like parents, tend to extend vicarious responsibilities much too far. Whether matriarchal societies would be less autocratic in this respect, I do not know.Heinz has coined the splendid phrase: “Ethics tells me what to do, morals tells others.” I believe this is a fundamental understanding, and it helps me in trying to be moral according to my ethical intuitions.
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