Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Could Christian ethics be right?

There 's an interesting paper by Mario Brandhorst in the latest Philosophical Investigations. He discusses some remarks of Wittgenstein's recorded by Rush Rhees:
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; 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.
(Wittgenstein assumes that what Christian ethics demands in this case is that the man stay with his wife.)

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 Ãœbermensch 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.

89 comments:

  1. "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."

    As Simon Blackburn puts it, it's a way of drawing a line, standing one's ground. It says I will brook no further dispute. To speak in this way isn't to suppose there's some eternal truth which can be discovered, demonstrated to others, never doubted. It's only to say "I take this to be a bottom line" and accept no more arguments. But, of course, that sort of position can be taken by anyone, Nietzscheans no less than jhadist. So simply recognizing that "absolute" only announces where we take our stand is not enough to enable us to convince others to stand there with us. For that we still need something to convince. That we take a stand, no matter how firmly, is never sufficient to rationally convince anyone else to do so as well.

    "My main worry in the end is with the claim that there is no ethical truth independent of our ethical outlook . . . 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."

    Yes, relativism is the big problem for ethics and it's built into any notion which stops at the point where we say "well, this is where I draw my line." The reasonable answer to that is always "so what?" To make a moral case one has to be able to answer this further question.

    If the idea of absoluteness as in "absolute truth" or "absolute good" is disqualified, then all that's left is to find something that's both transpersonal and transcultural, something that gives others a reason to take the stand we have, indeed that gives us a reason to take it.

    ". . . 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 . . . it does not follow, and Wittgenstein does not mean, that no meaning can be found or given to talk of independent ethical truth."

    There must be an answer to that or else ethics is merely relative, which undermines its purpose. But to be an "independent ethical truth" needn't depend on a notion of absoluteness that exceeds how we actually use it in our lives. I am "absolutely sure" or "there is an absolute standard to be used in this case" only mean that the usual uncertainty of the relative is to be dispensed with here. The fact that we feel as we do, which warrants our use of "absolute" in these contexts, only implies that we have a reason to take our stand here and not over there. It doesn't constitute such a reason.

    Our reason may simply reflect a decision we make to embrace Christian ethics instead of the Nietzschean variety. And that decision may rest on an entirely different line of reasoning, different sorts of reasons than those which follow from either of these value systems. To avoid moral relativism all that's needed is a basis for taking one's stand in one place or another. The basis may be separately argued and defended though. Values stand on other values, not facts asserted about the world. But why think this fact about values undermines their implications for the things we do?

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    1. Right (I think). I think Wittgenstein would have thought that ethics as a subject is pretty much useless. My concern about relativism in this post is not to oppose it but to oppose it as an interpretation of what Wittgenstein is saying. He believed that his way of thinking was compatible with Catholicism, for instance, so any interpretation of it that makes it conflict with Catholic teaching either has to be wrong or else shows Wittgenstein to have been wrong about what was compatible with his way of thinking.

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  2. I think the record shows pretty clearly that Wittgenstein held strong moral opinions and that, for the most part, they were pretty conventional for his time, if a little extreme in the sense that they reflected a fin de siecle focus on a certain aesthetic quality life might be said to (or should) have on his view. I think it's a shame though that he didn't explore the issue of moral questions and judgments further. Why did he think the feelings he had and the kinds of actions he thought right had the weight he assigned them? What underlay such a judgment about them and what did having those particular judgments entail for the world in which he stood? As you know, I've always felt this was a great omission on his part though, of course, we cannot dictate to others what ought to interest them and what ought not. I've followed your strategy of elucidating a moral view consistent with Wittgenstein's thought for years and always found it helpful. I especially liked this latest post of yours, particularly this:

    "We cannot evaluate values without using values to evaluate them. There can be no value-free evaluation of values."

    And this:

    ". . . 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."

    You make the point, important I think, that value stands on value and not on anything outside itself and yet that doesn't preclude debate or giving reasons. I think that's exactly right. We can achieve bottom line valuations by switching tracks so to speak rather than by hoping to ground our moral claims in factual ones.

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    1. Thanks. I hope my view is consistent with what Wittgenstein says. If he would have rejected it then there is probably an objection that I ought to take seriously, but I'm not sure exactly what it would be.

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  3. You are comparing evaluation in ethics to measuring in inches and miles. But I wonder if this is the way to follow Wittgenstein here (even though his words allow for this). Let me explain.

    There is a tradition of interpretation of Wittgenstein on ethics that says that evaluation is evaluation in a system, that only in a system of evaluation there are standards of evaluation, and only with standards you can make evaluation. According to this it is meaningless to evaluate systems, or evaluate from beyond systems—evaluate without standards. It would be meaningless, as it would be to talk of the right move in a game without specifying if you are talking about chess or backgammon or badminton.

    It seems to me that Brndhorst reading is in line with this. And I’m not sure if what you say here is not either.

    Alternatively, it is also possible—and I think better—to read Wittgenstein NOT as saying what evaluation is, but rather as comparing between kinds of evaluation. In particular, it is possible to read him as comparing evaluating with standards and evaluating without standards—evaluating in a system, and evaluating from beyond a system. This is at least in line with the distinction between relative and absolute evaluation in the Lecture on Ethics.

    This reading, I think, is in tension with what you say here: “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.” – Instead of saying that there CANNOT be absolute judgment of values, we can say that there ISN’T. This, in the sense that there isn’t a standard for evaluation here. This should not be controversial. It is just what absolute evaluation is.

    The point of saying this would be to show how different evaluation in ethics is (or might be) from other sorts of evaluation—how different evaluation in a system is from evaluation from beyond a system. The point would be to loosen the hold of a picture: a picture of what evaluation must be, loosen the hold of evaluation as evaluation with standards.

    I don’t mean by this that there is a PRACTICE of evaluating without standards—e.g. that there are rules for such evaluation. The whole point is that there aren’t, so evaluation like that may be very different from engagement in a practice. It may take the form of looking for a practice, for instance.

    All of this does not mean that no mileage can be made with the idea that the picture of evaluation in a system fits the treatment of at least some moral issues. I think that Wittgenstein was never very interested in in such a conception of ethics.

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    1. I incline these days to the Jamesian idea that the "games" we engage in (using the Wittgensteinian word) are testable in the real world as systems (sets of practices which work together to accomplish certain ends). Thus, while mathematics, say, presents us with questions of truth and falsehood in terms of knowing how the rules for combining numbers apply and doing it right or not, the fact that mathematics, itself, is held to be true as a system depends on how well the complex set of rules that make it up work in the real world. Calculating and measuring with numbers, following certain rules, enables us to build bridges, explore the biology of organisms, travel to the moon. If not, it wouldn't be worth much and we'd stop bothering with it.

      Playing chess, gin rummy or frisbee may be enjoyable pastimes (and so work in that way), but they still don't solve the kinds of problems mathematics does. Chess can't be true or false (although any example of the game can be more or less like what we expect chess to be). But mathematics as a system could be true in the sense of being real math or some made up or half-baked system, all depending on the things it enables its users to accomplish.

      A mathematical system built on faulty operating rules that don't successfully combine numbers, or which are overly complex (perhaps because of clumsy notational mechanisms like Roman numerals), would fail, or do less well, in real world tests. So there's an empirical element, a place where we touch ground, that's lacking in systems like chess and tossing frisbees.

      The valuing game (of which moral valuing is a sub-species) works this way, I think. It makes successfully acting in the world possible for creatures with cognitive capacities like ours. If it didn't, or if it did it less well than we need, it would lose its appeal for us or be replaced by something better. Of course, valuing can't be dispensed with entirely by creatures with our cognitive capacities, but we could, conceivably, have better or worse systems of establishing and making use of values.

      I don't think any of this is contrary to Wittgenstein's insight about how it's only within contexts, only in terms of how the things we do fit together in terms of the rules we follow, that things get their traction, their meaning, their truth and other forms of value we assign them.

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    2. Duncan,

      There is a relevant discussion about related issues in Cora Diamond's 'The Skies of Dante and Our Skies: A Response to
      Ilham Dilman.'

      another by the way: do you have a pdf of the Brandhorst paper?

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    3. Thanks, Reshef. Yes, ISN'T is better than CANNOT BE. And the comparison with different units of measurement is potentially misleading--I might have spoken carelessly about that. My main concern was to try to do justice to what Wittgenstein said without reading him as committed to some sort of relativism or, for instance, to the denial of the reality of God. Not that he was a theist, but I think any reading of his work that is directly incompatible with belief in that kind of absolute ethical truth must be wrong.

      I will re-read Cora's paper.

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    4. Stuart, yes, although whether ethics is best understood as the valuing game could be debated. Wittgenstein had a very broad idea of ethics, I think, amounting to basically: How should we do every single thing that we do? And, of course, what things should we do and not do? So it's everything, or an aspect of everything, or at least something close to that. This makes it different from something more finite, like chess or mathematics, in a way that might make a big difference.

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    5. Thanks, Duncan. I'm not sure that Wittgenstein was ever very clear, himself, on ethics per se. In that Lecture on Ethics he pretty much dispatches the whole idea of trying to explicate it. Instead he asserts a sense of awe about the universe and seems to think that that is the source of how we feel and behave when we're behaving in what we typically think of as ethical ways. But he didn't really give much thought, in that presentation, to what is ethically right or why we think so. He asserts it's enough, in that lecture, to look at the world and have certain feelings about it, that right behavior arises from that. But what are those feelings, how do they differ from others we have, why do we have them, what prompts them and how do they bring us to some actions but not others?

      He rejects ethics as a subject of study in that lecture and, I suppose, metaethics along with it (since he admits wishing people like Moore would stop talking about it). Yet we have, in him, a man who, from his personal writings, seemed obsessed with ethical questions. He did say, somewhat later, that that Lecture was "hopeless" (or was it another word?). He seemed to see that he had contributed very little (maybe nothing) to ethical thinking there and perhaps his later rejection of that lecture merely reaffirmed his Tractarian position that "ethics cannot be expressed." But perhaps his dissatisfaction with that effort revealed something else, maybe a realization that he hadn't really added anything to the inquiry?

      And here we all are, still talking about ethics and metaethical questions. And there he was, in Culture and Value and other writings he left, still agonizing over doing the right things and avoiding the wrong. So, if ethics isn't like chess or mathematics, is it so different that we can only talk about it in riddles? Surely that cannot help us when trying to live morally and make good choices as even Wittgenstein tried to do.

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    6. Roughly, I think that Wittgenstein thought we could not talk about ethics at all. I think we can at least talk about particular issues, such as abortion. Not in the sense that if we do x, y, and z then we will know what to do and think, and we will all agree. But there are things you can do to make it more likely you will understand the issue and respond wisely to it. Doing these things probably wouldn't count as philosophy in Wittgenstein's book, but that doesn't seem like a big problem.

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    7. Yes, that seems to have been his position. I'm just not sure it makes sense, i.e., that there is such a sharp divide to be drawn between normative ethics (deciding what to do) and metaethics (understanding how we decide what to do and what we think we're about when deciding). I'll admit to being greatly bothered by the clumsy way in which he beats about the bushes in that lecture of his. If there's nothing to say, then #7 in the Tractatus has it right. But if there is something to say, then repeating that there isn't while trying to say something really makes no sense (and not nonsense in any useful sense, I think). It's not surprising that he came to reject his own work in that lecture. What does surprise me is his apparent belief at that time and after that the moral dimension of our existence is out of reach of our understanding. Talk of "feeling safe" really isn't helpful since there's no clear path from there to acting in ways we typically take to be morally significant, let alone morally right.

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    8. I agree that there isn't a sharp divide between normative ethics and meta-ethics. At least not an absolute one, one that always holds.

      And "feeling safe" isn't helpful, as you say, but it's a surprisingly common way to talk about being in love. (It shows up in pop songs quite often, for instance.) There's no clear path from love to any particular kind of behavior (except "loving behavior," obviously) but there is some sort of path. Another experience Wittgenstein talks about in the lecture is guilt. That doesn't give you a clear path to any particular behavior either, but it also seems relevant to ethics. I would rather deal with people who had a conscience and took it seriously than with people who either lacked a conscience completely or else regarded it as an annoyance to be overcome as much as possible.

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    9. " I would rather deal with people who had a conscience and took it seriously than with people who either lacked a conscience completely or else regarded it as an annoyance to be overcome as much as possible."

      Would it be wrong to say Torquemada had a conscience or at least believed he did and acted in accord with it? If not, then I'm not sure he'd be the sort we wanted to deal with or who could serve as an appropriate model or guide for deciding on the right things to do.

      I think the best way to do ethics (as in philosophizing about it) is to look to the normal cases, the ways in which we actually feel and respond, rather than focusing on erudite philosophic notions about things like intrinsicness, what's a priori, "goods" and so forth. I'm not saying you do any of that, just that the tendency in moral philosophy tends to be in that direction and perhaps it was just such a tendency that Wittgenstein was reacting against when he said we can't really talk about it.

      I think we can, but our talk always needs to come back to what we actually do and say, given real possibilities and confronting the likes of Torquemada, even today, is a very, very real one.

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    10. Agreed. Not every conscientious person is a good person. And yes, our talk always needs to come back to what we actually do and say.

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  4. https://philosophynow.org/issues/41/Philippa_Foot

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  5. you say your main worry is with the claim that there is no ethical truth independent of our ethical outlook. you say the claim might be true. might it also be false?

    or is it that you are not saying anything definitive here b/c this is the wrong question? - in which case, is the idea that the claim is ultimately nonsense? and if so, how can you allow that it might be true?

    You want to reject the idea that W was a relativist. are you also saying that he would reject relativism as a viable view? and if the latter, is it b/c it is based on or in some nonsense? and is so, what nonsense?

    Is the idea that the whole debate b/w absolutists and relativists based on some nonsense?

    can W allow that absolutism is a viable view, or is it based on some nonsense?

    Am I right that the main opposition you are working with here is b/w relativists and absolutists, and that you take W to be rising above this debate somehow by questioning the meaningfulness of the debate?

    Are you also at the same time concerned with avoiding a tension b/w Wittgenstein's views about what makes sense (which potentially may make it seem as if he is rejecting some actual moral views people hold), and the assumption that he doesn't want to intervene in ordinary moral practices (including the ways people talk and justify themselves)?

    are you making some distinction b/w holding a moral view (Christian or otherwise), and holding that view philosophically? (a distinction that would allow someone to be a devout Christian, and yet not to be an absolutist in a philosophical problematic sense.)

    I beg of you - don't answer each question individually. i don't know if any of them is the right question. I am relatively sure some of them are misguided, or at least not quite right. if you just answer all of them, i will not know which of them is right and which is misguided. I'm trying to get a general picture of your view and set of concerns, and I'm asking like a blind person in a maze. So if possible, can you at least tell me this: are any of those questions misguided? (I hope the questions are clear enough. I apologize if they aren't.)

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    1. you say your main worry is with the claim that there is no ethical truth independent of our ethical outlook. you say the claim might be true. might it also be false?

      Whether it's true or false depends on what it means. If it means that ethical truths are not like truths of chemistry, say, there to be found if we look in the right place or do the right experiment then it is true. This would be a sort of reminder that we don't do ethics the same way we do chemistry or history.

      If it means that there is no right and wrong or good and bad only "right" and "wrong" and "good" and "bad" then it is either deeply nihilistic or confused. If it's confused then it is neither true nor false. If it nihilistic then to call it true would be to endorse nihilism while to call it false would be to reject nihilism. To say that it could be true or false would be, it seems to me, to treat this matter of endorsement or rejection as if it were something like a scientific question that could turn out either way. That would be a mistake.

      You want to reject the idea that W was a relativist. are you also saying that he would reject relativism as a viable view? and if the latter, is it b/c it is based on or in some nonsense? and is so, what nonsense?

      Again I suppose it depends what we are talking about. He did reject a simple kind of relativism, the kind that says every ethical system or view is as good as every other. (Unless I've misunderstood what he said.) But there might be more sophisticated positions that could be called forms of relativism that don't collapse in the same way. Some people who call themselves relativists just seem to mean that different people have different values, for instance. Let's assume we're talking about simple moral relativism. That is nonsense, and I think Wittgenstein saw it as nonsense too. It's the idea that what I believe is no more correct than what I don't believe. No one can believe this.

      Continued below...

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    2. I've just got to the part where you beg me not to answer each question individually! So I won't try to answer any more this way. I hope my first answer above helps a bit.

      Here is my concern. Wittgenstein and Brandhorst want to say that ethics is not like physics, that there is not some reality corresponding to ethics in the way that there is in physics. I agree. Brandhorst goes on to argue that there is some reality that corresponds with ethics, and that this reality is human life. I think I agree with this too, although something about it feels odd. But (here is my concern) I can imagine a Catholic saying that ethics is like physics, that the reality corresponding with ethics is God's law or God's will or nature, and that the right combination of reason and observation (perhaps in the manner suggested by Philippa Foot) will reveal the ethical truth to us. I don't believe this, and I don't think Wittgenstein believed it, but I do think that as a matter of exegesis if we read Wittgenstein as saying something contrary to this kind of belief then we must have misunderstood him. I also (regardless of Wittgenstein) don't think that this kind of view is nonsense.

      So I want to keep the idea that ethics is not physics and not something like physics in one or more important respects, while allowing for the possibility, the acceptability, of belief that it is like physics in an important way. Since no one claims that ethics is physics there is surely room for making various analogies between the two. The fact that one analogy is ruled out (i.e. that one important difference, or kind of differences, is noted) does not rule out all others.

      Another concern, or another aspect of what I think is the same concern, has to do with God. Ethical truth might be thought of as a name for God, or as something that resides in God. I don't think that this kind of talk about ethical truth is nonsense or is in any sense something that needs to be given up on Wittgensteinian grounds.

      Continued below...

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    3. Another concern that I am developing now is that none of this needs to be said. But Wittgenstein has been taken as a relativist and (by others) as somehow Protestant. Brandhorst doesn't endorse either of these readings, but he doesn't explicitly reject them either. I want to add that explicit rejection to what he says.

      One last concern (for now): have I missed your point? If an absolutist is just someone who is not a relativist then I think everyone, or at least everyone who has any ethics at all, is an absolutist. So there is no debate between absolutists and relativists. So there is nothing there for Wittgenstein to rise above. When I use the word 'absolute' above I am thinking of section xii of Part II of the Investigations, where Wittgenstein seemingly implies that it is a mistake to think that certain concepts are "absolutely the correct ones." He invites a comparison between concepts and styles of painting, suggesting that neither is chosen arbitrarily. I think he's right. But it's easy to imagine someone thinking that what he says is in sympathy with a relativist view: concepts, styles of painting, religions, and systems of ethics are all historical contingencies that evolve and that we inherit, and it is both naive and false to think that any of them is better than any other, let alone actually true or right. I want (and I think this is in line with Wittgenstein) to say that the first part of this, about historical contingencies, is right, but that the second part, about what is naive and false, does not follow from it. Or, so far as it does follow, it does not mean what someone might think it means. You can agree with Wittgenstein and think that the Impressionists got painting "absolutely right" or that Buddhism is the truth. You just won't mean by "absolutely right" or "the truth" anything that implies that people who think otherwise must be less intelligent or knowledgeable than you are.

      I keep wanting to add qualifiers but I suspect they might muddy the waters. Does this make sense? Did I answer your question?

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    4. Why is it important to you to be able to say that some reality corresponds to ethics? Why is it important to say that Wittgenstein was not a relativist? Why is it important to say that it is not true that certain moral notions are “the absolutely correct ones”? – Is it just because we want to ascribe sophisticated and nimble enough views to Wittgenstein that could accommodate good insights from elsewhere? Is it just because we should not ascribe crazy views to him?

      You know what? Perhaps these are not the most important questions. You are asking what my point is, and the best I can do is say that I want to be able to see what motivates your discussion, and what you think we have to learn from Wittgenstein. I want the big picture, not the details. Or, I want to have some sort of general grasp of what you want that would allow me to look for the detail by myself, to see ahead, to know what you would consider relevant, to anticipate what you would be uncomfortable with, and so on.

      I also want to know how RADICAL you think Wittgenstein is when it comes to ethics. Do we get a different picture of moral thought from Wittgenstein? Does he allow us to see somehow that the questions we have been asking—e.g. about relativism, or perhaps questions like “what ought I to do?” or “how ought it to live?”—are somehow misguided, and that we have misunderstood our own needs? (Like in some discussions in metaphysics.) Or do you just think that he thinks our worries—e.g. about relativism—are more or less the right worries, although we have been giving them the wrong or at least inaccurate or exaggerated answers?

      (Just for contrast: As you know I’m inclined to say that Wittgenstein—early and late—thought that there is some sense in which the expression of a moral intention IS nonsense. So, for instance, as opposed to you, I would say that some kind of religious talk about the moral truth is nonsense, and importantly so. The reason I’m mentioning this now is that part of the reason I’m inclined to say that is because I want to say Wittgenstein was a radical philosopher, that he thought we have a tendency to misunderstand our own needs, and that this come out very sharply in the idea that what we take to be sense is actually nonsense. – If you do you think that Wittgenstein was a radical philosopher, is he perhaps radical in some other sense?)

      It is easy to read what you say in the following way: ‘Wittgenstein was not a relativist, but he was alive to some truth in relativism. And similar things go for other philosophical ideas about ethics, e.g. absolutism, and moral realism. In each case Wittgenstein’s view cannot be identified with those philosophical positions, but there are ways to rehabilitate those views, de-radicalize them, and make them more reasonable. And in such forms, when those positions lose their controversial sting, as it were, Wittgenstein would accept them.’ – This might be a bad caricature of what you say. Such a view anyway would not take Wittgenstein to be a very radical philosopher. It would take Wittgenstein to think that we are more or less familiar with our real needs, even if we sometimes tend to misarticulate them

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    5. I don't have a big picture view or an opinion on how radical Wittgenstein was. I'm trying to work out what his view was.

      The 'bad caricature' view you describe is not what I mean. I think he would reject relativism and all other philosophical ideas about ethics. My view is not that there is some truth in those views. Instead it is that when I say he rejects relativism or absolutism this does not mean that he rejects everything that might be called by those names. That sounds obvious or trivial, perhaps, but I think what he rejects is something very insubstantial, and that he rejects it for this reason. Talking about it as something that he rejects when there is really no 'it' there is potentially misleading therefore. I was trying to clarify what I think he is and is not doing. Without success, apparently.

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    6. the fact that i don't understand doesn't mean that you did not succeed. i'm might be fixated on the wrong thing. i also might be reading too much into Wittgenstein just b/c i WANT him to be more important then he really is.

      when you say that you think W is rejecting s/t very insubstantial, do you mean also that he has reasons to believe that the relativist and the absolutist will recognize what he rejects as insubstantial? Or does he reject s/t that doesn't matter, but they think matters? Is he implying that they are confused somehow about what matters, or even about what matters to them?

      the reason i'm asking is that i'm not sure i see why, on your account, he would bother rejecting something insubstantial. criticizing s/t insubstantial that no one really cares about doesn't seem to have much point (if, on the other hand, it s/t insubstantial that is mistaken for important, that would be one way to explain it. that's what i suggested in the previous paragraph.) i might again be looking in the wrong place, but i just don't see what on your account be the point of W's criticisms. He must have a point mustn't he?

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    7. I think he's implying that people are confused about what matters, including what matters to them.

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  6. Duncan:

    My sense is that Wittgenstein ultimately equated ethics and aesthetics (due to the type of judgment each entailed). And that, as such, ethics very much reduces to good connoisseurship. Ethical truth is simply being an extremely good connoisseur for the thing in question.

    Rorty was influenced by Wittgenstein and talked about sensitivity training (first person experiences). To understand the ethics of something first requires knowing what the experiences of the peoples in question are -- how, in a manner of speaking, this arrangement of life works. It isn't book knowledge: it requires the kind of insight one gets when living in the system (doing it).

    I take Wittgenstein's quote above to be saying, in essence, that there is no meta-system. It isn't like Sauron: there is no one ring to rule all the other possible cultural arrangements (a master aesthetic). As such, Christian ethics are one type of living while the opposite-minded is simply another.

    To truly know the matter would take being a connoisseur of each way of living. You understand the Christian mindset (feel it). You know the connections of its alternative. After this, what you decide isn't the "truth;" it's merely a really educated preference. This is the best one can do. If everyone had really heightened understandings, they would not pick the same answer -- that's the key.

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    1. Thanks, Sean. I think I agree, but I have a problem with the bit about the truth (or "truth").

      If everyone had really heightened understandings, they would not pick the same answer

      I completely agree with this, with one caveat, which I'll explain in a minute.

      Isn't it the case that we can only say that a type of living that is opposite-minded to Christianity is "simply another type of living" from a non-Christian perspective? If it's really the opposite of Christianity, or anywhere close to that, won't it be, as a Christian might put it, riddled with sin? I.e. not simply different but much worse? And therefore, if we say that it is simply different aren't we denying Christianity? Of course we can do that, but it's not a trivial thing to do. And if Christians call their beliefs true, as they are surely likely to do--at the very least they will refer to truth, as when quoting John 14:6--then aren't we denying the truth of their faith, the correctness of their type of living, if we deny that there is any such thing as "the truth"? And I would think the same might apply if we deny that heightened understanding will lead to the same answer. Might not a Christian insist that anyone with genuine understanding will be a Christian?

      I think we need to distinguish between different senses or uses of 'understanding' here. The Christian I have just imagined is using it in a secondary sense, I think. They are distinguishing between regular understanding and what they want to call "genuine understanding." And that's OK, we just need to see what is going on or we could get confused.

      The same goes for claims like "there is no meta-system." In a sense that's true. But if a Christian wants to claim that God or the Bible is the meta-system I think this is not a use of language that we should try to forbid. Nor do i think that as philosophers we have any business saying that it is false. But the Wittgensteinian denial that there is a meta-system is not the negation of the Christian insistence that there is a meta-system. Wittgenstein is identifying something that we (including Christians) would all agree is an illusion.

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    2. I'm not sure that I follow, Duncan.

      I think we are confusing first principles (a priori) with universal principles. When a Christian says he must do something because a set of postulates has been supplied to him, he does not assert a meta or universal principle, though he might speak of it as such. He simply behaves according to a pretext that he likes. When another behaves differently, he either has an alternative pretext or perhaps has no pretext at all. But in any case, there is no aesthetical basis to say which of the ways of living is better, any more than there is a way to say that rock music is better than classical. The only solution is to become a connoisseur of rock and classical -- to know of these connections -- and to choose with heightened insight. One assumes that this leaves a person with an understanding of the virtues of each, but will not result in one true answer (some will still pick different things). It will only result in really really good perspective for what is chosen.

      In most cases, I think the issue of truth should yield to the issue of "pictures." Many people who assert truths predicated upon religion do so from the confines of a picture. Yet, they do not realize that this phenom is happening (cognitively) and nor have they had occasion to experiment with alternative pictures. In my Wittgenstein class, I do an exercise where the bones of Jesus are discovered. I tell the class: he didn't rise. I then ask them whether it means Christianity is false. The conclusion is that it most surely doesn't -- it just substitutes one picture of the same exact religion for another. See: http://ludwig.squarespace.com/cond8/2014/5/19/01-pictures-of-account-jesus.html

      Here's the point. Ethics is never about truth; it's about vantage point. It's about the quality of the set of pictures one can form for the matter. All you can hope for is capacity in the choice.

      Not sure if I was being responsive to your point. I did my best.

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    3. Thanks, Sean.

      My problem is with statements like this: When a Christian says he must do something because a set of postulates has been supplied to him, he does not assert a meta or universal principle, though he might speak of it as such.

      It's not that I disagree so much as that I think it makes it sound as though Christianity is being denied when that isn't the point. So the way of speaking involved in our saying that there is no meta or universal principle has to be distinguished from the way of speaking involved in the Christian's saying that there is. As long as that is done I have no objection.

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  7. i have another question. i want to go back to that parallel you draw b/w the decision b/w different ethical principles and the decision b/w measuring in inches and in miles. - how much of a parallel do you think there is b/w the cases?

    you say:
    "In a more or less parallel way [to saying that measuring in miles might be preferable to measuring in inches], 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."

    My inclination, as opposed to this, is to say that there is mostly a contrast b/w the cases, not a parallel. So, for example, when it comes to deciding b/w measuring in miles or in inches, we can ask ourselves what our interests are—as you say. now, this question (about our interests) is not s/t we can answer in terms of either inches or miles(!). again: there are questions like 'how many miles are there between Lexington and Staunton?', and 'how many inches..?' and there are in contrast questions like 'which question would be more useful to ask?’ and ‘would it be more useful to measure the road in miles or in inches?' This second type of questions, as opposed to the first, would involve us in a discussion about what we care about. and answering the two types of questions would involve different terms of evaluation. Two separate discussions would be involved. The first sort would involve talk about numbers and measurements; the second would involve talk about things like interests and usefulness. And you can’t measure usefulness in either inches or miles. The second sort of questions is "prior" to the first. They involve a kind of meta-discussion. – does this sound right?

    As opposed to that—and this is why I’m suspicious about the parallel—when deciding b/w Christian and Nietzschean principles, it is not as if there is a distinction b/w two levels. At least, it is not obvious what that distinction would be. I mean, we can ask ourselves questions like
    ‘what would the Christian recommend?’ and ‘what would the Nietzschean recommend?’ and we can ask questions like 'what kind of questions would be more useful to ask—questions that make use of Christian, or questions that make use of Nietzschean terms of evaluation?’ and in this way it might SEEM that there is a difference between levels, like in the inches and miles case above. But this is very questionable: In the moral case, it is not as the two kinds of questions would involve in a different discussions. The first discussion (about the Christian and the Nietzschean recommendations) is ALREADY a discussion about what we care about; and the second kind of questions (about which ethics is better) could very well be answered using Christian or Nietzschean evaluative terms. If that is so, then it seems that in the moral case the discussion and the meta-discussion are the same, and if that is so, that seems to me like a big logical difference from the inches and miles case . – Does this sound right? Is this going too far?

    I think these contrasts impress me so much that I cannot see how the parallel you draw can be useful or illuminating. Can you help me?

    My question, I think, is a version of the question whether Ethics can be regarded as a language game, but I’m not sure.

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    1. You're right that there is a big and important difference between the two cases. The parallel that I see is this:

      Although measuring in inches is not absolutely better than measuring in miles, for certain purposes it will be better. I will call this a local, as distinct from absolute, superiority.

      There is also no question of the absolute superiority of one ethic over another. In this sense it is nonsense to ask whether Nietzschean ethics is better than Christian ethics, or vice versa. But there can be a non-nonsensical question like this, a local question. For instance, if a Christian reads Nietzsche and is tempted to agree it is not nonsense for her to wonder whether Nietzsche is perhaps right. Or perhaps I should say that it is not necessarily nonsense. If her question is in fact the philosophical one about absolute correctness then that is nonsense, but her question might well not be this. It might be something like an expression of uncertainty about her own commitments or beliefs.

      A danger I see in saying things like "such-and-such a question is nonsense" is that it can make it seem as if the philosopher is policing language, waiting to pounce on people and tell them that they have no right to talk in certain ways. And I don't think that's what philosophers should be doing. (I don't think it's what Wittgenstein was recommending either.)

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    2. Thanks Duncan. That helps a bit. But I’m still not sure I see the parallel.

      You now say: "There is also no question of the absolute superiority of one ethic over another."

      you seem to be just assuming this. But i don't see why this is true. i'm not saying that it is NOT true. I just don't see what makes it so. I don't see what's behind this claim. In the miles and inches case, i see what's behind the claim that there is no absolute rightness, b/c i see how different interests might be involved in different cases. But what is behind the claim in the moral case?

      So I'm willing to make this assumption with you, and say that there is no absolute truth in the moral case. But even if so, it doesn't yet mean there is a parallel. It might still be the case that although we can claim that in both cases there is no absolute truth, those claims are justified in completely two different ways, and so MEAN two very different things. To say that there is a parallel b/w the cases might be like saying that there is a similarity b/w what a car mechanic does and what a veterinarian does b/c both "fix" things: the mechanic fixes (repairs) cars, and the vet fixes (neuters) dogs. This is not a parallel, this is just the appearance of a parallel.

      So, in the inches and miles case, the possibility of different interests makes the claim that one method is absolutely best meaningless. Accordingly someone might say: “For certain purposes, I need to measure in miles and for others in inches; I have no idea what would be the point of being committed to just one method.” But in the moral case, it would be at least a bit odd of someone to say “For some purposes I’m a Christian, and for others I’m a Nietzschean; I don’t see a point in being committed to one system.” – Saying that is arguably not understanding what the point is of moral thinking—not understanding that it requires a certain sort of commitment. At least this: it is very much possible for someone to say: “These are the moral principles I’m committed to, no matter what.” That would NOT be nonsense.

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    3. There is no question of one ethic's being absolutely superior to another because "absolutely superior" here means better supported by, or more in line with, the facts (where the facts are understood in a morally neutral way).

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    4. That is, a judgment of absolute superiority would have to be something like a judgment that Christianity is superior to Nietzscheanism as an ethical system made from outside any evaluative system or framework.

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    5. Are you taking Wittgenstein to be making this point? Is this what you are taking him to mean when he says to Rhees: "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."? And are you in agreement with this?

      (I wish Rhess asked him what he meant by “compare” when Wittgenstein asked Rhees to compare the moral case to the inches and miles case: whether he meant that there is a parallel or a contrast. I admit that it is more natural to imagine that he meant there was a parallel.)

      Anyway, let me see if i understand your position (at least, the position you are representing here): If I understand, you want to say that in the inches and miles case, the independent fact that the road has length doesn't determine if we should measure it in miles or inches. And you want to say something parallel about morality: There too the independent facts about the man's life—e.g. that he has a decision to make, that he is married, that he was offered a job in cancer research (but i'm not really sure which facts to mention, and which facts i should not)—those facts don't determine which ethics he should appeal to.

      - Is this right?

      If so, is it the whole picture? Isn't it the case that in the inches and miles case there are OTHER facts that determine which system to use in particular cases? – I mean facts about us: our interests and needs: e.g., we don't have practical use for a measurement of the road from Lexington to Staunton in inches, or that we don't do well with large numbers. And if there is a parallel with the moral case, as you claim, then what facts about us would determine which ethics we should use in some particular case?

      So it is perhaps true that in both cases there are no facts that determine once and for all which system we should use (I’m not sure). but my point is that saying "there are no facts" comes to very different things in the two cases. In the miles and inches case there is a contrast between the particular case and the absolute case (trying to decide regardless of particular needs and interests). That is, I can imagine someone saying: “If I’m not to appeal to the interests and needs I have in some particular case, then I don’t understand what you are asking me when you are asking me to decide which is better—miles or inches.” I don’t see any such contrast in the moral case. That is, even if (and it is a big IF) one would be baffled by the request to decide which morality is better, the reason for the bafflement would NOT be that one is not allowed to appeal to interests and needs they have in some particular case. And what I’ve described, I think, is a LOGICAL difference.

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    6. Also, I don’t see why you say that a judgment of absolute superiority in the moral case would have to be made from outside any evaluative system or framework. It seems to me that you are guided here by a PICTURE here. that is, it seems to me that you are just assuming that the moral case is like the inches and miles case. In the inches and miles case it is indeed true that the judgment of superiority (even local superiority) would have to be made from outside THESE evaluative systems—e.g. appealing to interests and needs. As I emphasized, the good of these systems cannot be measured in terms of inches and miles. So in this kind of case, we need to go beyond the original evaluative framework to evaluate it.

      But why is this true in the moral case? Why does this picture HAVE to be true for morality? Why is it not the case that one CAN give Christian justifications for preferring the Christian morality over the Nietzschean one? – I’m not saying that these justifications would convince the Nietzschean. But that’s not the point. The point is that IT MAKES SENSE to justify the Christian morality over the Nietzschean in Christian terms, whereas it makes no sense to evaluate the good of measuring in inches using inches. And if that is the case, then contrary to what you say, a judgment of superiority (absolute or not) in the moral case would NOT have to be made from outside any evaluative system or framework.

      That’s how it strikes me. I don’t see the argument for the alternative position. Can you help?

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    7. Let's see.

      When I said that "a judgment of absolute superiority would have to be something like a judgment that Christianity is superior to Nietzscheanism as an ethical system made from outside any evaluative system or framework" I was explaining my use of the term 'absolute superiority'. Something like this seems to be implicit in what Wittgenstein says. It also seems right to me.

      You say: "even if (and it is a big IF) one would be baffled by the request to decide which morality is better, the reason for the bafflement would NOT be that one is not allowed to appeal to interests and needs they have in some particular case."

      I'm not sure I understand. If someone asked me to decide whether Christian or Nietzschean ethics were better I would want to know what they meant (am I to express my own preference, to make a judgment on consequentialist grounds, or what). Is that what you mean by being baffled?

      But then if someone asked me whether measuring in inches or miles was better I would also wonder what they meant.

      If we take a particular case then in the measuring case it's not too hard to think how you might make a decision and defend it as rational. In the case Wittgenstein and Rhees discuss, if we ask which of two answers (one that he should stay with his wife on Christian grounds and one that he should leave on Nietzschean grounds) is the right one then it's also not hard to imagine taking a side and supporting it with reasons. But Wittgenstein appears to say that in fact the question makes no sense. My interpretation of this is that he takes supporting the Christian side, for instance, to be an adoption of Christian ethics rather than a justification of them. So I take the issue to be about value-free evaluation. That does sound like nonsense, so I take what I think Wittgenstein is saying to be correct.

      It sounds as though you think he is saying something else, or making some other point, though. Can you say what that is?

      You say: "it seems to me that you are just assuming that the moral case is like the inches and miles case." I don't think I am. I'm trying to make sense of Wittgenstein's apparent rejection as nonsense of someone' saying: "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." If we allow judgments from within an evaluative framework then why would it be nonsense to say that one of the answers is (or must be) right and that it must be (and is) possible to decide which is right?

      You ask: "Why is it not the case that one CAN give Christian justifications for preferring the Christian morality over the Nietzschean one? – I’m not saying that these justifications would convince the Nietzschean. But that’s not the point. The point is that IT MAKES SENSE to justify the Christian morality over the Nietzschean in Christian terms..."

      I agree! That's exactly why, when Wittgenstein appears to be saying that this does not make sense, I struggle to interpret what he says. And the best I can come up with is that he is talking about justifying Christian ethics in neutral (either value-free or mutually accepted) terms, which I have called a judgment of absolute superiority.

      A passage that is influencing my reading here, which I don't think I have quoted above, is this:

      Or suppose someone says, ‘One of the ethical systems
      must be the right one – or nearer to the right one.’ Well,
      suppose I say Christian ethics is the right one. Then I
      am making a judgment of value. It amounts to adopting
      Christian ethics.


      Here Wittgenstein seems to me to accept that one can (intelligibly) say that Christian ethics is the right ethical system. But in doing so, he says, one is making a judgment of value. When he says that the question which ethical system is right cannot be asked, does not make sense, therefore, I take him to mean that it does not make sense if asked in a way that requires no judgments of value.

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    8. By the way, I see that Paul Johnston discusses this on p. 141 of the version of Wittgenstein and Moral Philosophy that is on google books. What I'm arguing is (meant to be) very much in line with what he says there, and has no doubt been influenced by it. If what I say is hard to follow, his version might be clearer.

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    9. About the first thing you say. If I understand your clarification, you are saying (or you take Wittgenstein to be saying) that an absolute evaluation of Christianity and Nietzscheanism would have to be taken from outside both—in some neutral terms (I take it that you don’t mean utilitarian terms, that would be neutral with regard to both Christianity and Nietzscheanism; you probably mean some fantastically absolutely neutral terms, which we don’t have). But does that not imply that it is impossible to make absolute evaluation from within Christianity, say? I don’t see how that implication can be avoided. And if it can’t, it is a very odd position—at least it doesn’t seems to do much justice to the way Christianity presumably conceives of itself. I don’t know about Nietzscheanism, but isn’t Christian morality an attempt to make absolute evaluations? Isn’t it is WHOLE point? If I understand your position here (or the position you ascribe to Wittgenstein), it seems to imply not only that Christianity fails on that account, but that it is deeply confused about what it is trying to do. Because on this understanding, Christianity is an attempt to systematize what is logically-conceptually unsystemizable: absolute evaluation. Is this what Wittgenstein thought? (I’m not saying he didn’t think that, or that this is not how he should be interpreted here. I’m just saying that if it is, he seems to have been mistaken, or perhaps that he misspoke.)

      You ask what I take Wittgenstein to mean in this quotation. – I’m not sure. My guess is that the comparison he asks Rhees to make between the inches and miles case and the moral case is merely negative. That is, both cases are similar only in that they are NOT like a third case. And my guess is that the third case is comparing two scientific or forensic hypotheses and their ability to explain independently describable facts. I really don’t know, however. One thing I’m suspicious of is the idea that it is possible to make a positive comparison between the inches and miles case and the moral case—to learn something about what ethics IS from this quotation, and not just about what it is NOT—as it sometimes seems you want to do.

      Relatedly, you ask what I mean by being baffled. – The answer is that I just mean not knowing what to do with the request. My point was, again, that I don’t see how to use the comparison between the inches and miles case and the moral case to shed light on the latter. Even if in both cases there will be a reason to be baffled, the reason in both cases, I argued, will be very different in both cases—grammatically different, and therefore the bafflement is grammatically a different kind of bafflement. And if so, one cannot illuminate the other—as I think you want to do (apparently following Wittgenstein). I take you to think the bafflement in the inches and miles case can illuminate the bafflement in the moral case. Is that not so? And if it is, on what grounds? Where is the similarity? What justifies the thought that one can illuminate the other?

      You ask: “If we allow judgments from within an evaluative framework then why would it be nonsense to say that one of the answers is (or must be) right and that it must be (and is) possible to decide which is right?” – Perhaps he meant that it is not the kind of question which has a readymade method for solution (although that wouldn’t quite make it nonsense). Perhaps he just meant that it would be nonsense to expect the moral case to behave like a scientific case. – I don’t know.

      cont.

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    10. Since you asked, what I really want to say is that I’m reluctant to interpret this quotation in the first place. I’m not at all sure this is a text that illuminates much. It seems to me that Wittgenstein here is saying too little. There is too little of his philosophy here. It is almost too tempting to interpret it out of context—almost impossible not to do that. It is very likely that reading this text would involve reading all sorts of worries and questions that are foreign to Wittgenstein into what he says. And unlike some archeological cases, say, in which one just has no other alternative but to work with very little, there are other texts of Wittgenstein—including ones that are not dedicated to ethics proper, and don’t use moral catchwords like “Christianity” and “ethics” and “value”—which we can use if we want to learn ethics from Wittgenstein. And I am inclined to say something similar about the other quotation you mention.

      The other quotation you mention seems to correct some of the problem with the original quotation. It allows for saying that Christianity is the right moral system. But here I’m not sure I see why it would be important to say what you take Wittgenstein to be saying: that if someone says Christianity is right, they are making a value judgment. The question I want to ask is: WHAT value judgment? You might be taking as unproblematic something which I find very much so. In this case, it seems you might be taking for granted what ‘making a value judgment’ comes to in this case. You at least seem to know the implications. You seem to be taking as unproblematic the grammar of ‘making a value judgment’ in this case, whereas I want to say that this is the WHOLE problem, namely: ‘What is the grammar of value judgments?’ The reason why I say you seem to be taking it for granted is that you seem to think that it is illuminating somehow to say that if someone said Christianity is right, they would be making a value judgment. But if the grammar of f ‘making a value judgment’ in this case is not clear, then it would not at all be illuminating to say that if someone said Christianity is right, they would be making a value judgment. The implications of saying that would not at all be clear—or if they would, I don’t see how. The bottom line is that like with the previous quotation, too much of what I have come to expect from Wittgenstein’s philosophy is not present.

      I sense I am not being helpful. I should probably stop. I just feel as though there is a certain kind of discussion about Wittgenstein—usually the kind that collects and focuses on sporadic quotations that contain moral catchwords—in which I’m being promised to learn ethics from Wittgenstein, and what I end up getting is either trivial, or sloppy, or false, or hasty, or uncharitable, etc. It is quite possible that Wittgenstein was all that. I am not saying that it is impossible to learn in this way about what Wittgenstein thought about ethics. And it is possible that he had bad views. I’m just saying that if that is the case, then I don’t see how one can learn ethics from Wittgenstein in this way. There is a big difference between learning what Wittgenstein thought about ethics and learning ethics from Wittgenstein. And I guess I have no interest in the former if it doesn’t help me do the latter.

      (By the way, in my Google Books I don’t see page numbers in Johnston’s book.)

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    11. you probably mean some fantastically absolutely neutral terms, which we don’t have

      Yes, that's right.

      But does that not imply that it is impossible to make absolute evaluation from within Christianity, say? I don’t see how that implication can be avoided. And if it can’t, it is a very odd position—at least it doesn’t seems to do much justice to the way Christianity presumably conceives of itself.

      Right, this is one of the problems that I have been trying to address. And, roughly speaking, my suggestion is that the problem goes away if we accept that Christianity does not conceive of itself as having the fantastically absolutely neutral terms referred to above.

      One thing I’m suspicious of is the idea that it is possible to make a positive comparison between the inches and miles case and the moral case

      Yes, I have some sympathy with this view. That's why I've stopped talking about the inches and miles case.

      what I really want to say is that I’m reluctant to interpret this quotation in the first place

      Fair enough.

      I’m not sure I see why it would be important to say what you take Wittgenstein to be saying: that if someone says Christianity is right, they are making a value judgment.

      I don't think in this case I am taking Wittgenstein to be saying anything. What he said (according to Rhees) is: "suppose I say Christian ethics is the right one. Then I am making a judgment of value." I haven't, as far as I can remember, offered any interpretation of what this means. I've just repeated it, paraphrasing very slightly (i.e. changing 'judgment of value' to 'value judgment.'). But your point is that why we should care is not apparent. I don't have much of an answer to that. I find it interesting to try to work out what Wittgenstein might have meant by these and other comments.

      There is a big difference between learning what Wittgenstein thought about ethics and learning ethics from Wittgenstein. And I guess I have no interest in the former if it doesn’t help me do the latter.

      Again, fair enough. I am interested in learning what Wittgenstein thought about ethics even if it doesn't help me learn ethics from him. I don't expect anyone else to share this interest though.

      (Searching for "Christian ethics" in Johnston's book should take you to the relevant part.)

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    12. thanks for the link to Johnston. and thanks for your patience.

      You say: “roughly speaking, my suggestion is that the problem goes away if we accept that Christianity does not conceive of itself as having the fantastically absolutely neutral terms referred to above.”

      So you are suggesting a revision in Christianity? Or a revision in Christianity’s self-conception? Your suggestion can even be construed as a suggestion that Christianity would change in order for Wittgenstein’s views to be rendered true. – I realize it’s a caricature. But my hunch is that this is how Christians would react. Do you think I’m wrong? And if not, how would you answer that? Also, do you take your suggestion to be in tension with the Wittgensteinian commitment not to revise, but merely to describe?

      Perhaps these worries connect to this: You might be saying those things because in the background there is for you a distinction between Christianity and the philosophy of Christianity. – Is this right? I’m thinking of a distinction like the distinction between reporting what one experiences, and giving, say, an empiricist account of experience. I’m suggesting you might be making a parallel distinction between making a Christian value judgment, and having a philosophical-Christian notion of evaluation. And I’m thinking you might be implying that as the empiricist philosophical account is not necessary for reporting our experiences, so does the philosophical-Christian account of evaluation is not necessary for making Christian value judgments. – Am I right?

      Also, would your suggestion work if there is no such distinction between levels?

      If my understanding of what you say is right, I would like to know what makes you think that the distinction between levels in morality is like the distinction in the case of experience. Does it seem to you that it is truer to Christianity to say that there is a distinction between the two levels, or that there is none? What is a better phenomenology of the case—to say that there is a distinction between levels, or to say that in the case of Christianity (and perhaps in ethics more generally), there is no distinction? Or that the distinction is different?

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    13. You say: “I am interested in learning what Wittgenstein thought about ethics even if it doesn't help me learn ethics from him.”

      I admit I am not sure how to wrap my head around this claim. One thing that I thought I was implying was that it is very curious (at least I find it so) to think that there is such a thing as wanting to learn what Wittgenstein thought about ethics without THEREBY wanting to learn ethics from Wittgenstein. It sounds somewhat like wanting to understand what a sentence says without thereby wanting to understand what it would be if that sentence were true. That sounds meaningless. – Is this a bad analogy?

      But perhaps there is just miscommunication here. I think you might be taking the distinction I made between learning what Wittgenstein thought about ethics and learning ethics from him to be a distinction between learning what he said and agreeing with him. – This is not at all what I meant. I should have been clearer.

      By ‘learning ethics from Wittgenstein’ I meant learning a form of thought, learning what ethics was for him, which means trying to get a picture—a comprehensive one—of how his thought coheres, including what he took philosophizing about ethics to be, how it connects with his conception of philosophizing about other things, what he thought having a moral problem is, what gives rise to such problems, how such problems are different from or similar to philosophical and scientific questions, etc.

      I take it that all of this is not just obvious. And I take it to be possible to account for what Wittgenstein said about ethics without doing all this—to read him, and take his words, and utilize them in the context of answering questions that are independent of his conceptions of philosophy and ethics—questions that would only be interesting to someone with a different conception of moral thinking, moral difficulty, and moral philosophy. – Do you agree?

      This makes me constantly worried when I read Wittgenstein, worried that I might be asking the wrong questions—this actually happens to me all the time, and not only in matters of ethics—questions like “Is private language possible?” “Is meaning determined by use?” but also like “Is there an absolute moral truth?” Do you at all worry that this last question might be foreign to Wittgenstein?

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    14. So you are suggesting a revision in Christianity?

      No, I'm suggesting that Christianity does not contain the idea that there are the fantastically absolute neutral terms in question. I'm not saying that it does but should get rid of this idea. If it does contain this idea after all then that's a problem for the view I'm putting forward.

      You might be saying those things because in the background there is for you a distinction between Christianity and the philosophy of Christianity.

      I'm suspicious of the idea that this distinction can be made.

      By ‘learning ethics from Wittgenstein’ I meant learning a form of thought, learning what ethics was for him

      I misunderstood.

      I take it to be possible to account for what Wittgenstein said about ethics without doing all this—to read him, and take his words, and utilize them in the context of answering questions that are independent of his conceptions of philosophy and ethics—questions that would only be interesting to someone with a different conception of moral thinking, moral difficulty, and moral philosophy.

      I don't understand this either. Do you mean that it would be possible to take things Wittgenstein said out of context and use them in ways that he would not? If so then I agree.

      “Is there an absolute moral truth?” Do you at all worry that this last question might be foreign to Wittgenstein?

      It does not sound like the kind of question that he would have asked. It might be something that he would see as a symptom of confusion, and he might take an interest in the question in that way. What Rhees reports him saying suggests this, I think.

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    15. Thanks.

      You say: “If [Christianity] does contain this idea [of fantastically absolute neutral terms] after all then that's a problem for the view I'm putting forward.”

      Do you think it doesn’t contain something like this idea? Of course there are many kinds of Christianity, and many Christians might be reluctant to describe their talk as “fantastic”—especially if this is meant in the derogatory sense that we’ve been using. But doesn’t it seem that the orthodox Pauline Christianity, at least, would say that their terms are absolute and neutral?

      Even more generally, it seems to me that something of the sort is true of at least MANY conceptions of morality. Think of how Mill and Kant present their ideas. The neutrality and perhaps even the absoluteness seem to be taken by them to be built-in to their ideas. – Is that not so?

      Are you saying, then, that most moral thinkers are deluded about what they are doing in this way?

      Think of it this way: Would it not be actually very ODD of Kant, or Jesus, to have said, commenting on their moral teachings: “I have presented you with my ideas. But note: this is just one way of looking at the issues, one view. The ideas I have presented are not neutral, and although I take them to be true, and I urge you to do so too, they are not absolutely true.”?

      Or (what seems to be Johnson’s alternative): “Note that what I have presented you with is one view. From within this view, it will seem to you the only possible view—an absolute truth—and from within this is how it must be. But remember that there are also other views that make similar claims. Ultimately, it is up to you to choose what would be absolute for you.” (I confess that this relativization of the absolute—this finding of a place for the absolute in the larger context of a relativist picture—makes little sense to me. I can’t really here see any absoluteness. But more importantly, I don’t see how it does justice to the views concerned.)

      -----

      You ask: “Do you mean that it would be possible to take things Wittgenstein said out of context and use them in ways that he would not?”

      No, I’m doing more than that. I am mainly wondering if some things Wittgenstein said are put by philosophers like Johnston and Brandhorst—not only to uses Wittgenstein would not put them to, but in such a way that is actually very foreign to Wittgenstein: in a context that would completely falsify and deform Wittgenstein’s ideas and interests. I’m wondering if these are forms of abuse of Wittgenstein’s ideas—friendly though they are intended to be. And I am worried about what seems to me to be a complete lack of worry on the part of these philosophers that they might be abusing what Wittgenstein says in such a way without realizing.

      Let me emphasize: I am not worried about the lack of qualifiers in the writings of those philosophers recognizing that they might be wrong. The kind of worry I’m talking of cannot be fixed with qualifiers. If at all, the worry I talk of needs to deeply inform the discussion: make the discussion into a different kind of discussion, turn it into a form of self-examination that worries that it misconceives its own problems.

      Do you take it to be possible to put what Wittgenstein said to use—without abusing it—in dealing with the question about moral relativism?

      ----

      Related to that last point, I’m confused by something you say. You say it seems to you true that Wittgenstein would regard the question about absolute truth as “a symptom of confusion” and that he might take an interest in the question in that way. And yet you say that your reading follows Johnstons’ whose discussion seems to me to be very much motivated by an interest in that question (although he sometimes pretends it doesn't). – Am I misreading Johnston? What am I missing?

      Are you interested in the question about absolute truth and relativism? Do you take the question to be a symptom of confusion? Do you want to do both? If so, how is this possible?

      Sorry for being slow and hardheaded. There is something I don’t understand.

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    16. Do you think it doesn’t contain something like this idea?

      I'm not completely sure, which is (at least partly) why I find the issue problematic and interesting. But I don't think Christianity does contain this idea. The idea is of some set of facts that are completely value-free or value-neutral that somehow implies Christianity, including Christian values. Does Christianity include the belief that any non-Christian is either ignorant of certain facts or else simply (non-ethically-evaluatively) irrational? Satan, for instance. I don't think he's meant to be ignorant of any relevant facts or illogical in his reasoning. But I'm not an expert.

      Think of how Mill and Kant present their ideas. The neutrality and perhaps even the absoluteness seem to be taken by them to be built-in to their ideas.

      I don't see this with Mill at all. Doesn't he take certain values as more or less given? But philosophers are certainly capable of confusion.

      Would it not be actually very ODD of Kant, or Jesus, to have said, commenting on their moral teachings: “I have presented you with my ideas. But note: this is just one way of looking at the issues, one view. The ideas I have presented are not neutral, and although I take them to be true, and I urge you to do so too, they are not absolutely true.”?

      Yes, it would be very odd. And I am not suggesting that this is what they said.

      Do you take it to be possible to put what Wittgenstein said to use—without abusing it—in dealing with the question about moral relativism?

      Whether it's possible depends on what he meant, since what he meant would determine what was an abuse (I take it) of what he said. I am trying to figure out what he meant. If I have done so successfully then the answer to the question is Yes. If I have not then the answer might be No.

      you say that your reading follows Johnstons’

      I read Johnston's work years ago and was very taken by it. I am sure it has influenced my thinking a lot. But recently I have only looked at it superficially. It seemed to be saying what I wanted to say, but if it doesn't it doesn't. Either way I'd prefer to talk about the truth as I see it rather than get into questions about what he says.

      I am interested in the question about absolute truth and relativism in the sense that I am interested in what these terms could mean. I think there are intelligible ways to use these terms but also that there is a kind of nonsense involved in some of their uses. I would like to get clear about the difference. I don't think there is such a thing as the question about absolute truth and relativism.

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    17. I feel I don’t know my way about your view, and it frustrates me. I am trying to get the sense you have of the reality of the views we discuss—e.g. Christianity—and I apparently have a very different sense of their reality, which keeps intervening, and I end up making all sorts of unjustified assumptions about what you say, or something. I’m not sure. Anyway, the answers you’ve given me now make me think that I don’t understand something central. I’m not sure I can put my finger on what it is that I don’t understand. I know it’s a lot to ask, but if you can help me locate what I don’t understand, that would be great. Don’t answer questions that are irrelevant. In fact, it would help tremendously if you told me they are not good questions. And if you can tell me what the right questions are, that would help a lot. I’m mainly trying to share your questions, to get a better sense of what you are trying to do, and your sense of the reality of the matter.

      Can you say again how you think the Christian would characterize their view? If you agree that the Christian is not saying the thing I suggested would be ODD of them to say, but if you are at the same time still maintaining that Christianity doesn’t contain that idea of absolute evaluation (or is it just a very specific idea of absolute evaluation?), then what do they say? How would they describe their view? What position between absolutism and relativeness do they maintain?

      Also, do you think that it would ultimately be possible to describe Christianity both in the terms of absolutism and in the terms of relativeness? Do you think that in this way the debate can be defused? Is that what you are trying to do?

      I’m trying to simplify things. Not because I think they are simple, but because I feel lost in the detail. That is, I’m lost in a particular way: I start getting a sense that the words don’t mean anything anymore, because it appears to me as if in this search for what absoluteness could mean and what relativeness could mean, it turns out that anything can mean anything else. Absolute can have different meanings and relativeness can have different meanings, and they run into each other, and everything is blurred. – I’m just describing the feeling I have. It’s not a good sign.

      Perhaps the reason I feel lost is that I don’t know how to be interested in abstract in what you say you are: “I am interested in what these terms [‘absolute truth’ and ‘relativism’] could mean.” I feel more comfortable asking what they DO mean (in different cases, by different people…). And I’m not saying that there is something wrong in being interested in what you say you are. I’m trying to learn.

      If I’m imposing my own interests on you, tell me and I’ll stop.

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    18. I think there are two issues that we seem to disagree on, but I'm not sure how accurately I can characterize them. I'll try, at the risk of frustrating you further. Only the second is directly relevant to what you say in this comment, but I think both might be relevant really.

      1. One issue is that I'm trying to understand some remarks of Wittgenstein's that seem puzzling to me. At the risk of caricature, your view seems to be that these remarks are not worth taking seriously. Either Rhees did not record what Wittgenstein said accurately or Wittgenstein wasn't thinking very well that day or his views on this issue are just bad (even from a Wittgensteinian point of view), but for whatever reason, what Rhees says Wittgenstein said is not worth troubling over (possibly because it is so clearly committed to relativism, which is bad). I'm not sure that this is your view, but my impression is that it is something like this. In contrast, I think that Rhees is likely to have recorded Wittgenstein's remarks accurately, that Wittgenstein probably had thought carefully about the issue, and that in interpreting his remarks we should prefer an interpretation that is consistent with his other ideas and, ideally, the truth. The idea is to interpret charitably, but not to slavishly support Wittgenstein (or anyone else) no matter what he says. (You seem to suspect I'm guilty of that at times.) I think I can interpret his remarks (as recorded by Rhees) in a way that makes sense of them and that in fact says something true. This interpretation, though, involves ideas about absolutism and relativism (these words should possibly be in quotation marks), which are difficult to talk about.

      2. The difficulty is that these words can be used meaningfully and to refer, confusedly, to a kind of fantasy. The fantasy of absolutism is a kind of view from nowhere that somehow justifies a particular kind of evaluative view without evaluating it. The fantasy of relativism is the complementary idea that since no such absolute justification is possible each evaluative view or system is equally good or right. Both involve the nonsensical idea of non-evaluative evaluation. Wittgenstein does not use the words 'absolutism' and 'relativism' so far as I remember, but he does appear to me to say of the ideas (or 'ideas') that I am labeling this way that they make no sense. For instance, he says that it "means nothing" to say of the various systems of ethics that "they are all equally right." If I say that he rejects relativism then this is what I have in mind. And if I say that he rejects absolutism I have in mind his saying that the question whether Christian ethics is right does not make sense.

      (continued below)

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    19. There are at least two puzzles here. One is why Wittgenstein would say (or seem to say) that this question does not make sense when it obviously does (in the sense that one can imagine a Christian missionary being asked about the rightness of her ethics by a potential convert, or a Christian wondering about the teachings of his church on some particular issue). My proposed solution to this puzzle is that he is not talking about these cases but has in mind someone who is looking for a fantastically neutral way to decide between different ethical systems. What such a person wants is non-evaluative evaluation, and that is nonsense. This, it seems to me, fits what Wittgenstein says and is true. So (by my criteria) it's a good interpretation.

      Another puzzle is what to say about, for instance, Christians who claim that their religion is absolutely true. If absolutism is nonsense is Christianity therefore nonsense too? No (according to my position) because the fact that I have chosen to attach the label 'absolutism' to some nonsensical fantasy does not mean that everything called absolutism (or relativism) must be this fantasy. There are other uses of these words. And I don't think that Christianity involves the self-contradictory idea of non-evaluative evaluation.

      Why talk about this kind of nonsense if no one really believes in it? Well, Wittgenstein seems to have it in mind in the passage I am trying to understand. That's one reason. Another is that relativism (or 'relativism' or the nonsensical 'idea' of relativism) seems to inform some people's thinking about ethics, as does the related idea (or 'idea' ... etc.) of absolutism.

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    20. Footnote to 2 above. I say that "these words can be used meaningfully and to refer, confusedly, to a kind of fantasy" but then I go on to use them to refer to confused fantasies. I don't take these references of mine to be particularly confused. So I should have said something like: these words can be used to refer to intelligible positions and to confused fantasies.

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    21. Thanks. This helps A LOT.

      About my view:

      Thanks first for caricaturizing my view. It is really helpful. (I’m serious!) I think it’s not a bad caricature. I should probably have said something weaker, namely that I think it is very risky to interpret those claims of Wittgenstein, mostly because they don’t have enough context—philosophical and otherwise—EVEN IF THEY ARE QUOTED ACCURATELY. Quoting accurately is no antidote against quoting out of context. So, for myself, I would not START with them, but look for the context first—at least for a philosophical question or difficulty that I would be comfortable recognizing as Wittgenstein’s (rather than import a philosophical question that I can suspect might be foreign to him), and only then bring those quotations on board. But I shouldn’t say that I don’t want to understand what is going on in those quotations at all.


      About your view:

      One thing that I feel you are doing—at least sometimes, at least a bit—is formulating ideas of absolutism and relativism that are very flimsy ideas, and then attack them. And I feel it isn’t fair to those ideas. You talk of fantasies, for example, and I want to say: “Wait! You haven’t tried hard enough to make sense of those ideas. How can you allow yourself to issue a verdict—and such a harsh one at that?”

      I also think you are sometimes on the verge of taking Wittgenstein to be a language-policeman. You seem to be taking his saying that it "means nothing" to say of the various systems of ethics that "they are all equally right" as a verdict—as almost categorizing some claim as nonsense. At least it seems that you take the function of this statement of Wittgenstein as such a verdict to be clear: you take it to be possible to use this claim as evidence (as explanans rather than as explanandum).

      Can you recognize what you are saying in these things, or have I completely misunderstood again?

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    22. Your proposed solution:

      What you say is again very helpful. I now see that I shouldn’t have taken you to be attacking Christianity, say, but only a fantastic idea of absolutism. So thanks for the clarification.

      What I guess I don’t fully see is, assuming your suggestion is right, what point Wittgenstein claim—say about absolutism—would have? If he were talking about someone in particular who is confused, then that might be interesting if we could somehow identify with that someone and with their confusion. But if I understand what you say, your suggestion is that this someone Wittgenstein is criticizing is quite imaginary. I don’t feel I know enough about the view that you are suggesting is under attack and how Wittgenstein imagines it. And I don’t know how to identify with the relevant confusion. (If you could only help me with that, I would be satisfied.) This view you are describing with its strange ideas about non-evaluative evaluation seems a bit crazy. (I probably identified Christianity as your target, because I felt I needed—that I couldn’t think and evaluate your claims without—something more substantial, something less obviously crazy. It didn’t occur to me that you are talking of something imaginary.)

      I’m in effect suggesting that we add another criterion for what would make an interpretation a good one: ‘relevance.’ Is this criterion a bad one? Does your interpretation meet it?

      (I think this is where more context would help. More context would have allowed the imaginary view to have more substance. Maybe Wittgenstein and Rhees were talking about a specific claim someone made. This would then perhaps make it possible to identify with the view and with the confusion, and then see the point of Wittgenstein’s claims.)

      You seem to raise a version of these worries yourself. And your reply is that (1) Wittgenstein has this view in mind and (2) that his view informs some people's thinking about ethics.

      But this confuses me. Both claims seem to me to beg the question. We are asking why Wittgenstein would make the claims he makes, and what makes your interpretation a good one. That is, among other things we are asking, in effect, whether Wittgenstein had this view (that’s 1), and whether it really informs people’s thinking about ethics (that’s 2). I don’t understand how your reply helps. I need more help.

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    23. footnote: when i say that the absolutism view you criticize is "crazy" I only mean to recognize that you think its somehow deeply confused. I don't have a clear idea what this view is. In fact, that I don't know what this view is is a big part of why I don't have good enough sense that I fully understand what you are saying.

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    24. I think it is very risky to interpret those claims of Wittgenstein, mostly because they don’t have enough context—philosophical and otherwise—EVEN IF THEY ARE QUOTED ACCURATELY

      I agree. It's risky, and perhaps not worth the risk. I've tried anyway, obviously.

      I also think you are sometimes on the verge of taking Wittgenstein to be a language-policeman. You seem to be taking his saying that it "means nothing" to say of the various systems of ethics that "they are all equally right" as a verdict—as almost categorizing some claim as nonsense. At least it seems that you take the function of this statement of Wittgenstein as such a verdict to be clear

      Perhaps I have exaggerated how clear it is. It looks like a verdict. And if it is a verdict reached that easily then it ought to be on a position that is very flimsy indeed. Hence my interpretation of the kind of absolutism and relativism in question as very flimsy. Is that fair to those views? Well, what views? Views that Wittgenstein seems to treat as obvious nonsense. But that's not quite all there is to it. I do think there is a version of relativism that is obvious nonsense and that really does operate in people's thinking. (And the kind of absolutism I have in mind and that Wittgenstein appears to have in mind is a counterpart to this kind of relativism.) There is certainly more to be said about relativism than this, but I haven't attempted to go into that here.

      I’m in effect suggesting that we add another criterion for what would make an interpretation a good one: ‘relevance.’ Is this criterion a bad one? Does your interpretation meet it?


      This does seem like a reasonable addition, and I have not tried to meet it. I'm not sure how I would try to do so. Wittgenstein does seem to be talking about imaginary people with imaginary views. I don't know how to make that relevant to real people with real views, although perhaps some philosophical absolutist (of the relevant kind) could be identified.

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    25. “… views that Wittgenstein seems to treat as obvious nonsense.”

      Obviously, you take Wittgenstein to think that some views are nonsense. I think your whole interpretation depends on that. My reservations come from a sense that saying this is in tension with Wittgenstein’s whole conception of philosophy—in particular with his ideas about how to deal with what looks like nonsense. For example here:

      “People who make metaphysical assertions such as ‘Only the present is real’ pretend to make a picture, as opposed to some other picture. I deny that they have done this. But how can I prove it? I cannot say this is not a picture of anything, it is unthinkable, unless I assume that they and I have the same limitations on picturing. If I indicate a picture which the words suggest and they agree, then I can tell them they are misled, that the imagery in which they move does not lead them to such expressions. It cannot be denied that they have made a picture, but we can say they have been misled. We can say ‘It makes no sense in this system, and I believe this is the system you are using.’ If they reply by introducing a new system, then I have to acquiesce.” (‘Cambridge Lectures 32-35,’ p. 27)

      If I’m right, it goes against the grain for Wittgenstein to treat a view as obvious nonsense. Not because it’s impolite, but because it is confused to do so (which is to say, there is nothing of the sort to be done): In order to say that a view is nonsense, one has to understand what the view is. Otherwise, how would they be able to issue that verdict? But if one understands it, it is by definition not nonsense. Saying that some view is nonsense is therefore—ironically—being guilty of the same thing one accuses others of. It is a criticism of sort of that backfires. That’s why the only option Wittgenstein has (as in the quotation above) is to explain why he DOESN’T understand, and leave it to the supposed speaker of nonsense to explain; or perhaps, if he feels generous or in a therapeutic mood, he may try and suggest possible explanations and offer them to the nonsense-speaker, and see whether they’ll accept. In any case, issuing a verdict about what one doesn’t even understand is not an option.

      Do you reject this as a central part of Wittgenstein’s conception of how to deal with nonsense?

      If it is part of his conception, does that leave room for the view you are ascribing to him, and for saying that some forms of relativism and some forms of absolutism are nonsense? Or for Johnston’s “no independent justification [of a moral claim] is possible” (p. 145)?



      A related question:

      Since you do think that it is at least possible to issue such a verdict, how is it done? How does Wittgenstein and how do you (suggest that we) reach the conclusion that some idea or claim is nonsense? Is it merely a matter of intuition? Is this a matter of examining whether the view violates the rules of some language game? Or what?

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    26. If I’m right, it goes against the grain for Wittgenstein to treat a view as obvious nonsense. Not because it’s impolite, but because it is confused to do so (which is to say, there is nothing of the sort to be done)

      Yes. And yet in terms of understanding what the historical Wittgenstein actually thought it would seem that we need to examine all the evidence, and Rhees provides evidence (not conclusive proof at all, but evidence) that Wittgenstein did think of some views as obvious nonsense. I think Bouwsma quotes him as saying of the cogito that if X had said it then Wittgenstein would have said "Nonsense!" but when Descartes says it it's a different matter. Perhaps this is because we take Descartes, a very careful thinker, to have views whereas X, a mere student, might speak without having thought very carefully first. Perhaps Wittgenstein's view is that no view can be said to be nonsense but that certain combinations of words can be. Perhaps when I talk about 'relativism' and 'absolutism' I mean not views but families of combinations of words. That sounds like a cop-out, though, and I'm not sure what kind of line there might be between a confused view, on the one hand, and a family of nonsensical combinations of words, on the other.

      Since you do think that it is at least possible to issue such a verdict

      I'm not sure that I do think that. I've said (I think) that Wittgenstein appears to be doing this. You might say that he can't very well appear to be doing something if there is no such thing as doing that. But then what I said needs to be taken as something like: he appears to be doing something that looks like issuing a verdict. Whether he really could be issuing a verdict would be a separate question. I agree that the idea is problematic. But do you deny that the sentence, "I want to say that this question does not make sense" sounds like a verdict on the sensicality/nonsensicality of the question?

      The conclusion we might have to draw is that Wittgenstein somehow forgot or ignored his own best insights during this conversation with Rhees (or that Rhees misunderstood or misrecorded what he said) and ended up talking nonsense. In that case the conversation is best ignored. But I wanted to try to make sense of it before drawing any such conclusion. And to do that I started with what he appears to be saying. Perhaps I should have started with what we know he thought instead.

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    27. I think there really is a difference of conception of philosophy here. (I should say that I take it to be similar to a difference, perhaps the main difference, between resolute and orthodox readings of Wittgenstein—early and late.)

      You ask: “do you deny that the sentence, "I want to say that this question does not make sense" sounds like a verdict on the sensicality/nonsensicality of the question?”

      Yes. I deny that.

      Clarification: I do not deny that Wittgenstein says of certain things that they are nonsense. (Obviously!) Even in the quotation I gave last time he says he denies that people have said something meaningful. But now the question is what to make of these assertions. These assertions are the givens, and the question now is what do they look like, and what they are—verdicts or something else. (That is, the assertions themselves are not “evidence”, conclusive or inconclusive. They do not pull in one direction more than they do in the other, just as drawing the duck-rabbit is not evidence that one has drawn a duck more than it is that they drew a rabbit.)

      My claim is that they will look like verdicts only to someone who already is equipped with and assumes a conception of philosophy that is very different from Wittgenstein’s. It is not a matter of him ignoring of forgetting his best insights. It is a matter of him doing something completely different. (Saying that he forgot his best insight here, I think, is like saying of a chess player that they forget something important when they throw their queen at their opponent’s queen and shout “Goal!”) If I’m right, he thought it was pointless (that is, it is meaningless) to police language—e.g. to issue nonsense verdicts. No philosophy can be done in this way. Wittgenstein’s whole philosophy is organized around this insight. It is not just a very good insight that he had that can be split off from the rest of his philosophy. It would be extremely uncharitable to say that he slipped up here. It would be saying not merely that he was wrong, but that he was out of his mind!

      Anyway, even if you think I’m exaggerating, I think you’ll agree that it would be uncharitable to Wittgenstein to say he slipped up. If you want to be more charitable, you’ll look for other ways of reading what he said here. And my sense is that there should be ways of squaring what he said in the quotations from Rhees with his conception of philosophy. My hunch is that once you start doing that, those quotations will seem less important and interesting, but that’s only a hunch.

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    28. To go back to the question of how Wittgenstein’s assertions look. The way those assertions look to you, I think, reflects the conception of philosophy you have—the picture of philosophy you come with. And I’m calling for an aspect-shift. Instead of saying that he is issuing a verdict, it is possible to see him simply as saying that he doesn’t understand. After all, that’s what one normally does when someone else is uttering something puzzling with a straight face and a meaningful expression on their face and in their tone of voice: one says one doesn’t understand and asks for clarifications.

      I think one thing that stands in the way of seeing that aspect of what Wittgenstein says is that it makes Wittgenstein’s assertions expressions of powerlessness instead of expressions of power. We want to think of Wittgenstein as an authority, someone from above, someone powerful. And I’m suggesting that it is not like that at all. (It connects to his claims that he is not putting forward theories and theses, and that he requires the agreement of his audience, and is not trying to convince them of some opinion he has.) What I’m suggesting therefore needs to be supplemented by an explanation how an expression of powerlessness and inability to understand can be deep and interesting and worthwhile. And I think something like that can be seen in the quotations from Rhees.

      I also want to add that this idea that people—e.g. philosophers like Descartes—might say something that doesn’t make sense is still important for Wittgenstein, even on the conception of philosophy that I say he has. Here is Cavell:

      ““Not saying anything” is one way philosophers do not know what they mean. In this case it is not that they mean something other than they say, but that they do not see that they mean nothing (that they mean nothing, not that their statements mean nothing, are nonsense). The extent to which this is, or seems to be, true, is astonishing.” (Claim of Reason, 210)

      But the way to discovering that, and the impact of discovering that, and the interest of discovering that are all very different from the kinds you can have in a language-policing conception of philosophy.

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    29. What I keep being baffled by is that you seem to want to grant the insights of the resolute reading, but to keep asking the questions of the orthodox. It is as if you want to grant everyone what they want. And I just don’t see how that’s possible.

      If you want to ask the questions of the orthodox, that will inevitably come at the cost of minimizing and distorting the insights of the resolute. And if you really accept the insights of the resolute reader, then there is no such thing for you as asking the questions of the orthodox. – Is that not how you see it?

      I don’t see any other compromise. But that might be my just my lack of imagination.

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    30. Anyway, even if you think I’m exaggerating, I think you’ll agree that it would be uncharitable to Wittgenstein to say he slipped up. If you want to be more charitable, you’ll look for other ways of reading what he said here.

      I agree. I would be interested in seeing or finding other ways of reading what he said.

      If you want to ask the questions of the orthodox, that will inevitably come at the cost of minimizing and distorting the insights of the resolute.

      This may well be so. But it isn't that I consciously want to ask the questions of the orthodox. I just ask the questions that occur to me. If these are orthodox then that's probably because my thinking is (at least somewhat) orthodox.

      you seem to want to grant the insights of the resolute reading

      Probably because my thinking is somewhat resolute too. Or simply that I have not conclusively rejected either position yet. Can I have it both ways? No, I don't think so. But I can't choose what questions occur to me. And when a question does occur to me I would rather ask it and see what answer I can find than reject the question on the ground that it is, say, orthodox. I'm not claiming to have a stable or coherent position. I am trying to understand and have not reached a firm conclusion.

      One thing I don't understand in your comments here is this. You say "I do not deny that Wittgenstein says of certain things that they are nonsense. (Obviously!)" and that "he thought it was pointless (that is, it is meaningless) to police language—e.g. to issue nonsense verdicts." I don't think you are contradicting yourself, but this looks like a contradiction to me. That is, I believe you know what you are saying and that it makes sense, but the sense is not clear to me. I would understand your position better if you could explain why it isn't a contradiction. When I talk about issuing a nonsense verdict I mean saying of something that it is nonsense. When I talk of policing language I mean ruling out certain combinations of words just as such, regardless of what they are being used to do or what meaning might have been given to them. It's possible that you mean the same thing by 'policing language' (but I'm not sure what you mean by this), but you seem to mean something different from what I mean by 'issuing a nonsense verdict.' Have I got that right?

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    31. I’m not sure I see the contradiction you talk of between the two sentences you quoted from what I said, or even something that looks like a contradiction. I may very well be confused, or blind, or contradicting myself. Can you help me see the contradiction you see?

      By “language-policing,” I mean what you say you mean; namely, ruling out certain combinations of words without regard to their use. – Does that create a problem for me?

      Perhaps the problem is with the other expression we’ve been using: “nonsense verdict.” When you explain what you mean by it, I find myself puzzled, because, to me, the clarification you give (“saying of something that it is nonsense”) is as ambiguous as the original expression. To clarify: I take the sentence “What you said is nonsense” to be ambiguous between:

      (1) The ideas you express are nonsense [where nonsense is taken to be a category alongside sense].
      (2) What you uttered is just a form of words and not an idea.
      (3) I don’t understand certain things you say, and I therefore cannot even decide whether what you uttered is just a form of words, or an actual idea.

      Both (1) and (2) would involve a “nonsense verdict”—of different kinds.

      (Part of what I want to say is that when it comes to morality, both (1) and (2) are problematic. There would be a contradiction if Wittgenstein meant (1). There would be a different problem if he meant (2)—a problem of unsubstantiated presumptuousness, or willful blindness. So I take Wittgenstein to mean something like (3).)

      Does that help in any way?

      What do you mean by “saying of something that it is nonsense” (e.g. of relativism or absolutism)? – is it more like (1), (2), or (3) above? Or is it something different?

      Thanks for being so patient with me.

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    32. Thanks, this helps.

      I think you've answered the question about the apparent contradiction, but here goes. You said both that "Wittgenstein says of certain things that they are nonsense" and that "he thought it was pointless (that is, it is meaningless) to police language—e.g. to issue nonsense verdicts." If saying of certain things that they are nonsense is issuing a nonsense verdict on those things then this suggests that Wittgenstein did things that he thought were pointless, i.e. meaningless. That would seem rather inconsistent of him. Alternatively "issuing nonsense verdicts" might mean something other than saying of certain things that they are nonsense. But then I wasn't sure what it would mean. You've answered that question now.

      By "saying of something that it is nonsense" I mean responding with a claim like "What you said is nonsense" to something that someone has said. The 'something' in question could be mere words. It couldn't really be an idea, I suppose, because then it would make sense. But it could be something like an idea. People don't usually spout nonsense randomly or for no reason. The kind of thinking (or failure of thinking) that tends to lead to (what I am inclined to call) a particular kind of nonsense is something that I might call an idea, even if there is really nothing that makes sense there.

      'Absolutism' and 'relativism' are ideas (or 'ideas') of this kind, as I see it. A lot of people say things involving the word 'relative' that I would call nonsense in your senses 2 and 3 above. I take it that something like thinking is behind these utterances. Something that the people who produce the nonsense in question take to be thinking and might well insist is thinking, but that seems to me not so much thinking as the half-digestion of someone else's thinking. (Although it depends what you mean by 'thinking', of course. Perhaps repeating words and phrases in socially accepted ways should be called thinking. It is very often what is called thinking. And if this is a disease I don't claim to be immune to it.)

      For example, a lot of students tend to say "it's all relative". Sometimes they might have a sophisticated and intelligible idea in mind, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Often what they say seems to make no sense at all: they cannot explain what they mean, it quickly leads to what look like contradictions, and so on. In a word they appear to be talking nonsense. But it isn't random nonsense. It is connected not only with the word 'relative' but with a familiar set of examples and invalid arguments. I'm inclined to call this an idea and to give it the name 'relativism' (or 'knee-jerk relativism' or 'student relativism' or something of the sort). It's not a well-formed idea, and I might concede that it isn't really an idea at all. But it is sufficiently idea-like that I want to call it an idea.

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    33. Your willingness to talk of nonsense that is sufficiently idea-like, I think, is problematic. It is like Crispin Wright’s claim that in philosophy we may have “a sufficient grasp of the essential spirit” of ideas that we think are nonsense (see Cora’s criticism of that in “Wright’s Wittgenstein”). I’m basically urging here an “austere” conception of nonsense (See Cora’s “What Nonsense Might Be”) against what you say. (I can’t stress enough how central this conception of nonsense is for her whole philosophy, and if she is right, for Wittgenstein’s—early and late.)

      On the austere conception, the important distinctions are logical, and nonsense is not a logical thing. Nonsense, by definition, has no logic (it’s not a category). Now, if something that you want to call “an idea” is full of contradictions and cannot be explained, that means it is not an idea.

      I think what deters many people about this conception (and possibly you here as well) is that we still very much would like to call some of those confused things people say “ideas.” They have the face of ideas. But this confuses two issues (confuses the logical with the psychological):

      1. Whether something someone said is nonsense or not
      2. What led them psychologically to saying this, and whether there was some form of thinking—even if confused—behind it

      I think—perhaps I’m wrong—that since, as you say, there is some thought behind the relativist’s claim, even if you want to say that it is full of contradictions, you want to still call it “an idea.” Partly, if I understand, it is a matter of respecting people and the fact that they thought about something—even if they got confused along the way. On the austere conception of nonsense, however, since the important distinctions are logical, this “idea,” if indeed confused, is not really an idea at all. It is nonsense in disguise.

      Now, I said that on the austere conception the important distinctions are logical, but that’s not quite right, because for philosophers like Cora (and I think Wittgenstein), the psychology of nonsense is interesting. In fact, I think we can say that most of what they discuss is the psychology of nonsense, and how we (in the first person) come to say nonsensical things thinking that we make perfectly good sense. In other words, the business of moving form latent to patent nonsense (PI §464) is to a large extent a psychological exercise. That is, the second question about regarding what leads people to talk nonsense is philosophically interesting. So, on an austere conception of nonsense, both psychologically and from the point of view of philosophical interest not all nonsense is the same, even if from a logical point of view all nonsense is just that: nonsense. In Tractarian terms, it is mere signs without any actual symbolizing. That is, it is a mere string of words—or sounds, or ink marks—without any content.

      Does that make sense? Do you disagree with anything here? (I think so far we are in agreement. I'm just asking to be sure.) Surely, I’m repeating here stuff that you know very well. It nevertheless sometimes seems to me that stuff that you say is in tension with these ideas, so I’m saying all of this in order to make it easier for us to locate what part of all this, if any, we understand differently, or disagree about.

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    34. Now, I said that some of the things you say are in tension with the above. And I want to be more specific. The place where I think there is a tension between what we say is that you seem to take it to be relatively easy to reach the conclusion that someone spoke nonsense (relative to how hard I think it is). I’ve been talking above as if it is a relatively small matter to decide whether something that someone said is nonsense. But really, reaching such a conclusion is not a trivial matter.

      You seem to think that relativism involves contradictions. I’m not sure what you have in mind. But suppose you find a relativist that contradicts themselves. Does that show that relativism—the very idea—contains some contradiction? It is possible for people not to think things through; this doesn’t happen only to relativists or absolutists. Surely the fact that they haven’t doesn’t mean that they couldn’t. The question is whether it necessarily, or even typically, happens to relativists and absolutists—as I think you want to say.

      My point is that until you show that the idea cannot be thought through you haven’t shown it is nonsense. All you can say at this point, when you are confronted by a relativist or absolutist claim, is that you don’t understand the idea, that is, that YOU don’t know NOW how to think the idea through. But that doesn’t give you the right yet to say it is nonsense. And the same would go for claims like: “There is also no question of the absolute superiority of one ethic over another.” – If someone is asking this question, they might be confused. But this is not something that you can know or assume in advance. All you can say, if you don’t have the question yourself, is that you cannot ask it: you don’t know how to ask it. But that doesn’t give you the right to say there is no question.

      Now, IF (and that’s a big if) in discussing those ideas with the relativist or the absolutist, you reach a point in the discussion in which THEY say: “You know what, I now see that I didn’t want anything really. It only seemed to me that I had an idea, but really I had none.” That would mean that THEY pronounced something nonsense. – It HAS to be done by them. It cannot be done by you. (This, just in the sense that you can’t express someone else’s pain. It’s a matter of first person authority.) And it may not happen; they may want to continue. And again, you cannot know in advance that they won’t succeed.

      It is possible to reach such a point in which people recognize that they have spoken nonsense, and in some cases it actually happens. But it takes effort; and a lot of it. It typically involves a kind of self-analysis (possibly achieved with the help of another): That is, not only an appreciation of a logical point, but also a psychological appreciation about oneself why one wanted to come up with nonsense in the first place (e.g. what pictures held them captive, and so on).

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    35. If all this is right, then there is no room for saying of an idea that it is nonsense in advance of that self-analysis by the person to whom the idea (or “idea”) belongs. There is just room for trying to clarify what they say. This attempt, once more, could lead to actual clarification of what they said, which would mean what they said was not nonsense. Or it could lead to a realization by them that they didn’t want anything, in which case they ought to recognize that what they said was nonsense. But even this would not have any straightforward implications regarding what others might want to say. That is, it would still not give you the right to say that the idea itself is nonsense.

      It seems to me that you are ascribing to Wittgenstein a position which is ultimately committed to the possibility of saying of certain ideas that they are nonsense in advance of any such investigation. – Does this misdescribe what you are doing? (I’m not saying that this is what you intend to do. I’m saying that this is a consequence of what you say.)

      But if I’m right this goes against Wittgenstein’s whole conception of philosophy—of philosophical activity. It seems to me that Wittgenstein would never say the things you ascribe to him. He would never say: “One cannot possibly make sense of these ideas.” He would rather ask questions like “What could someone possibly mean by this?” or he might say “So far, I can’t make sense of this. Let us see how we might be able to elaborate on this, and see if we could make sense of it.” Or perhaps he would say: “My hunch is what leads people to say such things is a certain picture that tempts them here. Let us see if a demonstration that the picture doesn’t fit the case would make people lose interest in saying those things.”

      Sorry for laboring the point.

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    36. (I think so far we are in agreement. I'm just asking to be sure.)

      Yes, all this sounds right.

      The question is whether it necessarily, or even typically, happens to relativists and absolutists—as I think you want to say.

      I think that it does typically happen to relativists if by 'relativists' we mean, as I do, a certain type of person (usually an undergraduate) who has not thought much about ethics and when pressed to do so says things like, "yeah, but it's all relative, isn't it?" I think there are typically contradictions in what these people want to say. In fact, so far as 'relativism' is not the name of a sophisticated philosophical position but the 'position' of people like this I might say that contradictions are essential to the minds of the people I'm talking about. In this case 'relativism' is the name of a kind of confusion.

      My point is that until you show that the idea cannot be thought through you haven’t shown it is nonsense. All you can say at this point, when you are confronted by a relativist or absolutist claim, is that you don’t understand the idea, that is, that YOU don’t know NOW how to think the idea through. But that doesn’t give you the right yet to say it is nonsense.

      I agree, although I'm not sure about the point about rights. Can't I be reasonably confident in some cases that a person probably really is talking nonsense? Isn't it even the case that sometimes it's obvious?

      (continued below)

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    37. Now, IF (and that’s a big if) in discussing those ideas with the relativist or the absolutist, you reach a point in the discussion in which THEY say: “You know what, I now see that I didn’t want anything really. It only seemed to me that I had an idea, but really I had none.” That would mean that THEY pronounced something nonsense. – It HAS to be done by them. It cannot be done by you. (This, just in the sense that you can’t express someone else’s pain. It’s a matter of first person authority.)

      I'm not sure I understand this. Are you saying that I cannot pronounce what someone else says to be nonsense? And that this is not about rights so much as it is simply a matter of what makes sense, so that "You are speaking nonsense" is like "Ouch, that headache of yours really hurts!"? I accept that we cannot know that someone is speaking nonsense just by looking at their words, and that in some cases it will not be clear unless they confirm it themselves. But you seem to be saying more than this.

      It is possible to reach such a point in which people recognize that they have spoken nonsense, and in some cases it actually happens. But it takes effort; and a lot of it.

      This might be trivial, but do you mean that it always takes a lot of effort, or simply that it can do so? If the latter then I agree, but if it's the former then I don't think I do. I suppose I'm just repeating and agreeing with your saying that "The place where I think there is a tension between what we say is that you seem to take it to be relatively easy to reach the conclusion that someone spoke nonsense." I don't think that's always the case, but I think it can be easy. I would suspect a student of speaking nonsense much more easily than I would suspect or accuse, say, Plato of doing so.

      It seems to me that Wittgenstein would never say the things you ascribe to him. He would never say: “One cannot possibly make sense of these ideas.”

      And yet that is what he looks like he's doing according to Rhees's account. Which is one reason why it's interesting. True, he does not say that any ideas do not make sense. He does say that a certain question does not make sense, without questioning the hypothetical poser of the question at all. Perhaps "does not make sense" here just means "is not something that I can understand (at least not without further clarification)." And that would fit with the rest of the passage where he talks about not knowing what the person is after.

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    38. “In fact, so far as 'relativism' is not the name of a sophisticated philosophical position but the 'position' of people like this [stereotypic students, etc.] I might say that contradictions are essential to the minds of the people I'm talking about.”

      Perhaps. But first, if this was the view you were attacking from the beginning, this wasn’t at all clear. And more importantly, aren’t you making it too easy on yourself? I mean, if this is the position you want to criticize, then why you need Wittgenstein and his heavy machinery in the story? College students don’t think much through—not only their relativism, if they subscribe to one. So I don’t see how or why you focus your criticism on relativism. And if your criticism is merely that most relativist don’t think their views through, then this is probably true, but the same is true of almost any other belief people hold. Again, I don’t see how or why you focus your criticism on relativism. I thought you were trying to say something more substantial about relativism, and to attack a more serious view. – Am I missing something?



      “Can't I be reasonably confident in some cases that a person probably really is talking nonsense? Isn't it even the case that sometimes it's obvious?”

      There is at least an important sense in which the answer to this has to be NO. This is also related to the other question you ask about the connection I’m making to pain avowals and first person authority. I’m basically putting side by side pain avowals and expressions of intention to say something.

      First consider what it would be, what it would entail, to be confident that someone spoke nonsense. If you follow through on the implication of something really being nonsense (and here, the ASSUMPTION is that something is nonsense; that is, it is not something to prove or conclude), then saying that someone is saying something nonsensical implies that they had no intention to say anything. That’s because you cannot intend to say something that you know is nonsense. I mean this: if “frukish blurt is banegh” is nonsense, then I cannot intend to say that frukish blurt is banegh. There is no such intention to be had. And that means (and that’s the hard part to accept, but as far as I can see it is inevitable) that you can’t intend to say IT even if you don’t realize it is nonsense: There is just no IT to intend to say. (Look at Cora’s “Ethics Imagination and the Method of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus”.) So perhaps you can say that the relativist wants to say something, or has the feeling that they want to say something. But if relativism is nonsense (again, we are now assuming this) then strictly speaking a person cannot intend to utter the thesis of relativism. There is no such thesis to intend to utter.

      Now, if this is what is implied by being confident that someone spoke nonsense, let’s see how that affects the possibility of being thus confident. To better appreciate that, I want to bring back my object of comparison, thinking that I’m in pain, and put it alongside our case: thinking that I have something to say, or that I have an intention to say something. I take it that telling people that they had no intention when they say they do (assuming there is no intention on their part to deceive or joke or anything like that), is like telling people that they are not in pain when they say they are. In both cases there is a claim to first person authority on the part of the speaker.

      But if that is so, then ask your question again, but this time about pain: “Can’t I be reasonably confident that someone is not in pain when they really and seriously think that they are?” I think the answer to this is no. It would be a very perplexing case at the very least. And if the case with ‘having-an-intention-to-say-something’ is similar to the case of ‘having-the-intention-to-express-a-pain,’ then the same should be said about the former.

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    39. You raise the question: How much effort does it take to expose nonsense. – I would say that it would only be easy with a philosophical saint; and the overwhelming majority of philosophers and people who make philosophical claims (including myself) are not philosophical saints. If what I said above is true, then convincing someone to recognize that they are under the illusion that they have some intention would typically not be an easy task.

      I think—correct me if I’m wrong—you might have an idea of ‘judging what someone said,’ which implies that we can take what they said and judge it in abstraction of their saying it: we can just consider their words, as if the meaning or lack thereof of what they said is something that belong to their words and ideas, and is detachable from them and their act of uttering it. – Does that sound right?

      The reason I think you have this idea is because you think it is relatively easy to judge that something is nonsense, and because it would indeed be easy if we didn’t need to take the speaker and their speech-act into consideration but merely their words, and judge these in abstraction: if we could read the speech act off of the words.

      If so, this is arguably a non-Fregean view of meaning. And I think it is very much non-Wittgensteinian as well. It is basically the notion of meaning without the context principle.

      On what I take to be the Wittgensteinian view of meaning, in order to judge that something someone said was nonsense, you have to take what they said in the context in which they said it, with their intentions in saying it, and so on. You have to take the whole speech-act. And you can’t read the speech act off the words. That is, you cannot bypass attending to the speech act by attending to the words. You have to attend to the act itself. So if we don’t understand what someone said, the most we can say, again, is: ‘I don’t see what you are trying to do with those words. I don’t see a speech act.’ But for reasons already mentioned, we can’t say in advance—that is, merely by considering the words—that there is no possible speech act to be had by means of these words, and therefore that what they said was nonsense. And if this is our conception of meaning, then clarification of meaning in general, and detection of nonsense in particular, will typically not be an easy thing.


      “And yet that is what he looks like he's doing according to Rhees's account.”

      I’m not sure why you say that. We already talked about this, and I rejected this claim of yours, and tried to explain myself. Perhaps I did a bad job. I tried to explain at length why I think that what Wittgenstein does does NOT look like this, and why it would only look like this to someone who sees it through a non-Wittgensteinian conception of philosophy. So I don’t think you can just assume this, as you seem.

      In other words: from my point of view at least you seem to be doing something a bit fishy: You ascribe very implausible views to Wittgenstein, even though it is not at all necessary to read him like this, and you then say: “how interesting that Wittgenstein would say something so weird!” This is somewhat like taking JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” as obviously saying that he is a kind of doughnut, and then proceeding to ask why he would say such a thing. – The answer is: He hasn’t! (It will look like he has only if you come with a joking, or a very uncharitable, frame of mind.)

      As far as I can see, you have a choice: either (1) you need to make a good strong case for the idea that Wittgenstein is indeed doing what you say he is doing, and saying “this is how it looks to me” is not good enough, because it can look different (I tried to explain in the May 28 response how to look at things differently). Or (2) you need to give up on your claim that it looks that Wittgenstein is doing what you say he is doing.

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    40. I don’t see how or why you focus your criticism on relativism.

      I was responding to a question you asked about relativism. The history of this dialogue is getting complicated, but here is roughly how I think we got here. Wittgenstein is reported to say things that have been interpreted as a rejection of a certain kind of relativism and its antithesis, absolutism. If he is rejecting a position (and you have pointed out reason to doubt this) then it seems to be one that is easily dismissed (since if he is dismissing a position he does not bother to give much argument against it). So I hypothesized that he might have in mind a common kind of confusion that is often called, or associated with, relativism. Then you asked whether relativism always or typically involved confusion.

      I take it that telling people that they had no intention when they say they do (assuming there is no intention on their part to deceive or joke or anything like that), is like telling people that they are not in pain when they say they are.

      Joking is actually one of the cases I had in mind when I said it is sometimes obvious that someone is talking nonsense. If they are using a lot of long words whose meaning they seem not to know and are laughing as they speak, for example, then it is obvious that they are (deliberately) speaking nonsense. I think we get a non-joking version of this when people bullshit. And I think that happens a lot.

      I think—correct me if I’m wrong—you might have an idea of ‘judging what someone said,’ which implies that we can take what they said and judge it in abstraction of their saying it: we can just consider their words, as if the meaning or lack thereof of what they said is something that belong to their words and ideas, and is detachable from them and their act of uttering it. – Does that sound right?

      Yes and no. I don't think we can understand the meaning of an utterance without taking into account such things as whether it was uttered in a sarcastic tone. But if someone misuses a word then I think we can distinguish between what they said, i.e., what the words they uttered mean, and what the person meant. I don't think, though, that we can read the speech act off the words.

      you then say: “how interesting that Wittgenstein would say something so weird!”

      No, that's not what I mean. I mean rather something like this: To someone not convinced of the correctness of the resolute reading of Wittgenstein, the passage from Rhees would be likely to look like evidence that the resolute reading is wrong. This is one reason for paying attention to the passage and trying to work out how best to read it. I made an initial tentative attempt to interpret it and came up with something that sounded plausible to me. I now think that interpretation was wrong in various ways. I'm not sure whether it was really wrong in substance or whether it was more just badly expressed. For instance, I talked about ideas when I meant what you call "some of those confused things people say [that] have the face of ideas." I said that there cannot be absolute judgment when it would have been better to say, as you pointed out, that there isn't such a thing. What I said was certainly not very well expressed, partly because it was not very well thought out. It was a kind of rough draft written in response to something that I found puzzling. As I said above (May 16), in these remarks I am trying to work out what Wittgenstein thought.

      When I say that it looks as though Wittgenstein is saying x I mean only that it looks superficially as though he is saying x. For instance, you said that: He would never say: “One cannot possibly make sense of these ideas.” Rhees reports that Wittgenstein said: "I want to say that this question does not make sense." This looks (i.e. on the surface) like a contradiction of your claim. I don't mean that after careful thought you seem to be wrong. I mean that careful thought is needed to see that you are not wrong.

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    41. “a common kind of confusion that is often called, or associated with, relativism.”

      I’m kind of disappointed by this, because I thought we were talking about something more serious. That is, I was hoping to hear something more than the claim that usually people who say things that sound relativistic are confused, and that they don’t bother to think their view through. The same is true about almost every other view people hold. People who support gay marriage and those who don’t, people who believe in climate change and those who believe that capitalism is better than communism and vice versa—they all usually don’t think their views through. I thought your suggestion was that Wittgenstein had a particular argument against relativism (rather than against careless relativists), or at least a particular claim about what type of confusions are involved in relativism. Was I wrong about that?



      “Joking is actually one of the cases I had in mind when I said it is sometimes obvious that someone is talking nonsense.”

      Perhaps this is connected to the comment above. I feel that here, and perhaps above, you are changing the topic instead of dealing with the problem. I am probably missing something. In the conversation we had, the question was about the alleged nonsense involved in relativism and absolutism. I took it that this was the focus of the discussion. Now, if the question about whether we can be reasonably certain that someone is speaking nonsense is relevant for the discussion we’ve been having, it should apply somehow to the cases of absolutism and relativism. Instead, I feel as if we are moving away from that, and asking the question in the abstract—thinking about people who joke around and make bullshit claims. If this was not what you were doing, and your question has for you some connection to the discussion about absolutism and relativism, then I admit that I can’t see what the connection is, and I need some help. If you did just ask the question in the abstract, then I’m not sure I understand why you are asking it—that is why you are asking it in the context of our discussion.



      You say you changed your mind about things, but that you are not certain. I’m not clear about your unclarities.

      - Do you still think that the relativist cannot say what they want to say? The absolutist?

      - Have you also changed you mind about what the relativist and the absolutist say, or want to?

      - What do you think now that the relativist wants to say?

      - What do you think now the absolutist wants to say?

      - What would be the best, or at least a decent, formulation of these views?

      - Do you think that even if thus formulated those views are nonsense?

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    42. I thought your suggestion was that Wittgenstein had a particular argument against relativism (rather than against careless relativists), or at least a particular claim about what type of confusions are involved in relativism. Was I wrong about that?

      I don't think I claimed that. I don't know what relativism is. I've said several times that this name might be given to various positions, and perhaps some of these are good ideas. The only relativism I have been talking about is the kind suggested by Wittgenstein's reported remark that if you say there are various ethical systems and they are all equally right then "That means nothing." Ex hypothesi this kind of relativism is a kind of thinking that produces nonsense, i.e. words that mean nothing. The relativism in question could be mere confusion or it could be something coherent that has not yet been well expressed. In which case it could be just about anything. So far as there is a coherent position that might be called relativism I have said nothing about it except that it might exist.

      My answer to most of your other questions is the same in each case: I don't know what the relativist and the absolutist want to say except that the relativist says "all ethical systems are equally right" and the absolutist contradicts this. I don't know who these people are except fictions in an example. What does "all ethical systems are equally right" mean? I don't know. But I have been trying to understand it as it appears in an example from Wittgenstein, and he says that it means nothing. So the prospects for understanding it don't look good.

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    43. “Ex hypothesi this kind of relativism is a kind of thinking that produces nonsense, i.e. words that mean nothing”

      The idea of a kind of thinking that produces nonsense baffles me. Is this different from saying that it involves carelessness? Let me ask it in a different way: Is the failure here to produce something sensical a consequence of (a) the relativism, or is it a consequence of (b) the lack of care on the part of those who call themselves relativists?



      Part of what baffles me is that it is not part of your reading of Wittgenstein that he was engaged in asking what the relativist might mean before he issues his nonsense-verdict.

      Suppose someone said: “I really don’t care. What is important is that people will find some way to make sense of the world around them: that they care about things in some way--but it doesn't matter in which way. Each of the various ethical systems tells its story, and these are all important stories: they give us different ways of making sense of the world around us—of finding it important. They are all equally right, in the sense that they are all viable ways of doing so.” – Would you say that this makes sense? Would it contradict what Wittgenstein said in the quotation from Rhees?

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    44. What does "all ethical systems are equally right" mean?

      Either:

      1) "No ethical system is right because none can be wrong, therefore the category of being 'right' is nonsense."

      or

      2) "All ethical systems are equally right to those who enroll in them," meaning enrolling renders "rightness" thus changing what's meant by "right" from something that has some kind of independent, externally generated justification (the rules, the deity, reason) to a situation where acceptance makes it so. This kind of "rightness" is declarative (a so-called speech act?).

      Or there's the further possibility:

      3) "No ethical systems are right because they

      a) represent a category error (ethical talk isn't assertoric but expressive and so isn't amenable to claims of rightness or wrongness); or

      b) "All ethical systems appear to make factual claims but all such factual claims are demonstrably false (lack evidence to support)" as moral error theorists like J. L. Mackie and Richard Garner would have it.

      In all such cases one might be able to say of some ethical claim made in connection with one of these approaches is "nonsense" but the nonsense tag means different things, no?

      Would it make sense to ascribe any of these possibilities to Wittgenstein in that text or is there another possibility I've left out?

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    45. Sorry, a little clumsy in the foregoing. I should have been clearer that in #1 I meant "all ethical systems are equally right" because, being inherently unintelligible, none can be wrong or right while in #3a I meant that "all ethical systems are equally right" because they are intelligible but in a non-assertoric/descriptive way.

      #3b treats of "nonsense" as a pejorative as in if something is obviously wrong then it is nonsensical to argue that it isn't.

      Don't mean to horn in here but that remark about "all ethical systems" above caught my eye.

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    46. The idea of a kind of thinking that produces nonsense baffles me. Is this different from saying that it involves carelessness?

      Yes. You said above that; "People who support gay marriage and those who don’t, people who believe in climate change and those who believe that capitalism is better than communism and vice versa—they all usually don’t think their views through." This is true, but when someone tells me that they support (or oppose) gay marriage I know what they mean. If they tell me, on the other hand, that they believe that people who believe their opponents on any given issue are just as right as they are then I don't know what they mean. Perhaps after some questioning it will become clear, but on the face of it there is a paradox here.

      You might say that I am now talking about nonsense rather than "a kind of thinking that produces nonsense" but by "a kind of thinking" I just mean whatever is going on in their heads that leads them to say this kind of thing. It isn't just carelessness.

      Is the failure here to produce something sensical a consequence of (a) the relativism, or is it a consequence of (b) the lack of care on the part of those who call themselves relativists?

      "The relativism" just is whatever mix of tolerance, awareness of different moral beliefs, belief that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, etc. plus lack of clarity in thinking (or word use) that leads them to say paradoxical things. So a is true by definition, but b is also true.

      Suppose someone said: “[...] They are all equally right, in the sense that they are all viable ways of doing so.” – Would you say that this makes sense?

      I would want to know what they meant by 'viable'. If someone says that people care about different things and that it is possible for them to live this way then I might (depending on the context) wonder what they were getting at. But if they say these different ways of life are all right then I would want to know what they meant. Whether it contradicted what Wittgenstein said in the quotation from Rhees would depend on what it meant, of course, but also on what Wittgenstein meant. And I don't know what he meant. I have been trying to figure that out but have hit a wall.

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    47. What does "all ethical systems are equally right" mean?

      Wittgenstein says it means nothing. So any (intelligible) explanation of what it might mean is presumably not what he had in mind. We could try to work out why someone might say such a thing, or why people do say such things, but I don't know how much we will be able to generalize. Normal people who say things like this are often trying clumsily to express their belief in tolerance. But philosophers and, especially, people who have been exposed to a little philosophy often have more complicated stories.

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    48. Sorry, this: If they tell me, on the other hand, that they believe that people who believe their opponents on any given issue are just as right as they are then I don't know what they mean.

      should be this:

      If they tell me, on the other hand, that they believe their opponents on any given issue are just as right as they themselves are then I don't know what they mean.

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  8. There are two other possible analogies to be had: deciding whether to measure distance in terms of miles or kilometers or deciding whether to measure it in terms of miles or gallons. To the extent the question above is about deciding between Christian ethics and the Nietszchean variety, it looks like it might just be a question of miles vs. kilometers. But perhaps it's really the other kind of comparison?

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    1. Yes, something like that (miles vs. gallons) could happen. It would be a weird case, but weird things happen. There is no guarantee that the expectations we have come to have will always be met or that nature won't throw us a curve ball. It's in the nature of weird cases, though, that it's hard to say what this might look like in ethics. And in the case of ethics it doesn't seem as though it could be nature throwing the curve ball but rather our own lives or our understanding of what ethics is. I'm not sure what that would mean, but I won't say it can't happen.

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  9. Duncan wrote: "a judgment of absolute superiority would have to be something like a judgment that Christianity is superior to Nietzscheanism as an ethical system made from outside any evaluative system or framework"

    Kant tried to do this by arguing that ethical value judgments can be grounded outside themselves, in "Reason" itself (the application of logical rules to human judgment) although his success has been hotly (and I would say rightly) disputed. But we don't have to go that far. One could do this by showing that ethical valuing (making normative judgments about human behavior) nests in a broader system of valuing that's as basic to human cognition as the rules of logic.

    If so, one can ground ethical claims on a deeper set of valuations and so preserve the possibility of arguing the value status of particular ethical judgments.

    ". . . if we ask which of two answers (. . . he should stay with his wife on Christian grounds . . . [or] he should leave on Nietzschean grounds) is the right one then it's also not hard to imagine taking a side and supporting it with reasons. . . Wittgenstein appears to say that in fact the question makes no sense. My interpretation of this is that he takes supporting the Christian side . . . to be an adoption of Christian ethics rather than a justification of them. So I take the issue to be about value-free evaluation. . . ."

    Perhaps one can make sense of it another way: If one thinks of it not as "value-free evaluation" but as different valuing levels. Here moral valuing might be said to stand on something that's more than merely moral but is still valuation. Rather than grounding our moral value judgments in something like "Reason" (or our currently experienced sentiments), we could ground them on a deeper level of valuation.

    If the issue is to serve oneself and one's own needs, desires, etc. (on Nietzschean or Randian grounds) or to put another's interests before our own (Christian grounds) this seems to demand justification with reasons that go beyond whether one is a Christian or something else. Stopping here, without offering reasons, looks arbitrary while attempting to offer reasons grounded in our particular ethical orientation (whether Nietszchean or Christian) looks circular or appeals to our particular sentiments. But if we can also evaluate and choose sentiments in a pre-moral fashion then this may work.

    Thus we might argue that the particular moral judgments reflecting the different moral systems to which we are committed may find their justification in the degree they reflect the (non-moral) value we place on having certain kinds of attitudes. This can look problematic to the extent one level of valuation seems to bleed into another (where do we draw the line between the distinctly moral question -- should one leave one's wife because one might do better in some way, having done so? -- and a "deeper" question -- how should we treat the world around us and why?). Why should the deeper question be distinct from the moral?

    Here it's a matter of what we decide to take as the basic determinant of the behavioral standards we subsequently endorse and follow and a separate case, within under the umbrella of that basic determinant for choosing our particular actions in actual circumstances. Those that fit the basic pre-moral decision will be the moral ones while the basic decision is outside that framework.

    That's what I'd argue in any case, nor does this abrogate a Wittgensteinian point view which supposes that our moral choices stand on a deeper orientation (adopted either for personal satisfaction, aesthetic appeal or some more rational-seeming reason reflecting a way to be that's thought most consistent with the capacities we have as human beings). This preserves the possibility of arguing for our moral claims and also of deciding between better and worse ones.

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    1. Yes, there could be something to this kind of thinking, but I agree that distinguishing between moral and pre-moral evaluation seems problematic. There would also be the question, if the distinction can be made, whether the pre-moral evaluation is relevant to ethics at all. Let's say that survival is a pre-moral value (for the sake of argument). Is a morality that conduces to survival therefore better than one that does not? It's pre-morally better, perhaps, but not necessarily morally better.

      If you're wondering 'why be moral?' though then there are intelligent arguments to the effect that being moral (or, actually, being virtuous) serves non-moral ends, and that the content of a virtuous life can be worked out on these grounds. I'm not sure thta I've seen an argument like this that really convinces me, but they aren't stupid arguments.

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  10. Sorry about the foregoing. I was trying to cut the text so it would fit into a single post and I fear I butchered it so that the end of what I was saying now suffers from a degree of unintelligibility. Here's some of what I cut away:

    Here it's a matter of the choice we make, after all, of what we decide which basically determines the array of behavioral standards we will subsequently endorse and follow. But perhaps a separate case can be made for choosing one way of treating the world (and others) and choosing the things we should do which may best reflect the way(s) we have chosen to treat the world and others around us. The latter would reflect traditional moral arguments such as 'do this because . . .' and 'don't do that because . . . ." while the former reflects the arguments we can give (or think we can give) for whatever set of beliefs about how we should treat others and the world around us which we ought to hold. While such belief systems will trim and shape the particular moral claims we make in individual cases, the general standard(s) within which those particular claims take their value is arrived at differently, i.e., by considering the best way for creatures like ourselves to be in the world.

    That's what I would argue in any case, nor does this abrogate a Wittgensteinian point of view which supposes that our moral choices stand on a deeper orientation which we adopt for other reasons (whether reasons of personal satisfaction, aesthetic appeal or, perhaps, for some more rational seeming reason, e.g., reflecting a judgment about the best way to be, a way that's most consistent with the capacities we have as human beings).

    This preserves the possibility of arguing for our moral claims and deciding between better and worse ones, i.e., such disputes stand on the possibility of showing that some ways of being, in relation to the rest of the world, are less sound (because less consistent with our actual capacities) than others. It doesn't give us logically irrefutable "proofs" of course. But it gives us a reason to differentiate between competing moral systems.

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    1. Thanks. This sounds right. The devil, I suppose, would be in the details and the application of this way of differentiating.

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    2. Yes, that's where the devil is, no doubt. But using an approach like this, one could even make sense of Wittgenstein's lecture on ethics I think.

      One can suppose that the deep, inarticulable feeling he reports as the state of feeling safe (that "nothing can harm me") and of being in awe of the universe in its immensity, is like that, i.e., such feelings are concomitants of developing a certain kind of attitude towards the world, the universe.

      It reminds me of your point about crossing a road and suddenly looking into the eyes of a startled deer and having a moment's recognition. What one sees there, if one is sufficiently open I suppose, is another creature, a fellow subject in the universe (whatever its cognitive limitations) and this is to see an aspect of a universe in which we, ourselves, stand.

      Recognizing others as subjects, as like ourselves in this way, ties into the sort of thing we might want to think of as having a feeling of awe and, perhaps, a certain kind of connectedness, with the universe in toto.

      One cannot put this into words as Wittgenstein repeatedly reminds his listeners in that lecture, though I've tried to do a little of that here of course, although anyone who has felt this way surely recognizes the deficiency in my words -- and anyone who hasn't cannot, I'm sure, experience it from reading, or hearing, the words alone. Something else is required, a turning, an openness in the individual, a readiness. But if and when one does have this kind of inarticulable moment, it does tend to change our perspective, and with that comes alterations in our attitudes, in how we relate to the world and others in it.

      In this sense one could say that something "spiritual" underlies the merely moral (understood as the particular standards that serve us as general rules of behavior and that govern our choices in concrete cases). Here moral valuing (at least some aspect of that kind of valuing) seems to find its ground in the value we put on feeling certain ways.

      Values stand on values, as it were, and not on anything outside themselves. To the extent valuing is just that thing we do (as creatures with certain cognitive capacities) to sort and prioritize our options in terms of our needs, wants and beliefs, we can't simply turn it off. We're always engaged in valuing just as we're always using logic when we're thinking discursively (though of course we aren't always doing that).

      Maybe Wittgenstein was on to something in that lecture after all, namely pointing at the deep level which underlies a certain kind of valuational claim which we think of as "moral" in our modern societies. One need not be enrolled in such a society of course (many, it turns out, aren't), or share its "values" but being so enrolled, and claiming others should be, may just stand on having and embracing this kind of deep level experience which, once embraced, is its own justification, and justifies, in turn, a range of moral standards we adopt and wish others to, as well. Then what's needed is a reason or reasons to embrace such a perspective, to think it worth having and so to pursue having it. That, it seems to me, resonates with what we often think of as the "spiritual."

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    3. Thanks. This is very nicely put.

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  11. A note about Brandhorst paper.

    He does something that is reminiscent of what Diamond is doing in “Wittgenstein, mathematics, and ethics: Resisting the attractions of realism.” Even referring to and utilizing some of the same texts. It is amazing that he doesn’t even mention Diamond’s paper. Even stranger, since he does mention Conant’s paper “On Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Mathematics,” in which Diamond’s paper is referenced.

    I’m mentioning this, particularly in connection with what you called “the most questionable part of Brandhorst's paper.” I wonder if you'd think that what she is doing is also questionable, or maybe you'll think she's doing something completely different.

    (Saying that he is doing something that is reminiscent of what Diamond does doesn’t mean that he is doing the same thing. It seems to me that there is much ‘language-policing’ in Bandhorst’s paper—announcing that things “make no sense” or that they are “illusions” or “unintelligible” without actually showing that they are. In this sense, Brandhorst is engaged in a very different philosophical activity.)

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    1. I think Diamond and Brandhorst are engaged in different projects, but to say more I'd have to re-read her paper. Brandhorst's paper gives me the feeling that something is wrong with it but I had a hard time putting my finger on what it was. The best I have managed to do so far is to find things that he might be implying, or that might at least be inferred from his paper, that I would disagree with.

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  12. Follow your heart, do what God asks of you is what the Christian would say to the man and he might tell him the story of Abraham to plead his case for what a believer should do.

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