Someone might ask whether the treatment of such a question [i.e. a question like whether a man should leave his wife in order to pursue research on cancer] in Christian ethics is right or not. I want to say that this question does not make sense. The man who asks it might say: “Suppose I view his problem with a different ethics – perhaps Nietzsche's – and I say: 'No, it is not clear that he must stick to her(Wittgenstein assumes that what Christian ethics demands in this case is that the man stay with his wife.)
; on the contrary, . . . and so forth.' Surely one of the two answers must be the right one. It must be possible to decide which of them is right and which is wrong." But we do not know what this decision would be like – how it would be determined, what sort of criteria would be used, and so on. Compare saying that it must be possible to decide which of two standards of accuracy is the right one. We do not even know what a person who asks this question is after.
Brandhorst argues that:
there can be no correspondence or conflict between our ethical outlook and ethical truth, because there is no such thing as “the ethical truth” independently of our ethical outlook.I'm not so sure about this. Wittgenstein does not say that the question of which ethical outlook is right does not make sense. He says that the question whether the Christian treatment of a particular practical moral question is right does not make sense. And the problem is indeed that this amounts to asking whether Christian ethics or some other is right. But the problem with that question is not simply that it does not make sense, as if we could never ask it. The problem is that we do not know how to determine the answer, what criteria to use, and so on. We cannot evaluate values without using values to evaluate them. There can be no value-free evaluation of values.
This is not to say, though, that there can be no evaluation of values at all. Only that there cannot be an 'absolute' judgment of values. Compare the decision about which standard of accuracy to use. Measurement to the nearest inch is not inherently better than measurement to the nearest mile, but for certain purposes one will be much better than the other. One standard of accuracy might indeed be the right one for a particular job. It just won't be the absolutely correct standard according to some fantasy of what "absolute correctness" might mean.
What might make measurement to the nearest mile the right standard of accuracy for a certain project could be that the distances in question are very large, that our measuring equipment can only measure in miles, or that the people who have commissioned the measuring job have specified that they want the answer in whole miles. In a more or less parallel way, we might say that one ethic is better than another, and perhaps even the right one (just not the absolutely correct one), if it is especially well suited to the questions we want to answer, if it gives us answers we can use, and if it recognizes the authorities we recognize. For instance, an ethic that says "Do what an Übermensch would do" will be no use if we have no idea what such a person would do. The same goes for "Do what will have the best consequences" unless this can be taken to mean "Do what will probably have the best consequences." And "Follow your heart" might be no good if each heart is different (assuming we take that to be a problem). "Obey the magic 8-ball" is no good simply because we cannot take it seriously as an ethic. In other words, we can and do decide between different answers to practical moral problems. We just don't decide in some value-free way. The decision is not made for us by the facts or by logic.
This is very close to what Brandhorst says. But his view, or at least certain things he says, seems a little too conventional to me. Surely someone's ethical outlook can conflict with the ethical truth in the sense of being wrong. Not 'absolutely' wrong, perhaps, but wrong all the same. It isn't nonsense to condemn a Nietzschean, say, as absolutely wrong. That is, let's say a Christian and a Nietzschean are arguing about whether the man should leave his wife or not. If either says that the other is "absolutely wrong" this is intelligible as a complete rejection of the other's position. It should be understood as reflecting the speaker's outlook, of course, not as a statement of scientific fact, but it can be understood nevertheless.
Perhaps the most questionable part of Brandhorst's paper is this:
Ethical words have a use; like logical and mathematical expressions, these words are firmly, and abundantly, woven into the tapestry of our lives. Thus, we ask or demand or wish for certain things of one another; we praise people for what they do or achieve; we promise to do certain things and accept obligations to others; we criticise and we reproach; we lay down and discuss rules for our conduct; we ask ourselves what we should do; we build and revise a conception of how we should live, of what is worth caring about, and of what makes our lives worth living.
All this – and much more could be added – is real. It marks the way we live. It is important to us, shaping our relations to ourselves as well as to others. In this way, it provides the framework for our use of ethical language. So as before, it would be misleading to say that no reality corresponds to that language. Ethical language is not a game played merely for entertainment, nor is it some empty formalism without use.Much depends on what is meant by "ethical language." If we mean certain words, as Brandhorst seems to at the start of the first paragraph I just quoted, then we might not want to commit ourselves to saying that they all have a use. We might, for instance, want to say that 'democracy' has become an empty term of praise and 'socialism' an empty insult. We might even want to say that all distinctly ethical words, e.g. 'right', 'wrong', and 'duty', are part of an empty formalism without (genuine) use. What gives words meaning, it seems to me, is their use in the tapestry of our lives, not just their occurrence. When the words that characterize a particular ethic are not useful, do no productive work, then we can reject that ethic as empty or worthless.
My main worry in the end is with the claim that there is no ethical truth independent of our ethical outlook. This might be true. But we need to be careful how we understand it. After all, surely many religious believers would be uncomfortable with something that sounds so close to relativism. Wittgenstein does not mean, surely, to side with Nietzsche against Christianity on the question of whether there are moral facts or an independent reality, such as God, to which we are answerable. His claim is not, say, that there is no God, or that there is no absolute truth about what we ought to do. What he rejects is a certain conception of what this absolute truth might be or how it might be found. What he rejects is not something false but something that we only vaguely imagine has a meaning. That is, we think we can ask whether the Christian answer to the question about what the cancer researcher ought to do is right independent of any criteria of evaluation but we haven't thought through what this would mean. And when we think it through we find that it really has no meaning. But it does not follow, and Wittgenstein does not mean, that no meaning can be found or given to talk of independent ethical truth. He is not putting forward a metaphysical thesis.
Brandhorst's paper is good, and I am not saying that anything in it is wrong. But it could be taken in a way that I think would be wrong. Whether he intended that I have no idea, but the clarification seems worth making.