Dependence

Stephen Downes’s talk “about a way to redefine ethics” contains a lot that sounds plausible to me. In particular, I liked this:

“we learn ethics, but we learn them in such a way that we feel or experience a moral sense, rather than fully formed general principles” (slide 70 76)

I know almost nothing about philosophical ethics, so this is just my learning aloud. The simple 100-year-old distinction between “the ethic of attitude and the ethic of responsibility (‘Gesinnungsethik vs. Verantwortungsethik’)” by Max Weber, 1919, won’t suffice when the latter relates to Consequentialism/ utilitarianism/ hedonism/ liberalism, and the former to Deontology, rules and rights and perhaps virtues.

Map clipping of Max Weber's house

Image: Max Weber’s house in Heidelberg, on map by © OpenStreetMap contributors

Anyway, I have often been surprised by how many people today expect that some fixed scientific ethics should give them certainty about what rules to follow, and that it could perhaps somehow exonerate them from the accountability of choosing their own principles. As if ethics was mandatory like the law and not a voluntary contribution beyond the law.

This week, the talk pointed me to the ethics of care and its awareness for vulnerability and dependence. While vulnerability and dependence in education are no doubt a familar aspect for teachers or parents of smaller children, I must confess that I had not spent much thought about them. After all, in higher education, gaining intellectual independence seemed to me a crucial goal because, simply, someone must be able to decide even if there is nobody available who can be asked!

Now the “care perspective”, in the immediate situation, seems to take on the responsibility without trying to ‘delegate’ it. But the decisions and criteria need not always be independently derived. They may be learned from others who were in a similar situation and whom we may ask about how they would decide here. We may also ask others about what ethics they follow, but the ultimate accountability of adopting their ethics for ourselves, cannot be offloaded on to these others, or on to some higher authority.

Learning this ethics takes different ‘contagion’ paths, so to speak, which vary with the decreasing dependence. For infants, the cognitive ‘navel string’ is from mother and parents, later from family and friends, colleagues and communities of practice — the path is the same as for the primordial trust to be seeded and then grown. This percolation path may not yield perfect results and may be slow to change. But it is robust against nonsense from a central, influential source — just as Downes’s “successful networks” promise.

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