Undeciding the decidable


  • Ben Sweeting University of Brighton


Cybernetics, Ethics, Undecidability, Critical


Heinz von Foerster’s influential distinction between decidable and undecidable decisions may be taken to imply an ethics that is personal and pluralistic, summed up in invocations to decide the undecidable and to act in ways that increase the number of choices. While this approach is helpful as a critique of moralism and objectivity, it is of limited assistance in situations characterised by conflict, inequality, or the need for collective action. In this paper, I return to Foerster’s discussion to suggest a different way of thinking about ethics in terms of undecidability. I argue that it is not enough to decide upon (take responsibility for) undecidable questions. To confront the injustices that are embedded in the present world, decidable decisions—those that Foerster characterised as decided already by the frameworks in which they are asked—also need to be challenged.

Whereas Foerster traces undecidability back to foundational metaphysical questions, positioning the ethical within the context of a choice between distinct worldviews, I situate decidability and undecidability as frames to move between within the context of practical situations. To complement the need to decide the undecidable, I explore the value of undeciding the decidable. By undeciding, what I mean to suggest is a process of reconceiving the framework in which a decidable decision is asked such that the framework is itself undecidable, thus requiring a decision to be made as to the decidability of the decision that is at stake. A consequence of putting decidability in question is that it is not sufficient to discharge one’s responsibilities as they arise. One must become responsible not just for one’s responsibilities but also for what these are and how their boundaries and scope are conceived. From this perspective, I offer an alternate reading of Foerster’s call to increase the number of choices, understanding this in the sense of acting to increase the number of decisions that are to be made rather than increasing the number of possibilities to be chosen between.


2022-02-24 — Updated on 2022-02-24




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