Saturday, September 7, 2019

"The Ethical and the Political in the Dilemma of Winch's Vere"

The last paper in the collection is by Lynette Reid. Melville's Billy Budd presents a tragic dilemma in which it can seem both that Billy Budd is essentially innocent and that he must be executed (because of the letter of the law and the danger of anything less than strict discipline in time of war). Vere, the captain of his ship, decides that he is to be hanged.

Reid's paper builds on work by Peter Winch, and is written as a response to Lilian Alweiss, who argues that Vere faces, not a moral dilemma, but a clash between a moral and a political duty. Reid explains that:
Winch gives Vere's choice as an example of a contradiction between the inner and the outer as such a contradiction may arise in the complexity of lives lived with the kinds of social concepts that create the possibility of "wearing two hats". Winch very briefly contrasts how he thinks about this kind of contradiction with how the contractarian approach would encompass it, with reference to Hobbes as a philosopher who, he says, attempts to collapse the distinction between the inner and the outer (meaning here, private conscience and political duty) (p. 271)     
Reid argues persuasively that Vere's dilemma is moral or at least normative in way that means Alweiss does not deprive Winch's argument of its force.

Friday, September 6, 2019

"Comments on a Contested Comparison"

Alice Crary takes on the issue of comparing people to animals and our treatment of animals to the Holocaust in her paper "Comments on a Contested Comparison: Race and Animals." Encouraging the thought of certain people as less than fully human is certainly bad, but can we accept this truth while still properly valuing animals? For instance, can we understand, and help others to see, how terrible our treatment of animals often is without comparing industrial slaughter with the Holocaust (a comparison that echoes Nazi propaganda in likening its victims to animals)? Crary's answer is Yes. Much of what she says here builds on her argument in Inside Ethics, on which see this and this. Like Craig Taylor, Crary rejects Jeff McMahan's way of thinking about animals. She also rejects the idea that there can be a neutral metaphysic and instead takes the view, argued for in Inside Ethics, that we can observe the moral qualities of animals.

On her view:
animals of different kinds are taken to be beings who enter moral thought, not as creatures who are in a normative sense "below" humans, but as beings who matter just as the creatures they are. So there is no room for a normative ranking into "higher" and "lower" animals... (p. 250)
I agree, although I'm not sure about the "no room" part. No doubt her view does not include any such ranking, but is it really excluded as fully as the words "no room" suggest? Couldn't someone, that is, value animals and human beings "just as the creatures they are" but also, say, group them into types, and perhaps also consider some types "higher" (who knows what that would mean?) than others? Maybe not. Presumably one could prefer some species to others. Whether that means one could rank some as higher or lower than others would depend a lot on what "higher" and "lower" would mean in this context. So I'm not sure. But if this is a criticism at all, it is about as minor as can be.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

"Our Fellow Creatures"

Craig Taylor focuses on ideas about our moral relations with fellow creatures, both human and non-human, that have been developed by people such as Cora Diamond, Raimond Gaita, Stephen Mulhall, and Stanley Cavell from ideas in Wittgenstein's Investigations and other late writings, especially Zettel. Philosophers such as Jeff McMahan and James Rachels think that what justifies our treatment of an individual in this way or that is the characteristics possessed by that individual. When Wittgensteinians then talk about the importance of something's being a fellow creature or of our sharing a common humanity, McMahan et al. take this to indicate that there is a relational property allegedly held by certain creatures that might justify, or make unjustified, certain types of treatment of those beings. But, Taylor explains:
this way of looking at things, from the perspective of the Wittgensteinian view at issue, gets matters the wrong way around: it is not as if we first recognize some property (relational or otherwise) and take that as a reason for treating all humans differently to all animals. Rather, it is that the way in which we respond prior to any such justification, on the one hand, to human beings, and on the other, to animals, helps determine in the first place our conception of what it is to be a human being and what it is to be an animal. (p. 222)
The difference is that McMahan's kind of view suggests that some disabled people should be treated like animals with similar levels of cognitive ability, whereas the Wittgensteinian view rejects this. It does not offer much in the way of reasons to justify this rejection (there are echoes of Hertzberg and Johnson here), but it does offer a different way of looking at the world. And surely a way that most of us find much more acceptable.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

"Hitting Moral Bedrock"

Jeremy Johnson draws on the work of Avrum Stroll, among others, to argue for an ethical version of Wittgensteinian foundationalism. He says early on in the paper that, "it is clear that Wittgenstein believed our language-games rest on [a bedrock that holds fast] by the time he wrote On Certainty" (p. 197). I think this is far from clear, in fact, but I'll leave this aside for now. Johnson says he is less interested in exegesis than he is in saying "something useful about morality and moral foundations" (p. 198). So whether he does this is the question to focus on.

To be honest, I'm not sure that I understand the paper well enough to be able to answer this question, but I'll try. When Johnson moves from foundationalism more generally to moral foundations in particular, he says that, "Moral bedrock certainties make it possible for moral bipolar [i.e., true or false] assertions to have sense" (p. 210). He uses a mathematical analogy to help explain the idea:
In order for us to say, meaningfully and correctly on some occasion, "there are four cows in the barn", we need such certainties as 1 + 3 = 4 and 4 > 2. These are not claims that might turn out to be wrong. They are the background against which and the foundations upon which meaningful claims can be made which might turn out to be wrong. (p. 211)
I think the idea here is this. Using math depends on the existence of math, and mathematics forms a system, with its own rules and logic. We implicitly rely on this system when we say, e.g., that there are four cows in the barn. Similarly, we rely on the, or a, system of moral thinking when we make an ethical statement. For instance:
In order for us to say, meaningfully and correctly on some occasion, "you ought not to return the sword you borrowed", we need such certainties as "there are things one ought not to do" and "one ought to prevent harm to others whenever feasible". (pp. 210-211)
But "there are things one ought not to do" is obscure in a way that I don't think 1 + 3 = 4 is. Does it mean "...no matter what"? Does it mean that there are things that are intrinsically not to be done? 1 + 3 = 4 sounds like a familiar rule that one uses when adding. It's the kind of thing one says under one's breath while adding the tip to work out how much to pay at a restaurant. "There are things one ought not to do" sounds like a line from the trailer for a horror movie. It just doesn't have the kind of use that "1 + 3 = 4" has in daily life. Perhaps I'm just being pedantic, but I think this matters.

Can I try to say what Johnson means in other words? Possibly. One thing he might mean is that "You ought not to return the sword you borrowed" does not make sense unless the word "ought" has a meaning. That is true. Another thing he might mean is that it is not enough for the individual words of a sentence to have meanings. The sentence itself must have a use in a language game or form of life, even if this particular sentence has never been used before. That seems true as well. I just wouldn't call any of this foundationalism.

Well, never mind what I would or wouldn't call anything. What is Johnson trying to do? He wants, he says, to resist a certain kind of scepticism. The "sceptic is resisted," he says (p. 216), if I reach what for me is moral bedrock, something for which I am not able to give grounds and for which I do not feel that grounds are needed or even possible. The example he gives is "cheating is always wrong."

This doesn't seem very persuasive though. Imagine a new tax is being collected to pay for some immoral enterprise, such as an unjust war. Imagine also that an illegal but undetectable way to get away with not paying this tax has been discovered and is being circulated on social media by people who oppose the war and want as many people as possible not to pay the tax. In response to such people I might say, "This would be cheating on my taxes, and cheating is always wrong." In what sense have I resisted the sceptic? I have refused to engage with their arguments, but that is all. Is that OK? Well, it's true that explanations have to come to an end somewhere. But surely it's possible to have reasonable doubts in this case. Johnson's final paragraph is this:
Taken together, these points show the way to resist sceptical regress arguments. They do not constitute a proof that we are right to hold to our moral certainties--no such proof is possible--but they serve to reassure us that there is also no proof that holding to such certainties is irrational or unjustified in an objectionable sense. (p. 217) 
Holding to some moral certainties seems absolutely fine. Refusing to commit murder, for instance, seems reasonable to me, and I am not bothered by the apparent impossibility of giving a philosophical justification for taking and standing by this position. Other allegedly moral certainties, though, are not like this. "Miscegenation is always wrong," for instance, surely is irrational and unjustified in an objectionable sense. Appealing to a foundationalist theory (or description of how our language actually works) doesn't seem to help at all here. It doesn't distinguish, as far as I can see, between the good kind of foundation and the bad kind. And so it offers no assurance that what seems good to me really is so. The sceptic is thus not so much resisted as ignored. And I think we can do that without foundationalism.

Johnson's emphasis on the groundlessness of a certain kind of belief gets at something important, though, I think, and he suggests a number of thoughtful qualifications to the foundationalist theory he starts with. So his paper is worth reading and thinking about, even though I don't buy the main argument in the end. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

"Reasons to Be Good?"

Lars Hertzberg's paper is another interesting one. He's interested in questions about reason, morality, and self-interest. In response to what Philippa Foot says in "Moral Beliefs", Hertzberg argues that "self-interest cannot ground a genuine life of justice, and that if someone is in need of a reason for a just life, there is no reason that can fulfill that need" (p. 180). He also discusses Bernard Williams' view that "a person can be given a reason for acting well only if the reason accords with some motive she embraces" and the case of the Badou family, who adopted twenty children with special needs, in addition to having two children who were not adopted.

Foot argues that it is in one's self-interest to behave justly. Not in any religious, poetic, or otherwise potentially mysterious sense, but in the sense that it is more profitable to be just, that 'honesty is the best policy.' Her thinking is that if, as Thrasymachus might recommend, one behaves unjustly whenever one can profitably get away with it then, in fact, one will never behave unjustly, because the cost of making sure one's tracks are covered, that no one else will ever find out, will be prohibitively high. So purely in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, it makes most sense to avoid unjust actions. Against this, Hertzberg argues that this kind of self-interested behavior is not real justice. Really being just means valuing justice even when there is nothing in it for you. Hence "If our thinking starts from self-interest, wherever it leads us to will not be genuine justice" (p. 185). In this sense, concern for justice "is not dependent on having reasons" (ibid.)

Hertzberg takes this idea up again in the second part of the paper, which he concludes by noting that "we are not necessarily in need of reasons for acting morally" (p. 191). He also says in this concluding paragraph that "one may give a person reasons for acting in a morally responsible way even if she initially had no inclination to do so, provided the word "reason" is understood in a wide enough sense." This also seems right.

The third part of the paper is more unusual and starts less with engagement with a text (although it does that) and more with thinking about a specific case. The case is that of Hector and Sue Badou, who decided, not all at once, to look after lots of children, most of them with special needs, some physical and some emotional. Hertzberg discusses the impressiveness of this case carefully. The Badous are not some special breed of person who can do this kind of thing without struggle. They thought hard about each potential adoption, deciding against some. And they cared about having joy in their lives, and the lives of their children. They were not weird saints or Kantians. But they behaved differently from the way most of us behave. What should we make of this difference?
Where the Badous differed from most other people [...] was not in their having embraced a line of reasoning that took them in a different direction from a shared reality. If by a reason we mean a conversational move, an articulated claim that is apt to make a person act in some particular way, we might not be able to identify any set of reasons that would set the Badous off from the average citizen. (p. 194)
Hertzberg's response to Foot seems completely right. But it also has me wondering about the nature of reasons and self-interest. Edward Harcourt considers various reasons why a character in the Iliad might prefer, say, killing more Thracians to stealing more armor. One kind of reason is that one course of action might be easier or safer than the other. A different kind of reason, it seems to me, is that one (presumably killing more Thracians) would be more awful than the other. The first kind of reason is the kind that might motivate an animal. The second kind seems more uniquely human (although maybe angels, aliens, or other rational beings might be motivated in the same way too). And it seems to be a very important kind of reason, this non-animal (for want of a better term) kind. Think of Plato's example of wanting to go and see dead bodies behind a wall. That isn't self-interested in the animal sense. Or the concern with retrieving the bodies of the dead after a battle in Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian war. Or the appeal of human sacrifice (because it is awful) that Wittgenstein discusses in connection with Frazer's Golden Bough. Or, for that matter, concern with honor (not just one's reputation, although the line might be blurred at times). These non-animal or rational or human concerns (which might vary quite a bit and are perhaps not best lumped together as I'm doing now) seem like the kind of thing that Anscombe says we know about by way of mystical perception. They also seem connected, to me, to Wittgenstein's idea of absolute value, as opposed to relative value, which comes down to matters of scientific fact. There is, I think, a somewhat mysterious and yet not hard to share sense in which it is against my self-interest for my remains to be dishonored after my death. Or for me to behave in seriously dishonorable ways while I am alive. And this kind of thinking, which Foot seems to ignore (although I haven't re-read her paper fully), could suggest a reason to be just. It won't be the kind of reason she focuses on though.

Perhaps we shouldn't call it a reason. After all, we are in mysterious territory here. But it isn't that mysterious. Caring about the dead is very normal. And even animals might care about such things as fairness, death, and where one stands in the pecking order. There is a tendency to think that really everything must come down to pleasure and pain, but this reductive tendency should be resisted. Perhaps Wittgenstein's remarks on pain might even help with this resistance, bouncing us back from reduction out into the wider and more animate world. (Harcourt says something very interesting that relates to this. The very last sentence of his paper reads: "It may well be that the question--as it might be--whether the mind is the brain is one of the most pressing moral questions of our day, and if it is, this fact is not readily captured in terms of the machinery of progressively sophisticated levels which have been the stock in trade of this chapter" (p. 60).)

What, though, is a reason? If we take it to be an articulated claim then I think Hertzberg is right. But there does seem to be a sense in which the Badous did embrace a line of reasoning that took them in a different direction from a shared reality. The shared reality, let us say, is that there are children who need to be adopted if they are to grow up in a loving family. And it is good for children to grow up in a loving family. The line of reasoning that the Badous embraced (simplifying a bit) is one that goes from here to actually adopting some of these children. The rest of us, for the most part, move instead to looking for excuses not to do so, or to changing the subject. The trajectory of thought and action is different. But not because of some line of ethical code that the Badous have in their programming that we lack. If anything, we have extra, distracting lines that they leave out. Or we could equally, perhaps better, say that they mean what they say and believe more than the rest of us do. That is, in the sentences There are children who need to be adopted if they are to grow up in a loving family. And it is good for children to grow up in a loving family they really mean the words 'need' and 'good' (and perhaps 'children') while most of us mean them in a faded or half-hearted or 'yeah yeah' kind of way at best. Hertzberg says that "for someone to point to [the Badous] and say that that is how we all should live would in all likelihood be a pointless, empty gesture" (p. 193). This is true, and brings out the element of bull in our saying such things. Which suggests maybe we should agree with him that there really is no shared reality after all from which the Badous reason along one line and most people reason along another.

The emptiness of the words here seems reflective of an emptiness of their speaker. A very different kind of self-interest from the one Foot apparently has in mind would be served by meaning words like these, acting on them. This would be a matter of making oneself more substantial, more real. It would not get one what one wanted, although it might bring joy, or at least satisfaction (and it might bring neither). And it would, it seems, avoid something that one is averse to. At least, that's my interpretation of the Badous, that they felt they couldn't leave unadopted the children that they adopted. They couldn't live with that. And I think (hypocritically) that really taking in (and keeping in, not pushing down or away, not deflecting) the reality of those children and their situation would mean not having much option but to adopt them. Perhaps this is at least one way that really tremendous things get done. Not through some heroic leap or one-off moment but through a possibly very long series of small acts of honest attention, through having always the (non-miraculous, available to everyone) courage to look and respond to what one sees.

Monday, September 2, 2019

"Are Moral Judgements Semantically Uniform?"

Benjamin De Mesel's paper in Ethics in the Wake of Wittgenstein is "Are Moral Judgements Semantically Uniform? A Wittgensteinian Approach to the Cognitivism--Non-Cognitivism Debate." As De Mesel says in the introduction to the paper (p. 126), "Cognitivists think that moral judgements express beliefs; non-cognitivists think that they express "non-beliefs", for instance, emotions or prescriptions." Each side in the debate seems to assume that all moral judgements are the same in this regard: they are either all beliefs or all non-beliefs. The main point of De Mesel's paper is to question this assumption. Almost as soon as he does so, it seems obvious that he's right. (That's meant as praise, not criticism.) It's not obvious that there isn't semantic uniformity in moral judgements, but that isn't his claim. What's obvious, or seems so now to me, is that the assumption that they are all uniform is not justified.

One response to this claim would be to question whether all those meta-ethicists on both sides of this long-running debate could really have overlooked such a seemingly obvious possibility. Well, maybe they haven't all done so, but De Mesel cites evidence suggesting that some very prominent ones have.

Another response could be to question what this has to do with Wittgenstein. The answer, as De Mesel shows, is: a lot. Wittgenstein challenges our "tendency to look for something in common to all the entities which we commonly subsume under a general term" (from the Blue Book, quoted on p. 129). He rejects contempt for particular cases and wants us to attend to differences as well as similarities.

Thirdly, one might wonder whether anyone else has had similar thoughts about the alleged, or presupposed, semantic uniformity of moral judgements. They have, as De Mesel explains and discusses, but those who have questioned this assumption still often seem to suffer from the generalizing tendency that Wittgenstein rejects.

De Mesel has obviously had to do a lot of research to write this paper, but there's also a sense in which it seems that it would have almost written itself. The fact that no one has written it before (that I know of) shows that this isn't the case, but it still seems like a very good illustration of Wittgenstein's thought that:
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something -- because it is always before one's eyes.) The real foundations of his inquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. -- And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful. (PI 129)
In other words, it's a very nice paper.

The next paper in the book is Cora Diamond's "Truth in Ethics: Williams and Wiggins." I've talked about it in this review, so I'll pass over it here.   

Sunday, September 1, 2019

"Rule-Following, Moral Realism and Non-Cognitivism Revisited"

Alexander Miller's paper is the first in the collection not to have a colon in the title. It's not the first to talk about John McDowell, though. Here's the conclusion:
for all that McDowell's discussions show, the later Wittgenstein's reflections on following a rule fail to damage methodologically naturalist, synthetic and explanatory forms of non-cognitivism of the sort exemplified by [Simon] Blackburn's projectivist quasi-realism. (p. 121)
In other words, if Miller is right, Wittgenstein's work does not show that one cannot support a certain kind of meta-ethical position, as has been claimed. I don't mean to downplay the importance of the disagreement between McDowell and Blackburn, but my interest in Blackburn's kind of theory isn't great enough to motivate me to go through the details of Miller's argument here.