Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Does moral philosophy rest on a mistake?

Wittgenstein argues in the Lecture on Ethics that all attempts to talk ethics or religion result in nonsense. Roughly speaking, this kind of discourse is not rational, as he sees it, and this suggests that attempts to reason about ethics might be misguided. I think there's something to this.

Reading Gary Gutting's (rather good) piece on abortion and personhood in The Stone reminded me that most people's thinking (though not necessarily their feeling) about abortion seems off to me. Standard ways of conceptualizing the issue fail to capture standard intuitions, that is. Gutting says: "The above analysis does not settle the vexed question of abortion. That would require answering the question of what makes a person a person." But I'm not convinced this is true. I really don't think the concept of a person helps at all in making sense of our intuitions or feelings here.

As I see it, the basic 'pro-life' idea is that life is a miracle worthy of respect. The appropriate response is awe. Contraception, abortion, suicide, and euthanasia are all, in their different ways, forms of 'miracle control,' and thus both absurd and blasphemous. One does not rationally manage a miraculous gift. One accepts it as gratefully as one can, and cherishes it. Nothing else is an appropriate response.

What about abortion in cases of rape or incest? Here the idea of a gift or miracle makes much less sense. It isn't, perhaps, impossible to experience these pregnancies as a gift, but it is surely rare. Whether doing so is saintly or just weird is not for me to say. But it is at least understandable for them to be thought of as part of the rape or incest itself, part of that terrible episode, and thus as not at all worthy of respect. After a baby has been born a new episode has begun, and infanticide would be wholly inappropriate, but before then abortion might well be the least bad option. The same kind of thing might be said about abortion in cases of extreme disability. It might be more natural to experience pregnancy in cases where the child, if born, will suffer terribly as mistakes rather than as gifts. And so, again, abortion might be appropriate. This, I think, is how most pro-life people feel. (Assuming they are sincere and not just vengeful puritans, unthinking woman-haters, etc.)

A problem with this view (it can hardly be called a theory) is that it is so vague and subjective. The very idea of appropriateness is almost hopelessly vague. And how could we ever pin down what the natural or appropriate way to experience something is? Or what the appropriate response to a miracle is? I don't think we can. Which means there are serious limits to what philosophy can contribute to debates about the merits of the pro-life position. Perhaps the best it can do is to point out when theories distort the real issues.

What about the 'pro-choice' view? I think it's probably similarly vague. Where it diverges from the pro-life view (if it does at all--after all, the pro-life view that I have described is quite capable of accepting some abortions, and this might qualify it as pro-choice on some conceptions of that view) is in bringing in concern for the pregnant woman too. Her life is worthy of respect and might be seriously disrupted by an unwanted pregnancy. The most appropriate way to respect her might be to end the pregnancy. Perhaps abortion is always bad, but it could be the least bad option even in cases where normal pro-life people would not support it. In short, I pretty much agree with Ronald Dworkin's take on the subject. (Judith Jarvis Thomson argues plausibly that he gets the pro-life position wrong here, but the evidence cited by Gutting suggests to me that Dworkin is actually right about what most people (not the Pope) believe.)

The bottom line: many of the ethical questions that most concern us (gay marriage is another one) turn on appropriate ways to respect things we value (life, autonomy, love, etc.). Reason is little help here. As the Greeks found out, one way people respect the dead is by burying their bodies, but another is by burning them. Reason will not tell us which is better. And metaphysical questions about the essence of persons or of marriage, for instance, are red herrings. Try as we might, we cannot turn ethical questions into technical (or quasi-scientific, metaphysical) ones.


  1. I think what you say about respect is good. It might be tempting then to say that what counts as being respectful is hopelessly subjective (or culturally relative), and maybe even that "respect" is more about one's attitude--what stands behind the things one is doing--than what is done. But that, of course, can't entirely be right, since being respectful presumably means being attentive to the needs, concerns, and values of others, too. Maybe this means that what counts as respectful depends upon what can be made out as such within some particular "form of life" (bearing in mind that if by "form of life" we mean the different cultures or whatever, then "forms of life" also overlap and intersect...) And forms of life change, are modified, etc., over time. This might help explain why the kind of "absolute" value W examines in LE looks to be nonsense. But then if you think about that the intersubjective example he gives, involving lying, the nonsense has a recognizable purpose, insofar as it communicates to others one's views about the basic kind of respect one expects from others if they are to continue together within a shared form of life. I'm not sure how any of this would help in thinking about, e.g., the abortion issue, except perhaps to signal that if we get caught up in looking for the answer, then we are probably trapped by a false picture. And maybe that in itself is important to see.

  2. "Try as we might, we cannot turn ethical questions into technical (or quasi-scientific, metaphysical) ones."

    Nor some legal questions. According to Judge Posner (who, like many - even among supporters of the outcome - disapproves the decision on its merits), the SCOTUS majority decision was based on assuming a time-varying opposition between the fetus's emerging rights and the pregnant woman's eroding rights, and that the choice of a cross-over point was to some degree arbitrary. Notwithstanding any lack of legal merit, IMO it does have the merit of acknowledging (even if only implicitly) that in such matters, some arbitrariness is unavoidable.

  3. Thanks, Matt and Charles.

    being respectful presumably means being attentive to the needs, concerns, and values of others, too.

    Sometimes, yes. But if what I respect, or want to show respect for, is life itself, or human life, or the sanctity of marriage, then there aren't any particular others whose concerns, etc. I need to take into account.

    Maybe this means that what counts as respectful depends upon what can be made out as such within some particular "form of life"

    I think that's true. But Wittgenstein points out somewhere (probably in Culture and Value) that one way to show respect for a manuscript is to burn it, or cut it up into little pieces and distribute them widely, while another way is to preserve it very carefully. There are equally various ways of showing respect for a dead body. And perhaps for living bodies too. Some of this variety might be attributable to different forms of life, but some of it exists within a single form of life.

    if we get caught up in looking for the answer, then we are probably trapped by a false picture.

    Maybe, although in some ways looking for the right way to (express) respect is like looking for the right Christmas present for someone. There is such a thing as getting it just right. An important difference is that a perfect gift makes its recipient happy, while a perfect enactment of respect might not do so, and in some cases (e.g. respecting a dead body) there is no one to make happy. Perhaps it satisfies those involved, but it's not as if that was the (conscious, intended) point. But the kind of way in which there is a right answer is, I think, very similar to the way in which there is such a thing as the right way to continue or finish a painting or piece of music. It isn't at all a matter of applying an algorithm. (Or if it is then the decision to proceed algorithmically expresses a certain taste rather than the kind of discovery that might guide work in engineering, say. In engineering the bridge must not collapse, so calculations are means to some definite, publicly observable and agreed upon, end. The work of enacting respect is not like that.)

    Nor some legal questions.

    Right. You can't reasonably escape reference, implicit or explicit, to the standard of the reasonable person.

  4. DR: I agree with everything you said. I "Christmas present" analogy is helpful. Thanks for that. (And how timely.)