Monday, April 29, 2019

Nothing to be said?

Here's a chunk from my old paper "Nothing to be Said" (pp. 253-254):

In comments starting here Reshef asks some questions and I sometimes get close to responding relevantly and then sometimes don't. After which he offers a kind of summary of what he's been trying to get at:
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.
I want here to get clearer about what I have been saying (what I said in that old paper still seems right to me) and what Reshef is saying. I say "It is not that just anything can be given a moral application" and "It would be a mistake to claim that just anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives." This certainly sounds like a denial by me that anything whatever could have a morally significant place in one's life. But that isn't what I mean. What I mean is that, although a very wide range of things (including both physical objects, ideas, and sentences) can be morally significant, as can be shown by various examples, these examples do not show that absolutely anything whatsoever could be morally significant. Perhaps it can be, but (as far as my investigation goes) that remains to be seen.

Reshef seems to be saying that someone might have an ethical view, or attitude, according to which everything one cares about is morally significant, precisely because one cares about it. And this (the thing cared about) might be anything at all.

This is a view that I find hard to get in focus, but I don't think I'm ruling it out as a possibility at all. I'm just not endorsing or adopting it.

Am I perhaps trying to do meta-ethics without ethics, and is that a tenable distinction? And what about the points made by Cora Diamond that I quoted here? Not to mention the paper by Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen that I mentioned here. There are reasons to think that I might need to change my tune and not just stick with what I wrote twenty years ago. But at the moment it still seems OK to me.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The absolutely right road

Tommi Uschanov and Reshef have a nice discussion here about what Wittgenstein might mean when he talks about the absolutely right road in the Lecture on Ethics. Tommi provides a link there to this essay by Arto Tukiainen. Tukiainen writes:
Wittgenstein himself connects ethics with logic when he compares absolute goodness to an absolutely right road that everyone chooses with logical necessity after having become aware of it (1965, 7). He qualifies this by saying that if we don't choose absolute goodness, we feel guilty. One might wonder how it is possible to feel guilty for not choosing absolute goodness if choosing it happens with logical necessity. Is it not the case that not choosing absolute goodness and feeling guilty about this excludes choosing it and being happy? So how can choosing absolute goodness happen with logical necessity? How can Wittgenstein compare absolute goodness to a road we choose with logical necessity? (p. 105)
There seems to be a mistake here. Wittgenstein says:
I said that so far as facts and propositions are concerned there is only relative value and relative good, right, etc. And let me, before I go on, illustrate this by a rather obvious example. The right road is the road which leads to an arbitrarily predetermined end and it is quite clear to us all that there is no sense in talking about the right road apart from such a predetermined goal. Now let us see what we could possibly mean by the expression, "the absolutely right road." I think it would be the road which everybody on seeing it would, with logical necessity, have to go, or be ashamed for not going. And similarly the absolute good, if it is a describable state of affairs, would be one which everybody, independent of his tastes and inclinations, would necessarily bring about or feel guilty for not bringing about. And I want to say that such a state of affairs is a chimera. No state of affairs has, in itself, what I would like to call the coercive power of an absolute judge.
I take the alleged logical necessity to be, not that one takes the absolutely right road, but that one either takes this road or feels guilty. So there is no need to wonder "how it is possible to feel guilty for not choosing absolute goodness if choosing it happens with logical necessity". Choosing it does not happen with logical necessity. (Unless I'm misreading the text.)

It's interesting that Wittgenstein says that there is no such state of affairs. How does he know? He goes on not to give evidence (unrepentant murderers, etc.) but to ask what people, including himself, who still want to talk about absolute value have in mind and mean to express. And he thinks then of cases in which he would use such language. Here he starts talking about psychology, and certain kinds of experiences, in the hope that the audience will call to mind similar experiences of their own. (This all sounds like the kind of thing he later recommends not doing in philosophy, although given his particular purpose here perhaps even his later self would be OK with it.)

When he considers these experiences the first thing he has to say is that their verbal expression is a nonsensical misuse of language. These experiences seem to people like him to have "in some sense an intrinsic, absolute value." But a few lines later he concedes that, "it is nonsense to say that they have absolute value." Shortly after that (I'm going through this too fast: one day perhaps I'll write a line-by-line exegesis) he realizes that nonsensicality is the essence of the expressions he is concerned with.

I think, then, that it's not an accident that there just happens to be no state of affairs with the power of a coercive judge. Any such state of affairs, if it did exist, would not be what is wanted. An object or person that made one do what it wanted or else feel mental pain would be evil (cf. Kant, who, however, doesn't say exactly the same thing, and this from Wittgenstein: "If I thought of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him." (Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rush Rhees, Oxford University Press, 1984, pp. 107-8)--quoted here). To see what Wittgenstein means to help you see, though, you ought to go through the twists and turns in the lecture.

One final note. The first paragraph of the lecture (there are two in all, the second being the longer) ends thus:
My third and last difficulty is one which, in fact, adheres to most lengthy philosophical lectures and it is this, that the hearer is incapable of seeing both the road he is led and the goal which it leads to. That is to say: he either thinks: "I understand all he says, but what on earth is he driving at" or else he thinks "I see what he's driving at, but how on earth is he going to get there." All I can do is again to ask you to be patient and to hope that in the end you may see both the way and where it leads to.
This, again, warns against relying on a summary of what the lecture says, but it's possible that it isn't just a coincidence that Wittgenstein uses a road metaphor here as he does in explaining what he means by "absolute value," etc.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Burrow

Anscombe was a big fan of Kafka's short story "The Burrow." Unfortunately, I don't know why. She said she didn't understand it at first, so my working hypothesis is that she came to think that she did understand it and that she liked it because of what she took its meaning to be. But what was that?

Coetzee also seems to be a fan, and has a lot to say about time in the story. (In case that link doesn't work for you, the paper is "Time, Tense and Aspect in Kafka's "The Burrow"," in MLN Vol. 96, No. 3, April 1981, pp. 556-579.) A few quotes from this paper might give some idea of what the story is about, and hence of what Anscombe might have taken it to be about:
The state in which Kafka's creature lives is one of acute anxiety (one would call it irrational anxiety if there were any reliable opposition between rational and irrational in his universe). His whole life is organized around the burrow, his defense against an attack which may come at any moment and without warning. (p. 574)
Time in "The Burrow" is discontinuous in a strictly formalizable sense. Any moment may mark the break between before and after. Time is thus at every moment a time of crisis (from Greek krino "to separate, to divide"). Life consists in an attempt to anticipate a danger which cannot be anticipated because it comes without transition, without warning. The experience of a time of crisis is colored by anxiety. The task of building the burrow itself represents a life devoted to trying to still anxiety, naturally without success; for without warning "the enemy" is in the burrow. (p. 575)
What we have in "The Burrow", rather, is a struggle--not only the representation of the struggle but the struggle itself--with time experienced as continual crisis, and experienced at a pitch of anxiety that leads to attempts to tame it with whatever means language offers. (pp. 576-577) 
I don't know whether, or why, questions about tense and time would have interested Anscombe especially (although of course they might have), but I wonder whether it's too fanciful to see a connection with some of what Father Zosima says here (from The Brothers Karamazov):

To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn into another path psychologically. Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to every one, brotherhood will not come to pass. No sort of scientific teaching, no kind of common interest, will ever teach men to share property and privileges with equal consideration for all. Every one will think his share too small and they will be always envying, complaining and attacking one another. You ask when it will come to pass; it will come to pass, but first we have to go through the period of isolation.”

“What do you mean by isolation?” I asked him.

“Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age—it has not fully developed, it has not reached its limit yet. For every one strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. All mankind in our age have split up into units, they all keep apart, each in his own groove; each one holds aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest, and he ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, ‘How strong I am now and how secure,’ and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light. And then the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens....   

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Taking Back Philosophy

My review of Bryan W. Van Norden's book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto is, for a limited time, available here. Basically, I agree with him that Western philosophy departments should either rename themselves as such (rather than as simply philosophy departments) or else teach more non-Western philosophy.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Me vs Jimmy Doyle

In his No Morality, No Self, Jimmy Doyle disagrees with me in a couple of places:

That's from p. 206. The following is note 14 from pp. 207-208:
Richter concurs: "Anscombe would agree [with Baier and, he implies, with Richter] that confusion arises precisely when the moral is confused with legal notions of duty, obligation and the rest (not when morality is coherently conceived on the, for example, divine law model)" (1995, 74; my emphasis). Richter also quotes Winch, in his unpublished paper, attributing to Anscombe the suggestion that "there is something unintelligible about a moral modality which lacks external (e.g., Christian or Aristotelian) justification" (Winch, 10, quoted in Richter 1995, 75n27; my emphasis); the clear implication is that a moral modality equipped with such a justification would be intelligible.
One quick point to make is that Winch's paper ("Professor Anscombe's Moral Philosophy") is no longer unpublished. It came out in 1997 in Commonality and Particularity in Ethics, pp. 177-196, edited by Lilli Alanen, Sara Heinämaa, and Thomas Wallgren, in the Swansea Studies in Philosophy series published by Springer. Winch revised his paper in response to criticisms by Lars Hertzberg, so it's possible (I haven't checked yet) that what I say about Winch's paper is no longer true, or is less true, of the revised, published version. 

Another quick point, in response to the second quotation, is that the emphasis, which is Doyle's, makes a difference. If Anscombe had said that, "there is something unintelligible about a moral modality which lacks external (e.g., Christian or Aristotelian) justification" then it might be that "the clear implication is that a moral modality equipped with such a justification would be intelligible." But without the emphasis couldn't one infer instead that perhaps the issue is more with modality than morality? Or that a moral modality equipped with such a justification might be intelligible (while one without it is certainly not)?   

But I should look first at the first quotation, and at the passage to which it is a footnote. Here it is, on p. 31:
As Doyle notes, Anscombe says two inconsistent things. In one place she defines a 'law conception' of ethics as requiring a divine legislator, while in another she allows for the possibility of a law conception without a divine legislator. Which should we treat as a mistake? To settle that I'll have to look in much more detail at Doyle's interpretation and what there is to be said in favor of it, although he says that he doesn't want to press the point and suggests that not much depends on it. So perhaps looking into what he says more will make no difference, but I'll have to do the looking first to know either way. 

Anyway, it seems to me now that the fact that Anscombe discusses several possible secular versions of a law conception of ethics shows pretty conclusively that she does allow for this possibility and does not mean to rule it out by definition. Another alternative, perhaps, is that she uses 'law conception' in two different ways, only one of which is defined as involving a divine lawgiver. I'll have to re-read MMP to decide how plausible that seems after further reflection.