Sunday, October 7, 2012

Ethics and language

Two thoughts that I want to explore, if only briefly at first: is saying that ethics is too big to be a branch of philosophy like saying that language is too big for there to be such a thing as philosophy of language?, and have I repeatedly ignored Lars Hertzberg's point about the significance of language in ethical disagreement? The two questions are related, as both have to do with significance (which is a nicely ambiguous term here, capable of meaning both importance and meaning).

Here's what Lars says:
...there might be clarificatory work to be done concerning the significance of the expressions we use in reflecting on human attitudes and actions, even if we (sometimes) disagree on their application.
If you're wondering exactly what 'significance' means here, the preceding paragraph helps: ethical discourse the point of our remarks may often depend precisely on our disagreeing on the application of words; what holds our discourse together, on the other hand, is the degree to which, even so, we agree on the *significance* of a given description: *if* this were murder, *then*...  
So 'significance' means not quite meaning or importance but implication (which is related to both). And Lars's suggestion is that there might be clarificatory work to be done concerning the implications of the expressions we use in reflecting on human attitudes and actions. For example (if I understand correctly), if abortion really is murdering babies then this would suggest that abortion-providers deserve life in prison or possibly even the death penalty. And women who seek abortion would seem to deserve to be treated like people who try to hire contract killers. Some people (claim to) find such reasoning compelling, but for most people, I think, it is more like a reductio than an argument for rounding up large numbers of women and doctors. This kind of thing might lead those who say that abortion is murder to choose a different description, or to explain more carefully what they mean. This is the kind of work that Ronald Dworkin does (or tries to do on behalf of others) in Life's Dominion, and I think it can have great value.

'Significance' might also be taken as 'meaning,' so that we might inquire into, or try to clarify, the meaning of words like 'rights,'  'obligation,' and 'happiness.' I don't know whether Lars had that in mind, but I can see it being worthwhile. But given that we do so often disagree on the application of words like these I don't know where clarification would end and propaganda begin. Bentham's claim that talk of natural rights is nonsense on stilts strikes me as interestingly both conceptual analysis and political propaganda. Rightly or not, and interestingly or not, I think that Wittgenstein believed in avoiding this kind of thing. (Or did he? Was his desire to put a stop to all the claptrap about ethics not political in some sense, a desire to engage in a sort of culture war, or at least to bring about a cultural change?)

It's this entanglement of disagreement with (the most obviously) ethical concepts that makes philosophizing about them different from analyzing or clarifying uses of other kinds of words. But I suppose the difference is one of degree, so if I say you can't do Wittgensteinian work in ethics then the question arises where should we draw the line? I'd rather not make such a statement, but there is a problem here, I think, and I'd like to at least point it out or gesture toward it.


  1. I don't know where clarification would end and propaganda begin.

    I see the worry: Would the answer to this have something to do with our conception of what we are doing? Not that we can't be mistaken or confused about this (which is why I might ask myself if I'm clarifying or propagandizing). Contrast, say, what Cora Diamond has done in attempting to clarify the significance of "human being" and what we would make of a Nazi or racist defending some exclusionary doctrine (but who took themselves to be clarifying what a human being is...).

  2. So the racist would be honest, as it were, defending an exclusionary doctrine despite being quite unaware of any bias or agenda at work in his thinking? Part of me thinks that's possible (but unlikely) and part thinks I shouldn't allow it even as a possibility. So I'm not sure what to say. But it certainly seems true that someone might try to do the kind of thing that Cora Diamond has done and yet fail, unintentionally bringing their own biases into the supposedly clarificatory work.

    I wonder whether we could clarify difficult ethical concepts by describing them as essentially contested. There need not be any propaganda involved in doing that. And some might be words used in a secondary sense. There couldn't be anything un-Wittgensteinian in pointing that out, could there? Maybe this is where there is nothing to be said: we point out that the word we want to use does not belong in this context, but we still want to use it anyway. There doesn't seem to be much more to discuss at this point, and perhaps ethics is characterized by this phenomenon. But I don't want to just say that it's all secondary sense. (Or rather, that's exactly what I want to say, but I don't trust this desire to be anything but a symptom of laziness.)

  3. Well, I don't think my example was clear. I think it's harder to see the imagined Nazi or racist arguments as anything other than propaganda (however, much the person believes the arguments)--that is, I agree with you (or part of you). But I maybe the example isn't very helpful. I wanted to say something like: the agenda of clarification is different from the agenda of propaganda. But it would take more work to articulate that difference. (And I agree about "essentially contested," and this is why certain ways of thinking about what clarification involves would be if in clarifying we are uncovering the essence of the relevant concept.)

  4. Ah, I see! Yes, it is hard to see the imagined racist arguments as anything other than propaganda. Certainly the agenda of clarification is different from the agenda of propaganda, but think of someone like Richard Dawkins. I imagine he sees himself as both a propagandist and a clarifier, and his propaganda, as he sees it, is for clarity of thought. So I don't think it's always clear (at least to the agent) that there is a difference between the two kinds of agenda.

    I think Wittgenstein saw clarification as solving (or dissolving) problems, and that doesn't seem likely to happen with essentially contested concepts. In fact, these might appear to be concepts that cannot be, or are especially resistant to being, clarified, judging by this quote from E. Garver in the Wikipedia article:

    "The term essentially contested concepts gives a name to a problematic situation that many people recognize: that in certain kinds of talk there is a variety of meanings employed for key terms in an argument, and there is a feeling that dogmatism (“My answer is right and all others are wrong”), scepticism (“All answers are equally true (or false); everyone has a right to his own truth”), and eclecticism (“Each meaning gives a partial view so the more meanings the better”) are none of them the appropriate attitude towards that variety of meanings."

    In ethics generally clarification only seems to get you so far. In the end you still have to choose A or B (or C...). And the end is generally reached (or reachable) pretty soon, making clarification possibly of little use. Or so I think Wittgenstein saw things.

  5. What I had in mind in speaking about significance, I guess, was something like this: on the one hand, there are the things you point to in applying the label, and on the other hand there are the things you do with the label. It might look as follows, for instance. A wife accuses her husband of being neglectful of their children. She tells him he stays too long at the office, is bored when he’s with the children, forgets he’s promised to take them to the movies, etc. He may defend himself by saying he simply has to work long hours, that he’s not bored but tired, that he has too many things to think about, etc. She’s as it were presenting a Gestalt and he’s countering with an alternative Gestalt. What she’s driving at, unless she’s simply venting her frustation, is that he should mend his ways, be more attentive to what’s happening in their lives, maybe even warning him that she’s just about had it. (Many of the grounds she will give are themselves expressive of an attitude rather than neutral descriptions.)
    You write: “But given that we do so often disagree on the application of words like these I don't know where clarification would end and propaganda begin.” I’d like to say: the aim of clarification is not to settle disagreements, but to help us see what they’re about. The philosopher is in no position to adjudicate in the argument between the husband and wife – all she has to go on is their conflicting stories. Of course she may be unfair in setting out what the issue is about, but then someone else may correct her. “Take my word for it” doesn’t (shouldn’t) cut any ice in philosophy.
    In many cases, it may be helpful for those involved in a disagreement to realize that people who don’t agree with you may be neither stupid nor malevolent – that there may be different ways of looking at an issue. (Which is not to say that every case is a duck-rabbit case.)
    Thinking of my own work, I’d be hard put to draw a line in what I’ve written between what belongs to ethics and what belongs to other branches of philosophy. In fact, I’ve found that seeing how the different issues of philosophy touch on each other is often crucial to a clearer understanding of them.
    (I think plenty of good moral philosophy has been done in a Wittgensteinian tradition. I’d like to mention Peter Winch, Ethics and Action – especially “Moral integrity” – and Trying to Make Sense, as well as John Cook, Morality and Cultural Differences – though Cook mentions Wittgenstein only once.)

  6. Thanks, Lars, and sorry if I misrepresented what you were saying. I agree that there has been, and continues to be, lots of good Wittgensteinian work in moral philosophy, and in areas that are hard to define as wholly moral philosophy, something else, or something on the border. I don't at all wish to disparage such work. And I also agree that clarification of disagreements can help us see what they are about without settling, or trying to settle, them. One might wonder what the point of this would be (don't we already know what they are about?), but I think Dworkin's work is a good example of how this can be very helpful. Dworkin also has an agenda, which complicates things, but he makes no attempt that I can recall to settle the moral (as opposed to legal) disagreements about abortion and euthanasia. The main thing I try to do when teaching applied ethics is to get my students to see that there are different ways of looking at issues, ways that are neither malevolent nor stupid. And I do take myself to be doing something Wittgensteinian in doing this.

    My question is in a sense the very trivial one: how Wittgensteinian is this kind of thing? As I've said, there is no reason why anyone should care about the answer to this question. I care because I sense that Wittgenstein himself would not have approved. Maybe I'm wrong about that, or maybe I'm right but it matters no more than that he disapproved of people copying his habit of not wearing ties (it isn't therefore a mistake for Wittgensteinian philosophers to forego wearing ties). But I'm curious about whether there is something more here. In the Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein sees nonsense as something like the essence of ethics (or ethical talk). When he talks to Bouwsma about Bouwsma's teaching of ethics he seems very dismissive of the very idea. Could there be a connection? He does not, for instance, suggest that Bouwsma should engage in the kind of work that we both admire. Is that for relatively trivial reasons (it didn't occur to him at the time, he didn't think Bouwsma was the right man to do such work, etc.) or because of something deeper (he didn't think anyone could or should do such work)? What might be the connection between ethics and the use of words in a secondary sense? If it is very close, how much useful clarificatory work can be done when words are used in this way? And given the difficulty of drawing a line between what belongs to ethics and what belongs to other branches of philosophy, if there is something problematic about the idea of Wittgensteinian moral philosophy then what implications might this have for Wittgensteinian philosophy more generally?

    This probably sounds rhetorical, but I am aware that I have not made a case against the possibility of Wittgensteinian moral philosophy. I'm not really trying to do that, even though I think have tried to do so in the past. All I'm trying to do at the moment is think about whether such a case might be worth considering, and to explain why I think it might be. What I ought to do next, I think, is to re-read Bouwsma carefully, bearing in mind that his reports are secondhand accounts of what Wittgenstein said. I should look at the kind of discussion Wittgenstein apparently was willing to engage in and the kind of thing he seems to have rejected. Perhaps I will find a pattern that I can explain (or that explains things to me). Perhaps it will prove to be a dead end.

    1. I didn’t think we were necessarily disagreeing so much. As for worrying whether Wittgenstein would have disapproved of doing moral philosophy: one might think that if someone with Wittgenstein’s stature thought there was something misguided in the whole idea of a philosophical discussion of moral thought, he may have been on to something deep, and one might worry that one was missing it.
      On the other hand, one should note that Bouwsma does record a discussion about ethical issues in his notes (pp. 4 ff). This seems to be a case of clarification of the kind we have been discussing. So evidently Wittgenstein wasn’t averse to that – and it’s hard to understand why he should have been.
      One could imagine that Wittgenstein would have been suspicious of the *teaching* of ethics for the following reasons. First, there is the idea, still very much in force, that you can organize courses in moral philosophy aimed at making students *better human beings*. Wittgenstein may have thought that idea intellectually confused. But there may also be a moral risk connected with the idea of teaching ethics: the risk of moralism – of setting yourself up as an exemplar, or of pronouncing on other people’s predicaments without carrying the burden of responsibility or feeling the temptations. This may have been what Wittgenstein referred to as “preaching” in the Bouwsma notes.
      However, if you can steer clear of these risks, I don’t see why he should have thought that looking at how words are used in a moral context is any more harmful an occupation than devoting oneself to any other part of philosophy.

    2. I didn't think we were disagreeing so much either, but didn't want to take too much for granted. And I agree with everything you say here. Thanks.