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.

    2. Duncan,

      I hope I’m not too late to enter the conversation.

      1. You said in your reply to Ed “as far as Wittgenstein exegesis goes, he denied that just anything could be an ethical principle.” – Can you give a reference? I’m asking partly because Wittgenstein seemed to have said something that sounds like the (or an) opposite in that conversation with Rhees where he says that Goering’s “*Right* is what we like it to be” is or expresses a “kind of ethics.”

      2.You quote yourself from that paper of yours: “It would be a mistake to claim that just anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives.” And you explain: “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.” – I’m not quite satisfied with this. You make it sound imprudent to say it. But it’s not about prudence. Even if this invites trouble, it is worth saying if true. So not needlessly. Is there a reason to think it is not true?

      3. Relatedly, in your reply to Ed, you talk about opposing tendencies to think of ethics as a domain, and as not a domain, and you say some things in favor of saying that certain things do not have much to do with ethics, and you give what to have for lunch as an example. – Here is a possible view (very crudely put) that opposes this (I’d like to hear what you think, if anything): What to have for lunch is very much ethical, if you know how to look at it. Even putting aside thoughts like: “I’ll go eat with the poor today in the local soup kitchen to make them feel welcome,” or “I’ll go eat with the outcasts,” or “I think I’ll try to avoid meat today.” The view I’m entertaining is that every little thing we do or think expresses an attitude, some attitude. It reflects what matters to us: which sock we put on first, whether we say “I’m okay,” or “I'm hanging in there” in response to someone’s “How are you?” etc. If we gave a matter any thought, this means we cared. Perhaps not a lot, but we did. And ethics is about what we care about. Even if we don’t notice that (some of) our choices reflect what we care about, they still do. And in this sense, such small matters reflect our attitude to life, even if in a very small way. (The fact is that we choose what to eat, that we care enough to put energy into it. One can imagine someone who couldn’t care less about that. This would reflect a different attitude.) So, to add to this crude view I’m entertaining, the difference between murder and what we have for lunch is not that one has something to do with ethics and the other doesn’t. Rather, the difference is that in the murder case, we already know that (and perhaps even how) our thoughts are tied to what we care about, and how they thus reflect our attitude to life (already know how to think of matter “from a religious [or ethical] point of view”); in the what-to-have-for-lunch case, we don’t notice that it reflects our attitude to life (perhaps because everyone around us has the same attitude, and because people don’t bother us about it, and we don’t get to become very reflective about it). – That is, on the view I'm entertaining, the difference you want to defend seems not to be very essential. And I wonder what your reaction will be to this view.

      I should say that I’m writing a book review on De Mesel’s book for Philosophical Investigations.

      Thanks in advance!

    3. 1. I had in mind Bouwsma's report on Wittgenstein's reaction to the suggestion that someone might claim it was there ethical principle to trample on other men's toes. It's on p.5 of Bouwsma's Wittgenstein: Conversations 1949-1951.

      2. There are things that I find it hard to imagine having moral significance, but as soon as I think of one I start to imagine some situation in which it perhaps could come to have such significance. So I don't want to say that some things just could never have moral significance. But neither do I want to assert categorically that absolutely anything could. It seems like something to decide case by case.

      3. I agree that what to eat for lunch could be morally significant. But if you're already at the vegan cafe and just deciding which of the various salads to choose then that decision doesn't seem to matter much. Even that might matter, but I think there would have to be some explanation as to why it mattered. And not everything can matter. Mattering is about standing out or being treated as special in some way. Perhaps there are things that we simply could not make sense of as being special, but even if that's not the case, not everything can be special all at the same time.

      Does that help?

    4. Thanks. It helps. But are you saying that you cannot make sense of the sort of view I formulated? Let me try again. You say: "if you're already at the vegan cafe and just deciding which of the various salads to choose then that decision doesn't seem to matter much." - But on the view I formulated, the fact that you even care about which salad to eat suggests, implies, that you care about something there--your pleasure, perhaps, or the ingredients. It reveals a certain attitude--perhaps one that is typically invisible, b/c everyone around you has the same or similar attitude, or for some other reason, but still--it is an attitude to the value of things, and in this sense a moral attitude, which is significantly different from the attitude of someone who simply doesn't care, or of someone who tosses dice to choose what to eat, or of someone who spends a lot of time choosing and asks many questions about the ingredients, etc.

      There is this (unpleasant) feature of the view: It seems that we want some of what we do to be morally innocent, so to speak. We want not to be exposed to guilt and shame. The kind of view I'm formulating refuses to allow us that. An implication of this view, I think, is that it requires us to take seriously, i.e. as of moral significance, every little thing we do. But something like this attitude does not sound foreign to W, or to the kind of thing he would aspire to. Am I wrong?

      Thanks again!

    5. I'm not sure I understand, but here goes. I was imagining someone who really didn't mind very much which salad they ordered. This isn't quite not caring at all, but it's close. If I have a sight preference for the one with artichoke does that reveal a moral attitude? Perhaps a saint would be completely indifferent in this case, so I am revealing myself not to be a saint. But I don't really know, can't really imagine, how a saint would choose lunch. (Unless they were just like everyone else in this regard.)

      I don't think I can make sense of the idea that literally every little thing we do has moral significance. Wittgenstein cared about some seemingly little things, but he surely didn't care about every little thing. It seems to me that an explanation can be given (perhaps drawing on Loos's views on ornament and crime, for instance) of why be might have cared about decorations on tea cups or wearing ties. But if you've decided to wear a plain shirt, can it matter which of your plain shirts you wear? And can everything possibly matter equally, so that there are no little things?

      Even if someone aspires to care as much as possible about as much as possible, I still don't think I can imagine them succeeding in caring equally about everything. Nor can I imagine them caring at all about some things, e.g. which sock to put on first.

  5. Suppose someone as teenager cared a lot about how they dress, and suppose that as they grow up they decide that the matter is silly. They even get annoyed with themselves for caring. They say to themselves: "This is not what is important in life; find what is really important in life, and care about that; don't waste your time and attention on such things."

    Not caring about what you eat, on the view I'm describing, can be an expression of a moral attitude--an attitude to life, to what is important in life-- as much as caring.

    So you ask: 'If I have a sight preference for the one with artichoke does that reveal a moral attitude?' - The answer would be yes: If you set aside the time and you pay attention to this, in order to tell yourself that you have a slight preference for artichoke--if this kind of things matter in your life--then this expresses a sort of attitude to what is important in life.

    The view I'm describing does not necessarily imply that we have a duty to care about everything. It does imply that whatever we care about or not care about--if it matters to us what pens we use to write or not, if it matters to us what others think of us or not, if it matters to us what we hang on our walls or not, if we care about philosophy or not, or politics, etc.--will show our moral attitude: It will reveal what we think matters, what is worth spending time thinking about, or noticing--what they are making their life about.

    Does that make sense?

    1. I'm still not sure that I understand. I agree that it is possible to care about various things, that one might spend large amounts of time thinking about politics or philosophy or fashion, and that this both reveals something about the person in question and (although you don't say this) can be judged as being good or bad to various degrees. Caring very much about how one dresses, for instance, is probably superficial (although people will disagree about how much is very much in a case like this). But every sane person cares at least a bit about how they dress--they won't leave the house with their pants on backwards, say, except in very unusual circumstances. One thing that is puzzling me is that you seem to be writing as if something either matters to you or it does not, and I want to acknowledge that things can matter a bit without mattering much. The artichoke example was meant to get at this: I might really not care very much which of two salads or sandwiches I have, but since I had type A yesterday, I slightly prefer to have type B today. This kind of thing seems so normal to me that I don't see how it could possibly be morally significant (unless, perhaps, there was some dire emergency going on). I'm not sure I would recognize as human someone who didn't have this kind of slight preference several times a day: which shirt shall I wear today?, should I grade papers now or check my email first?, shall I take the shortcut home?, I'm going to start reading a new novel, do I want to read this one first or that one?, etc., etc., etc. I can't imagine being literally indifferent about all of these things (like Buridan's ass), but I also can't see that it is morally revealing in any significant way which I choose.

      Of course it can be. If the two novels I'm choosing between are both horribly racist, say, or I'm reading a novel while my neighbor is calling for help. But most cases are not like this.

      Perhaps by 'matters' you mean (what I would express as) 'matters a lot'. Then I might agree. But I think it matters not only what we think about (pens or art or politics, etc.) but also what we think about it and how we do so. A concern with what pens one uses sounds shallow, but it also seems harmless, and perhaps some people find that it really makes a big difference to what they end up writing. In which case it wouldn't be shallow. Or take the case of what we hang on our walls. That in itself doesn't seem good or bad--what is it that the person in question wants to have on their walls (great art, sentimental pictures, something obscene, ...)?, and why (self-improvement, social conventions, to annoy guests, ...)?

      What we care about reveals, or just is, what we think matters, and this is morally significant. But I think it matters how much we care, and for what reason, in what way, as well.

    2. Caring (as in seeing something as mattering to us) is the root of all valuation (instrumental/prudential, aesthetic, truth claims and ethics) isn't it? But all valuation isn't ethical in nature.

      We should differentiate enough so we can isolate the ethical from the other types by identifying what things that we care about lead to distinctively ethical/moral judgments. This is unlikely to be resolved just by noticing that some things prompt us to care more or which do.

    3. You say: “every sane person cares at least a bit about how they dress--they won't leave the house with their pants on backwards, say, except in very unusual circumstances.” The implication, I think, you draw from this (correct me if I’m wrong) is that this can’t reveal any moral attitude. – But I’m not sure this implication is necessary. At least on the view that I’m trying to describe, it is not. The fact that I care about this reveals something—perhaps not much, but still—about what I care about: the sort of things I’m willing to, and think it’s worthwhile to, pay attention to. And it actually reveals a whole lot, I think: It reveals that I find it important not to be laughed or pointed at, it reveals that I care about keeping my job, about managing what people think of me…

      If I understand, you say part of the point your artichoke example was to show there are degrees of caring. – Is this meant to be an objection to the kind of view I’m describing? I admit that I am not entirely sure how to think about this. My sense is that it will be typical, that caring about something, even if that something is insignificant will reveal much greater issues. So, to use your example, if I want to have that sandwich because I had the other one yesterday, it means that I care about variety, possibly about maximizing pleasure, or minimizing boredom. And this would mean that I’m the kind of person who can be bored by food. In this sense, the sandwich choice is morally significant--i.e. to the extent that morality has to do with questions like what kind of person we want to be. What I’m not sure I can find is an example of caring about something insignificant that doesn’t have this kind of implications. This doesn’t mean such an example cannot be found, but I admit that my hunch is that it can’t. The reason for the hunch: the kind of view I’m describing tends to look for the ramifications of things in life. It asks this sort of question: “What kind of person would X?” And when one has this sort of question in the background of everything, no matter will seem small. (Come to think of this, this seems like a version of the ‘WWJD’ question.)

      I’m not sure, but in some of the things you say, you seem to take the view I’m describing to recommend either indifference, or the opposite: caring about anything and everything. – I don’t think about this view this way. The view I’m describing, if t recommends anything, it first recommends mindfulness about what we care about—being conscious about what we care about and what we don’t. It also recommends that we be reflective about what we care about, and that we be that in a certain way: that we allow ourselves to see the question about what sort of person we are in the background of what we do. So, someone with this view might then be indifferent to some things, but not others, and they will care about things to various degrees. And, anyway, they might also not be perfect: they might hold the view—the ideal—but not be able to stop caring about things that they themselves, on reflection, would say are unimportant. – Have I said things that contradict that? Am I contradicting myself?

      And someone with that view can also agree with you that it matters not just what we care about , but how much, for what reason, and in what ways.

    4. Stuart,
      You say, “all valuation isn’t ethical by nature.” – I disagree. I mean, this is not so on every view of what valuation is. More importantly, it is not so on the view I’m trying to describe in the discussion with Duncan. At least, on this view, the distinction between ethics and aesthetics is not a simple one in which we can say that if an evaluation is ethical it is not aesthetic, or vice versa. The fact that I like Bach more than Mozart, for example, is an aesthetics preference. But it also ethically significant in that it reveals that this kind of things matters to me, and thus reveal (to an extent) what kind of person I am.

    5. Thanks, Reshef. I think I just didn't really understand what you were getting at before. So a lot of my response was irrelevant.

      But I still wonder about some of these examples. Is the kind of person who can be bored by food a kind of person, or just a person? Is the kind of person who cares what others think of them a particular kind of person, or is that just human nature? Of course, some are more easily bored than others, and some care what other people think more than others. But doesn't there come a point when we might reasonably say that if you don't care about X at all then you aren't quite human? And then it seems that there would be a problem with caring about whether you were that kind of person or not. It would seem like a kind of insanity, not a comprehensible moral view, to care whether one was the kind of person who did X if doing X was simply human nature.

      I don't mean to insist that we take some particular view of human nature, or believe in human nature at all, for that matter. I am just still somewhat resistant to the idea that anything can be brought into a moral relation with our lives. Can whether I breathe air or not, for instance? I suppose that's a bad example precisely because it isn't optional. But then, is whether or not to be bored by some food optional?

      I don't think I want to say either that just anything can be morally significant or that not just anything can be morally significant. I don't know what couldn't be, but I'm not sure there's no limit.

    6. Reshef, how can preferring Bach to Mozart, or vice versa, have ethical significance? If I prefer jazz to Rock or muzak to Verdi, how does that translate into any sort of claim about ethics? Or an expression of something ethical? Is someone with what some might call low brow musical taste, or, perhaps, no ear for music at all, less ethical than someone not lacking in those capacities or affinities?

      I know some would argue that "ethics and aesthetics are one" but wouldn't that mean that someone from a culture used to and partial to different kinds of music (say Mongolian throat singing) would be ethically different (more or less ethical depending on the point of view), than the lover of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony? Is a passion for throat singing indicative of an ethical status in someone that differs from the status we might accord to the Beethoven lover? Can not both be honest or dishonest, cruel or kind, just or unjust? Hasn't something gone awry here when we try to explain the ethical in terms of (or, better, collapse it into) the aesthetic?

      And this still leaves other obvious forms of valuing which we engage in -- from the instrumental/prudential to determinations of truth -- out in the cold. Why should we suppose ethics and aesthetics really are one in this sense (though they may share other elements in our lives, e.g., being expressions of our wants and needs rather than assessments of objective features of the world)?

      Why not just recognize that there are differences between what we love to look at or listen to and how we treat others? And that the latter is what we call "ethics" and the former "aesthetics"? Why suppose they are about the same thing, in some sense, or matter in the same way?

  6. On further thought, maybe this is what you have in mind. Each individual thing we do, however small, matters because it all adds up to everything we do, i.e. our lives.

    If I think of this in the first person present tense it sounds ridiculously self-important, as if each action deserves to be preceded by a drum roll. "I am now.....brushing my teeth!" But it sounds much more acceptable if I think of it in terms of a sense of guilt. I can certainly imagine feeling guilty about wasting time, money, energy, etc. on something trivial or self-indulgent. And that doesn't seem vain.

    Is this closer to what you meant?

    1. Yes, this is closer.

      You suggest this reformulation to the view I’m describing: “Each individual thing we do, however small, matters because it all adds up to everything we do, i.e. our lives.” – I think this would be a sort of Aristotelian formulation, and it did not occur to me, but I don’t see anything wrong with it.

      Also, I think you are absolutely right to draw the teeth-brushing caricature. It is funny. And my hunch I that it is important that the view I’m describing will have this aspect. It is somewhat like replying by ‘going meta,’ and saying: “What kind of person asks themselves ‘what kind of person would do it?’ for anything they do?” – Which is a legitimate question. I’m not sure how to answer it.

      Anyway, if you now agree that this kind of view makes sense, does that count against your saying in that paper that “It would be a mistake to claim that just anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives”?

      (I should say, perhaps, that the view I’m been describing was not an attempt to explain or substantiate Cora’s claims about ethics not being a subject matter.)

    2. Yes, I don't see why any things couldn't be brought into a moral relation with our lives.

    3. I think I should clarify or qualify what I've said about this. When I originally wrote that, “It would be a mistake to claim that just anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives,” I believe I had in mind things (which might be physical objects or ideas, for example) that would have positive, good significance. A well made object, a carefully written book, or a tree are all examples of things that can be imagined having (or that actually have had) a significant role, of a good kind, in someone's moral life. Reshef's example, among other things, brings out how a bad thing could be important, as something one might regret wasting time on. So this allows me to add to what I had in mind before, without really contradicting the basic idea.

      Now, though, I wonder whether everything can be good or bad. Must it be possible to make sense of the idea that anything whatever might be either good or bad? I don't see why it should. So I think I still want to stick to my original idea. I don't want to assert definitively that just anything can be brought into a moral relation with our lives. In each case it seems possible to ask how it is, or might be, so brought (apologies for the archaism--I can't think how to say this in normal English) and what about that makes it moral. Perhaps there would always be an answer, but I don't see why there must be.

      Reshef brings up the idea that ethics is about what we care about, and connects this with concern with what kind of person one is. But if I start choking and care that I cannot breathe, is this ethical? Does it reveal anything at all about the kind of person I am? I can make sense of my caring in this way or that as being morally significant (I regret only that I might not be able to complete some philanthropic project, or I indulge in extreme self-pity, say), but I don't see how the mere fact that I care somewhat, in some way, about not being able to breathe reveals anything of moral significance. And if the suggestion is that someone might take it to do so, then this looks like an error rather than a genuinely possible alternative moral view to my own.

    4. And now to qualify this qualification. If the younger Wittgenstein thought it was important that he should not fear death, then found himself unable to breathe, and then thought afterwards that his having cared about this showed something important about his character, then I think I could understand this. And I think I understand the Buddhist idea that attachment is bad. So if someone cared about their attachment to this or that then I could make sense of that. And I suppose they might be attached to just about anything. But attachment is a particular phenomenon, whose moral significance has been argued for by many people. These examples still don't show that just anything can be morally important. Or so it seems to me.

  7. Stuart,

    I’m not sure I can say more than I already said: The fact that I like Bach more than Mozart is an aesthetics preference. But it also ethically significant in that it reveals that this kind of things matters to me, and thus reveals (to an extent) what kind of person I am. This is how an aesthetic preference translates into something ethical.

    You then mention Wittgenstein’s ‘ethics and aesthetic are one.’ – I think there might be a misunderstanding here: The claim I made above is not an attempt to defend or even explain what Wittgenstein is saying. I don’t think the issues are related in this way.

    1. I guess my point was just to question the ethical significance you cited.

  8. Duncan,
    I find the question you ask about human nature very interesting! – It seems to me that your expectation is that if something is part of human nature—that we need oxygen, or that we sometimes get bored, or that we care about what others think about us, etc.—then it is not a moral issue, i.e. that it can’t be brought into moral relation with our lives. – But is this necessary? I think it is not. I didn’t think of that as part of this view I’m trying to describe when I first started to describe it. But now, that I think of it, this is consistent with the view (I think). To see how such things may be morally significant, consider someone who resents the fact that they cannot fly, or that they sometime get sick, or that they need others to exist (“Hell is other people”). This could in some cases border on insanity, but something like that is very common, I think. There is a very human wish to transcend the conditions of our existence. Otherwise, all those super hero movies would not make sense. And one could also adopt a happier (in Wittgenstein’s sense), or a Buddhist, attitude towards the conditions of our human existence, and in this way bring human nature itself into moral relation with our lives. – Does that make sense?

    And also this: You are right that the examples we mentioned don't show that just anything can be morally important. But the claim I’m making is somewhat different: It is that there is room for a view in which anything can—or perhaps even, should—be morally important. So, according to this view, it might be the case that for certain things we cannot find a way to bring them into moral relation with our lives. But this, on this view, is our fault; it doesn’t show that these things cannot be brought into such relation with our lives. And perhaps even this: The fault here is serious, because failing to bring something into a moral relation with our lives, on the view I’m describing, is failing to see it as fully significant, failing to see the importance of its existence. And again, this doesn’t mean we already know how to bring everything into moral relation with our lives. On this view, it is a task (a moral task, a duty of sorts): to bring thing into such relation with our lives. So my worry is that denying that everything could be brought in to such a relation with our lives does not leave room for such a view.

  9. I need to do more to try to understand the view, or kind of view, you are describing. But in the meantime, I'll say these two things.

    I don't think I meant that if something is part of human nature then it is not a moral issue. It's more that I don't see how it could be, or that I am not at all sure that it always could be. One way would be if one said it is always bad to be unhappy about human nature, to complain about things that cannot be otherwise. But then it's the complaining or ingratitude that seems morally significant more than whatever specific feature of human nature we're talking about. I don't think I would object if someone just wanted to say that anything could in some way be involved in something morally significant.

    Secondly, what I wanted to avoid was committing to some general view about how all particular cases would be without considering each case. So allowing for the possibility of some general view is OK with me. I just don't want to assert that it's correct (or incorrect). “It would be a mistake to claim that just anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives,” was/is meant not as an ethical claim, or a rejection of any ethical claim, but as a sort of meta-ethical claim. It's directed at philosophers trying to talk generally about ethical views, including both their own and others'. (At least that what I think I have meant when I've said it before--it's possible I haven't always been consistent.) So let me try this version: It would be a mistake to say that everyone will agree that just anything can be brought into a moral relation with our lives. (This doesn't seem ideal either, but perhaps it will do for now.)

    1. You say, if I understand, that one way to make human nature a moral issue would be “if one said it is always bad to be unhappy about human nature, to complain about things that cannot be otherwise.” Then, “it's the complaining or ingratitude that is morally significant more than whatever specific feature of human nature we're talking about.” – You are considering here a possible judgment of the view—of the unhappiness—(and that’s fine). What is morally significant, you say, is the unhappiness, not the human nature to which the unhappiness is a reaction. But I’ve been doing something else: I’ve been trying to look through the eyes of the unhappy, or of the happy for that matters. Through their eyes human nature is morally significant. They are responding morally to it. The happiness/unhappiness is their response.

      What I fear, again, is that if we say that not anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives, we will deny ourselves access to these happy/unhappy points of view: to these moral reactions (also reactions to human nature). I’m not saying that the happy or the unhappy is right. I’m not so much asking this question. And I agree that not everyone will agree. I agree that not on every view of what moral thinking consists in human nature can be a moral issue. I am just worried of a kind of meta-ethics that does not leave room for views, or attitude to life (because I'm not sure we should call happiness or unhappiness “views”), in which human nature is or can become a moral issue.

    2. I'm still not completely sure I follow. Sorry. But let me try to repeat back what I think you're saying.

      Let's assume that there is such a thing as human nature and that some people respond to this or that feature of such nature. Some might be happy about it and some might be unhappy. Are you saying that this just would be a moral response, or that it might be regarded as a moral response? I can see how it might be regarded as a moral response, and I don't want to rule that out, but I don't see that it has to be counted as a moral response.

      I think that's all I wanted to say.

    3. Some people will not count it as a moral response. Hard-core utilitarians won't. For many others, it might take some time to even understand how to see it as such, and to appreciate that this is a moral response to human nature. Seeing it takes an imaginative eye, and imaginative attention. That's why utilitarians will not see it. Utilitarianism is in principle not imaginative (and that's why philosophers like Cora deny that it is even a form of moral philosophy.) If someone (imagine some Cavellian philosopher) were to say that super-hero movies as a whole are a sort of moral reaction to human nature--that they have this aspect--that would be a kind of discovery of something about those movies. (I actually tend to believe this to be the case.) It would take imagination to appreciate this discovery, but it could well be a real discovery.

      (In terms of aspect-seeing: It would a discovery of an aspect; but unlike the duck-rabbit, in which there isn't much room for talk about the right aspect, it might very well be the case that in this case the discovery revealed the right aspect. In ethics, in general, we can distinguish b/w right and wrong aspects: I can see the old landlord as vermin, and I can see her as someone's mother, or as food-for-worms, or as a someone who was once a child. - Even though all these aspects are available, only some of them are right.)

      Not all reactions to one's human nature are moral. but some are, and I want to say that when they are, this is an objective matter. So that if one is unhappy (or happy) about their human nature (and I use happy and unhappy here in the Tractarian sense), then this is, objectively, a moral response to human nature.

      Does this make sense?

    4. I think so, yes. Thanks. I just need to do some work to piece together all the things you've said about this and connect them with what I have said.