When it comes to ethics, the impossibly hard question of ethics, we get dizzy when we try to think about relativity of it. The ideas of 4E cognition and imminence have been closer to my heart than the alternative approaches, however, I have always been dumbfounded by the question of ethics in such a framework.

In The Tree of Knowledge, Maturana and Varela touch on this dizziness and fear that may haunt us once we realise we can’t pin down an origin for what happens, as all beings are structurally coupled and there is a mutual “bringing forth” of worlds by each, hence there is no the world, but a world for each, and each of these worlds is as legitimate as any other. Escher’s drawing of a hand drawing itself is a potential depiction of this recursion where we can’t say who is drawing who: we are bringing forth a world as much as this world brings us forth.

[I]f we do not presuppose an objective world independent of us as observers, it seems we are accepting that everything is relative and anything is possible in the denial of all lawfulness. Thus we confront the problem of understanding how our experience—the praxis of our living—is coupled to a surrounding world which appears filled with regularities that are at every instant the result of our biological and social histories. (Maturana & Varela, 1987) (Chapter 10, page 241)

How can we talk about ethics in such a setting? If there is no objective world to be talked about, no objective morality, what do we have to say at all about ethics? Copyright: Stranger on the internet who made the meme

It seems impossible to accept legitimacy of someone else’s world and moral values if we are on opposite ends of an spectrum; it’s hard to accept Trump supporters by liberals, it’s hard to accept cannibalism by certain cultures, etcetera. Meanwhile, there is a close coupling between these opposing parties, even though it may not seem so at first glance. We only have a world that we bring forth together with others, whether we like them or not.

In this setup we are doomed if we aim for certainty and an ideological truth on any subject, specially moral subjects. Our only hope is to opt for a mutual broadening of our perspectives to include understanding of worlds unknown to us, to not be astonished by another’s world, but be able to take it in. We don’t have to adopt another’s world, to replace our world with theirs (or force them to adopt our world!), but we need to understand the validity of all worlds.

A friend of mine once told me that Utopia is not a place where everything and everyone is doing the right things, but it is a place that anyone can be anything they want to be. Utopia does not exist and will never come, but I think I am slowly starting to understand this concept. Still, I struggle with how this would work in practice, but I find it hard to see transcedental or absolute ethics as an alternative.

This blog post was originally written for Beyond Solipsism as part of my cognitive science course

  1. Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1987). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. New Science Library/Shambhala Publications.