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10:17AM

Is Goodness Intrinsic? How Wittgenstein Saw It

Duncan Richter, posting on his blog http://languagegoesonholiday.blogspot.com/ offered a transcription he found of some notes from Wittgenstein's lectures given at Cambridge between 1932 and 1933: http://languagegoesonholiday.blogspot.com/2015/09/wittgensteins-lectures-1932-33.html In the text in question, there are passages addressing the question of judgment, in particular how words like "good" and "beauty" work in the course of our making ethical and aesthetic judgments. As he did generally in his second period of active philosophical endeavor, Wittgenstein held words had uses which we needed to explore if we were to arrive at a clear answer to the apparently philosophical questions they seemed to present us with. In the material in question he takes up "good" and "beautiful" to consider what we mean when we use these terms and how we use them in order to say something useful about ethical and aesthetic judgment formation.

This struck me as particularly interesting because Duncan Richter has often indicated that he thinks the best answer we can come up with in explaining our moral judgments is something along the lines of what Elizabeth Anscombe proposed, i.e., that such judgments must be understood in natural terms (contra Moore who challenged the notion that goodness is a natural quality of things along the lines of colors and such and concluded that if the quality of goodness was not natural then it must be "non-natural"). Anscombe rejected Moore's proposal, not least because he could give no account of what sort of thing a "non-natural" quality might be. Instead, Anscombe led a move back to naturalism in the sense of asserting that goodness IS a natural quality of things because it occurs in a perfectly natural way in the world. Following the ancient Greeks, Anscombe sought to align the notion of goodness with its particulars (something Wittgenstein moved toward as well when he rejected words like "good" and "beautiful" as being overly general and so rarely used in actual cases).

For Anscombe good things are things we just know by dint of the kinds of creatures we are, though the kinds of things we generally associate with ethics are considerably more complex than the colors we see with our eyes. Anscombe found her paradigm in denouncing some things as just bad, just because they are in themselves. We know, she thought, that killing innocents is just bad as are things like torture and cruelty. Abortion and dropping bombs on civilians (especially atom bombs!) fall into this kind of category she argued. It is, on this view, often easier to say what's just wrong because it offends any normal human being's sensibility than it is to say what's clearly right. Still, she urged this paradigm upon us as the best way to understand the mechanics of ethical consideration. . . .

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8:10AM

Morals and Metaphysics

It took me much longer than I'd expected but I just finished The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas this weekend. Jonas was a student of Heidegger who broke with his teacher over Heidegger's embrace of Nazism though the biographical material in the book suggests he later forgave the older man and did continue to take Heidegger seriously as a thinker. Jonas was Jewish so it's not entirely surprising that he would have had some issues here. He apparently left Germany some time after the rise of Hitler and fought with the Jewish Brigade under British leadership out of Palestine during World War II. He later fought for Israeli independence in 1947-48 and then, in the fifties, emigrated to the United States where he settled in to teach and do philosophy, most prominently at the New School for Social Research. As his educational background suggests, he was drawn to phenomenology and existentialism and this book reflects that.

I picked it up some years ago out of an interest both in existentialism and moral philosophy since the blurb on the book's back cover suggests it's an ethical inquiry of a sort. However, I never got into it until quite recently when I picked it up again in order to learn about and consider another philosophical tradition's approach to Ethics. But I fear the book was a little disappointing. It consists of a series of essays Jonas wrote in the 1950s and early sixties and the first half of the volume is actually quite good. The problem is that the second part fails to sustain the quality of insight and reasoning of the first.

In the first part, Jonas offers insightful analyses of the nature of life and its relation to non-life in the universe, some of his ideas, such as the notion that life is not merely a serendipitous occurrence in a non-living universe but a natural occurrence, being particularly suggestive. While life did not have to arise, Jonas points out, under certain conditions it is the natural next step in the process that is matter he argues. And as life goes so goes mind, for mind -- or consciousness, sentience, awareness -- he seats firmly in the continuum of life. Given this, he proposes that the level of sentience we attain, i.e., the condition of cognitive functioning, of intelligence, must be seen to naturally arise from the sentient itself. None of this is entirely new but Jonas offers some interesting ways of understanding this phenomenon of life in a universe of non-life. Where is the ethical in all this though, for sentient beings which also have sapience* may be quite inured to ethical concerns?

This brings us to the essays in the second half of the book which are somewhat less satisfying. After a series of essays addressing the role of life within non-life and the levels of life itself and man's special capacities as grounded in the living modality in which he stands, Jonas ends the first section with a transitional essay he entitles "From Philosophy of the Organism to the Philosophy of Man." That piece ends with a refocusing on the thought systems of human beings as part of human history. . .

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3:47PM

Right and wrong in the light of modern approaches to morality; has the Christian perspective anything to offer?

In the first part of the essay I consider whether reason is all we need to work out our moral standards. Many feel that Christianity has inhibited moral development rather than enhanced it; criticisms of the church and how scriptures are used to frighten people into moral compliance abound in the media. There is a feeling that the church does not recognise the moral sensibilities that all societies exhibit and we have reached a point where we no longer need any kind of religion to guide us.

The second part takes a closer look at morality in a world where there is no perceived proof of a God, where we have a naturalistic explanation of the origin of our species, and where philosophers have begun to deconstruct some old ideas which remain in our thinking but are now out-dated. The modern idea that morality and meaning is only a function of human relationships is explored.

There is no assertion that Christians have any kind of moral superiority over others so as to coerce or intimidate people into behaving in preferred ways. Such methods are diametrically opposite to Christ’s view of how to influence others. Rather the idea is that we should consider Christ’s teaching about morality in a reflective, rational and humble fashion. In that context, the purpose of this essay is for Christians to realise that there is no cause for their beliefs to be consigned to intellectual antiquity. . . .

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4:33PM

Dewey Does Ethics

Updated on July 8, 2015 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

As noted earlier, I've recently become interested in American Pragmatism as a serious school of philosophy. After having given it exceedingly short shrift in my college days and ignored it for some 40 years I was recently awakened to its possibilities after reading Robert Brandom's account of its role in his Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas and listening to him connect pragmatism to the English analytical tradition in Anglo-American philosophy in a presentation he made at Cambridge a while back which is available in full on YouTube. Most recently an old professor of mine, Haim Marantz, sent me a paper he'd written on John Dewey to read and offer some feedback on. Until then I hadn't thought much of Dewey though I'd only read a little of him as an undergrad. But the Marantz paper offered a picture of the man which struck a chord in my own thinking.

Heretofore, I had largely equated pragmatism with William James and, indeed, I'd recently completed reading James' Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth (available in a single volume with an introduction by A.J. Ayer asserting that James' pragmatism was very much in line with the English empiricists and, indeed, the logical positivists and other analytic schools). Surprisingly, James in those books repeatedly alludes to Dewey and the importance of his work, indeed suggesting that John Dewey was a better expositor of Pragmatism than he was. James, of course, is considered the most influential and best articulator of pragmatism among the three founding fathers of that school (C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey). So I was naturally further intrigued by his allusions and deference to Dewey. I ended up getting hold of what I found billed as one of Dewey's most definitive works of philosophy, the one that best summarized his views on philosophy and its various concerns: Reconstruction in Philosophy. The book consists of a series of lectures by Dewey, some of which are quite good (especially the first, I thought) and some only middling because they are somewhat repetitive and sometimes fuzzy in their explication. Still, it's a worthwhile book, even if it's only a bit more than 120 pages. If one can bear with Dewey's penchant for repetition and sometimes difficult constructions, it's a valuable work indeed.

I won't attempt to explicate the overall picture of philosophy Dewey is at pains, in that material, to present. But his take on ethics does offer a useful antidote to some of the metaphysical excesses and conceptual confusions that bedevil so much of traditional ethical theory. Dewey starts by rejecting the idea that anything can be intrinsically good or bad, i.e., good or bad in itself. The classic distinction which divides ends from means and suggests that all value claims must involve some ultimate valuation, some end towards which everything else of value is only a means, is mistaken he thinks. He rejects entirely the idea that goodness (or badness) is fixed in this sense and suggests, instead, that what's good or bad is, as with most everything else, only that for someone and so is dependent on that individual's, that valuer's, interests for its valuational status, interests which may be variegated and without discernible limit from individual to individual. (He does not, by this, mean to suggest that human beings are not finite creatures with limited capacities and needs which such finitude suggests, of course.)

For Dewey, that which is good is so only to the extent it is good for someone and being good for someone depends on its meeting specific needs that individual has. Such needs may vary from individual to individual (there are no fixed goods in the universe in Dewey's view that exist independent of those who count them as good, no bottom line principles of action to which we must adhere). All our valuational choices, including our moral ones, will depend on who and what we are and what that entails for us in terms of actions. Goodness and badness is realized in action not contemplation or speculative theorizing, just as, for Dewey, is the case for all of knowledge. Action comes first, not thought -- for thought, on his view, occurs only within the context of acting agents. . . .

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9:29AM

The Purpose of Moral Philosophy?

I recently had a discussion with Professor Adrienne Martin of Claremont McKenna College who had argued in a recent paper (An Argument for Compassion) that the key to understanding moral argument (the basis for our moral claims) lies in recognizing that 1) it stems from having the experience of compassion (i.e., feeling and acting compassionately towards others) and that 2) the rational element (the argument for it) lies in showing others that they want compassion shown toward themselves by others and that, in wanting that, they must rationally commit to being compassionate towards others, too -- this, on the grounds, that no one can rationally expect compassion towards themselves if they don't offer it to others.

This resonates, to some extent, with Schopenhauer's argument that moral acts are grounded in our feelings with regard to others and these are of three general types:

1) self-interestedness;

2) malice towards others; or

3) compassion for others.

Schopenhauer maintained in his essay On the Basis of Morals that, because human feeling of these three sorts underpin all human action, Kant was wrong to suppose one could derive moral rules from the rules of rationality itself (the logic of reasoning) since one cannot reason oneself into particular feelings but our reason reflects the feelings we have (the motivations we want to satisfy). Instead of supposing that reason can lead us to feeling one way instead of another, Schopenhauer claimed that we are simply going to feel like acting in the right way or not and, if we have the right feelings, we will act rightly. But, for Schopenhauer (as it had been for Hume), reasoning is irrelevant except at the margins. No amount of reasoning can get us to what we typically take to be moral behavior (i.e., instances of caring about others, as evidenced through our acts, without regard to our own interests).

To get to that point one has to see the world in a certain way, to recognize its fundamental unity of all existence beneath the observable surface of things. In so doing, Schopenhauer concluded, we realize that we are all part of a common existence, not distinct entities alone but part of a single shared tapestry of being underwritten by a deeper metaphysical being which all the individual things of our experience are expressions of, a common underlying being that manifests itself in the world as multiplicity. Having come to this realization, Schopenhauer held that one's petty concerns, reflecting the multiplicity, dissolve away. Thus, one ceases to see oneself as separate, one's interests as one's own, and, instead shares in the sense of oneness with all other beings. Out of this, Schopenhauer argued, compassion naturally arises but no amount of argument, he insisted, may get us there because seeing the world in this fashion is very difficult, open only to a few, and requires far more than what is normally taken to be justified by particular arguments for or against different behaviors.

For Schopenhauer, moral argument is a charade, mostly about manipulating our fellows towards preferred behaviors. Kant, he argued, had been badly mistaken in supposing one could develop and reach sound moral conclusions (justify one's moral claims, i.e., the values we suppose to underlie moral choice in a rational way) by resort to reason alone. Only a few saintly souls in the world ever attain to the experience of compassion towards others, which Schopenhauer equated with being moral (acting fairly and justly towards others). In keeping with this Schopenhaurean insight about the place of compassion in our moral constellation of values, Adrienne M. Martin argues in her paper for what she calls

. . . the intrinsic moral value of compassion . . . without compassion, we fail to respond to the intrinsic nature and value of personhood or humanity

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8:21AM

Response to Strawson on the Impossibility of Moral Responsibility

In a 2008 paper published in Real Materialism and Other Essays by Galen Strawson (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 2008) and uploaded onto academia.edu by the author, Galen Strawson argues for the impossibility of what he terms ultimate moral responsibility. He does so based on the argument that nothing can be the cause of itself (it’s a logical impossibility for there to be uncaused phenomena, events, entities, etc.) and presents his argument in several iterations including a formal argument and a more informal one. Here is one version of his informal statement of his case:

(1) It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early experience, and it is undeniable that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise)

(2) One cannot at any later stage of life hope to accede to true moral responsibility for the way one is by trying to change the way one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience.

(3)For both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. And

(4) any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by heredity and previous experience.

(5) This may not be the whole story, for it may be that some changes in the way one is are traceable not to heredity and experience but to the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But it is absurd to suppose that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is ex hypothesi in no way responsible, can in themselves contribute in any way to one’s being truly morally responsible for how one is.

He continues:

The claim, then, is not that people cannot change the way they are. They can, in certain respects (which tend to be exaggerated by North Americans and underestimated, perhaps, by Europeans). The claim is only that people cannot be supposed to change themselves in such a way as to be or become truly or ultimately morally responsible for the way they are, and hence for their actions . . .

By adding the qualifier of “ultimately” to “responsible” he allows moral discourse to incorporate various lesser claims of responsibility. The possibilities may include feelings of responsibility even if we have no objective responsibility as well as distinctly non-moral versions of responsibility (e.g., being obliged to follow some given set of societal prescriptions for prudential reasons). But, in essence, he wants to offer an argument which denies peculiarly moral responsibility and, thus, the validity of supposing we ever really make moral choices in the way we think we do. On this view morality is illusion . . . .

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10:31AM

Truth, Belief and Moral Reasons

The point of making moral claims is to tell others and ourselves what we should or should not attempt to do. To accomplish this we produce statements about the shoulds and should nots which amount to reasons, i.e., providing our interlocutors (or ourselves) with information whose possession amounts to a source of motivation (a desire and a decision, when that becomes possible) to act. There are many sorts of reasons for acting, of course, including belief in the efficacy of the act for bringing about something we want (or which we believe we should want) or belief in the desirability (for whatever reason) of the act or object of the act, itself. Reasons stand at the heart of moral claims. And they imply a demand for justification because no reason stands alone. It's always part of a string of justifications: do this because of that, because of something else, etc. But reasons come to an end. If they did not, we would always be arguing (with others or ourselves) and never acting. At some point we must agree that something is reason enough or else the process is never ending and cannot result in action.

Sometimes we just stop the process of justifying arbitrarily. We grow tired, either explicitly or implicitly, and finally act, or desist from acting, without demand for further reasons. And many actions we take are done with no prior consideration of explicit reasons at all. We just act -- and perhaps compile and report our reasons after the fact. Actions are not dependent on reasoning to be actions although deliberating about what we should do and then doing it (or not) represents a large class of our actions as human beings. Those actions which we deliberate about, seeking for, and adducing and evaluating reasons, before acting, are the ones that are generally relevant to moral considerations. Actions performed instinctively, reflexively or mechanically (perhaps by habit or conditioning) fall outside the realm of moral consideration (except to the extent that we can address and alter our habits, conditioning and so forth). Morally relevant actions are those which we have the capacity to think about and weigh our alternatives before and during the acts themselves.

But to think about our actions in this way implies something else, namely that there is a potential for our beliefs about them to be correct or incorrect, true or false, thus worthy of our attention and action or not. . . .

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