Monday, December 19, 2011

Wittgenstein: ethics

Here's another draft of a revised section of my article on Wittgenstein for the IEP:
In 1929 Wittgenstein gave a lecture on ethics to a student organization at Cambridge called the Heretics Society.  In this lecture he identifies ethics with aesthetics and religion, suggesting that all three have to do with experiences that we feel are supremely important.  He gives three examples of the kind of feelings he has in mind.  The least surprising of these, which is often overlooked by commentators on the lecture, is the feeling of guilt.  Certain kinds of action make us feel bad when we do them, but rather than try to get rid of these bad feelings, as we would with a headache, we value the feelings as intimately related to something important, namely ethics.  The rational thing would seem to be to try to take some kind of moral aspirin, which no doubt some people do in one way or another, but that isn’t what we think of as the right thing to do.
Another example that Wittgenstein gives is the feeling of wonder at the very existence of the world.  Being able to sense, whether what we sense is pleasurable or painful, seems good to us, perhaps most obviously when we think about being able to see.  Of course, sight is useful, but even if it did you no good at all it is something you would probably still want very much to have.  This comes out in Shakespeare’s play King Lear, which Wittgenstein wanted to quote in the motto to a book he planned to write, and which also contains the idea that life is a miracle to be treasured, no matter how badly things might go.  This wonder at the existence of the world, at being able to see, or sense, or be conscious, or alive, at the fact that there is something rather than nothing, is often said to be the beginning of philosophy.  For some philosophers it has been the end too, the goal of their work being to bring this feeling back into a world whose increasing rationality seems to be stifling it.
The other feeling that Wittgenstein talks about is the feeling of being absolutely safe.  This might relate to belief in immortality.  Socrates famously said while he was awaiting execution that a good person cannot be harmed.  Perhaps he felt absolutely safe.  No real harm could come to him, he seems to have believed, even if he was made to drink poison until he died.  Belief in life after death is very familiar, of course, but we all know that when you’re dead you’re dead.  So what can “life after death” mean?  Well, what can it mean to think that it is ever good to feel bad?  What can it mean to value a life in which you lose everything you ever had and loved, to love life despite its very worst contents?
Rather than try to explain the meaning of such feelings, or the sentences we produce when we try to express them, Wittgenstein rejects the idea of reconciling value with sense.  All rational talk of value can only ever be in terms of what will satisfy our various preferences most efficiently, he believes.  So talk of real value, the kind of value that actually has value, can only be nonsense.  Wittgenstein accepts this, encourages others to accept it too, without trying to wriggle out of it by pretending that nonsense can make sense after all or contain profound truths.  If we are to avoid hypocrisy, sentimentality, bad taste, and wishful thinking, then we must accept that we cannot express the feelings that give our lives a sense of meaning or value.  We should make no attempt to do so.  This does not mean, though, that we should have different feelings (how could we?) or live as someone would who had no such feelings (why should we?).
In a world of contingency one cannot prove that a particular attitude is the correct one to take. If this suggests relativism, it should be remembered that it too is just one more attitude or point of view, and one without the rich tradition and accumulated wisdom, philosophical reasoning and personal experience of, say, orthodox Christianity or Judaism. Indeed crude relativism, the universal judgement that one cannot make universal judgments, is self- contradictory. Whether Wittgenstein’s views suggest a more sophisticated form of relativism is another matter, but the spirit of relativism seems far from Wittgenstein’s conservatism and absolute intolerance of his own moral shortcomings. Compare the tolerance that motivates relativism with Wittgenstein’s assertion to Russell that he would prefer “by far” an organization dedicated to war and slavery to one dedicated to peace and freedom. (This assertion, however, should not be taken literally: Wittgenstein was no war-monger and even recommended letting oneself be massacred rather than taking part in hand-to-hand combat. It was apparently the complacency, and perhaps the self-righteousness, of Russell’s liberal cause that Wittgenstein objected to.)
Certainly Wittgenstein worried about being morally good or even perfect, and he had great respect for sincere religious conviction, but he also said, in his 1929 lecture on ethics, that “the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language,” i.e. to talk or write nonsense. This gives support to the view that Wittgenstein believed in mystical truths that somehow cannot be expressed meaningfully but that are of the utmost importance. It is hard to conceive, though, what these ‘truths’ might be.
An alternative view is that Wittgenstein believed that there is really nothing to say about ethics. This would explain why he wrote less and less about ethics as his life wore on. His “accept and endure” attitude and belief in going “the bloody hard way” are evident in all his work, especially after the Tractatus. Wittgenstein wants his reader not to think (too much) but to look at the “language games” (any practices that involve language) that give rise to philosophical (personal, existential, spiritual) problems. His approach to such problems is painstaking, thorough, open-eyed and receptive. His ethical attitude is an integral part of his method and shows itself as such.
Wittgenstein’s emphasis on language and human behavior, practices, etc. makes him a prime candidate for anti-realism in many people’s eyes. He has even been accused of linguistic idealism, the idea that language is the ultimate reality. The laws of physics, say, would by this theory just be laws of language, the rules of the language game of physics. Anti-realist skepticism of this kind has proved quite popular in the philosophy of science and in theology, as well as more generally in metaphysics and ethics.
On the other hand, there is a school of Wittgensteinian realism, which is less well known. Wittgenstein’s views on religion, for instance, are often compared with those of Simone Weil, who was a Platonist of sorts. Sabina Lovibond argues for a kind of Wittgensteinian realism in ethics in her Realism and Imagination in Ethicsand the influence of Wittgenstein is clear in Raimond Gaita’s Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception. However, one should not go too far with the idea of Wittgensteinian realism. Lovibond, for instance, equates objectivity with intersubjectivity (universal agreement), so her realism is of a controversial kind.
Both realism and anti-realism, though, are theories, or schools of theories, and Wittgenstein explicitly rejects the advocacy of theories in philosophy. This does not prove that he practiced what he preached, but it should give us pause. It is also worth noting that supporters of Wittgenstein often claim that he was neither a realist nor an anti-realist, at least with regard to metaphysics. There is something straightforwardly un-Wittgensteinian about the realist’s belief that language/thought can be compared with reality and found to ‘agree’ with it. The anti-realist says that we could not get outside our thought or language (or form of life or language games) to compare the two. But Wittgenstein was concerned not with what we can or cannot do, but with what makes sense. If metaphysical realism is incoherent then so is its opposite. The nonsensical utterance “laubgefraub” is not to be contradicted by saying, “No, it is not the case that laubgefraub,” or “Laubgefraub is a logical impossibility.” If realism is truly incoherent, as Wittgenstein would say, then so is anti-realism.


  1. This is nice. I really appreciate the final point about realism and anti-realism.

  2. Thanks. The previous version of the article had a whole section on "Realism and Anti-Realism," which seems unwise to me now. But I've basically just moved it into the "Ethics" section, where I think it works. So nothing is lost, but a section on something Wittgenstein never explicitly addressed is removed.