Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ethics: A Radical-constructivist Approach (via Constructivist Foundations)


From the open access journal Constructivist Foundations [9(2), March, 15, 2014], this is an interesting and somewhat philosophical exploration of taking a radical constructivist approach to ethics.

While radical constructivist models generally deal only with cognitive knowledge, Quale seeks to find a way to also include non-cognitive knowledge as a way to expand the parameters of radical constructivist theory to include the capability of constructing ethical frameworks.

Presented below are the first two sections of the text, as well as the commentaries on this article from other scholars. Complete references are available at the CF site. PDF is free to download following registering name and email address.

Ethics: A Radical-constructivist Approach

Andreas Quale • Dept. of Teacher Education, University of Oslo, Norway

Context • The theory of radical constructivism offers a tool for the evaluation of knowledge in general: especially with regard to its epistemic and ontological character. This applies in particular to knowledge that is non-cognitive, such as, e.g., ethical convictions.  
Problem • What impact can radical constructivism have on the topic of ethics? Specifically, how can ethical issues be resolved within a radical-constructivist epistemic approach?  
Method • I extend the theory of radical constructivism to include also items of non-cognitive knowledge. This makes it possible to discuss ethical issues, which are non-cognitive, in a constructivist epistemic and ontological perspective. Some arguments against this conception of “strictly personal ethics” are discussed.  
Results • Radical constructivism is neutral on ethical issues, and thus cannot be invoked to endorse any particular ethical position. However, this causes no problem for the theory: the individual knower will construct her own ethical values and convictions, as part of her store of noncognitive knowledge, in interaction with her environment (including other individuals). Hence ethical values cannot be argued in cognitive terms; and this elevates the knower into a position of personal responsibility with respect to ethical issues.  
Constructivist content • I focus on the role played by radical constructivism in the approach to cognitive vs. non-cognitive knowledge. The construction of knowledge (of any kind) emerges as a strictly personal enterprise. For instance, in the context addressed here, constructed non-cognitive knowledge forms a basis for the individual knower’s ethical position.

Radical constructivism and the notion of cognition


« 1 » Ernst von Glasersfeld [1] defines radical constructivism (rC) as an epistemic theory, based on two fundamental propositions, which may be summarized as follows (Glasersfeld 1995a):
rC1: Knowledge is not passively received, but is actively constructed by the cognising
subject.
rC2: The function of cognition is adaptive, and serves the subject’s organization of her own experiential world, not the discovery of an objectively given reality.
« 2 » Thus, knowledge is constructed by, and resides in, the individual knower – i.e., the person who possesses this knowledge. it is based on her sense perceptions and her reflections upon these, and serves as a model describing some part of her own experiential world. According to rC there is no “right way” to perform such a construction: in other words, it is not possible to identify a “correct” model – i.e., one that gives a faithful and correct description of the world.

« 3 » For the arguments that follow below, it is important to observe that these two propositions make explicit reference to cognitive knowledge, and to the role played by cognition in our construction of knowledge.

« 4 » The term “cognition” is generally taken to denote mental activities of rational thinking, knowing and reasoning. There is an extensive amount of discussion of this topic in the literature – see, e.g., the comprehensive and exhaustive article by Robert Wilson and Lucia Foglia (2011). Here I propose to “sharpen” this concept a little, focussing on its significance for communication of the knowledge that is constructed. Thus, I take the term “cognition” to refer to aspects of knowledge that are not based on emotion or volition. The “product of cognition,” here regarded as a result of learning, will be denoted as “cognitive knowledge.” [2]

« 5 » To illustrate, let us consider some examples of knowledge that is not cognitive. It will be convenient for our purposes to take the notions of “personal preference” and “personal belief ” to be subsumed under the general category of “emotion.” so, consider the following statements, which might be made by an individual knower:
ƒ “I shall now leave this room” (volition, an act of decision by the knower)
ƒ “I love her” (an emotion, as felt by the knower)
ƒ “I like jazz music” (a personal preference of the knower)
ƒ “I believe in God” (an element of the knower’s personal faith)
« 6 » These statements describe different types of non-cognitive knowledge, as experienced by the knower, and hence they may serve to illustrate some aspects of “what cognition is not.” So, with this as background, let us ask: What is it then?

« 7 » According to the viewpoint that will be adopted here, the most important characteristic of cognitive knowledge is that it is based on reasoning of some kind, using rules and procedures that can be agreed on, and the knowledge thus subsequently demonstrated and communicated by the knower
to other individuals. (The natural sciences, such as physics, of course offer prime examples of such knowledge.) On the other hand, non-cognitive – sometimes termed “affective” or “emotive” – knowledge deals with personal experiences that cannot be thus demonstrated or communicated: emotion, volition, preferences, values, likes and dislikes, beliefs, etc. Two simple examples illustrate this distinction: I can demonstrate and communicate to you how newton’s law of gravitation operates, and how it describes many observable features of the solar system – this forms part of my store of cognitive knowledge; but I can not demonstrate or communicate to you how it “feels” for me to like a particular piece of music, why I like it (and why you should like it too..!) – this is an instance of non-cognitive knowledge on my part.

« 8 » Thus knowledge, as possessed by a knower, may be described by two mutually exclusive attributes: cognitive and noncognitive. Note that any particular item of knowledge, as constructed by a human knower, will in general have both cognitive and non-cognitive aspects: i.e., aspects that are communicable to other knowers, as described above, and aspects that are not. Thus, consider, e.g., the knowledge experienced by an individual person, embodied in the statement “I shall now leave this room” given above. As it stands, this statement is an expression of non-cognitive knowledge, describing volition: a decision of the individual knower that he intends to leave the room. But this decision will only make sense if this person knows that he is present in a room, and that there are means of exiting (say, an unlocked door) – and these items will be experienced by him as cognitive knowledge, which can be demonstrated and communicated to other individuals in the room. It is in this context of communicability that knowledge is characterised, in the argument presented here, as being cognitive or non-cognitive. [3]

« 9 » With this in mind, we shall now widen the scope of the two basic propositions rC1 and rC2 of rC, shown above. As they stand, they deal only with cognitive knowledge, and with cognitive learning as the procedure for gaining such knowledge. So, let us consider the following slightly amended versions of these two propositions (with changes from the original text shown in italics):
rC1ʹ: Knowledge of any kind is not passively received, but is actively constructed by the knower.
rC2ʹ: The function of the process of construction is adaptive, and serves the knower’s organization of her own experiential world, not the discovery of an objectively given reality.
« 10 » As is evident, the propositions rC1ʹ and rC2ʹ now address any kind of knowledge, not only the cognitive kind. Or, equivalently: the theory of rC, originally restricted by rC1 and rC2 to apply to cognitive knowledge only, is now extended to apply to all kinds of knowledge construction.

« 11 » With this extension in mind, we now move on to the topic of ethics.


Ethics: A non-cognitive dimension of RC


« 12 » I maintain, and will argue here, that ethical issues belong to the non-cognitive dimension of knowledge, and hence fall outside the scope of cognitive knowledge, (based on reasoning using agreed-on rules and procedures), such as described above. Thus, the truth value of an ethical proposition cannot be communicated between individual persons in the form of cognitive knowledge, as this is defined above. In this sense, then, it seems appropriate to describe rC as being ethically neutral. However this claim, while valid as far as it goes, needs some further elaboration. So, let us take a closer look at some of the implications of rC for ethical issues.

« 13 » It may be noted that the purported ethical neutrality of rC has acquired certain strongly negative connotations. For instance, it has been taken by some to have rather ominous political implications – thus, it has been claimed that for radical constructivists “there can be no commitment to democratic values…,” and (even worse) that this theory “…seems far more at home with non-democratic forms of educational and governmental practices” (McCarty & schwandt 2000: 77f). Now, these are grave charges, and they need to be seriously addressed. We will return to this issue below, and demonstrate that the charges are unfounded.

« 14 » It is a notable fact that several authors have maintained that the ethical neutrality of rC does indeed constitute a problem for the theory. among these authors we find many of its critics (e.g., nola 1997 and slezak 2000), but also some of its supporters (e.g., Hardy & taylor 1997). in fact, in a book by Leslie steffe & Patrick Thompson (2000b) dedicated to the epistemology of rC, a number of  articles address the relevance of ethics in this context; and in this book von Glasersfeld himself states that one desirable goal for the future is that “the radical constructivist agenda should include an effort to develop viable theoretical models in the areas of ethics and social interaction” (Glasersfeld 2000: 8).

« 15 » So, one may well ask, must the self-professed ethical neutrality of rC with respect to ethical issues be considered as a deficiency of the theory? To answer this question, we shall have to take a closer look at the meaning of ethics, when considered in a radical constructivist perspective. Let me hasten to say, though, that this is not the place to undertake a thorough discussion of the discipline of ethics, which indeed constitutes a broad and diverse branch of philosophy, extensively discussed in the literature. Here, we will adopt a rather narrow and simplistic viewpoint, and discuss how ethical issues may connect with the theory of rC.

« 16 » The term “ethics” is generally taken to address issues of morality in a wide sense (e.g., Gert 2012) – with the underlying idea of establishing standards of right and wrong, or of good and bad, with regard to human character and conduct. This has been a major topic of investigation by philosophers throughout human history. Moreover, it constitutes an important aspect of many religious beliefs, where it is generally grounded in the notion of divine decree: to the believer, it is the authority of her religion that gives support to her ethical convictions. In general, it deals with interpersonal relationships, addressing the issue of what is the “right way” for us to behave towards other people. [4] Note that the existence of this environment is accepted as given (thus repudiating the philosophical position of solipsism); on the other hand, any knowledge of it must be constructed in the mind of the knower, and there is no way to identify any one construction as being objectively “right” or “true.”

« 17 » We shall be concerned with what is known to philosophers as normative ethics. This is an inquiry into, or a theory describing, standards (norms) of right and wrong as guidelines for human behaviour – it aims to prescribe what people ought to do, or how they ought to behave, in various concrete situations. it should be noted that such a theory requires ethical argumentation: it must provide some answers to questions of why a given course of action is ethical, while another is not. [5]


NOTES for the above sections.
1 | The theory of rC was originally proposed by von Glasersfeld (1974, 1983, 1991, 1995a, 2000). Cf. also the discussion in Quale (2008).
2 | it should be noted that this is a somewhat restrictive definition of the concept of cognition. Indeed, von Glasersfeld generally uses this term in a wider sense in his discussion of the construction of knowledge in rC (e.g., Glasersfeld & Varela 1987; Glasersfeld 1991b). However, I am arguing that this restriction, as presented here, can provide some additional insight into the construction in rC of “intangible” items of knowledge, such as, e.g., ethical convictions.
3 | I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out the need to clarify this point.
4 | In fact, many would extend the notion of ethics to address our relationship with all living organisms, now and in the future; in this wider perspective, maltreatment of animals and damage done to the environment would also become ethical issues.)
5 | of course, such argumentation will generally tend to reflect the actual practices of whatever cultural context it originates in. For instance, in a society using slave labour – as many societies have done throughout history right up to recent times – one might expect to meet ethical arguments defending the proposition that there is nothing morally reprehensible about the institution of slavery, and that it is in fact a perfectly acceptable way to organise the labour force.

Commentaries on this article from other scholars (published in the same journal, same issue):







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