Monday April 16, 2007
In my last post, I wrote about the possibility of ethics without absolute grounding. In the comment thread for that post, Anthony sagely said that, whilst he was inclined to agree that the search for moral foundations is perhaps futile, this should not open the door to moral relativism which is (I quote!), “a view as facile and downright irritating as any self-righteous certainty”.
I wholeheartedly agree with this comment, but at the same time, it initially seems hard to see what there might be between these two poles: one the one hand moral absolutes, and on the other hand an anything-goes moral relativism. Indeed, I think that there are many who would claim that the giving up on absolutes is necessarily a surrender to relativism, and thus a betrayal of ethics itself.
There is, however, a middle way between relativism on the one hand and the recourse to absolutes on the other hand, a position in between the two that could be referred to as groundlessness. To take the perspective of groundlessness is not to take one some esoteric ‘new’ perspective, but it is instead to acknowledge what is patently already the case: that we do not possess any ultimate, foundational knowledge that can lead us to moral certainty. Of course, there is a possibility that one day we may have such foundational knowledge (although it is hard to imagine what form this knowledge might take, or how we might know when and if we came to possess it); but when it comes to ethics, it seems that holding out for the possibility of such knowledge is not necessarily the most useful way to go, because in the meantime, life goes on and we have to make our way through the world without any such grounding. Practically speaking, then, we need approaches to ethics that can cope with the fact of groundlessness, regardless of whether we think that ethics is inherently without ground or whether it is just that we believe that we haven’t yet managed to find sufficient grounding for it.
Thinking without grounds is not, however, a form of relativism in which anything goes. It is something much more demanding than this. Varela, Thompson and Rosch discuss the implications of thinking in terms of groundlessness in their book, The Embodied Mind, where they consider groundlessness not merely in relation to ethics, but in relation to all knowledge. In the face of groundlessness, they suggest, we can take various paths. We can take it ‘as negative, as a loss’, which leads to ‘a sense of alienation, despair, loss of heart, and nihilism’ (253); we can seek new grounds to replace the ones that we have lost; we can lapse into relativism; or we can ‘find a disciplined and genuine means to pursue groundlessness, to go further into groundlessness’ (253).
It is this disciplined pursuit of groundlessness that, I think, rescues this from being a form of relativism. In such a pursuit our approach to ethics (and, indeed, to all knowledge) can become one in which we recognise not only what we know, but also what we don’t know, in which we consider not only what seems clear and certain and obvious to us, but also what is uncertain and unclear and non-obvious: so that we can think about both knowledge and the limits of knowledge, the two of them together. Varela and co. suggest that this approach, far from being that which leads to the destruction of the possibility of ethics, is actually the very thing that makes ethics possible. They write of how the ‘loss of a fixed reference point or ground in either self, other, or a relationship between them, is said to be inseparable from compassion like the two sides of a coin or the two wings of a bird.’
Such an approach to ethics is difficult because it requires that we face up to our uncertainties; but it also requires that we face up to the fact that ethics matters to us, that whatever the relativists might say, we do have interests, cares and concerns, and that we ignore these at our peril. Navigating between the two – between our uncertainty on one side and our moral concerns on another – it may be that it is only here, in groundlessness, that ethics is possible at all.
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