Saturday, August 31, 2019

"Between Tradition and Criticism"

Sabina Lovibond is also (like Christensen, who writes about this idea of McDowell's) concerned with "second nature" in her contribution to Ethics in the Wake of Wittgenstein, "Between Tradition and Criticism: The 'Uncodifiability' of the Normative." She advocates accepting that philosophical investigation must be done from within linguistic practice, not "from some fantasized external standpoint" (p. 97). The language with which we start is, of course, inherited from others. But acknowledging this fact does not mean being committed to moral or political conservatism. Since such philosophy does not tell us what to do it does not tell us which language-games to accept and which to question or reject. Hence:
The naturalistic picture of our formation as rational subjects is not hostile to ideals of intellectual autonomy: it leaves room, quietistically, for just as much intellectual autonomy as there actually is in our lives. (p. 98)

Friday, August 30, 2019

"Boundless Nature"

Next up is Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen's "Boundless Nature: Virtue Ethics, Wittgenstein and Unrestricted Naturalism." Christensen argues that, while there is an affinity between the later Wittgenstein and the neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics of such people as John McDowell, Philippa Foot, and Rosalind Hursthouse, adopting a Wittgensteinian form of naturalism would change the way we approach virtues in moral philosophy.

Drawing on work by Hans Fink, Christensen distinguishes between three types of naturalism: hard, liberal, and unrestricted. Hard naturalism is the kind that might be accused of scientism or being reductive. Liberal naturalism allows for human nature, including as it is shaped by culture, to count as part of nature. Unrestricted naturalism, as the name suggests, places no limits at all on what counts as natural. On this view, "everything that is, is indeed a part of nature" (p. 64).

I won't go through Christensen's discussion of hard naturalism, or much of what she says about liberal naturalism, but it's a nice discussion, and I think it sheds light on some of the strengths and weaknesses of Harcourt's paper. Of McDowell she writes that he:
presents the relationship between nature and language as the relation between a foundation and a superstructure, but this is not how Wittgenstein describes the relation between the two, as nothing in his piecemeal investigations can be said to underlie anything else. (p. 76)
One worry that someone reading Christensen's paper might have is that 'unrestricted naturalism' or 'unrestricted naturalist ethics' sounds like a theory, and surely Wittgenstein was not in the business of putting forward theories. This worry is unfounded however. As Christensen explains: "Unrestricted naturalism is not an informative or substantive philosophical claim" (p. 78). So does it have any value? Yes:
Wittgensteinian unrestricted naturalism is a way of re-directing the work we do in virtue ethics (and in ethics generally), allowing for the piecemeal clarification of the distinctions involved here. (p. 78)
We might, for instance, pay more attention to context. And then:
There are questions of what elements in societies and our circumstances influence the virtues. Questions of how changes in the way we live are tied to changes in the virtues for which we should strive. Questions of how we should understand the differences between cases where circumstances curb the possibility of realizing flourishing through virtue, and cases where circumstances further this possibility. (p. 79)
There is still plenty for virtue ethicists to do, in other words.

According to the notes on contributors Christensen is "finishing a monograph on the relation between moral philosophy, ethical theory and moral life" (p. 276), so that's something to look forward to.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

"Moral Concepts, 'Natural Facts' and Naturalism"

The second paper in Ethics in the Wake of Wittgenstein is Edward Harcourt's "Moral Concepts, 'Natural Facts' and Naturalism: Outline of a Wittgensteinian Moral Philosophy." Harcourt aims to sketch the outlines of "an investigation of the general facts of nature that underlie our possession of distinctively moral concepts" (p. 47). Before he gets going with the sketch he brings up the question whether there are any distinctively moral concepts.

In addressing this question he first describes a possible misreading of Anscombe and then points out that it is a misreading. (I'm not sure whether this is meant simply to head off a conceivable misunderstanding or whether he has some actual misreading in mind.) He then moves on to point out that "Long stretches of ordinary speech can be ethically inflected [...] without containing any specialized vocabulary" (p. 50). To illustrate the point in connection with the distinctively moral concept of kindness he gives this nice example:
"I got on the bus, realized I'd left my bus pass at home, but she paid my fare--and I'd never set eyes on her before!" (p. 50)
Harcourt accepts what he calls the "no-demarcation claim," expressed in Stephen Mulhall's words as the view that we cannot "demarcate the legitimate subject-matter of moral philosophy by identifying certain obviously moral concepts or words, and examining the ways in which they are used" (quoted on p. 50). But, despite accepting both the no-demarcation claim and the fact that we can talk about ethics without needing a special moral vocabulary, Harcourt nevertheless asserts that there are such things as distinctively moral concepts. This is because, he says, "the subject matter of moral philosophy [includes] both distinctive concepts or words and other concepts or words" (p. 51).

On p. 57 Harcourt explains the threefold theoretical point of his discussion of the bus-pass story:
  1. it shows that Cora Diamond is right that we can imagine people whose moral teaching, appraisal, etc. consist of story-telling, without special moral words such as 'kindness' or 'virtue' 
  2. we are not such people and do have a distinctive moral vocabulary 
  3. the bus-pass episode involves a particular pattern of behavior, one that we pick out with the word 'kindness', a pattern that could occur in other episodes, which allows us to tell stories like this and say, e.g., "do likewise"
In the next, and last, three pages of the paper, Harcourt discusses some other examples. For instance, people deciding what to do might consider various options. They might prefer certain options to others because they are safer, easier, more fun, and so on. And then they might, if they haven't done so already, come up with words for safety, ease, fun, etc. And these can be understood as goods.
Thus--as with the bus-pass case, "kind", and "virtue"--we again tell a story that relates three increasing levels of sophistication in concept-use, containing, progressively "The Trojans would be furious", [one of the reasons imagined for choosing to steal Trojans' armor] the latter plus "easier" (etc.), and both the latter plus "better". The method exemplifies the Wittgensteinian method of relating problematic moral concepts to underlying facts--with the concepts getting progressively less puzzling as one relates the concept to progressively more basic concepts and (if we really try hard) to preconceptual activities. (p. 60)
This is interesting, but I have a few questions:
  • Are the concepts associated with the words 'virtue' and 'better' really more puzzling than those associated with 'kind' and 'easier'? And are the concepts associated with the buss-pass case and the stealing-from-the-Trojans case really less puzzling than those associated with the words 'kind' and 'easier'? It seems to me that what is puzzling, or more puzzling than something else, depends on the person doing the thinking (the person getting puzzled) and on how their thinking goes.
  • Is degree of puzzlingness inherent in concepts, so that the more abstract are more puzzling than the more concrete? Harcourt seems to assume that this is so, but the assumption seems unjustified.
  • Do these types of human behavior count as the kind of very general facts of nature that Wittgenstein refers to?
  • However Wittgensteinian the proposed kind of philosophy is, would it do any good? Imagine I am puzzled about the nature of virtue. Then someone tells me that it is a general term for things like kindness and courage. This is true, but will it help me? And if I am puzzled about the nature of kindness, will it help if someone tells me the bus-pass story and then says that kindness is that kind of behavior? Wittgenstein does sometimes talk as if he is advocating doing this loser-in-a-dialogue-with-Socrates kind of thing, but it isn't much like what you get in Wittgenstein's writing. And it seems very unlikely to help anyone with their puzzlement. Perhaps more, and more complicated, examples would make Harcourt's suggestion more persuasive. 
  • Harcourt comes close to saying that there is a continuity from the natural (as in human nature) and the non-moral to the moral, with moral concepts more abstract than the ideas involved in more basic reasoning. But along with very easily understandable concerns about nearness, ease, fun, and safety he includes (p. 59) awfulness, as in let's do this because it will be so awful. That--the attraction to terrible things--is part of human nature, but it seems like a strikingly different kind of feature than our natural concern with safety and comfort. Which suggests that maybe questions about such things as good and evil are not best thought of as merely more abstract, or more abstract in a particular direction, than questions about human nature. Doesn't it? Perhaps I've misunderstood what he's saying.
Here is part of what Wittgenstein says about very general facts of nature in Philosophical Investigations Part II, xii:
I am not saying: if such-and-such facts of nature were different people would have different concepts (in the sense of a hypothesis). But: if anyone believes that certain concepts are absolutely the correct ones, and that having different ones would mean not realizing something that we realize – then let him imagine certain very general facts of nature to be different from what we are used to, and the formation of concepts different from the usual ones will become intelligible to him.
At least here, Wittgenstein's reason for referring to very general facts of nature seems to be in order to explain or describe a way to help someone see that having different concepts would not necessarily mean failing to realize something that we realize. He also says that "our interest does not fall back upon [...] possible causes of the formation of concepts; we are not doing natural science; nor yet natural history – since we can also invent fictitious natural history for our purposes." This seems different from Harcourt's kind of concern, although his sketch, being only a sketch, makes it hard to be sure.

What might be a case of doing what Wittgenstein describes (in the passage quoted above) in moral philosophy? Perhaps we could do something with the idea of rights. Hume, for instance, apparently thinks that the idea of property rights only makes sense in conditions of relative scarcity (and widespread self-interest):
Why call this object MINE, when upon the seizing of it by another, I need but stretch out my hand to possess myself to what is equally valuable? Justice, in that case, being totally useless, would be an idle ceremonial, and could never possibly have place in the catalogue of virtues.
So, if Hume is right, we might think that anyone who believes the idea of individual property rights is not only useful (as Hume certainly believes it to be) but absolutely correct is mistaken, and might be helped by imagining the kind of situation that Hume describes. Perhaps Humean reflections would help us understand the nature of rights, although I see no reason to believe that properly Wittgensteinian moral philosophy would come as close to utilitarianism as Hume does. Seeing that there isn't only one set of moral concepts that people absolutely must have does not mean becoming a utilitarian or a relativist or anything else.

But back to Harcourt. His essay is interesting but perhaps not as Wittgensteinian as it might be (if what we are looking for is Wittgensteinian moral philosophy).

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

"Logical-Linguistic Method in Moral Philosophy"

The full title of Oskari Kuusela's paper in Ethics in the Wake of Wittgenstein is "Logical-Linguistic Method in Moral Philosophy: Resolving Problems From Iris Murdoch and Bernard Williams With Wittgenstein." It's good but also long, and I'm not sure I have understood all of it. Which is a reason to blog about it and try to straighten out my thoughts. A general problem for anyone trying to do Wittgensteinian ethics is avoiding the twin dangers of not being Wittgensteinian and not doing ethics, so I'll look out for that too.

Kuusela's goal in the paper is to show how a Wittgensteinian approach to moral philosophy can avoid the problems that Iris Murdoch and Bernard Williams identify in much analytic work in ethics, while also showing explicitly and in detail how moral philosophy can be done without becoming merely empirical. The problems that Murdoch points out are:
  1. narrowness
  2. ahistoricity
  3. imposing a false unity on morality
  4. pretending to be neutral while failing to be so     
The complaint about narrowness has to do with the concepts that philosophers look at when they bring the methods of linguistic analysis to moral philosophy. If we assume a Kantian view of ethics, for instance, then we might focus on notions of duty and obligation. If we are consequentialists then we might focus on the idea of goodness. And if we think that the only serious options in normative theory are either Kantianism or consequentialism then we might focus on all of these, but not on what Williams calls thicker concepts such as rudeness or courage. Not to mention less obviously ethical concepts that might nevertheless be used in ethical thinking. The narrowness in question is meant (I take it) to be within meta-ethics, since Murdoch is talking about people who aim to be neutral and are "anxious not to moralise" (Existentialists and Mystics, p. 74). But the distinction between meta-ethics and normative theory seems hard to maintain here. It would indeed be a mistake for a would-be neutral describer of moral language to reduce it to a single formula. This would (almost certainly) be a bad description, because it would (I believe) be oversimplified. But Kantians and utilitarians typically do believe that ethics can be reduced to a single formula. And this isn't (usually, necessarily) a result of describing language-use simplistically. If they are mistaken, their mistake is moral. (That is, Kantians don't claim that everyone is a Kantian and that their use of moral language shows this to be the case. What they claim is that everyone should be a Kantian.) So the complaint about narrowness, as I think Murdoch would accept, is partly evaluative. It more or less assumes the falseness of moral theories such as Kantianism and utilitarianism.

Something similar can be said about the ahistoricity complaint. Linguistic concepts are social and historical, so analyses of concepts that ignore differences over time or place can be regarded as faulty. Murdoch (p. 66) mentions the complaint that "as soon as you regard your moral system as a sort of fact, and not as a set of values which only exist through your own choices, your moral conduct will degenerate." This, as she notes, is a moral complaint. It is far from being a neutral fact that all philosophers must accept on pain of irrationality. If we take ourselves to be investigating concepts as used in various times and places then we had better not take an ahistorical approach. But if we are concerned with only the timeless truths of morality then we need not, and probably should not, worry about historical changes. 

Some of what goes for complaint number one also goes for number three. If we really want to describe ethical (or ethically significant) uses of language then we should certainly avoid imposing a false uniformity on these uses. But whether any alleged uniformity really is false is likely to be debatable. And moral philosophers who do not intend to do merely empirical, descriptive work are likely to be most interested in (alleged) underlying similarities. Everyone will agree that false unity should not be imposed. Not everyone will agree, though, on whether correct ethical views will contain some unity. Nor will they agree on what the nature of this unity might be. 

Similarly, pretending to be neutral while failing to be so is uncontroversially a bad thing. But is being neutral a good aim or not? Murdoch doesn't seem to think it is good. Wittgenstein recommends description (which sounds neutral) and not advancing theses, but we shouldn't jump too quickly to taking this as insistence on neutrality. His method seems more dialectical than exact neutrality, involving various points of view, not a view from nowhere. Still, there does seem to be a difference on this point between Murdoch and Wittgenstein. Murdoch says:

Kuusela, slightly differently, says that: "although we might not be able to completely avoid bringing our own moral views into philosophical accounts of morality, we ought at least to do so consciously and openly" (p. 42). He sounds a little reluctant, and I think he could be more open about it, although there is no evidence that he is trying to hide anything. (For instance, my sense is that he rejects utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Thomism, but I don't think he ever explicitly says so. Nor that he is rejecting them on moral grounds. I'll say more about this below.)

In Kuusela's view, Murdoch is right, but not as explicit as she might be about how moral philosophy should be done. She also, he thinks, does not clearly explain how what she recommends would be different from an empirical investigation such as those conducted by sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists. And if we merely describe different ethical ways of thinking and behaving then the specter of relativism looms.

I'm not sure about any of this. Murdoch wrote quite a lot of moral philosophy, so we can see from that how she thinks moral philosophers should proceed. And the passage above about pictures that half describe and half persuade sounds a lot like descriptions of what Kant and Mill do in their best known work in moral philosophy. So maybe that is the kind of thing she thinks we ought to be doing. The "half persuasion" part does not sound purely empirical, so there goes that worry. And the relativism concern seems minor given that it is presumably possible to describe different systems or cultures without judging, as the relativist does, that all are equally good. Kuusela himself notes (p. 41) that philosophers since Aristotle have been pointing this out. His solution to the problem is not wrong, so I don't mean to overdo any criticism here. But the solution is well known, and he spends little time spelling it out, which makes the problem seem rather insignificant. In other words, I'm not completely persuaded that there is much of a problem to be solved in the first place. Nevertheless, Kuusela is right that there at the very least might seem to be not just one but three potential problems here, and it is not a bad idea to try to address these concerns. My complaint, so far as I have one, is really only that I agree with Kuusela so much that his conclusions don't surprise me as much as they might some other people. That's not much of a complaint.  

The solution he proposes to the shortcomings he sees in Murdoch (and Williams) involves using models for purposes of comparison and clarification. Thus:
the Wittgensteinian method outlined makes possible the reinterpretation of [Kantian and utilitarian ethical] theories as clarificatory devices employed to explicate specific aspects of morality, but without any need to accept that either of them could by itself explain what is essential to morality. (p. 36)
I agree that theories like these can be seen as clarifying aspects, but not the whole, of how we think about ethics. Compare "'What Is Ethical Cannot Be Taught'—Moral Theories as Descriptions of Moral Grammar" byAnne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen (in Wittgenstein's Moral Thought), in which she argues, among other things, for "a conception of moral theories as descriptions of morally relevant uses of language, moral grammars". What, though, about the "need to accept that either of them [i.e., Kantianism and utilitarianism] could by itself explain what is essential to morality"? Some people, presumably, genuinely believe that utilitarianism captures the essence of (true) morality, while others think something similar about Kantianism. Probably some people think that some moral theory of this kind must be true. But I just don't know how many people really feel as though either utilitarianism or Kantianism must be true, and feel this as a dilemma in the way that free will vs. determinism, say, can feel like a dilemma. Kuusela writes (p. 37) that:

If the suggestion is that we all feel as though either utilitarianism or Kantianism must be the whole truth about ethics, but that it is hard to decide which is true because each has strong points in its favor, then this feels like a false premise. But Kuusela makes no such claim, so he can't be convicted of that. On the other hand, if he isn't saying that, then his claim seems a bit weak. There are many ethical theories to choose from, including pluralism and anti-theory, so the stalemate has gone a long way to being dissolved already. Nor do many people, I would think, feel forced to stretch a theory to do what it struggles to do. As with what he says about relativism, perhaps the problem here is simply that I agree so much with Kuusela that his claim doesn't strike me as especially new. One thing he does that is new is to provide a philosophical justification, instead of agreeing with bits of one theory and bits of another in an ad hoc way, for regarding each theory as partly right. Perhaps this is really the main point he wants to make.  

Finally, he offers some other criticisms of utilitarianism and Kantianism, e.g., "it is still a mistake to confuse a theory [...] with reality" and "it cannot be assumed that justification must always refer to either the motive or consequences" (both from p. 37). This is true. But it isn't the same kind of mistake to believe that a particular theory happens to describe reality accurately, surely. That is, one can believe in utilitarianism, say, without confusion. And while assuming that the motive alone is the only thing ever to justify an action would be a mistake, one surely could believe this. It might be bad to believe it, but it doesn't seem to have to involve the kind of confusion that Wittgenstein aims to help us with.

In short, I think that most, if not all, of what Kuusela says is right. I would like to see more about just how short the alleged shortcomings in Murdoch's and Williams' work are, about just how much we need to get into Wittgenstein's work to reach the conclusions about ethics that Kuusela reaches, and about precisely what these conclusions are and imply. But the paper is already long, and going into all that would make it even longer, by quite a bit. Which goes to show that there really is a lot to talk about here, which is what Kuusela's and De Mesel's book aims to show. So it's a successful first essay. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

You'd Be Surprised

Jonathan Rée mentions in this essay (h/t Dirk Felleman) that Wittgenstein considered a line from an Irving Berlin song as a motto for the Philosophical Investigations. The line is the title of the song: "You'd be Surprised." It's possible that Wittgenstein just liked the idea (as well as "I'll teach you differences" and "It takes many sorts to make a world"), but it also seems possible that the original context of the words mattered too. So here are some of the lyrics, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Part of first verse:
Johnny was bashful and shy;
Nobody understood why
Mary loved him
All the other girls passed him by.
Everyone wanted to know
How she could pick such a beau
With a twinkle in her eye
She made this reply
Parts of various choruses:
He's not so good in a crowd
But when you get him alone
You'd be surprised;
He's kind of scared in a mob
But when he takes you home
You'd be surprised.
He won't impress you
Right from the start
But in a week or two
You'd be surprised.
At a party or a ball
I've got to admit he's nothing at all
But in a Morris chair
You'd be surprised
Part of second verse:
Mary continued to praise
Johnny's remarkable ways
To the ladies
And you know advertising pays
Now Johnny's ne'er alone
He has the busiest phone
Almost every other day
A new girl will say

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Wittgenstein's Dictionary

This article on the dictionary that Wittgenstein wrote for elementary school children is very interesting.
His goal was to give his students a resource of word usage that they would be familiar with and which would put the responsibility for their use on their shoulders: “Only a dictionary makes it possible to hold the student completely responsible … because it furnishes him with reliable measures for finding and correcting his mistakes…. It is, however, absolutely necessary that the student corrects his compositions on his own. He should feel that he is the only author of his work and he alone should be responsible for it” (Preface, p. 15). Wittgenstein’s Wörterbuch thus served a clear purpose in his teaching method, but also points to his careful contemplation of how one becomes a member of a language-using community and the responsibility that this carries.
Apparently an English translation is on the way.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

And I pictured you singing the Silver Jews

I knew the Silver Jews existed, but mostly because of the Allo Darlin' song that mentions them. Since David Berman's death I've been reading a bit about them and I'm amazed I stayed ignorant for so long. Berman was my age, went to the University of Virginia, where I went to graduate school (we didn't overlap), and sang just the kind of literate, sad songs I like (caveat: I still haven't listened to one all the way through yet). One of their albums is named after the Natural Bridge, which is only a few miles from here, and another was recorded partly in the small town where I live. I might have passed one or members of the band on the street. Time to catch up. I might have to look into Pavement too.