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Varela. Ethical Know How 2: On Ethical Expertise.

From: F. Varela (1999). Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition. Stanford University Press: California.

The Second Lecture: On Ethical Expertise


My main point in the First Lecture was that philosophers and scientists who study the mind have grossly neglected skilled behavior, which is immediate, central, and pervasive, in favor of exploring deliberate, intentional analysis. To counter this imbalance we must impress on ourselves how much of our lives is spent in skilled behavior – working, moving, talking, eating – and how little is spent in deliber­ate, intentional analysis. Yet it is this latter category that we notice. It is this latter category which has been the focus of philosophers and scientists alike.

It is also clear that we can add responding to the needs of others to our list of skilled behaviors without doing vio­lence to our concept of ordinary life. And if that is so, then it should also be clear that the situations in which we exer­cise ethical expertise far outnumber those in which we must exercise explicit ethical deliberation.

Nevertheless, even the most subtle of modern writers on ethics continue to tell us that the central issue is reasoning. For instance, no less a light than Alaisdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, concludes from a reading of Aristotle’s Nico­machean Ethics that the moral agent is best described as a competent performer deliberately choosing among max­ims: “In practical reasoning the possession [of an adequate sense of the tradition to which one belongs] . . . appears in the kind of capacity for judgement which the agent possesses in knowing how to select among the relevant stack of max­ims and how to apply them in particular situations.” (1) The fact that this pronouncement translates easily into informa­tion-processing jargon betrays the inability of this kind of approach to appreciate immediate coping, which lies be­yond the grasp of computationalist description, regardless of the details of its terms of analysis. Only the enactivist view­point, which I introduced in the First Lecture, can account for immediate coping.

Furthermore, we acquire our ethical behavior in much the same way we acquire all other modes of behavior: they become transparent to us as we grow up in society. This is because learning is, as we know, circular: we learn what we are supposed to be in order to be accepted as learners. This socialization process has roots too profound for analy­sis here.

Still, we can say here that when the matter is viewed in this light, it is clear that an ethical expert is nothing more or less than a full participant in a community: we are all experts because we all belong to a fully textured tradition in which we move at ease. In traditional communities, furthermore, there are models of ethical expertise who can be singled out as even more expert than the common run (the “wise ones”). In our modern society, however, such role models for ethical expertise (unlike, say, role models for athletic expertise) are more difficult to identity. This is, I claim, one important reason why modern ethical think­ing has such a nihilistic flavor, a point to which I will re­turn later.


This neglect of ethical coping as a central locus for concern is not universal. Some of the great teaching traditions of the East – Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism – see things oth­erwise, and that is precisely why I want to turn to them here.

I am aware that this is a bold step, but I believe that it is one we need to take. In my opinion, we need to enlarge our horizon to encompass non-Western traditions of reflection upon experience. If philosophy in the West no longer occupies a privileged, foundational position with respect to other cultural activities, such as science or art, then a full appreciation of philosophy and its importance for human experience requires that we examine the role of philosophy in cultures other than our own. In our culture, cognitive science has caused great excitement among philosophers (and the public at large) because it has enabled them to see their tradition in a new light. Were we to entertain the idea that there is no hard and fast distinction between science and philosophy, then philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, and Husserl would take on a new significance: they could be seen as, among other things, proto-cognitive scientists. (Or as Jerry Fodor puts it: “In in­tellectual history, everything happens twice, first as philos­ophy and then as cognitive science.”(2)) Might this not also be the case for philosophical traditions with which we are less familiar?

I focus on the three traditions I have mentioned because they belong to a constellation with much in common, and because it is my contention that the rediscovery of Asian philosophy, particularly of the Buddhist tradition, is a second renaissance in the cultural history of the West. (3)

Let me start by concentrating on Meng-tzu or Mencius, an early Confucian from around the fourth century B.C.E. who holds a position of authority in this tradition compara­ble to that of Thomas Aquinas in the Christian tradition.

Mencius’s view of ethics and the development of a vir­tuous person rests on the assumption that human nature is capable of such flourishing, and that people can strive for such growth. His view is that a person’s natural disposition, joined with appropriate developmental conditions, deter­mines a person’s emotional responses. In this he follows a relatively simple developmental model: basic capacities ex­ist and when they are nurtured in an unobstructed manner they generate the qualities one seeks. This is important, for it stands in total opposition to our Western Christian tradi­tion of the fall and original sin. It means that when Men­cius declares that human nature is good, he is not referring to a hidden ontological substratum, but to human capaci­ties. As he puts it: “As far as what is genuinely in him is concerned a man is capable of becoming good. This is what I mean by good. As for his becoming bad, that is not the fault of his native environment.”4 What is essential to high­light at this point is Mencius’s understanding of how peo­ple develop their basic capacities, that is, how people ac­tively cultivate the proper dispositions. There are some key pragmatic issues here that I shall return to later. For now, however, and in order to examine more fully Mencius’s ideas on ethics, we need to examine three interrelated con­cepts central to what virtue is all about. These three key notions are extension (t’ui or ta), attention (ssu), and intelligent awareness (chih). Let us start by considering extension.

According to Mencius, people actualize virtue when they learn to extend knowledge and feelings from situa­tions in which a particular action is considered correct to analogous situations in which the correct action is unclear. This assumes, of course, that we wish to make such an ex­tension. The example he cites to illustrate this point is easy to understand:

Suppose a man were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He would certainly be moved to compassion, not because he wanted to get in the good grace of the parents nor because he wished to win the praise of his fellow villagers or friends, nor yet because he disliked the cry of the child.  (5)

Given that this a normal starting point, the idea is to extend the feelings that arise from this situation in an appropriate way to other situations. Notice that both the kind of exam­ple Mencius uses as his basis for ethical training, a very or­dinary know-how we all share, and the core of the method of extension resemble the learning we apply to all skills. One starts from a simple situation we can all handle and then extends one’s skill in widening circles to situations that are more complex. This process, however, presumes that people can and will attend to what needs to be done using intelligent awareness. To extend feelings is both to see that one situation resembles another and to have these feelings “break through” into the new situation.

Now the specific capacity of the mind that underlies this process is the ability to attend (ssu). Again here one uses a natural capacity to focus on concrete objects. Failures in at­tention underlie misdirected self-cultivation. As Mencius puts it: “If one attends one gets it; if one does not, one does not.” Mencius thus conceives of ethical training as a process that depends on perceiving clearly and identifying corre­spondences or affinities. He is especially opposed to the no­tion supported at the time by Mohism (and also evident, as we said, in Western ethical thinking) that ethical reasoning consists mainly in the application of rules or principles. For Mencius, rules become apparent to people either only after careful reflection or only in situations where duress forces them to make an assessment. The most significant differ­ence lies in the importance given to a true description of the situation. To gather a situation under a rule a person must describe the situation in terms of categories we may call cognitive. Instead, if we try and see correspondences and affinities, the situation at hand becomes much more textured. All relevant aspects are included, not just those which fit the reduction of a categorical analysis. In this, then, Mencius coincides closely with my earlier assertion that reflection and analysis are most prominent when our immediate microworld breaks down.

For Mencius only truly virtuous people attend to their nature sufficiently well to understand an event in terms of their experience and thus ensure that the appropriate ex­tension follows easily. For the truly virtuous then, moral judgment that results in immediate and spontaneous moral action is not different from true description. This approach permits Mencius to distinguish truly virtuous actions from those which only seem virtuous. An action is fully virtuous only if it flows from an activated disposition. An action may be right but cannot be fully virtuous if it is not properly motivated. This is an important point.

Mencius clarifies this distinction by contrasting the man of virtue with the “village honest man,” which one transla­tor renders as the “bourgeois righteous simulation of excel­lence.” According to Mencius,

[The village honest man thinks the following]: “Being in this world one must behave in a manner pleasing to this world. So long as one is good it is all right.” . . . If you want to cen­sure him you cannot find anything. He shares with others the practices of the day and is in harmony with the sordid world. He is liked by the multitude and is self-righteous. It is impossible to embark on the way of Yao and Shun [two famous sages] with such a man. Hence the name “enemy of virtue.” Confucius said: “I dislike the village honest man for fear he might be confused with the virtuous.” (6)

In order to distinguish virtues from their semblances, Men­cius identifies four kinds of human action, of which only one manifests truly ethical behavior, the other are sem­blances at best or downright counterfeits. These four, in as­cending order of excellence, are (1) actions that arise from a desire for gain, (2) actions that arise from habitual re­sponse patterns, (3) actions that arise from following rules, and (4) actions that arise from extension. Those people who act from habitual response patterns rather than with intelli­gent awareness fail to perceive situations accurately. Those people whose actions are generated by adherence to rules are like beginners learning a motor skill. To use Mencius’s language, such rules will always remain external to the agent, for they will always differ at least in some ways from the agent’s internal inclination.

For Mencius, only people who act from dispositions they have at the very moment of action as a result of a long process of cultivation merit the name of truly virtuous. Such a person can be said to have “acted through benevo­lence and rightness. It was not that he put into action benevolence and rightness.” Such a person does not act out ethics, but embodies it like any expert embodies his know-­how; the wise man is ethical, or more explicitly, his actions arise from inclinations that his disposition produces in re­sponse to specific situations.

Thus truly ethical behavior does not arise from mere habit or from obedience to patterns or rules. Truly expert people act from extended inclinations, not from precepts, and thus transcend the limitations inherent in a repertoire of purely habitual responses. This is why truly ethical behavior may sometimes seem unfathomable to the untrained eye, why it can be what is called in the Vajrayana tradition “crazy wisdom.” (7) This suppleness reveals the key elements in the person who has cultivated his expertise, for his ex­pertise contains the intelligent awareness that Mencius calls chih. One cannot overemphasize the importance of this learning dimension in the teaching traditions. In particular it corresponds to the cultivation of prajna in Mahayana Buddhism. Mencius himself highlights it when he distin­guishes the excellence of Confucius as being due to his highly trained intelligent awareness. We can understand the character of this sort of excellence more clearly if we first confront the two extremes of how virtue is misunderstood. On one extreme are those who consider crazy wisdom vir­tuous but insist that it is spontaneous expression unfettered by reason. And on the other extreme, are those who despise crazy wisdom and insist that people should rely on rational calculations about goals and means. The intelligent aware­ness – which only occasionally manifests as “crazy wis­dom” – that Mencius describes takes a middle way be­tween these two extremes: intelligence should guide our actions, but in harmony with the texture of the situation at hand, not in accordance with a set of rules or procedures.

And because truly ethical behavior takes the middle way between spontaneity and rational calculation, the truly eth­ical person can, like any other kind of expert, after acting spontaneously, reconstruct the intelligent awareness that justifies the action. And, like any other kind of expert, the truly ethical person can use such a postiori justification as a stepping-stone for continued learning. Indeed, even the be­ginner can use this sort of deliberate analysis to acquire sufficient intelligent awareness to bypass deliberateness al­together and become an expert.

In summary, then, we see that the interplay of intelligent awareness, attention, and extension is how a virtuous person becomes truly virtuous from even modest beginnings, and how truly ethical behavior differs from that of “the village honest man.”


Mencius’s view of ethical expertise is at the same time very far from the dominant Western tradition of rational judg­ment and very close to the teachings of both Taoism and Buddhism. In all three traditions ethical behavior is ap­proached pragmatically and progressively.

To say that ethical behavior must be approached prag­matically and progressively is to put in positive terms what the Tao Te Ching of Lao-tzu explains with negatives, among them the well-known but untranslatable expression wu-wei, which is sometimes, but inadequately, rendered as “not-doing”:

A man of the highest virtue does not keep to virtue and that is why he has virtue. . .

A man of the lowest virtue never strays from virtue and that is why he is without virtue. . .

Thus the wise man deals with things through wu-wei and teaches through no words. . .

Then the thousand things flourish without interrup­tion. . .

Less and less is done until wu-wei is achieved.

When wu wei is done, nothing is left undone.

To us this formulation sounds like a paradox, and that it is, but not a vicious, circular one. To resolve it we must com­bine both sides of it; we must exercise a metalevel of un­derstanding beyond the reach of logical analysis alone, as many a frustrated scholar has discovered. My point is that wu-wei points to a journey of experience and learning, not to a mere intellectual puzzle that one solves. It points to the process of acquiring a disposition where immediacy pre­cedes deliberation, where nondual action precedes the radi­cal distinction between subject and object.

It is hardly a coincidence that we find the same apparent paradox in all other traditions that point to the need for pro­gressive ethical expertise. This is very clear in all main tra­ditions of Buddhism. The third Ch’ an patriarch Seng-ts’an, for instance, says:

When rest and no rest cease to be,

then even oneness disappears.

From small mind comes rest and unrest

but mind awakened transcends both.

This little poem echoes the discussion in that most famous of Buddhist thinkers, Nagarjuna, who in his Mulamadh­yamikakarikas deconstructs all pairs of opposites, such as ac­tion and inaction, rest and motion, and finds that both ele­ments of each pair are empty – sunya – that is to say, each exists only in relation to the other. His work is best under­stood against the larger background of the Mahayana Bud­dhist teachings and the human ideal of the boddhisattva to which we will return later. But like Mencius’s truly virtu­ous person and like Lao-tzu’s man of the highest virtue, a true boddhisattva neither comes nor goes, but rather “deals with things through wu-wei.”  From the very first stage of the ten-stage boddhisattvic path (and it is a learning jour­ney!), which is called acala, the immovable, the boddhisattva works without making any effort, just as the moon illumi­nates everything impartially. Again here the paradox of non-action in action vanishes when the actor becomes the action, that is to say, when the action becomes nondual.

As Martin Buber has put it: “This is the activity of the human being who has become whole: it has been called not doing, for nothing particular, nothing partial is at work in man and thus nothing of him intrudes in the world.” (8) When one is the action, no residue of self-consciousness re­mains to observe the action externally. When nondual ac­tion is ongoing and well established, it is experienced as grounded in a substrate both at rest and at peace. To forget one’s self is to realize one’s emptiness, to realize that one’s every characteristic is conditioned and conditional. Every expert knows this sensation of emptiness well; in the West, for example, athletes, artists, and craftsmen have always in­sisted that self-consciousness interferes with optimal per­formance. This is one important aspect of what the Heart Sutra (a key text in Mahayana Buddhism) extols when it says that one who has realized the emptiness of all actions acts freely because he is “without hindrance in the mind.” Needless to say, there are major differences between the ex­pert athlete and the boddhisattva, not the least of which be­ing the range of their expertise. We should not confuse the one with the other, but the comparison is sufficiently ap­propriate to illustrate that what the teaching traditions are getting at is not mere mystical mumbo-jumbo.

Thus we can distinguish between self-conscious or in­tentional action and self-less or intentionless action. At first the idea of action without intention seems absurd, but in fact our lives are full of intentionless actions. We dress, we eat, and more important, we exercise consideration for oth­ers. We do all these things without intention, but we do not do them randomly or purely spontaneously. We do them without intention because we are experts at them. Through appropriate extension and attention and by training over time we have transformed these actions into embodied behavior.

But just what is the key element that makes such inten­tionless learning possible? The answer is right in front of us. Our microworlds and microidentities do not come all stuck together in one solid, centralized unitary self, but rather arise and subside in a succession of shifting patterns. In Buddhist terminology this is the doctrine, whose truth can be verified by direct observation, that the self is empty of self-nature, void of any graspable substantiality. Once we are fully able to ride with the enormous openness con­tained in this sunya of self, the possibilities for further self­understanding become both vast and immediately accessi­ble. This point is crucial. It is the golden thread that unites our self-understanding with an external and scientific ac­count of mental functioning.


To make this non-unitary self meaningful in terms of our own tradition and from our (Western) perspective, I need only turn to modern cognitive science. Yet we need not confine ourselves to any single trend within the field of cognitive science, for even the more conservative view­points in the field, the classical computationalist perspec­tive, for example, deny the existence of a solid, centralized, unitary self.

Computationalism in cognitive science embraces the idea that the self or cognizing subject is fundamentally frag­mented or non-unified simply because it postulates mental or cognitive processes of which we are not only unaware, but of which we cannot be aware. In fact, computationalism postulates mental (not just physical and biological) mecha­nisms and processes that are not accessible to the “personal level” of consciousness, especially self-consciousness. In other words, one cannot discern in conscious awareness or self-­conscious introspection any of the cognitive structures and processes that are postulated to account for cognitive behav­ior. Indeed, if cognition is fundamentally symbolic computa­tion, this discrepancy between “personal” and “sub-personal” immediately follows, since presumably none of us has any awareness of computing in an internal, symbolic medium when we think.

It is possible to overlook the depth of this challenge to our self-understanding, largely because of our post-Freudian belief in the unconscious. There is a difference, however, be­tween what we usually mean by “unconscious” and the sense in which computationalism means that mental processes are unconscious. We usually suppose that what is un­conscious can be brought to consciousness – if not through self-conscious reflection, then through a disciplined form of introspective analysis such as Freudian psychotherapy. Com­putationalism insists on the existence of mental processes that cannot be brought to consciousness at all. Thus it is not that we are simply unaware of the rules that govern the genera­tion of mental images or of the rules that govern visual pro­cessing; we cannot in principle ever be aware of these rules. One computationalist account asserts that these processes cannot be brought to consciousness without ceasing to function, because by its very nature consciousness is slow and deliberate, not fast and automatic as, say, vision must be to function properly. Another account describes these pro­cesses as “modular”, that is, as comprising distinct subsys­tems that cannot be “penetrated” by conscious mental activ­ity. (9) Thus in this sense computationalism challenges our conviction that consciousness and the mind amount to the same thing, or that there is any essential or necessary con­nection between the two.

Of course, Freud also challenged the idea that the mind and consciousness are the same. Furthermore, he certainly realized that to distinguish between the mind and con­sciousness entails the disunity of the self or cognizing subject, a point to which we shall turn shortly. It is not clear, however, whether Freud took the further step of calling into question the idea that there is an essential or necessary connection between the mind and consciousness. Freud, in his argument for unconscious beliefs, desires, and moti­vations, left open the possibility that these unconscious processes belonged to a fragment of ourselves hidden in the depths of the psyche. (10) Although it is not clear the extent to which Freud meant such a fragmentation literally, it is clear that when cognitive scientists postulate a collection of fragmen­tary, nonunifiable processes, they mean exactly what they are saying. As Dennett puts it: “Although the new [cogni­tivist] theories abound with deliberately fanciful homuncu­lus metaphors – subsystems like little people in the brain sending messages back and forth, asking for help, obeying and volunteering – the actual subsystems are deemed to be unproblematic nonconscious bits of organic machinery, as utterly lacking in point of view or inner life as a kidney or kneecap”. (11) In other words, the characterization of these “subpersonal” systems in “fanciful homunculus metaphors” is only provisional, for eventually all such metaphors are “discharged” – they are traded in for the storm of activity among such selfless processes as neural networks or AI data structures. (12)

Our pre-theoretical, everyday conviction, however, is that cognition and consciousness – especially self-consciousness – belong together in the same domain. Cognitivism runs directly counter to this conviction: in determining the do­main of cognition it explicitly cuts across the conscious/unconscious distinction. The domain of cognition consists of those systems which must be seen as having a distinct representational level, not necessarily of those systems which are conscious. Some representational systems are, of course, conscious, but they need not be to have representations or intentional states. Thus, for cognitivists, cognition and in­tentionality (representation). are the inseparable pair, not cognition and consciousness.

This theoretical division of the domain of cognition was considered by early cognitive scientists to be “an empirical discovery of no small importance” (13) and indicates, again, the remarkable transformation wrought by the cognitive sci­ences altogether. But now a problem arises: we seem to be losing our grip on something that is undeniably close and familiar – our sense of self. If consciousness – to say noth­ing of self-consciousness – is not essential for cognition, and if, in the case of cognitive systems that are conscious, such as ourselves, consciousness amounts to only one kind of men­tal process, then just what is the cognizing subject? Is it the collection of all mental processes, both conscious and un­conscious? Or is it simply one kind of mental process, such as consciousness, among all the others? In either case, our sense of self is challenged, for we typically suppose that to be a self is to have a coherent and unified “point of view”, a stable and constant vantage point from which to think, perceive, and act. Indeed, this sense that we have (are?) a self seems so incontrovertible that its denial – even by sci­ence – strikes us as absurd. And yet, if someone were to turn the tables and ask us to look for the self, we would be hard-pressed to find it. Dennett, as usual, makes this point with flair: “You enter the brain through the eye, march up the optic nerve, round and round the cortex, looking behind every neuron, and then before you know it, you emerge into daylight on the spike of a motor nerve impulse, scratch­ing your head and wondering where the self is.” (14)

Our problem, however, goes even deeper. It is one thing to be unable to find a coherent and unified self amid the fu­rious storm of “sub-personal” activity. This inability would certainly challenge our sense of self, but the challenge would be limited. We could still suppose that there really is a self, we simply cannot find it in this fashion. Perhaps, as Jean-Paul Sartre held, the self is too close, and so we cannot uncover it by turning back upon ourselves. The computa­tionalist challenge, however, is much more serious. Accord­ing to computationalism, cognition can proceed without con­sciousness, for there is no essential or necessary connection between the two. Now whatever else we suppose the self to be, we typically suppose that consciousness is its central fea­ture. It follows, then, that computationalism challenges our conviction that this most central feature of the self is needed for cognition. In other words, the cognitivist challenge does not consist simply in asserting that we cannot find the self; it consists, rather, in the further implication that the self is not even needed for cognition.

At this point, the tension between what science affirms and our own immediate experience seems to insist upon is tangible. If cognition can proceed without the self, then why do we nonetheless have the experience of self? We cannot simply dismiss this experience without explanation. Until recently, many scientists and philosophers of mind nonchalantly shrugged off this problem by arguing that the perplexities surrounding it are just not relevant to the pur­poses of cognitive science. (15)

To make any further headway in our inquiry we must look more closely at the nature of this fragmentation. As I will discuss in the Third Lecture, the nature of this frag­mentation is that of emergent (or self-organizing) proper­ties from brain mechanism, giving rise to what I shall term a virtual self, a mode of analysis which is very recent in cog­nitive science and Western thought altogether.


  1. Alaisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), p. 140; cited in Dreyfus and Dreyfus, “What Is Morality?”
  2. Jerry Fodor, “The Present Status of the Innateness Controversy”, in RePresentations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Sci­ence (Cambridge: MIT Press, Bradford Books, 1981), p. 298.
  3. For a recent discussion of the ethnocentrism in Western philoso­phy from an insider’s perspective, see Roger Pol-Droit, L’Amnesie Phi­losophique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1989). For an exten­sive study of non-Western thought, see David Loy, Non-Duality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
  4. All quotations from Mencius come from Lee Yearly, Mencius and Aquinas: Theories of Virtue and Concepts of Courage (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), p. 60. I am infinitely indebted to Yearly for his timely book and his perceptive selection of Mencius as a paradigmatic case; as is clear I borrow heavily from this work.
  5. Ibid., p. 62.
  6. Ibid., p. 67.
  7. See, for instance, Chogyam Trungpa, Crazy Wisdom (Boston: Shambhala, 1990).
  8. M. Buber, I and Thou (Edinburgh:T. Clark, 1970), p. 125.
  9. Jerry Fodor, The Modularity of Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, Bradford Books, 1983).
  10. Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, eds., The Minds Eye: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (New York: Basic Books, 1981), p. 112.
  11. Ibid.,p. I3.
  12. See Dennett’s essays “Toward a Cognitive Theory of Conscious­ness” and “Artificial Intelligence as Philosophy and Psychology,” in his Brainstorms (Cambridge: MIT Press, Bradford Books, 1978).
  13. Zenon Pylyshyn, Computation and Cognition (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), p. 265.
  14. Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (Cambridge: MIT Press, Bradford Books, 1984), pp. 74-75.
  15. See Jerry Fodor, The Language of Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 52.