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. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

One week in Beijing

Beijing is a huge, modern, and largely grey city, which I think could be a bit depressing, not to mention just plain difficult to navigate if you don't speak Mandarin. So I strongly recommend staying in an older, more human-scale neighborhood. To be precise, I recommend staying at the Orchid Hotel, but if that's not possible, at least try to be in that part of town. Why? It's a neighborhood, for one thing, with real, friendly people. It's also a short(-ish) walk from some of the best places to eat, drink, and shop. Your local pub is the best in Beijing. (They have one beer called Hidden General and another called Little General. One was my favorite and the other is way too bitter. Unfortunately, I don't remember which one's which.) A few yards from the pub is a literal hole in the wall place serving jianbing, so you can get dinner (to eat on the street) for under a dollar. They don't speak much/any English, but it's not too hard to get across that you want one jianbing, and they didn't rip me off.
My other favorite places to eat around this part of town are Mr Shi's dumplings (the dumplings are very good, but locals get the other, noodle dishes, which are cheaper and also good) and Private Kitchen 44. Part of the fun of going here is the walk to get there. You go through an area with lots of bars and restaurants serving almost exclusively Chinese people (hard to tell if they were tourists, but they certainly weren't Western tourists) and then walk along the side of a lake where locals fish and swim. It seems to be a popular spot for families and couples to walk, so there are plenty of people enjoying the sunset over the water, but it's not too crowded. And the restaurant itself is great (there is an English menu, but don't expect any of the staff to speak English).
If you like areas popular with the locals (or Chinese tourists, maybe), you should also visit Nanluoguxiang. It was always crowded when I went, but sometimes a bit of bustle is nice. And it's perfect if you want a cold, tea-based drink.
As far as sight-seeing goes, you either feel obliged to see the main sights, in which case you'll visit the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace, or you feel able to do what you think you'll actually enjoy most. In that case, I still recommend the Great Wall, but also temples, temples, temples. There are lots, and many are spectacular. The Lama Temple is possibly the most spectacular, and it's near the Orchid Hotel. 
If you want a book recommendation, try Midnight in Peking (although the murder it's about is pretty gruesome). Someone was doing free walking tours based on this book once a month when I went, so look out for those. The father of the murdered girl apparently got in trouble at the Lama Temple, where foreigners used to complain of being robbed and roughed up. It's more peaceful now, but you can maybe imagine how it used to be.

So here is an itinerary for you:

Day One: Explore the area around the hotel, possibly including the Confucian Temple, the Lama Temple, the Drum Tower, and the Bell Tower. If it's summer you'll want to shower, change, and rest before dinner after all this.

Day Two: Visit the Great Wall at Huanghuacheng.

Day Three: Get up early to visit the Forbidden City before all tickets for that day are gone. If you get in around 8 o'clock you'll be done by around 11, even if you are intent on seeing just about everything there. Then continue to the views and temples in Jingshan and Beihai parks (if you have the energy).

Day Four: Temple of Heaven and then more temples or shopping.

Day Five: Back to Tienanmen Square to visit the National Museum of China, possibly followed by one or both parks if you skipped them on day three.

Day Six: The Summer Palace.

Day Seven: Temples! Or, if you're leaving today, drop your bags at the airport and head out to the 798 art district. Or maybe go back to the Great Wall, this time at Mutianyu. Or check out the Qing or the Ming tombs.

Which temples? They are all good. Bear in mind that some are treated as museums, and museums are closed on Mondays. Which you go to is likely to depend on which ones are close to where you are and how much time you have. There is a useful list here

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

They tell one themselves

Here's a nice passage from Anscombe:
So far as I know, the only places where Wittgenstein considers the expression itself to be what it expresses are aesthetic. A musical phrase, a bed of violets: such things may strongly give one the impression that they tell one something. What is it that they tell one? They tell one themselves, not something else.
(from "Frege, Wittgenstein, and Platonism", p. 163 in the electronic version of From Plato to Wittgenstein: Essays by G. E. M. Anscombe).

Compare Schopenhauer's idea of all phenomenal things as embodied music (that perhaps sing or dance themselves), and Larkin's "The trees are coming into leaf/ Like something almost being said."