Mimetic Ethics, Ethics Embodied


Part 3

For Girard, imitation is primal and unavoidable: “There is no solution to mimetism aside from a good model.” 1 For Buddhism, it is interdependence that is universal. As I have argued, imitation and interdependence are but the same thing: imitation is subsumed within interdependence, and perhaps the most common evidence of interdependence is mimesis. So much so that certain arguments can hardly be categorised in one concept or the other. When Jean-Pierre Dupuy, expanding upon Girard, explains: “The human subject is radically incomplete, insufficient, for being radically mimetic,” 2 could not the same words speak for interdependence as well?

Can we draw ethical conclusions from the argument that mimetic relations are unavoidable?

An initial consequence would have to be be stated. As discussed in the previous section, mimesis precedes and encloses rationality. We may think of ourselves as rational beings but we are primarily imitating beings. This in itself suffices to undermine a number of presuppositions of virtually all the strands of ethics in the West. Following Śūnyatā, we know that rational principles, concepts, including concepts of ethics, are fundamentally heteronomous, interdependent, void of content. This does not mean that there is no ethics at all: we live in societies and all communities of the world attempt to make their members follow a certain conduct: there is, in the facts, some forms of ethical conducts. If mimesis is the first and main parameter of the interactions of human beings, then it must also qualify the way an ethical life and conduct are exemplified. In other words, imitating other individuals is our first source for ethical behaviours. I am someone’s ethical model, and someone else is my ethical model.

This would imply that, against the efforts of abstractions, conceptualisations and rationalisations of the many theorists of ethics, we do not lead an ethical life by following certain principles, but by taking inspiration from certain models. Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan Buddhist monk of French origin, confirms: “ethics built on abstract concepts has little usefulness.” 3

guill top left

Our ethics, human ethics, is not fundamentally rational: we do not do something “because it is right.” Rather, we imitate someone, and then only, perhaps, reason may be appealed to, to confirm (or revoke) the action. Ethics is not abstract or rational: it is embedded, embodied, personified.

guill bottom right

Our ethics, human ethics, is not fundamentally rational: we do not do something “because it is right.” Rather, we imitate someone, and then only, perhaps, reason may be appealed to, to confirm (or revoke) the action. Ethics is not abstract or rational: it is embedded, embodied, personified. Ricard mentions the famous notion of embodiment insisted upon by Chilean neuroscientist Francisco Varela: a virtuous individual “does not act out ethics, but embodies it like any expert embodies his know-how.” 4 Ethics is a know-how, a savoir faire and not just a knowledge. The skill of a sculptor or a carpenter is more than abstract, conceptual knowledge. Ethics is closer to the skill of the carpenter than to the abstract knowledge of the philosopher. And just like carpentry or sculpture, a know-how is learnt, is passed through masters and models, with imitation as the first form of learning. Ethical models precede ethical principles. 5

From this argument two implications can be drawn. Firstly, since the other may copy me at any time, I am infinitely responsible for her. Being an ethical agent, it is trying to do the good for oneself and others, first directly, through one’s own action, and secondly indirectly, since I am someone else’s ethical model. Thus, humans have a double ethical responsibility: as agents, and as models. This means, on a larger scale, that humans are ­co-responsible, that is, always partly responsible for any action of any human being, but that one is never the only responsible agent for anyone’s deeds — including one’s own.

The second implication is the following: in the nexus of interdependent human relations, each subject will and must have one or several models to imitate. Since we cannot not imitate, it is the choice of the model that is crucial. More than from any ethical principle we may master, it is the identity and deeds of our ethical models that will affect our ethical conduct. The ultimate model, for Girard, and in general, for Christians, is the Christ. For the Buddhists, it is the Buddha, considered, broadly, as a diving being in Mahāyāna and as a remarkable human, historical person in Hīnāyana. The ideals of the Bodhisattva, in Mahāyāna, and of the Arahata, in Hīnāyana, represent equivalent levels of ethical realisation, once again following the path of another human being. Imitation – but not mechanistic repetition – is more important than the application of abstract ethical principles. The very institution of these ethical ideals comes to confirm the deep awareness, in Buddhism, of the importance of the imitative faculty. More generally, the traditional setting of the master-disciple relation, in the monastic order, is in itself a perfect example of a positive mimesis.


Image courtesy: Wallpaperizm



  1. Girard, Battling to the End, 101.
  2. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, “Naturalizing Mimetic Theory,” in Mimesis and Science, ed. Garrels (East Lansing, USA: Michigan State University, 2011), 202.
  3. Matthieu Ricard, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, trans. Jesse Browner (London: Atlantic Books, 2007), 240.
  4. Francisco J. Varela, Ethical Know-how: Action, Wisdom and Cognition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 30.
  5. Varela goes further and seems to confirm our hypothesis when he explains: “In traditional communities, 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 identify. This is one of the important reasons why modern ethical thinking has such a nihilistic flavor.” Varela, Ethical Know-how, 24. Quoted in Ricard, Happiness, 249.