CEPA eprint 3218

The Metaphysics of Ethics: A Conversation

Foerster H. von & Poerksen B. (2002) The Metaphysics of Ethics: A Conversation. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 9(3–4): 149–157. Available at http://cepa.info/3218
Table of Contents
Ethics Is Not A Theory
Decidable and Undecidable Questions
Responsibility For The World
Ethics Is Not A Theory
B.P. The two books that you have published within the last decade are called Wissen und Gewissen [Knowledge and Conscience] and KybernEthik [CybernEthics]. Even the titles allude to a context that has been present in all of your work: This topic is the indissoluble connection between epistemology and ethics. How can this connection be described? Or to put it more precisely, what epistemological position has what ethical consequence?
H.F. I would like to make it clear that I am not so much a pronounced epistemologist as a person who acts according to his own conscience. And the notion of epistemology as knowledge theory is something I don’t like at all, because if you interpret it very strictly following the tenets of Karl Popper, it always points you in the direction of falsification. You actually have to start doing experiments in order to disprove your own theories. That means that you have to look for counterexamples in order to determine whether or not you have gone overboard with your assumptions. Falsification is the first thing that you need to do when you come up with a theory. And falsification is one of those tasks of academic clubs. It is a kind of intellectual activity that has to satisfy certain rules. I don’t mean to say that this isn’t worth as much, but when I use the word theory I’m simply talking about another area. I would prefer to call it an ethical attitude rather than a theory. An attitude is much more holistic. It is comprehensive and it determines my behavior toward the entire world, influencing the way I act toward my neighbor’s dog, other people and toward the flowers.
BP. So you decide on an attitude or an ethical practice. You choose it.
H.F. No, I don’t think so. It’s not something conscious but rather more of a preliminary decision. You stop reflecting about things and just do them automatically. For example, if you see an elderly woman, and she drops a coin on the ground, your own attitude makes you bend down and pick it up for her. But what do you do when it is a young man who drops a coin? Do you also bend down and pick it up? Even though he is young and has enough energy to pick it up himself? Do you make a fool out of yourself it you bend down and pick it up? That to me is a question of attitude. I have already made the decision that no matter who drops a coin I am going to pick it up.
B.P. Does that mean that for you epistemological reflection is secondary and concrete action or the particular deed is primary?
H.F. The point is that you can’t discuss ethical questions while you are relaxing in your easy chair. They arise in a concrete situation rather than being abstract and being able to be discussed out of context. Of course I was also an epistemologist and was on the staff of a university, but if you ask me about an ethical dimension, then it is a matter of practice, of down-to-earth problems and not a matter of those categories and taxonomies that serve to fascinate the academic clubs and their specialists.
B.P. Well, let’s not use the notion of epistemology theory, but rather a concrete thesis. The American Society for Cybernetics once quoted you as having written the following: “Objectivity is a subject’s delusion that observing can be done without him. Invoking objectivity is abrogating responsibility, hence its popularity.” How does the rejection of responsibility relate to the postulate of objectivity?
H.F. For those who work in science and put forward mathematical theories and work in laboratories, the following questions are very significant: What is an observation? How does it come about? How can one be sure that this or that is the case and that this or that view of things is universally valid? Starting from the problems of classical empiricism, during the 19th century, a certain Hermann von Helmholtz developed a strategy that he assumed might be able to produce observations that were universally valid. Helmholtz decided to place the observer on the so-called locus observandi. From here observation would be completely neutral, free from any personal influence, individual taste or the particular characteristics of a person who examines and studies something.
B.P. Your description of the locus observandi sounds somewhat like an epistemological Switzerland, a place with complete epistemological neutrality.
H.F. Excellent. That’s exactly what it was supposed to be, an epistemological Switzerland. It is incredibly attractive to think like this and to sell one’s own assumptions as something objective. But if you take a closer look and ask what you mean by the notion of objectivity, you realize that one of the characteristics of objective description is that it does not contain the observer’s individual properties because they would influence and determine the outcome. So what does that mean? Shouldn’t you use your own eyes, listen, smell or taste? I have never quite been able to figure out what the advocates of the postulate of objectivity even think they can observe when they forbid a person to have his or her personal view of things. What is an observer supposed to perceive when he or she is required to be deaf, dumb and blind and is forbidden to use his or her language, which in fact is what the definition of objectivity would require. What can the observer communicate to us and how can he or she communicate in the first place? It seems to me that it is always an observer who does the observation. He or she is the crucial element of the observation.
B.P. But what do these thoughts about the notion of objectivity have to do with abandoning responsibility, a practical consequence?
H.F. If I say a statement is objective, this claim is based on the idea that one doesn’t have anything to do with the statement. You are just making a description, functioning as a sort of camera, passively registering what is going on. From a political point of view, separating the observer from what is being observed is an oft-played game. After all, how can you blame objective observers for anything? They are just reporters, not participants in what is happening. Better still, they can refer to the fact that they are only representing objectively, which is actually the case.
B.P. The way I see it, you can describe the connection between objectivity and responsible action in exactly the opposite way. Pointing out the objective truth that has been recognized is often the basis for responsible involvement. The fact that something is objectively that way it is, for instance, because the destruction of nature is really continuing, we have to do something about it. And if you put it the other way around, refusing to accept the idea of a reality that can be objectively known could be interpreted as the justification for indifference. There is no longer anything that is really important, one might say.
H.F. Of course. Even the beautiful poem by Goethe entitled “The Wayfarer’s Night Song” can be interpreted in a hundred thousand different ways. You can also interpret Jesus’ words, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” can also be interpreted as a challenge for some people to hit other people on the cheek. Because, you could put it this way, after people get used to you turning the other cheek, they will be encouraged to hit your cheeks and won’t be afraid that they will be punished. My point is this: Everything can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. It’s the so-called hermeneutic fundamental principle or the hermeneutics of the listener. It is the listener and not the speaker who determines what a statement means.
B.P. But this interpretation, which sees the rejection of objective knowledge as a possible justification for an indifferent attitude can’t be one that you like.
H.F. No, I don’t like it at all. But I would actually like to recommend the opposite interpretation. My understanding is the following: As soon as you start making the connections to the outer world and talk about the evil of the world, the suffering is gone because it has been pushed to the external world. Objectivists push it aside. People with non-objectivist attitudes, however, are involved in a completely different manner. They say, “I see all this evil in the world.” This type of statement suddenly turns a person into a fellow sufferer. The result is involvement and not the indifference that you were afraid would be the result. Perhaps I can go back to the little skit that I talked about at the outset of our conversations. There’s this man who says, “There’s a tree over there!” Then the woman says, “How do you know that there is a tree over there?” The man answers, “Because I see it!” Then the woman says, “Aha.” And the curtain drops. Now we need to ask ourselves which of the two attitudes we want to accept for ourselves. The man makes these external connections and the woman points out that the perception of this tree is connected to his observation. But be careful. In this skit it is not just about the contrast between objectivity and subjectivity or about different epistemological positions. There is something that is far more important than the conflict between the objectivist and the subjectivist and that is the fact that the man separates himself from the world and the woman connects herself to what she is describing.
B.P. Actually there is another point of contrast that has entered the game. It is not about objectivity or subjectivity and the respective consequences arising from these epistemological positions. What is much more important is the fundamental question as to whether I connect myself to the world, the events and what happens to myself and others or whether my epistemological position forces me to see myself as separate from the world, as a person who goes about observing from an imaginary locus observandi.
H.F. Yes, you have described that very well. Reality, objectivity, ontology. These are all static notions that can be used by people to separate themselves from the world. They can be used as a justification for one’s own indifference by saying that there is nothing you can do about it, since it is always a matter of an immutable existence that is rigid and timeless. The man in the skit looks at the universe that is passing over him and evolving, at the trees, the objects and the people, as though he is looking through a keyhole. He does not need to feel responsible. You could say he represents a keyhole or peephole philosophy. Nothing bothers him. He remains untouched by everything. Indifference is excusable. It’s the Pontius Pilate phenomenon. You say that you don’t have anything to do with whatever has happened and wash your own hands of the guilt. The woman points out that it is always a human being who sees and contemplates things. This means that you can contrast two fundamentally different positions. The attitude of uninvolved observers contrasts with the attitude of people who empathize and are involved and who see themselves as part of the world. Their basic assumption is, “Whatever I do will change the world.” They are connected to the world and its fate and are responsible for their action. With this kind of perspective, the world can never become the enemy. It appears as an organ, as a part of their own body that is inseparable. The universe and the self become as one. The notion of the struggle for survival that is laden with fear turns into harmonious coexistence.
Decidable and Undecidable Questions
B.P. What kind of arguments are this attitude of connectedness and ethics in general based on? There have been times when you have been accused of using biology to justify your thoughts on ethics and in so doing falling prey to the naturalistic fallacy, since you go from “what is” to “what should be” and mix description and prescription together. People accuse you of using the following pattern of argumentation: Using the point of view of the perception of biology, we cannot know the world objectively. Thus, the objectivists are wrong and this is why we all need to assume the position of connectedness.
H.F. I would recommend that anyone who thinks that this is the way I think read one of my papers if they get a chance. I’m sorry, but there is no place in my lectures or my books that refers to either “what is” or to “what should be” that has evolved from it. In fact, I claim that there is no way that it can be decided which of the two attitudes is more correct or true. The way I see it, it cannot be decided whether we are connected with the world or are separated from the world. And that’s why I am the one and only who person can decide which of the attitudes I think is the right one.
B.P. What are decidable questions?
H.F. A decidable question is always decided within a framework that determines the possible and right answer from the outset. Its decidablity is guaranteed by certain rules and formalisms, although they have to be accepted. Syllogisms, syntax and arithmetic are all examples of these types of formalisms. Within the framework of a logical-mathematical network you get from one junction (the question or the problem) to the next junction (the answer or the solution). This is what makes the question of whether or not the number 2546 can be divided by 2 so easy to answer within seconds, since we all know that numbers that have a final digit that is even can be divided by 2.
B.P. What are undecidable questions?
H.F. Those are questions that have to do with such things as the existence of higher beings, the meaning of life, the origin of the world and life after death. They all contain a variety of possible answers. For example, you could ask how the universe came to be. How could that be decided? If you ask a physicist you get the following answer: “Everybody knows the answer to that! Ten or twenty billion years ago there was the Big Bang and that gave rise to our universe today. Today, if you use a gigantic microwave antenna, you can still hear a slight rushing sound that is actually the echo of the Big Bang.” But then ask a good Catholic, and they’ll give you a detailed description of the creation story. If you ask an Indian Hindu the same question, he or she will tell you, “Any child knows that there first were some turtles, and some other turtles climbed on top of these turtles and then more turtles climbed on those turtles and finally, a turtle climbed on top and that’s where we are sitting in the universe, on top of that turtle on the top!” And so you can go from person to person, and ask the Turkmen, the Arapesh, and the Eskimos, and you’ll keep on getting another story of how the universe came to be. How are you supposed to figure out who is right? This question cannot be decided, but trying to answer it is an opportunity to find out something about the person answering the question. To put it in a nutshell, it’s like saying, “Tell me something about the origin of the universe and I’ll tell you who you are.” When someone tells me about the turtles, a bell goes off: Aha, a Hindu! If the next person tells me about the Big Bang, I can tell who the person is: Aha, I bet you’re a physicist!
B.P. Do you think you could say that an undecidable question is something like an evocatory mystery? It evokes the characteristics of our thinking and makes our world view crystal clear.
H.F. I wouldn’t call it a mystery, since a mystery is only a mystery if it possesses an answer that may reveal itself at some point. You don’t know something yet. But the undecidable questions that I was talking about are unsolvable by their very nature. So I won’t try to find some kind of new label for it. No, I think we should continue to refer to these phenomena as undecidable questions, since talking about undecidability is meant to be an invitation to make a decision. You are being called on to make the choice. In a certain sense decidable questions have already been decided by the framework in which they exist. The only thing you can do is to follow the rules in order to find the answer. According to my metaphysical postulate, however, only questions that are decidable by their very nature are ones that can be decided by us.
B.P. What do you mean by the term “metaphysics”?
H.F. This is what I think: We are always metaphysicists, whether we refer to ourselves in this way or not, when we decide questions that are in principle undecidable. And I think that we are constantly doing this in the flow of existence.
We decide undecidable questions over and over again, questions that cannot be clarified one way or the other (due to their logical structure, because there is no way to make an observation, etc.). Even when you speak about the past, you choose one possible version of an event. You don’t know how it was. You just know what you can recall about it.
B.P. Do you think that we are always only talking about our construction when we talk about the past?
H.F. Yes, I do. Every story and every event in the past can be written from very different perspectives. How do you think you can know what the right or correct version of an event it? The past cannot be reconstructed. It can only be observed by us using language. What was is gone. It’s quite funny to compare the history books that are used at the different schools in the U.S. Depending on whether they are written for elementary, high school or college students, every description of what appears to be the same event is different. Of course, the people, in this case the authors of the books, are not always aware of the fact that they have made a decision about what is supposed to have happened. But we should be aware of the fact that we are constantly making decisions of this sort. I would even go so far as to say that the question is undecidable as to whether an experiment can be found that unequivocally determines if a question is undecidable or not. The problem of undecidability cannot even be decided on the level of the second order.
B.P. How can we go back to the attitude of connectedness with the world that we were talking about earlier?
H.F. I can only repeat what I said before. I claim that we cannot clearly answer the question as to whether we are separated from or connected to the world. If you are able to invent an experiment that would make this question decidable or not, then drop me a line. But I do think that this is impossible. We can only decide to take on one of these two attitudes and take on the responsibility for our decision ourselves.
B.P. Well, that was a very elegant solution to the problem of justifying your ethical position. You decide on the position of connectedness with the world and this decision is the reason justifying it, the foundation. That means that in this case the foundation behind the ethics itself is an ethical decision.
H.F. That’s the idea, exactly. And at the point at which I have decided an undecidable question responsibility comes into play. You decide to view the objects, the world and your fellow human beings in a certain way and to act accordingly. You become responsible for the decision that you made and that no one else can take away from you.
Responsibility For The World
B.P. Don’t you think that the idea that every individual is connected to the fate of the world is an enormous burden? How can you feel responsible for suffering in completely different places in the world?
H.F. Of course there are all kinds of horrible things happening at any given time in the world, but there are also many heroic deeds that take place, some big and some small. They usually go unnoticed, but we should in fact pay more attention to them. The horror that we experience when we see the killing in many places in the world can perhaps be offset to some extent by paying attention to the many good deeds that are happening at the same time. The fact of the matter is that you simply can’t do everything and you can’t help everyone. We only have a limited amount of energy. But perhaps you can make a difference in your own particular situation. That’s about all a person can do. You can only act in the world that you have at your disposal.
B.P. But these days, when we talk about “the world,” we no longer mean our immediate surroundings. In our mentality and our perception it has become globalized. When we speak about “the world,” we don’t mean the village where we were born, or our own neighborhood or the city where we live today, but rather the planet, the earth. We see that we are contributing to the destruction of the earth by using an airplane and by adapting the fast-paced lifestyle that we have become accustomed to. That means that against the backdrop of global destruction this idea of connectedness can drive one to despair.
H.F. Keep in mind that is also possible to see this connectedness from a point of view that does not necessarily make one despair. You can allow yourself to be destroyed by the dimensions of the horror, that is absolutely correct. But you can also try to save yourself and hold yourself up by focusing on the vast goodness that can be discovered all over the world. I don’t think I can give you a more precise or a different answer right off the cuff. I should find a poetic form to express what I would like to say.
B.P. If you take this idea of connectedness with our fellow human beings and the other parts of this line of thinking and try to localize it in current discourse, it appears to be especially prevalent in the New Age scene. It seems to me that a sort of Network Theology is emerging at the moment. A Talmi religion is developing from spirituality and science that intends to lay down a new respect for connectedness.
H.F. That’s the guru problem and the attempt of some people to give up their responsibility again by completely and utterly submitting to some doctrine or a certain person. It means the end of the doubt that we were just talking about and the end of reflecting on one’s own path. Of course it is more comfortable to hang onto the coattails of a guru or a leader or some great idea. You can stop thinking and can submit yourself completely to a world. By the way, my doctrine is not to have a doctrine. Of course that is a paradox, but it is very dynamic one. During one of my lectures I once said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please, don’t believe a word of what I am about to tell you!” Everyone laughed and apparently believed that they shouldn’t believe what I had said. But I meant what I had said.
B.P. What language or form can be used to prevent a thought or idea from becoming a doctrine of salvation?
H.F. In this context I have always suggested making a distinction between ethics and morals. The way I see it, morals are explicit and ethics should remain implicit and should be interwoven in the actions of an individual. I think that morals are a matter of an authoritarian appeal, a sermon or a regulation. You tell somebody else how he or she has to behave, you shove a doctrine down their throat and create a system of compulsion in order to increase your own power. I’d like to go back to the Tractatus, in which Ludwig Wittgenstein writes: “When an ethical law of the form, ‘Thou shalt...’, is laid down, one’s first thought is, ‘And what if I do not do it?’” The words “Thou shalt” immediately evoke the idea of punishment. When ethics meet up with morals or moralizing, then the idea of defending a cause turns into a strategy of submission. In my opinion, it should always be a matter of “I shall,” because it is only my own actions which are available to me, not those of others. I think it is absurd to advertise the idea of connectedness as an ethical law.
B.P. It is obviously no coincidence that the New Age movement is interested in this idea. After all, this feeling of connectedness with the world is also an idea that can be encountered in the portrayal of mystical experiences. You merge with the world, the cosmos and the universe.
H.F. Well, for me these mystical experiences are not mystical at all. I am constantly living with them and trying to make the people around me aware of these types of experiences that are actually part of their everyday lives. We should wake up and take note of these enigmas and wonders of the world that are continuously emerging, but that we constantly gloss over without even seeing them. Of course the so-called mystics, for whom everyday life is nothing that is amazing or wonderful will have to compromise in order to qualify the amazing features of mere existence as something special and react by saying, “Oh my God, I have just had a mystical experience! I just had a vision!” I think it is astounding that many people seem to take so long to see that the world is always full of wonder, during every minute of the day.
Endnotes
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