Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Is ethics a subject?

Benjamin De Mesel has made me very happy by writing about me in the same breath as he writes about Cora Diamond, Lars Hertzberg, Stephen Mulhall, and James Conant. He also emphasizes that his disagreement on one point, or set of related points, does not mean that he disagrees with most of what we say on other matters, which is a nice thing that he didn't have to say. He criticizes all of us, however, for saying that "according to Wittgenstein, ethics has no particular subject matter." This view--the one he criticizes--is linked with the idea that there is no such thing as "the moral vocabulary," i.e., the limited set of words that picks out the territory of the ethical. De Mesel agrees with this idea about words, but thinks that we can identify moral uses of words instead. I'm not so sure.

The example he gives, from Cora Diamond, is Simone Weil's use of the word 'chance' in such sentences as, "It is only by chance that I was born." I agree that this sentence can be given an ethical use, that is, roughly, that it could play an important role in how someone thinks and lives. But what exactly counts as important? And how is ethical importance to be distinguished from other kinds? I am not saying that it cannot be, but I don't know how it could be. Let me (try to) explain what I mean. Suppose that ethics is a subject, i.e., about something, and we want to say what this subject is about. Specifying what ethics is about by giving a list of words might not work, but it isn't too hard to begin to imagine how the attempt might go. "Ethics is about good, evil, right, wrong, virtue, vice, duty, rights, and so on," we might say. But if we reject this idea, as De Mesel does, then what will our list of uses of words, or kinds of uses of words, look like? It surely won't be "Ethics is about uses of words to do with good, evil, right, wrong, virtue, vice, ..." But I struggle to think what it should look like instead.

De Mesel does offer a solution to this problem (on p. 87):
The only satisfying characterizations of 'moral use' one can give, I think, are those referring to a subject matter: a sentence or word is used in a moral way if it refers to what is good, or to what is absolutely good, or to what is intrinsically valuable, etc. This is the way in which I have understood 'moral use' when I said that a moral vocabulary would contain only words in their moral uses.  
But this seems problematic to me, for reasons I hope will become clear.

De Mesel goes on to argue that Wittgenstein believed that there is such a subject as ethics, on the grounds that in the Lecture on Ethics he refers to "the subject matter of ethics" and begins the lecture with the words, "My subject, as you know, is ethics..." The subject matter of ethics is, Wittgenstein says, the good. Or the important or the valuable or what all these have in common. The only way to deny that Wittgenstein believed that ethics is a subject with its own subject matter, supposedly, is to rely on the fact that the Lecture on Ethics is an early work and Wittgenstein might have changed his mind later.

I don't think this is right though. In the lecture, Wittgenstein distinguishes the ethical sense of 'good' ('right', 'valuable', etc.) from a relative or trivial sense. A hammer might be good in a trivial sense if it works well as a hammer. A plan for robbing a bank might be good if it is a plan that is likely to succeed. There is nothing particularly ethical about this. The ethical sense of 'good' is different, Wittgenstein says. It is absolute. What does that mean? Wittgenstein says: "that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value" and that he "would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance."
That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.
This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science.
If ethics cannot be a science can it nevertheless be a subject of some other kind? Well, maybe. But, despite what Wittgenstein says at the beginning of the lecture, by the end it is very far from clear that he thinks there really is such a subject as ethics with any subject matter that can be talked or written about without speaking or writing nonsense. It isn't so much the later Wittgenstein who denies that ethics is a subject as it is the later-in-the-lecture Wittgenstein who at least seems to think there are huge problems with thinking of ethics as a subject. (Apologies if this sounds snarky.)

On a couple of points De Mesel identifies me as the only person who has said certain things, which ought to be a good sign that I am wrong on those points (in my opinion, not his). But, again, I'm not so sure. "Only Richter has seen," he writes, "that this [i.e., that "Rather than saving moral philosophy, an exclusive focus on use makes it impossible"] is where the Diamond-Mulhall-Richter-Hertzberg-Conant argument may lead us, and he has accepted that consequence. Unfortunately, he attributes it also to Wittgenstein" (p. 88). The evidence that I do this is my saying that "Wittgenstein was right to believe that there is no special arena that could be the subject of moral philosophy or ethics" (in "Nothing to be Said," p. 254). I do think that there is no such special arena, and that Wittgenstein thought so too, but I don't think either that moral philosophy is impossible or that an exclusive focus on use makes it so. I'll say more about this below.

The other point on which I am (said to be) alone is in going from saying that ethics "is not a subject nor a particular sphere or aspect of life" to saying that "Everything is to do with ethics" ("Nothing to be Said," p. 251). This goes against Stephen Mulhall's worry that what we count as ethical could, but should not, "become capacious to the point of emptiness" ("Ethics in the Light of Wittgenstein," p. 303). This looks bad for me, I agree, and perhaps I should never have said that everything is to do with ethics (although "to do with" is pretty vague, and perhaps I can hide in that cloudiness). But in the same paper I also say that:
It is not that just anything can be given a moral application, rather that there is no limit to the ways in which moral thought might be expressed. (p. 253)
It would be a mistake to claim that just anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives. (p. 253 as well) 
It would be a mistake, I say, not because it would be false but because it would a) be an a priori claim that one cannot really be in a position to make, and b) to make such a claim is to invite counterexamples, i.e. trouble, needlessly.

So why did I say that everything is to do with ethics? Well, I also said that this was "only a manner of speaking" (p. 251). Things I say later in the paper, including what I've quoted here, are meant to clarify what I meant.

If I have wriggled off that hook, what about the things I've said above about moral philosophy? I imply both that moral philosophy is possible and that Wittgenstein rightly thinks there is no such subject. Can I explain myself? What I think is (something like) this. Moral philosophy is certainly possible in a negative sense: we can analyze and criticize the work of moral philosophers. Wittgenstein himself did this, although I don't know whether he would have called it philosophy. We can also think about such questions as whether we ought to recognize same-sex marriages or eat meat. I count that as moral philosophy, while Wittgenstein did not seem to think that this kind of thing is really philosophy of any kind. I don't think, though, that we can work out, or prove, in some quasi-mathematical or scientific way what we ought to do. Ethics can be no science. 


  1. Sorry, I just posted something which for some reason came through in a butchered way. I will try to re-post here:

    "We can also think about such questions as whether we ought to recognize same-sex marriages or eat meat. I count that as moral philosophy, while Wittgenstein did not seem to think that this kind of thing is really philosophy of any kind. I don't think, though, that we can work out, or prove, in some quasi-mathematical or scientific way what we ought to do. Ethics can be no science.

    Isn't there a difference between moral philosophy (philosophical inquiry into the whys and hows of moral judgment formation) and moralizing which is the actual activity of forming and debating such judgments (the propriety of same-sex marriage, whether to eat meat, etc.)? If so then wouldn't we want to say that Wittgenstein had a point when dismissing the role of philosophers in arguing for or against our morally relevant choices?

    More, to the extent Wittgenstein's sole foray into ethics consisted of doing no more than he did in the Lecture on Ethics, can we say anything was added to the philosophical conversation about morals per se? After all, if moral deliberation is about finding and supporting reasons to behave in certain ways rather than others, how can thinking about feeling "absolutely safe" affect the outcome? Wittgenstein seemed to have in mind some kind of spiritual-aesthetic experience here as underlying our moral claims and choices. And yet such attitudes do not provide us or those with whom we interact with reasons to make such choices. So in that sense, Wittgenstein does seem to have absented himself from the moral conversation in terms of philosophy if not in his everyday life.

    The notion that there is no special subject matter of ethics or moral thought strikes me as strange since the whole point of moral discourse seems to be about making choices and finding reasons to do so. In that, wasn't Wittgenstein AWOL at the least? If in his later philosophy he was more concerned with the implications of how we spoke about things in all philosophically relevant cases, and offered no particular insights on moral thought per se, doesn't that mean that he was absenting himself from the metaethical discussion even while remaining firmly embedded in the language games we associate with moral decision making? He was, after all, deeply concerned with finding the right way to live.

    Apparently though he thought that to be something we must do outside the realm of philosophy and isn't that right? We don't have to be philosophers to make moral choices nor does being one give us a leg up on such decision making.

    Yet, it seems to me, Wittgenstein left the metaethical arena too soon. There is, I think, much to be said as many philosophers in the late twentieth century right up to our own time have shown.

    1. Standardly, ethics or moral philosophy is divided into applied ethics (is abortion ever OK?, should we legalize euthanasia?, etc.), normative theory (is utilitarianism a good theory?, etc.), and meta-ethics (what does 'good' mean?, etc.). Wittgenstein did say something about the last of these, especially, but not only, in the Lecture on Ethics. I think this is the only kind of moral philosophy that he would have counted as philosophy. I'm happy to count them all as philosophy, and if that means that everyone is a philosopher some of the time, that's fine with me. We don't have to be philosophers to make moral choices, but anyone who sincerely tries to decide rationally what they ought to do is being a philosopher. Or so I'm inclined to say.

  2. Are there not two ways to take Wittgenstein on ethics? The first, in keeping with the argument advanced by Martin Stokhof, would be to take him literally in the Tractatus and the Lecture as saying ethics is transcendental, that it is about something beyond all words, a way of being in the world, of seeing the world, and that this is characterized in the Lecture as feeling "absolutely safe," of being, in a sense, outside the petty concerns of worldliness (where "myself" matters and that informs all my actions).

    The second may come close to your point, that, because he does not address ethical matters in the later works, he leaves ethics out of philosophy just because it is not a separate realm of inquiry in any philosophical sense at all and is thus fit neither for philosophic speculation as a spiritual matter (because, of course, nothing is), or because, as I think you want to put it, ethics has no uniquely delineated realm of its own. Yet he never says anything like that.

    In this latter way one can move from holding that there is no subject matter of ethics because it transcends our ability to talk about it (in the Tractarian way) to a view that there is no specific domain to talk about, i.e., that it is everywhere and so nowhere.

    But is that a fair account of the later view in the PI? While he does reject much of his earlier thinking in favor of an exploration of language as practice (or, better, practices), he doesn't address what might be called our ethical practices in any explicit way.

    By implication we may be justified in taking his pragmatic account of language in the later work as extending to ethical usages, too, since it's hard to take him in the later work as, in any way embracing an account that renders anything "transcendental," even the ethical. But is that enough to justify taking him to think ethical matters have no place in philosophy because they're everywhere?

    Perhaps he just saw no clarificatory value to be had in unpacking the language games of ethics since those games are just conventional in nature, in which case his silence reflects disinterest (in a philosophical way) rather than an abandonment of the field to the unsayable.

    (Sorry for this second post but it is, I think, closer to what I was trying to say in the one I lost, which I tried, with only partial success, to reconstruct above. Feel free to ignore the one above then though I won't just remove it since it, too, makes a point I had in mind with the earlier effort.)

    1. I don't think the 'literal' interpretation is going to work, although this is a huge issue that I almost certainly don't have time to go into. Something beyond all words is something beyond all thought, which is something we cannot think, which is not something we can think about at all. Hardly even a something, in other words. Or at least not intelligible as a something.

      I think it's fairly clear that when the later Wittgenstein talks about philosophy he does not mean ethics. Mostly he's talking about metaphysics. In a debate with Popper in, I believe, 1946, Popper threw out a list of questions that he believed were both philosophical and genuine questions, as opposed to pseudo-questions. If I'm remembering right, Wittgenstein denied in each case that it was a philosophical question, identifying to what kind of question it did belong. One of the kinds was ethics.

      This suggests that he did not think of ethics as part of philosophy, but it also suggests that he did think ethics was a subject. On the other hand, it would have been beside the point in the circumstances for him to give a lecture on whether ethics is or is not a subject, so I don't think it's strong evidence that he thought there is such a subject as ethics. (I also don't mean simply to deny that ethics is a subject. But the ways in which it is and the ways in which it is not are hard to specify. I have tried to do this elsewhere, to some extent, as have others.)

    2. Thanks. I must admit to having a tough time reconciling Wittgenstein's concern to live morally (the right way) with his apparent disinterest in trying to understand what such an effort consisted of and how we could ever know what the right way is. I don't think he answered the question satisfactorily in the Tractatus or the Lectures and suspect his abandonment of discourse on the subject later in his career suggests he didn't think he had either. (Though perhaps we could also take him to have decided that he had got it right and so exhausted the subject.

      In either case, I think any attempt, such as the one he undertakes in his early years to explain ethics as transcendental must ultimately be unsatisfying (whether he recognized that or not). To the extent ethics is about deciding on the right way to do (in order to live rightly) one can't simply do it based on something transcendental which, as you say, automatically extracts the question from the world and any possible discourse about it. But if there can be nothing to discuss, to argue, to assess, then there can be no guidance concerning what to do and such guidance is precisely what the language game of ethics that we typically engage in (and which was alluded to by Alice Crary in your earlier post) assumes. If the ethical domain is driven by mindedness as a phenomenon of human life in some fashion then that is something we can and need to talk about.

  3. .. a couple of points.

    Wittgenstein divorced himself from the lecture on ethics not long after he gave it. And there is good reason in biography to grant him that clear urging.

    What Wittgenstein tended to believe was that something is what it does (methods matter most). E.g., he thought of philosophy in methodological terms: it was clarifying. Any other intellectual behavior philosophy had no monopoly over (gathering information, verifying truth, feeling sympathy, etc. etc). And so this is simply a taxonomical program wherein how you go about the work determines what the work is.

    The elephant that should become apparent in the room is what Wittgenstein thought about aesthetical judgments. Wittgenstein always equated ethics with aesthetics. He does this as early as the Tractatarian years and doesn't appear to flinch into the new thinking. What changes is that he comes to believe that the way aesthetics proceeds as an inquiry -- with connoisseurship -- is "real" or legit. After you have acquired an "eye" for something, which is a real sociological phenomenon, you then can say something judgmental, as though it has a legit truth value, ALONG WITH it merely being privately shown to you. And so what once was an unsayable outer-worldliness in the Tractatus -- an influence we see hanging around in the 1929 the Lecture on Ethics -- becomes hence (in the later thinking) the method by which ethics can be performed with demonstrable foundation.

    And so we now have a way out. Ethics has a modus (a behavior) which has foundation. This is why Wittgenstein first noticed the curious relationship that philosophy as a method had with aesthetics in 1936. It so struck him that he offered an entire course about it in 1938. Wittgenstein thought of his courses not as "subjects," but as revelation (truth). What he is saying in 1938 is that he has a new discovery on how ethics can fits in. It can only fit in as being a form of connoisseurship, because that is how aesthetics fits in.

    And so, for any so called "moral issue," if your behavior is nothing more than gathering information, doing cost-benefit analysis, showing disgust, engaging in relationship (empahty) or social shame -- this isn't ethics, strictly speaking; it is something else. It is something we already have names for. You must do connoisseurship to do ethics, strictly speaking.

    And interesting kicker is that ethics cannot have right answers, because connoisseurs are only as good as the eye they have developed. And so, it paradoxically has legit foundation without correctness. The key to his paradox is that truth becomes excellence. Ethics becomes nothing more than excellence for discernment, which is what aesthetical judgments are all about.

    I really wish people would give my book a chance.

    1. I'm sure people will. I'm less certain that everyone will come to agree. That's just not how scholars work.

  4. Dear Duncan,
    This is an interesting post. I don’t understand de Mesel’s criticism of the claim that ‘everything is to do with ethics’, as you describe it here. Why would that make ethics ‘capacious to the point of emptiness’, rather than, say, infinitely richer than we might otherwise have supposed? (Is logic also capacious to the point of emptiness? And if so, is such capaciousness therefore something we must avoid in our account of logic?) You say this looks bad for you; why would this be bad?

    1. Thanks, Ed.

      I like this more positive way of looking at the issue. The worry, I suppose, is that if I say that I work on x and insist that this subject covers everything then really I (have said that I) work on nothing in particular. There is also the fact that murder seems more ethically significant than what to eat for lunch, and saying "everything is to do with ethics" fails to capture the ways in which some things seem to have more to do with ethics, or are more ethically significant, than other things. And as far as Wittgenstein exegesis goes, he denied that just anything could be an ethical principle. So there is some reason to want to distinguish the ethical from the non-ethical. But there is also reason to question, if not deny, this distinction, and to insist that everything either is, or at least can be, ethically significant.

      I should acknowledge that I'm writing partly in response to (though not, I think, disagreement with) a paper by Anne-Marie S√łndergaard Christensen, which unfortunately is not available online. In that paper she quotes Cora Diamond ("Realism and Resolution: Reply to Warren Goldfarb and Sabina Lovibond" in the Journal of Philosophical Research, Volume XXII, 1997, pp. 75-86) referring to a tension:

      "The tension [...] is between the idea of moral discourse as a sphere of discourse, with its subject matter, and the idea that there are no limits to what may be thought of in such a way as to be morally interesting, that is, to belong to ethics. The attractive response to this tension would be to suggest that [...] both ways of thinking about ethics are present and important in what we want to pick out as ethics; something would be lost if we were to leave out either of the two modes of thought." (p. 83)

      De Mesel seems to want just the first mode of thought. The danger for people like me is thinking only in terms of the second.