HvF’s Ethical Imperative:

“The world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you” – Carl Jung

In today’s post, I am looking at Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative. He explained this as follows – ‘I shall act always so as to increase the total number of choices’. This might seem as a strange choice of words. I will try to explain my understanding of this based on constructivism and existentialism. HvF believed that we construct our stable experiential reality based on our historical interactions with our environment in an autonomous manner. Our ongoing interactions lend stability to our experiences that we can identify as “tokens” for objects. This gives us the ability to recall an object in the external world.

From a social realm standpoint, this goes further in that we identify the “self” and the “others” based on this. We differentiate ourselves from the others, and yet see ourselves as being a part with the others in the social realm. We learn how to act in this realm based on our dynamic interactions, and in turn we also teach others how to interact with us. From this standpoint, we realize that there is no objective reality out there. There is no objectivity in this realm. As HvF noted, Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.

We are meaning making entities. Our nervous systems are actively engaged in making meanings based on the perturbations in our environment. In addition to this, we have evolved to predict what is going to happen based on the current state of our nervous sytem. For example, right now, as you are reading this, you are already trying to predict where this is going. The problem with being a meaning-seeking entity is that we start to believe that there is a meaning to all this, that there is a meaning out there to begin with. We have to realize that there is no meaning to things, other than the ones that we create. In the same vein, there is no purpose to things or ourselves that we do not assign. It is our responsibility to assign our own purpose as autonomous entities. We are responsible to ensure that we support the autonomy of others in our social realm to do the same.

All this can be further explained by the ideas of existentialism. The main tenet of existentialism is that existence precedes essence. This means that we create a meaning for ourselves. There is no meaning that is assigned to us from an a priori standpoint. There is no human essence out there, and we are not copies of an ideal human. We exist first and only then do we create meaning for ourselves. One of the interesting aspects of existentialism is that we are condemned to be free. This means that we are responsible for our own actions as well as inactions; that we are always free to choose our actions. We cannot point to an external supernatural entity for our morals. We cannot pass our responsibility to act or not act to another individual. We are always free to choose how we act.

To be free is part of who we are. This also means that any action from us to take this away from other human beings is inhuman. Freedom should beget more freedom. Existentialism talks about facticity and transcendence. Facticity represents the constraints that we are embedded in. These are the “givens”. For example, I am a male, and I currently live in the year 2022. These are facts that I cannot change. Transcendence is when we do not allow facticity to define our future selves. This would mean that we are not bound to our current selves, and we should not use this as an excuse to not do what we want to do. For example, I could write a bestseller book, but I am not going to do that right now because I am busy with work. Very loosely put, transcendence is about the future, while facticity is about the past and the present.

With all of this background, let’s revisit HvF’s ethical imperative. HvF is not saying that we should increase options for the sake of increasing options. His choice of word is “choices”. This implies that the entity is able to make decisions. He is also saying that I should act to increase the number of available choices. The current set of choices are tied to our facticity. They could be assigned to us by someone else who is not interested in our autonomy or freedom. Following the current set of choices would only reinforce our facticity. However, increasing the number of choices implies transcendence, our future choices. Increasing the number of choices is about giving the responsibility for ourselves and others the ability to make choices, and to also allow conditions for transcendence. Freedom should beget more freedom. HvF’s ethical imperative looks into the future to make more connections and possibilities. We cannot assign purposes and force our choices on other people. This is an important reminder for our current state of affairs based on the possibility that Roe. V. Wade could be overturned in the United States. In the light of existentialism, HvF’s ethical imperative means that we should be the ones making meaning/purpose for our lives, and at the same time, we should strive to allow others to do the same. Our freedom is defined by the freedom of others because we are always embedded in a social realm. Our self is identified and defined in terms of others.

HvF’s ethical imperative means that we cannot pass our responsibility and say that we had no other choice or that our hands are tied due to our facticity. It is our responsibility to cultivate transcendence for ourselves as well as others. HvF put this beautifully as “A is better off, when B is better off.” “What other choice do I have?” can be the cop-out question or the most important question one could ask. One is decidable and the other is undecidable. HvF explained a decidable question as one for which the answer is already known. For example, “what is 4 + 4?” An undecidable question is one for which we have to decide an answer. For example, “what is the meaning of my life?” HvF’s ethical imperative advises us to treat undecidable questions as undecidable questions, rather than pretending that they are decidable questions. HvF said that – Only those questions that are in principle undecidable, we can decide.

Another aspect to HvF’s ethical imperative was that we can get into problems where we get entrapped in our own constructions of false dichotomies and other semantic traps. We might be assuming that there are only two answers or that one is true and the other one is false. These are our own makings of semantic traps that we fall into it. He advises us in this case to “Always think. Isn’t there something new?”

I will finish with HvF’s own words explaining his ethical imperative. HvF was responding to the comment that the children growing up in a sectarian community will obviously absorb its reality.

This is possible, no doubt. On the other hand, I remain convinced that these people, these individuals, can always opt out of such a network and escape from the sectarian system. They have this freedom, I would claim, but they are all too often completely unable to actually see it. They are blind to their own blindness and do not see that they do not see; they are incapable of realizing that there are still possibilities for action. They have created their blind spot and are frozen in their everyday mechanisms and think there is no way out. The uncanny thing, actually, is that sects and dictators always manage to make actually existing freedom invisible for some time. All of a sudden, citizens become zombies or Nazis committing themselves to condemning freedom and responsibility by saying: “I was ordered to kill these people, I had no choice! I merely executed orders!” Even in such a situation, it is obviously possible to refuse. It would be a great decision, possibly leading to one’s own death but still an act of incredible quality: “No, I will not do it. I will not kill anyone!” In brief, it is my view that freedom always exists. At each and every moment, I can decide who I am. Moreover, in order to render, and keep, this visible I have been pleading for a form of education and communality that does not restrict or impede the visibility of freedom and the multitude of opportunities but actively supports them. My ethical imperative is, therefore: “Act always so as to increase the number of choices.”

It is certainly not my contention that the invention of realities is completely arbitrary and willful and would allow me to see the sky blue at first, then green, and after opening my eyes again, not at all. Of course, every human being is tied into a social network, no individual is an isolated wonder phenomenon but dependent on others and must – to say it metaphorically – dance with others and construct reality through communality. The embedding into a social network necessarily leads to a reduction of arbitrariness through communality; however, it does not at all change the essentially given freedom. We make appointments, identify with others and invent common worlds – which one may give up again. The kinds of dance one chooses along this way may be infinitely variable.

True to his imperative, HvF later reworded the statement:

I once said, “Act always as to increase the number of choices.” That is my ethical imperative, although once again one might have the impression that I am trying to order people around, and this is just not right. I didn’t choose my words very carefully when I said that. It would have been better if I had written, “Heinz, act always as to increase the number of choices”.

Stay safe and always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Maturana’s Aesthetic Seduction: