Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Anscombe's psychology

"Modern Moral Philosophy" refers to psychology twice in its opening lines:
I will begin by stating three theses which I present in this paper. The first is that it is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking. The second is that the concepts of obligation, and duty‑-moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say‑-and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of "ought," ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it. 
I think the second thesis is usually taken to mean that we should jettison the concepts she mentions. But what she actually says is that we should jettison them if this is psychologically possible. It's possible to read her as implying that we ought not to jettison them if we cannot do so. Cannot psychologically, that is. What does that mean? Well, an analysis of 'psychologically' might well belong to the philosophy of psychology, along with analyses of intention and other more familiar concepts in the philosophy of psychology.

Why might this matter? If this is what she means then her thinking seems to be in line with Wittgenstein's on secondary sense. One difference between nonsense and secondary sense is that the latter is psychologically necessary. (Is that right?) (Am I just regurgitating Reshef's ideas here? If so, are they properly digested?) It would also mean that she is usually misread. And, since I have wanted to defend the use of the concept of moral rights but reject the concept of moral obligation, it suggests that I should maybe re-think my position to be sure it's really coherent. If one is justified as either metaphorical or secondary, why can't the other be?

I don't mean that Anscombe is secretly hinting at some big idea about secondary sense. I think she does believe we should get rid of the (non-theistic version of the) notion of moral obligation. But I wonder whether she's making some acknowledgement here of a Wittgensteinian alternative to her view. This alternative would involve using words like 'ought' in a moral sense even though their use in this sense primarily belongs in another context. It would be like calling Tuesday lean or saying that someone calculated in her head. It would not be a metaphorical use of words, because no other words would do. It's this nothing-else-will-do part that makes it psychologically impossible to give up the words in question. Or that's what I'm suggesting.

True, Anscombe says that this use of words is "only harmful" without the primary context, but if giving it up is impossible then perhaps it's the best option available to us.


  1. about rightsAbout rights: The grammar of the discussion about rights is a lot like the grammar of the discussion of property. And my sense is that this captures much of the point of the talk about rights: it makes morality manageable. In particular, it makes morality less absolute—for no right—even the right to life—is absolute.

    Now, I guess we can have a notion of rights that is secondary, or absolute—why not? But to the extent that the point talking about rights to begin with is to de-absolutize the discussion in ethics, I find it hard to see what someone who wanted to put forward an absolute conception of rights might want.

  2. Thanks, this is interesting. I agree that the grammar of rights is like the grammar of property (which I hope is an OK way to abbreviate what you say), and that property rights are not absolute (which you don't say, but which is consistent with what you say). And yet, isn't the point of talk about moral rights meant to be the opposite? Isn't the idea that if we can identify human rights then we will know when we have to act (i.e., typically, intervene in some other country) because these rights are absolute and must not be violated? You seem to assume that rights are not absolute, but I think most rights-defenders would say the opposite. (I don't mean that they are correct.)

  3. Interesting: Your sense, if I understand, is that the discussion about rights is attempting to grasp at something absolute, while my sense is that it does almost the opposite—trying to compromise the absolute.

    Perhaps we are both right, in a way. Perhaps, that is, the discussion about rights wants to maintain a sense of moral urgency (i.e. the feel of absoluteness), while still maintaining the possibility of saying in some cases that rights may conflict and need to be balanced.

    My sense is that it is—as in an image of a former TA of mine—like the relation between wine and sewage: if you pour a bottle of wine into a barrel of sewage, you get a barrel of sewage, but if you pour a bottle of sewage into a barrel of wine, you still get a barrel of sewage. Absolute values like wine require purity (grammatically, essentially). And if one is indeed talking about absolute values, then there is no place for talk of balancing and conflict. That is, you can’t have it both ways.

    Simone Weil ties the notion of rights to what she calls ‘the bargaining spirit’ (in “Human Personality” p. 60): “Suppose the devil were bargaining for the soul of some poor wretch and someone, moved by pity, should step in and say to the devil: ‘It is a shame or you to bid so low; the commodity is worth at least twice as much.’ […] This bargaining spirit was already implicit in the notion of rights which the men of 1789 so unwisely made the keynote of their deliberate challenge to the world.”

    Later (p. 63) she says: “Relying almost exclusively on this notion [rights], it becomes impossible to keep one’s eyes on the real problem. If someone tries to browbeat a farmer to sell his eggs at a moderate price, the farmer can say: ‘I have the right to keep my eggs if I don’t get a good enough price.’ But if a young girl is being forced into a brothel she will not talk about her rights. In such a situation the word would sound ludicrously inadequate.”

  4. Weil is right, especially that last sentence you quote. But I think when people talk about rights, or at least sometimes when they do so, what they want is a kind of shorthand for talking about precisely that kind of extreme evil. This is why rights are said to be trumps. They are more important than, and hence outweigh, all other considerations. Wanting to use shorthand to refer to such things is fishy, but it is not intended, at least not consciously, to compromise the absolute or open the door to bargaining or balancing.

    This is why people twist about so much when talking about property rights, saying, for instance, that these rights are suspended (and hence not violated, because that is never allowed) when property needs to be destroyed or redistributed to avoid disaster. It's also why talk about rights is often thought to be polarizing, as in the right to choose versus the right to life. It's hard (for many people, much of the time) to see how there could be any compromise when rights are at stake.

    You're suggesting, following Weil, that, on the contrary, the bargaining spirit is implicit in the very idea of rights. That may be so. But it also suggests an idea at odds with itself. Or an idea that people want for a purpose for which it is inherently unsuited. Unless what they really want is bluster without commitment, something that sounds absolute without being so. I don't know. What I want is for what are generally regarded as human rights to be protected, and I don't know how to talk about this without using the word 'rights.'

  5. Duncan, thanks for these remarks on secondary sense. This seems like a completely new consideration to me. I'm not one of the world's biggest fans of "Modern Moral Philosophy", and your reading is immediately interesting in a way that might at least potentially make me appreciate it more in the long run.

    I have sometimes wondered what Anscombe would have said to another possible Wittgensteinian reaction: that we shall simply never have an adequate philosophy of psychology (for the reasons given in Wittgenstein's remarks on the subject), and should therefore give up hope of doing moral philosophy ever again.

    Remember the final page of the Investigations: "The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a 'young science' ..."

    1. Yes, Anscombe seems somewhat ambivalent about whether we'll ever have an adequate philosophy of psychology. She did go to the trouble of writing Intention, but I think she also thought that the work that needed doing was an enormous task. (I'm not sure what memories I'm drawing on here, but this is my impression.)

  6. The question is what you want protected, and whether the word ‘right’ really captures that. The point that Weil is making is also that the word does not capture the reality of some moral matters, that it doesn’t have the power to give people the moral sense, as it were, and of getting them to see what is important, and what to care about. I don’t think she thinks there is harm in using the term when it comes to people refusing to sell merchandise in what seems to them a bad price. But continuing to discuss the other kind of matters as if it had the same grammar deeply distorts the moral reality of these other kind of issues.

    My worry is that the word ‘right’ gives the illusion of capturing something important: that it allows people to think that they are talking about what is absolutely important, but with a word whose grammar is very much relative. At other times, the grammar of this word seems to me hopelessly vague, hovering somewhere between the relative and the absolute.

    I guess the word ‘right’ is now very much common currency and hard to avoid, and it is hard to make an impact on a conversation if one wouldn’t even use the language. The question to you is what kind of impact you want to make on the conversation. – Do you want to set clearly the grammar of ‘right’ as either absolute or relative?

    1. I used to want to defend use of the word 'right' on the grounds, partly, that it is "now very much common currency and hard to avoid," and partly on the grounds that it is also harmless. But I'm starting to think that it isn't so harmless after all (because of Anscombian considerations and because of your reminders about what Weil says). Perhaps one has to use it sometimes, but this can be regretted rather than defended or excused.