Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pinzauti on Mounce on Winch on Anscombe

Perhaps not for much longer there is a paper available free here (at least to me when I'm at work) by Piero Pinzauti that is curious and worth reading. The paper is a response to an earlier one by Howard Mounce, which I have already discussed. Pinzauti makes some controversial claims, e.g. the suggestion that there are:
horrors caused by the existence of many conflicting religions and by rendering our moral perceptions dependent on all sorts of religious interpretations.
As I read this passage, it says that treating morality as dependent on religion, as Mounce (and allegedly Anscombe) does, partially causes all the horrors that can be blamed on religion, including "no end of wars against one another and against entire populations, including invasions, oppressions, inquisitions and torture." This, it seems to me, is going a little far.

But along the way Pinzauti raises interesting questions about humanity and about the relation between morality and religion. He talks, as Peter Winch does, about the good Samaritan seeing the humanity of the wounded man whom he stops to help. But I find this talk obscure. For instance, Pinzauti says that if the Samaritan explains why he has interrupted his journey to help a stranger by referring to the fact that the wounded man will die otherwise, then this reason
refers directly and solely to the wounded man's human characteristics and needs, and to nothing else external to them. And here, Winch invited us to notice that the Samaritan's behaviour and his relationship to the victim is complete in itself, and no further reason is required to make it immediately intelligible and to make sense of it; therefore, we can completely dispense with God and with His divine law to this effect.
What is obscure to me is the meaning of the idea that the Samaritan's behavior is "complete in itself" with no further reason required to make it intelligible. I agree that no further reason is required, but surely this behavior depends on something for its intelligibility. On some shared idea about what kinds of behavior are intelligible, for instance. I'm not sure that anything is simply intelligible "in itself." (Although, not being sure what this means, I can't really deny it.)

Here's another example of the obscurity I'm trying to bring out. According to Pinzauti: "we may see a wounded man half dead in the street but do not “see” him as one to be taken care of and as demanding our attention." I assume that the word 'see' is in quotation marks because it is a matter of seeing as, which is not regular seeing. Just as (or at least somewhat as) there is seeing and seeing, so too there is humanity and humanity, it seems to me. That is, there is understanding that someone or something is a human being and that it will die if not cared for in certain ways, but there is also knowing that something is "one to be taken care of." This distinction is only hinted at by Pinzauti, so it isn't clear to what extent he is aware of it (although he is surely at least dimly aware of it).

Here's a third and final example. In section 3 of the paper, Pinzauti writes that in a certain case, "
the victim's human characteristics would have no reality in and of themselves, and would become a mere means for the Samaritan to obey the law." This Kantian language ("reality in itself") is obscure, especially given the earlier references to human-needs-and-nothing-else-beyond-them, which sounds much more naturalistic than Kant.

Pinzauti moves on to this conclusion:

On the basis of this approach Winch thinks that – to put it with Mounce –“the background of divine law is irrelevant to the parable  . . . we do not need divine law in order to understand the modal form ‘I can't leave him’.”
But I don't think it has been shown at all what background may or may not be necessary to make sense of the distinction between seeing a human being with needs (which an animal might do, after all) and seeing something as a human being with needs, as one that is to be taken care of (which only a fellow human being is likely to do). I don't know what we need in order to understand "I can't leave him," but it doesn't follow from the fact that he belongs to the species homo sapiens that he is one to be taken care of. Seeing the former as the latter involves some sort of background, context, or perspective. One is a point of data, or at most a flat expanse--call it a circle--of the given, the other is larger, richer, and caught up with the sphere of action. The larger of the two is something like a conception of the smaller concept, and this relates, I think, to conceiving as imagining, as when you're given some description and then find that you can or cannot conceive of such a thing. Conceiving here means giving life in imagination to the idea, growing it and putting it into some kind of motion. And these conceptions, at least sometimes, are shared. (One of the objections to a male logic professor posing for sexist photographs is that doing so might further entrench harmful conceptions of logic (as being for men) and of women (ditto). It doesn't change the concepts of logic and women.)

When I was an undergraduate I picked up the anti-foundationalist slogan "philosophy is flat" (I think this comes from P.M.S. Hacker, but I could be wrong. I remember it as a theme in Paul Johnston's work (but I could be wrong about that, too).) In the spirit of this slogan I would deny that morality depends (vertically) on religion. But whether we can really have ethics without religion, whether the two can be wholly separate, seems to me to be an open question. Who knows what concepts we might find ourselves needing? Who knows what we can cut off and what will remain clinging to our thoughts, conceptions, behavior, etc.? Religion is no foundation though. Nothing that surpasses understanding can be the logical (or epistemological) basis of anything else. We can never comprehend any such limit, plumb any such depth.

So if the taste is for grasping, and for what can be grasped, we might be better off not even going there,as they used to say. We might be best stopping right away, at what can be grasped, at the man lying wounded on the ground. Then we could say with Pinzauti that "the essential characteristics of the victim's humanity" are "his injuries, his need for care and the danger that he may die" and leave it that. We don't then go looking beyond the physical facts into the murk of ethics, but the ethical is contained (unutterably, as Wittgenstein put it) in the physical:
And this is how it is: if only you do not try to utter what is unutterable [das Unaussprechliche] then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be -- unutterably -- contained in what has been uttered! (Memoir p. 82-85 [4 September 1917 (Letter No. 6)]) (copied from here) 
(I sometimes wonder whether Davidson could be read this way when he talks about reasons as causes. That is, he might be re-enchanting our idea of a cause rather than disenchanting the idea of a reason, as he is usually taken to be doing.) But then you're leaving everything unexplained, treating everything as given. Perhaps then the given (what we start from as we set out to solve a problem) becomes the gift (what we accept, perhaps as a task, but not as something to solve). I don't know how that can be done by anything short of dying though. Correction: it shouldn't be that hard. Things can still be explained. All you have to stop doing is looking for the wrong kind of explanation, looking in the wrong place. That might not be easy, but it isn't impossible.

This post is probably already too long, but I think it's pretty hard to follow, too, so I'll try a little more. It's tempting to think we know what bare facts are (and it helps to foster this sense of understanding if we use Latin words such as data) and that we understand the difference between description and explanation, and between the positive and the normative. But when we explain we come to an end, which is usually a description of something. That's just how it is. And when we justify or explain, much the same kind of thing happens. We end with a statement: that is unacceptable, that hurts, that makes me happy. We begin and end with statements. Of course sometimes it helps to give additional statements, but sometimes it is unnecessary. Why did the Samaritan help? The man was dying! What more is necessary? If philosophy demands more, then perhaps there is something wrong with philosophy. How can a mere fact (the man was dying) be normative?

Can I get away with saying this: "Don't think, look!"? Probably not. Another paper in the same issue of Philosophical Investigations (by Drew Carter) addresses this issue, so I'll return to it soon.

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