CEPA eprint 2909

Epistemological origins of ethics

Hugh G. (2000) Epistemological origins of ethics. In: Steffe L. P. & Thompson P. W. (eds.) Radical constructivism in action: Building on the pioneering work of Ernst von Glasersfeld. Routledge/Falmer, London: 80–90. Available at http://cepa.info/2909
Table of Contents
Ways of Knowing and Ways of Relating
Constructivist Issues
The Problem with Viability
Towards a Constructivist Ethics of Mutual Respect
‘Reality without Parenthesis’
I pause and decentre
‘Reality in and without Parenthesis’
Deuterolearning: Learning to Learn
Lewin’s chapter [Lewin 2000] focuses on the need for a constructivist ethics. His position calls for an analysis of ways in which knowledge and relationships are associated. This response is concerned with the following themes: first, connections between ways of knowing and ways of relating in constructivist writings; second, some constructivist issues in Lewin’s chapter; and third, I describe a series of constructivist intervention studies designed to apply constructivist educational strategies for ethical reasons.
Ways of Knowing and Ways of Relating
A number of constructivist theorists have drawn attention to the ethical and social implications of their epistemology. For Kelly (1955) ways of knowing were ultimately ways of relating. This follows from the anticipatory and dynamic nature of knowing. Kelly saw behaviour as governed, not simply from what people anticipate in the short term – but by where the choices will lead in the longer term. What we know about people bears on the ways in which we relate to them. The constructions that we make determine the nature of our interdependencies. Maturana (1988, 1991) has been clear about the ethical implications of two types of explaining and Foerster (1991) has shown how thoughts about one’s relationship to experience have ethical implications. Which is the primary cause, the world or my experience of it? Foerster adopted the position that his experience is the primary cause and the world the consequence. This ties him inseparably and inevitably to his responsibility. Finally, Glasersfeld has noted that constructivism leads to greater tolerance in social interactions. This tolerance arises when one realizes that neither problems nor solutions are ontological entities but arise out of ways of constructing. A world arises out of a way of seeing, a way of experiencing. That is not to say that we find all ways or all worlds equally likable (e.g. Glasersfeld, 1991, 1995).
I would like to draw attention to three features of constructivism before turning to some specifics of Philip Lewin’s contribution. First, constructivism emphasizes the role we have in organizing our experience, the way in which we make our understandings. Glasersfeld (1995), by his use of the word ‘radical’ in the phrase ‘radical constructivism’, signalled a break with a tradition that has been dominant for about two thousand years. Further, by showing the connections that the constructivist epistemological position has with cybernetics, he displayed both it’s plausibility and power. To those whose implicit epistemology reflects the traditional view, one of the most unsettling of the implications is that different ways of understanding, different answers, may not be wrong. Instead, they may reflect an alternative way of looking at experience. Second, constructivism invites an openness to consider the ideas of other people and an openness to reconsider one’s own ideas. Such openness requires both tolerance for uncertainty, and respect for others. Third, in coming to understand something new, there is a fragility in the learner stemming from the need to let go of previous knowledge. As adults we know how hard it is to change. So constructivist teaching requires respect for this fragility in the learner. Respecting learners in this way has two desirable consequences. First, it will allow students to grow to trust their own processes. Second, this trust in turn will allow them to develop confidence to examine their worlds responsibly.
Constructivist Issues
The Problem with Viability
As Lewin pointed out in the first part of his chapter, the constructions of the learner generate their own constraints. This is an essential part of an individual’s development. The choices people make in life leave their marks on them. These choices depend on the reflexive interaction between a person’s prior organization of past experience and the perceived opportunities in ongoing experience. Once one moves from considering an individual’s constructions to considering how these are perceived by another, one can enter the ethical domain. From an ethical point of view, it is not enough to say that viability will be the criterion of choice. There can be an unsettling moral blindness compatible with cultural life and indeed with viability.
I agree that there is a need to attend to the ethical domain. It is certainly possible to avoid it, but as Glasersfeld has remarked, when one understands constructivism it touches everything. There is a dilemma in that ethical issues. being about right and wrong, provide a challenge to the respect that constructivism gives to different ways of understanding. There are a number of reasons why this dilemma has not been resolved. First, as Lewin has pointed out, there is a coincidence between the values of constructivism and of contemporary culture. Another reason is that many people understand constructivism to imply a profound relativism.
Towards a Constructivist Ethics of Mutual Respect
In the two years I spent at Georgia (1973–1975) there was a series of informal interdisciplinary seminars we called ‘constructivist evenings’, which were organized by Ernst von Glasersfeld. The metaphorical nature of the word ‘reality’ was a recurring theme. Reality, to use Robert Pirsig’s (1973) word, was a ‘cleavage’ term: one’s attitudes to constructivism and its implications seem predictable from one’s attitude to the word ‘reality’. Indeed, the interpretation of ‘reality’ is central to the distinction between adaptation and viability (e.g. Glasersfeld 1987, p. 67). So while I agree wholly with Lewin that to forget the historical nature of constructions entails a loss of coherence, the distinction between hard and soft constraints perturbs me. I wonder if there is a way to express Lewin’s intention that does not seem to allow reality to reappear in the guise of hard constraints.
‘Reality without Parenthesis’
If I were not being constructivist, I could put this in another way. My first and unguarded reaction is to attack the possibility of distinguishing between hard constraints and soft constraints! That distinction seems to me either (1) to be the result of a realist epistemology, or (2) to invite or make legitimate such an interpretation. Sensing the emotions associated with threat, my discourse switches to ‘reality without parenthesis’. This is a moment to notice that there were many ‘war arenas’ in our world in the 1990s. The relation between threat and rigidity seems to be a general phenomenon. I want to draw attention to the way that the emotion I experience on interpreting the text is an important determinant of my response.
I pause and decentre
I remember the value of mutual respect, and I rephrase my response: my concern is that the introduction of hard and soft constraints invites precisely that trivialization of constructivist insights that Lewin (Ch. 4) decries (pp. 44–5 above). The problem is that the terms ‘right’, ‘wrong’, and ‘error’ carry heavy non-constructivist connotations. Hard/soft constraints (and right/wrong) require an observer; and can only be observed after an individual has done something. There is a difficulty in specifying the meaning of ‘correctness’ within constructivist theory. In this paragraph, my emotion is respect, and a desire to discuss the distinctions hard/weak, and correct/incorrect. As a result, my response is not dismissive. The emotion or construct under which I operate plays a powerful role in determining my response.
Notice, however, that I have introduced in the preceding paragraphs what I find to be an important ethical corollorary of the constructivist position. Namely, the grounds or implicit epistemological assumptions in an argument are braided-interwoven with the form of one’s social relations and with the emotions at play in social interaction. I will return to this later. At present I am proposing decidability/undecidability as an alternative to hard and soft constraints.
Lewin wrote about hard and soft constraints in ways that acknowledge ideas of scientific orthodoxy (hard) and the right of individuals to differ on cultural matters (soft). I think there are problems with this view. First, scientific orthodoxy is no remedy for the durability of misconceptions of scientific concepts in nonspecialists. So the existence of so called ‘hard constraints’ is no guarantee that these constraints will actually constrain. There are similar problems with soft constraints. Cultural rules may be variable and so qualify for the appellation ‘soft constraint’. However, there are severe consequences to ignoring cultural rules in cultures with clear social rules (e.g. business or religious cultures). Compare ‘liaisons’ of President Clinton and President Mitterrand, and public reaction in each case. Clearly there are differences in the cultural construction of boundaries between individual and social domains. For me, the distinction hard/soft distracts from constructivist insights into the role of the individual’s activity in knowing and invites ‘creeping realism’. However, I do acknowledge the important role of social support for ideas an individual constructs and expresses.
Consider from a constructivist stance some uses of the term ‘correct’ as a prelude to introducing (un)decidability as an alternative to soft and hard constraints. People construct their descriptions of wine from a particular bottle, their gender stereotypes, and their responses to ‘9×7=?’. What can be said about correctness in each case? It is often difficult, and I include myself, to remember consistently to eschew rightness/wrongness, correctness/ incorrectness, and espouse viability. There is much cultural support for the idea that one way is best.
I act regularly as a judge in wine competitions. In this capacity I have noticed that people’s judgments may differ radically (but legitimately) from their peers’. Tasters may, for example, simply apply different categories (with different meanings and associated criteria of validation) to the experience. Application of different categories to their experiences of a wine by two individuals would not be wrong. I have also observed a social consensus emerging in groups of wine tasters who meet regularly. In the case of gender stereotypes, constructs (e.g. emotional, dependent, and strong) differ developmentally and culturally. I have samples of data from 8- and 11-year-old children in different countries illustrating such differences in perceptions of personal-social gender stereotypes. Again, difference does not imply incorrectness, and again social support for an individual’s stereotyped views plays an important role (see Gash, 1993).
It is clearer that a person can be wrong about their numbers. However, an answer to a mathematics problem may be wrong either because of processing errors, or because the wrong ‘items’ were manipulated. Again, however, as in the other two examples, while it is the constructed entities and the actions of an individual on them which create the error, ultimately the error is social. Following Maturana (1988), the error is only recognized after the event when the mathematical expression has moved from the level of experience to the level of explanation. So agreement about correctness in mathematics stems from agreement about items and which operations on them are permissible.
An alternative way in which we can look at constraints is to use ‘decidability/ undecidability’, just as Heinz Foerster did in defining metaphysics: ‘We turn into metaphysicians…whenever we decide on questions that are in principle undecidable’ (1991, p. 63). The advantage of this is to provide a way to expose the items and operations in any position. There are various ways to proceed in solving a problem, negotiating a perturbation, or generally adopting a position. In addition, the results may not be viable. However, there are ways of deciding whether the procedures used are viable. We can decide whether a number is divisible by seven, no matter what its size. It took centuries to provide the procedure to decide that xn+yn=zn has no solutions in positive integers for n greater than two (Fermat’s theorem). Now, thanks to Andrew Wiles, this is decidable. More generally, if we examine disagreements in terms of process, then we look at the ways in which the positions have been constructed. Positions taken will have been constructed from individual viewpoints. These positions may contain undecidables. But by searching the process and examining both the items and the operations one can hope to see where the difference lies, and on what it is based. For all these reasons I prefer and advocate decidability/undecidability as an alternative to the distinction between hard and soft constraints.
While Lewin has made his distaste for some of Maturana’s views explicit, I suspect Lewin’s criticism stems in part from his view of Maturana’s reconstrual of terms such as ‘love’. I would like to offer a positive perspective on a way Maturana (1988) described the intersection of epistemology and ethics. He distinguished two types of explanation. I identify one of these ‘explanatory paths’ with a constructivist orientation, the path of reality in parenthesis. In the other ‘explanatory path’ reality is without parenthesis. What Maturana says about these types of explanations offers a basis for a constructivist ethics.
‘Reality in and without Parenthesis’
When we operate in an explanatory path of ‘reality in parenthesis’ we accept responsibility for the making of our statements and their limitations. In addition we offer explanations based on the procedures needed to arrive at them. In disagreements there is a recognition that the other may have been applying different criteria of acceptability in their explaining. Further, in conversation we may cease to differ by recognizing the different domains in which we have been operating.
On the other hand, when we operate in an explanatory path of ‘reality without parenthesis’ we do not accept responsibility for our statements. Tolerance is jettisoned. Our cognitive processes are hidden. We do not have to base statements on their constitutive operations. The truth of statements is not in question. In disagreements the other is wrong, and power is exerted to demand compliance with what is self-evidently true. I think the use of decidability/ undecidability avoids invoking the ‘reality without parenthesis’ which seems to be implied by hard constraints.
Would it be possible to promote the important ethical consequences achieved by adopting the explanatory path of ‘reality in parenthesis’? Could parents learn, for example, to interact in this way with their children? It is my suspicion that learning to be tolerant of others may be learned most easily in infancy in transactions with parents and others. At some stage in development I believe it becomes more difficult to be tolerant. If we can judge by the global political situation, it seems very difficult for many adults to learn.
Deuterolearning: Learning to Learn
Lewin identified early learning experiences as critical for the future education of young people. It is by means of education that we hope to pass on what we have found valuable in our experience. Bateson (1972) described how a process of multilevelled recursive learnings provided a framework to explain how personality is formed. I used Bateson’s formulation in thinking about children’s learning of gender stereotypes (Gash, 1993), and, with my colleague Vincent Kenny, I have tried to develop general ways of reducing prejudice (Gash and Kenny, 1997).
Is it the case that the powerlessness to which Philip Lewin has referred arises because of the implications of the radical constructivist model? Is it that the varieties of ways to explain experience, which are all legitimized by constructivism, have paralysed our sense of evaluation? Have we become afraid to adopt positions ourselves? If this is so for some, let us accept the challenge to differ, and offer encouragement to all to make explicit what they feel is valuable. It is a truism that each generation in any culture must pass on its insights to the next generation. If we believe in the theories we work with, we will work to pass on what is valuable. I believe that the increase in awareness of the validity of different viewpoints is reflected in a variety of contemporary cultural phenomena. These include constructivist writings, and the collapse of dominant totalitarian systems (e.g. Communism, the USSR, and many families). At present in Ireland there are tensions between (a) old authoritarian forms of control such as the Church, and (b) the democratic desire for a pluralist society. The international community will be aware that these tensions are explosive in the North of Ireland. Yet constructivist insights offer a way out, if people can see how to put these insights into practice. At this time our hopes for peace are high in the Republic of Ireland.
The constructivist model of learning and development provides an account of the conditions needed for change. It is in a system’s interest to change if it will become more viable after the change. This could be explained in many ways. In what follows I delve into one example introduced above – parenthesizing reality.
If we adopt the explanatory path of ‘reality in parenthesis’, the limits of statements are transparent. We can allow others the space to hold different viewpoints within this explanatory path. Different viewpoints imply different domains of reality. If we allow others with different viewpoints to go unchallenged, we concede power and choose not to represent our own viewpoint. In my experience, there are ideas central to constructivism that are difficult to communicate. In my courses I try to make these ideas interesting, even intriguing, but the cultural support for modernist ways of thinking is deeply ingrained in my students. I suspect this is as true of American students as it is of Irish ones (e.g. Schommer, 1990). In spite of these difficulties, one way that teachers are ready to accept that there are different realities is with examples of developmental differences. Children’s worlds and understandings are different from those of teachers’ in easily identifiable ways. The developmental metaphor is a useful one in introducing constructivist insights. Elementary teachers, in particular, recognize the need to ‘teach’ gently and with mutual respect. I have found this a good example to use to communicate the fragility of the child when she or he is coming to understand something new.
During the past few years, I have been engaged in a series of constructivist projects designed to promote attitude change in different domains. The fundamental idea has been to stimulate intra-individual conflict by means of questioning and counter-examples. This is to strive to promote different realities in the classroom. The initial project was to investigate the feasibility of promoting more flexible approaches towards gender stereotyping in elementary school children. Teachers used tactics such as questioning and providing counter-examples to create conflict between the children’s ideas and their experience. If, for example, a child has a fixed idea about a gender stereotype the teacher invited or provided a counter-example. This provided evidence to the contrary; it gave an example of a different reality. We encouraged the teachers to try to find children who could provide counter-examples. If this failed, teachers could provide counter-examples themselves.
The initial project on gender demonstrated the effects of the constructivist teaching programmes that provided opportunities for the children involved in the experiment to reconsider their views on gender stereotyping. The control children had their regular classes. The programme was evaluated by comparing the children in the experiment group and the control children on a standard measure of personal-social gender stereotypes. The children in the experiment had lower scores than the control children. In other words, the children in the former group were less rigid, and more flexible, about assigning stereotypes exclusively to males or females. Further, there was evidence that the lower scores of that group were durable. For example, a sample group of children who had participated in the study was retested one year later and the difference between the experimental and control groups remained significant. (An account of this project can be found in Gash and Morgan, 1993 and Gash et al., 1993.) More recently I have been involved in extending these approaches to other cognitive domains: these have included attitudes towards mental disability (Gash, 1993), attitudes towards special needs (Gash, 1996), attitudes towards children from the Third World (Gash, 1995), conceptions of the heroic (Gash and Conway, 1997), and the child’s self concept. Initially these classroom intervention projects were undertaken to promote positive attitudes towards a particular target group. There have been explicit prosocial aims in each project. These aims have been to invite children to reconsider the ways in which they have come to think about a particular issue by providing them with alternatives, and considering the implications of each view.
The aim of two of the projects, on the child’s self concept and on the concept of the hero and heroine, was rather different. In the first of these we were concerned to provide opportunities for developing the self concept. The hypothesis was that children with secure self concepts will not have a need to feel good by putting down others. We all need to feel important some of the time. If people feel good about themselves and what they do, I believe they will not learn to feel good by humiliating others.
The final domain I mentioned was the heroic. We hoped that it would be possible to refocus the concepts of heroes and heroines held by the children who were 9 and 10 years old. The initial context for this study is that in our culture certain aspects of the heroic are promoted to the neglect of other more prosocial dimensions. A casual examination of the offerings in some of my local video stores illustrates the prioritizing of violence in that domain in my local Irish culture. The heroic has both connections with the self and with culture, and comparisons of boys and girls in the US and Ireland have provided additional examples of differing cultural constructions (Gash and Conway, 1997).
The self is a construct to which, as Glasersfeld has said, we do not have direct access. Glasersfeld wrote about the self in this way: ‘the self is a relational entity…which manifests itself in the continuity of our acts of differentiating and relating and in the intuitive certainty we have that our experience is truly ours’ (1987, p. 187). Bateson (1972) has provided an analysis of the way in which continuity in the patterning of experience is acquired. He explained it as second-level learning, or the learning of the contexts of viable first-level learnings. Contextual specification is, as I understand it, very largely a way of organizing social experience. It is at the boundary between intrapersonal experience and inter-personal experience.
The historical learnings that constitute the self are notoriously difficult to change. This is partly the result of social support for individual identity. Friends will notice if you change. We are mirrored in the expectations of our friends, and that mirroring constitutes a powerful part of our identity. So choice is constrained by group identity. Heinz Foerster, for example, provided the story of the man who had seen himself through the eyes of his wife. He was seeking help, very depressed because of his wife’s death. ‘All his life, in the union of these two humans, the man had seen himself through the eyes of his wife. When she died, he was blind. But when he saw he was blind, he could see! So it is with us: we see through the eyes of the other’ (Foerster, 1991). In this example one can see how an individual’s identity can be contextualized and change. Such change is possible but seems difficult in ordinary circumstances. It seems to involve changing levels, if we understand levels as Bateson explained them. Such changing of levels or, in another metaphor, altering of boundaries, is often accompanied by a great release of energy in an individual. Consider the examples of falling in love, and of religious conversion. If this is so, let us hope for new defining of boundaries and changes of level through reading the proceedings of this conference. Then we can resume our lives with more energy!
So to complete the circle I return to Lewin’s contribution. I agree with him and support his drawing attention to a number of issues: that there is a need to use constructivist approaches to consider ethical ideas; and that historical personal constraints have inevitable ethical implications. I have referred to arguments that constructivist processes involved in knowing are simultaneously social ways of relating to others and entail an ethics of mutual respect. I would like to finish by suggesting that there may be stage-like sequences in coming to understand and apply constructivist insights in our practice and living. In my own development as a constructivist, I believe there have been shifts in levels of awareness, shifts which resemble stages.
The first stage involves coming to recognize the validity and authority of the different realities of cultures, age groups, and individuals. Radical constructivism has played an important role in highlighting this and the consequent importance of intra-personal interpretations. A shift occurs in understanding the importance of the inter-personal social support for the ideas and beliefs an individual holds. However, to be fully open to our possibilities may imply a third stage that entails responsibly considering and working out the social consequences of our decisions. In the initial section of his chapter Lewin raised the following issue: How have we been marked by our experience in that region of the psyche which undergoes paideia? An answer may be offered along lines implicit in the stages that have just been outlined. As an example at the first level or stage, I suggest that the nihilism Lewin feared in contemporary culture may be avoidable if people can be challenged to examine the bases of their actions and to understand their role in understanding the world. Such nihilism stems from the failure to consider the circumstances, constructs or framework within which decisions are made (cf. Maturana, 1991, p. 51).
It seems a short step from recognizing the role of individuals in constructing their worlds (stage one) to beginning to examine the role of social support for constructs (stage two). The self is a construct that has difficulty existing in isolation from its social network – so it is relevant to ask how viable are the relations with this network? Under what emotions and constructs is this balance conserved? Questions of this type are likely to provide opportunities for allowing different realities to coexist responsibly. I hope that individuals who have been marked by constructivism will exhibit ways of retaining spontaneity and finding viable alternatives in difficult circumstances. A guide to providing such alternatives has been provided by Boxer and Kenny (1990) in a detailed account of ways in which different limited perspectives interact socially in systemic ways. This leads to the third level in which the social embeddedness of constructs invites consideration of the ethical dimension. One suggestion is that we could teach people to follow the rule proposed by Heinz Foerster (1992): ‘For any discourse I have, say, in science, philosophy, epistemology, therapy, et cetera, to master the use of my language so that ethics is implicit.’ However, the danger of talking about ethics on its own, is that one will unavoidably become prescriptive of a reality without parenthesis. Heinz Foerster (1992) avoided this in his reading of Wittgenstein; I paraphrase: ‘the reward of good action is in the action itself.’ And I conclude with a quotation from Glasersfeld:
From the constructivist point of view, it makes no sense to assume that any powerful cognitive satisfaction springs from simply being told that one has done something right, as long as ‘rightness’ is assessed by someone else. To become a source of real satisfaction, ‘rightness’ must be seen as the fit with an order one has established oneself. (1987, p. 329)
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