Sunday, November 20, 2011

Relative and absolute value

In the Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein distinguishes between relative and absolute good, identifies the absolute sense of value with the sense used in ethics, and labels this use of 'good' nonsensical. This is often associated with Kant's distinction between hypothetical imperatives, which are indeed similar to Wittgenstein's idea of relative 'oughts', and the categorical imperative. But there are echoes of Schopenhauer too. As I say here, according to Schopenhauer:
Wrong is what we call one will’s encroaching on another, seen at its extreme in cannibalism. Right is a negative term, meaning only the opposite of this. What is on the side of our will we call ‘good’, and what is opposed to it we call ‘bad’ or, rarely, ‘evil’. “[T]hus every good is essentially relative, for it has its essential nature only in its relation to a desiring will. Absolute good is, therefore, a contradiction in terms …” The highest or ultimate good would be something that so satisfies the will that it never wanted again, but it is the nature of the will always to desire more, never to be satisfied. So there can be no such thing: the concept is self-contradictory.
Presumably Wittgenstein was influenced, directly or indirectly, by both Kant and Schopenhauer in making his distinction. But he puts his own stamp on it too. He has a much broader sense of his subject than Kant does, for instance, covering not only which acts are permissible but also a lot that might ordinarily be classed as belonging to religion or aesthetics rather than ethics. And he says that absolute good makes no sense, but not because of the nature of the will. It is simply that a non-relative sense of 'good' cannot be found. (Roughly because if it could be found then it could only be found in the world, and what is meant by 'absolute good' is precisely something above and beyond the world.)

I don't have any larger point at the moment to make about this. Mostly I just want to note the apparent connection to Schopenhauer in Wittgenstein's absolute-relative distinction, which I don't remember having  read much about in the literature (although that might say more about my memory or my reading habits than it does about the literature itself).

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