Monday, October 1, 2012

Wittgenstein and Ethics

I've just read Anne-Marie Christensen's "Wittgenstein and Ethics," and it's full of riches. It's tempting to go through the whole thing like a professor who wants to comment on each point that catches her attention, but I'll try to focus on the question whether Wittgenstein thought of ethics as belonging to philosophy.

On p. 796 Christensen quotes Wittgenstein saying that "What is ethical cannot be taught." She points out that this is reminiscent of Tractatus 4.112, where Wittgenstein says that philosophy is not a subject but an activity. Her view is that "an investigation of Wittgenstein's remarks on ethics does not present a theory of ethics; rather, it clarifies what it is we do when we use words with an ethical point and elucidates the characteristic features of such a use" (p. 797). I agree with the theory part, but I find myself asking what is it that we do when we use words with an ethical point? What are the characteristic features of such a use?

According to Wittgenstein, Christensen argues, ethics is "an active perspective or attitude" that structures one's view of the world in a particular way "because it concerns the world as a place in which one has to live" (p. 798). This sounds right, but it is a very broad view. Christensen immediately refers, in fact, to "the ubiquitous character of this conception," referring to Cora Diamond's work. And at the foot of the same page Christensen says that, "Our ethical attitude [...] is not just a particular view of the world; it encompasses our entire way of relating to and acting in particular circumstances." This sounds like a good description of ethics, but it doesn't seem like a definition. Something that encompasses our entire way of acting sounds like life, or at least something too big to be part of philosophy. It sounds bigger than philosophy. Christensen says  (bottom of p. 799) that Wittgenstein places ethics within the question of the meaning of life, but that he does not try to answer this question; "instead, he is simply showing us how it arises, namely in any attempt to live a human life" (p. 800). I don't know what to think about this. I don't know how one would show that ethics (or anything else) arises in any attempt to live a human life. One could try to argue that it necessarily must do so, but that doesn't sound like Wittgenstein. Or one could try to show that it just does arise in every human life, but that sounds too empirical (and too time-consuming to be practical). But I don't mean this as more than an objection, a point that might usefully be clarified. I don't mean it as an attempted refutation of Christensen's position. In fact I think she is at least partly right (and maybe completely right). Perhaps the truth is that Wittgenstein does not try to show how or that ethics arises in any attempt to live a human life but that he believes it does (and perhaps shows that he believes so in various remarks).

Some ammunition for the view that Wittgenstein did not think of ethics as belonging to philosophy appears on p. 807, where Christensen quotes Moore quoting Wittgenstein talking about reasons "not only in Ethics, but also in Philosophy" (this from lectures given 1930-33). The implication is that ethics is something other than philosophy. What else might it be? On pp. 809-810 she says that "the defining characteristic of ethics in Wittgenstein's view [is] the fact that it is essentially personal." And:
The essentially personal side of ethics means that ethics concerns everything that people actually find ethically relevant or absolutely good, and what this is may vary immensely from person to person. In this way, Wittgenstein again criticizes the idea that ethics is a particular area of life or the world that we talk about [p. 811]
Philosophy, though, is a particular area of  life or the world that we talk about, at least as Wittgenstein sees it, isn't it? Which would suggest that ethics is not a part of philosophy, even if philosophy is part of ethics. Although I might be being simplistic here. Maybe ethics belongs to philosophy in the sense that one can philosophize about ethics, or about ethical sentences. Diamond might object to this suggestion that "ethical sentences" doesn't pick out any identifiable set of sentences. Wittgenstein talks about what he calls "ethical sentences" (e.g. "That is good!" and "You must do this!"), but should he? Of course he can, but if our goal is to show how ethics arises in our lives, then it seems it would be a mistake to look only at sentences like this. As Christensen quotes Wittgenstein saying of a suit, the main way you show that you think it is good is by wearing it repeatedly. If we want to understand ethics we should look at what we do, not a particular class of sentences. Especially since we often do not use the obviously ethical words when speaking about ethical matters, just as we often don't use words like 'beautiful' when speaking about aesthetic matters. Karl Kraus makes an ethical point when he titles a poem about a submarine's sinking a ship in 43 seconds "With Stopwatch in Hand." (Who thought to time the sinking? What attitude did they thereby show towards the people on the ship?) There is no need there for words like 'good' and 'ought'.

But that itself, the last couple of sentences of mine, is a kind of reminder about how we use words in connection with ethics. So it would (or at least could) count as philosophy in Wittgenstein's book. In that sense I think he would accept that ethics belongs to philosophy. Perhaps the thing to say is that ethics does not belong to philosophy but that the philosophy of ethics does.

I'm still not sure though. If ethics is essentially personal then can we really philosophize about it? In response to my last post Reshef said (in reference to philosophy and the kind of problems it deals with):
1) the kind of pseudo problems we have in mind, I think, don't seem to me mere personal problems--personal conditions. We all naturally share them. (For otherwise we would not be able to do philosophy together.)

2) what causes those problems is not something that is unique to us. They are caused by the very form of our life, as it were. (If this makes sense.)
Are there problems of this sort that arise in connection with ethics? Would the urge to construct a theory of ethics or a decision-procedure be such a problem? Maybe so. But the personal nature of ethics would surely make it hard to assemble reminders with which everyone could be expected to agree (even harder than doing so in other areas of philosophy). I also wonder about how we should read Wittgenstein's remarks on ethics. Should we treat them as philosophical or purely personal? Or does that distinction not really work?


  1. what if you say that they're problems for which the question of whether they're just your problems or not is especially acute? or, problems where you don't or can't know how or whether someone else's work on their / the problems can also help you with your / the problems? barring your work of your own on your / the problems, that is.

  2. what if you say that they're problems for which the question of whether they're just your problems or not is especially acute?

    I'm working on another post which sort of moves away from this issue (sorry), but as far as the personal/shared problem goes I think you're right. Thanks.