Groundlessness, not Relativism

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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#1 · Jayarava

17 April 2007

I wonder whether we really need any of this philosophising to justify kindness and generosity… aren’t they, experientially, their own reward and justification? It’s difficult to see how what you have written would translate into changes in behaviour.

#2 · Will

17 April 2007

You mean that you are not a reformed character after reading this, Jayarava? I’m disappointed…

I am sure you are right, however, that kindness and generosity are their own reward, and I think what I wrote here was far from being an attempt to use philosophy to justify them. Rather, I think there are two main thrusts of my argument. Firstly that kindness and generosity do not need some kind of ultimate philosphical justification (which is why I haven’t provided one!). And secondly, that there are certain approaches to ethics, in particular those that cry out for ultimate groundings and justifications, that even though they may be well-intentioned, may actually stand in the way of kindness, generosity and compassion.

This second part might very well translate into changes of behaviour, indeed I think it does. When I get on my high horse (and it’s a mighty high one, I can tell you), it is almost always because I believe I have some kind of ultimate justification for my viewpoint; but if I have a clearer understanding of the way in which such ultimate justifications might stand in the way of kindness and compassion, then it might persuade me, for a moment or two, to dismount…

All the best,


#3 · Robert Depper

11 May 2008

I very much enjoyed your post. I am currently feeling a groundless sensation due to a milestone having been accomplished. Thus, I have been thinking a lot about this groundless feeling and how Pema Chodron talked about the different aspects of groundlessness, how it can be characterized as “awe” in some circumstances and “terror” (I’m paraphrasing) in others. Examining this feeling, I’ve realized another characterization: Hope. Which, I think, may be another way of describing what you were talking about: the middle ground between moral absolutism and relativism. Perhaps hope is part of the middle ground, absolute in the generosity and kindness it engenders and relative in that it opens people to new possibilities. Anyway, just a thought. Thank you for the post.


#4 · Chase

1 May 2009

I really enjoyed this post. I’ve read about groundlessness and abiding in the fearless state with Pema Chodron’s book “The Places that Scare You.”

I remember she said, “…it’s not what we believe in, but how we use it to get ground under our feet. How we use it to say, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’” Reading those words sent a lead weight into my stomach when I realized not only that I had been trying to reach my peers through poor means (trying to prove that I was right), but that my actions, whether or not they are rooted in loving-kindness or compassion, can be interpretted as evil.

Just a thought to share…

Many blessings

#5 · Justin VK

21 June 2009

Thank you, Will, for this post. I have struggled with relativism and absolutism for a long time, well since adopting a Buddhist-influenced approach to thought and practice. This struggle has returned of late (getting back into philosophy and the “big” questions), leaving me dissatisfied both with a Platonic absolutism and a nihilistic relativism.

“Groundlessness” seems an excellent, convincing approach to this—as far as a “conclusion” can be drawn, of course (skeptic in me speaking here). Decentralizing oneself as the center of the universe surely opens the possibility (indeed, the need) for ethics on top of the good it has for oneself. So we are forced to pull back from making absolute assertions and focus instead on our place in the stream of existence as best we can. Lots to ponder here…and practice with.

#6 · Robert Ellis

2 July 2009

By the end you seem to actually be talking about the Middle Way here – navigating between uncertainty and moral concern, and I think it’s much more useful to talk about ethics being based on this rather than “groundlessness”. Groundlessness is part of the necessary background to the Middle Way, but by itself it does not imply anything, and is vague enough to be appealed to as the basis of all sorts of new dogmas. Ethics needs to be closely related to our experience, and if we experience ‘groundlessness’ at all, it’s in a vague aesthetic or very abstract intellectual way, of little practical relevance. We need to go on to talk about provisionality of belief, and the psychological conditions for justifiable moral beliefs which are created in the context of groundlessness, not just stop with ‘groundlessness’, or even a “disciplined pursuit of groundlessness” (whatever that’s supposed to be).

I think this relates to my frustration with many Buddhist texts (such as the Diamond Sutra, for example). They go on and on and on about groundlessness, but tell us almost nothing useful about its implications, which is where all the interest lies.

#7 · Will

2 July 2009

Once again, Robert, I think that we are in substantial agreement, but we may differ a little in terms of the style of expression that we favour.

I wonder if it is possible to pursue this idea of groundlessness in a way that is far from being vaguely aesthetic, and in a way that is of considerable practical relevance. You ask: what might a disciplined pursuit of groundlessness be? Well, how about this… a practice of perpetually waking up to the fact that we are finding certainties that go beyond that which the situation warrants, and a practice of slowly and carefully unpicking these same certainties. This seems neither vaguely aesthetic, nor practically irrelevant.

All the best,


#8 · Robert Ellis

3 July 2009

Yes, I do very much agree with your “practice of perpetually waking up to the fact that we are finding certainties that go beyond that which the situation warrants, and a practice of slowly and carefully unpicking these same certainties”. However, this is only one side of a practical ethics consistent with groundlessness. We not only need to unpick dogmatic beliefs, but to construct relatively justified ones which can form the basis of action. It’s in this area that you can learn much more from, say, Popper, than you can from Nagarjuna. To develop positive beliefs based on experience without a primary appeal to other sources of “certainty” (like the Buddhist tradition) seems most important.

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