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Value, Self-Interest and Moral Reasoning

In a paper available on academia.edu, Marc Champagne argues for a naturalized ethics via the idea of the "umwelt" or surrounding world which he ascribes to the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexkull, and which he filters through Ayn Rand's objective egoism. According to Champagne,

In an effort to bring substance to the right-headed suggestion that values are rooted in the biological and conform to species-specific requirements, we present a novel conception that strives to make explicit the elemental structure underlying umwelt normativity. Building and expanding on the seminal work of Ayn Rand in metaethics, we describe values as an intertwined lattice which takes a creature’s own embodied life as its ultimate standard; and endeavour to show how, from this, all subsequent valuations can in principle be determined.

In essence, he argues that the Humean notion of an is/ought dichotomy collapses once one recognizes that every living thing (being a system that's self-sustaining and so inclined to "pursue" its own survival by its very nature) exists in a world with a normative dimension. Everything in such an entity's world is subject to an attraction, repulsion or neutral charge for that entity. It's something to which the entity is either drawn or from which it flees or it is something towards which the entity is indifferent, in the background so to speak. This, he argues, is as true for plants as it is for animals though animals, of course, are differently constituted to interact with their world. For the ant, he writes, the stem of a flower is a highway to its "hunting ground," to us it's what supports a flower while to a cow it's part of its meal. Different organisms have different needs and so different means of responding to the elements of their world. This, he suggests, is Uexkull's "umwelt," the kind of world each organism exists in.

Thus, on this view, value is just the attraction/repulsion charge which any distinguished thing in the surrounding world of the organism has and this charge is always there, always a part of the world of that organism, i.e., it comes with the territory of being a living, self-sustaining system such as we and all the plants and animals of our universe are. . . .

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Logic, Value and Our Moral Claims

When we think about language, logic seems to be an intrinsic part of what we have in mind. It’s logic, after all, i.e., the rules of relations between expressions of thought as realized in language, that make any language intelligible. This seems so because, without such rules built into it, language could not do its job.

To the extent that language is about referring, either by describing or naming (i.e., using words to point out or point at things), logic (the rules by which we put our referring terms together to accomplish the foregoing in complex ways which succeed as communication) is indispensible. And so logic seems an indispensible element of any language that we recognize as a language.

Of course, language consists of more than just the complex process of asserting things about other things. It includes doing things like signaling and expressing our emotional states for the benefit of others (so they will see and react to those expressions) and it’s this aspect in our languages that we find, in various forms, in the broader animal kingdom of which we are a part. Language also includes other types of things we can do with our words such as voicing imperatives (do this, don’t do that) which seem to depend, at least in part on, our assertoric capabilities (the capacity to describe and name things). Language is plainly multi-faceted and at least one more thing we do with words, in the context of speaking a language, is to evaluate the things we make assertions about. Indeed, even the assertions themselves, when these are taken as referents (depictable elements in the world) in their own right, are subject to valuation by us.

Unlike logic, however, which we seem to take on faith, seeing little reason to trouble ourselves about justifying it as part of language, valuing appears to occupy a different niche in our thoughts about language and what we do with it . . . .

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The Problem with Properties

When we use a term like “property” in relation to things having them, we suppose we know what we mean. What we have in mind in these cases is just some feature (or features) of a thing which, along with other features, combine to make it what it is. That is, we suppose that a property is that element or aspect of a thing which possesses it – along with every other element or aspect of it which then, if all are specified in full, would convey to an interlocutor the complete picture of the object in question. The property of a thing, in this sense, is any of its parts or elements which are accessible to us via the senses, either directly or indirectly.

Synonyms for the word “property” in various contexts include words like “feature,” “quality,” “aspect,” “element,” “constituent,” “characteristic,” “part,” and so on. None of these may be precisely the same as what we mean by “property” in every case for some are more specific, or refer to physical elements of a thing only while others have a more abstract reality. The idea of a “feature,” for instance, suggests something that may belong to a thing but is not an intrinsic part of it, i.e., something temporarily connected to the thing in question. A “quality” of a thing seems to suggest an evaluative or evaluated fact about it. An “aspect” conjures the picture of a particular appearance of something, depending on the viewer’s perspective and to speak of a thing’s “characteristic” suggests something not quite physical, something more like an effect the thing has on its observer, i.e., something it’s prone to produce in observers. The word “element” suggests some basic constituent part of the thing while the term “constituents,” itself, suggests parts, albeit not necessarily basic ones (i.e., something that is non-reducible to anything more basic than itself). . . .

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A Jamesian Wittgenstein?

A former professor of mine, Haim Marantz, sent me a paper of his on Richard Rorty and another on John Dewey recently for some comments. I have never been much for American Pragmatism, not since, as an undergraduate, I read a bit of William James and John Dewey and thought them somewhat soft as thinkers. I also concluded, probably because of the way an instructor at the time presented the two, that American Pragmatism really amounted to an argument that the truth is just whatever works and that's the whole story. This just seemed superficial and wrong to me and I gravitated, instead, to what seemed the more rigorous Analytic tradition in England. Later, I discovered Wittgenstein and his approach opened things up for me in a way that made analytic philosophy seem rather limited, too. I learned, eventually, that Wittgenstein was not well read in philosophy however, although he apparently liked Schopenhauer (at least in his youth) and, at some point in his career, had read William James. That surprised me because it seemed to me that there was a huge gap between James' seemingly superficial pragmatic vision of philosophy and Wittgenstein's penetrating understanding of how language shapes and reflects the way we understand things. Yet, years later I discovered that more and more thinkers were finding in Wittgenstein a pragmatic strain linking him firmly to the work of people like James, especially in light of his almost off-hand remark about 'meaning as use' (Philosophical Investigations). This approach forms the basis for understanding semantics in pragmatic terms, an approach to meaning in language that has taken hold in later Anglo-American philosophical thought. Marantz' papers reminded me of all this and were suggestive, as well, in their treatment of Rorty and Dewey.

A number of modern thinkers, Robert Brandom among them, have argued that Wittgenstein in fact stands in a long tradition of pragmatists going back at least as far as Kant and coming up through Hegel to the classic American Pragmatists (Peirce, James and Dewey) and flowering in the efforts of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (no less!) to find a modern voice in the work of people like the American philosophers Wilfrid Sellars and Richard Rorty. Pragmatism was back -- indeed if Brandom is right, it never left us. Only some, like me, had failed to notice. A year ago I picked up a book in a used book store by William James. Two books actually in one volume: Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. This volume, with an introduction by A.J. Ayer, consolidates two sets of lectures delivered by James, the first set in Boston as the Lowell Lectures in 1906 and later at Columbia University (with some slight changes according to Ayer) in 1907. The first set was published in 1907 as Pragmatism. The text of that work forms the first part of the volume I bought, which I finally started reading just a few weeks ago. To my surprise, it contains elements which anticipate and predate Wittgenstein's influential On Certainty. In fact, some of the similarities are astounding . . .

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Moral Judgment, Factual Belief and Wittgenstein's "On Certainty"

Returning to an issue dealt with here a while back, I thought it might be helpful to recap what may be understood as a later Wittgensteinian perspective on moral valuing. John Whittaker, explicating the Wittgensteinian thinker from Swansea, R. W. Beardsmore, wrote that:

If we distinguish between Wittgenstein’s substantive moral views, expressed in his early Lecture on Ethics, and his more discriminating grammatical approach to logical issues that we find in the later works, we can say that R. W. Beardsmore tried to bring this latter way of doing philosophy to ethics. One might even say that he tried to give ethics something like a Wittgensteinian moral epistemology. That would be misleading if it were thought to imply anything like a theoretical system for making moral discoveries or resolving moral problems. But if epistemological work includes conceptual clarity about the distinctions that we commonly observe when we are making moral judgements – but which we often forget when we reflect analytically on what we are doing – then it can be said that Beardsmore brought some epistemological light to the dark subject of moral judgement. Contrary to the aspirations of many, Beardsmore tried to show that there is no such thing as an ultimate, rational ground of moral justification in ethics. Not that there are no arguments, but our arguments always rest on deep, often unspoken, moral commitments. These commitments involve our conceptions of value, and the place that they occupy in our thinking does not rest on evidentiary grounds.


If Whittaker's take on Beardsmore is right, then Beardsmore was arguing that a Wittgensteinian approach to ethics works rather like Wittgenstein's approach to knowledge in On Certainty. That is, claims about our moral standards (rather than about the moral judgments we make based on them) are not subject to debate as such because we stand upon them in making the various judgments we make. And yet it's not so easy to distinguish between a particular judgment and the standard it expresses. . . .

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Logic and Value

Some preliminary thoughts on the nature of valuation as a human activity and how that fits with the rules of logic which we find embedded within the practice of language:

Language and Thought

Language consists of various things we do with sounds and symbols. A main part of language involves the use of naming and descriptive terms (words and phrases) to stand for the things we can discern (by observation and/or thought), as well as those operators (in words or phrases) by which we can combine the naming and descriptive terms in informative ways.

Language also includes various signaling practices (exclamations, gestures, expressions employed for evocative or invocative purposes) but these are not "about" terms (referential) and so can be set aside for the moment.

The purpose of any language is to inform, that is to convey information in order to communicate with other speakers.

The methods of combination applied to naming and descriptive terms, as represented by the non-naming and descriptive operators, constitute the logic (the basic and distinct rules) of any language.

But the rules of logic are themselves used, in any given language, according to other rules of practice, which are distinctive to each particular language, and to relevant contexts, in order to generate informative statements in any given language. That is, grammatical differences mask logical similarities from language to language and even within the same language.

Unlike the rules of linguistic practice (grammar), which are, to a large extent, contingent because they are governed by historical experiences of the speaker, by habits formed and preserved, and by physical possibility, the rules of logic, although manifested through the rules of practice (grammar) in many different ways, have a universal character, i.e., they are common to all languages so that the same thoughts can generally be expressed in them in various languages.

The study of any language consists of discovering how the practical rules of that language make use of, and manifest, the logical possibilities (the range of possible combinations of naming and descriptive terms) in the given language.

The study of logic, on the other hand . . .

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Moral Judgment in the Real World

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times on Tuesday, March 10th, offers an account of moral values as those societal standards which we adopt (either implicitly or, if necessary, deliberately and consciously) in order to achieve better social outcomes (by producing more stable, productive members of that society). I'm not sure if this offers the best possible account of moral judgment, but it does seem to make some sense:

We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.
. . . The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.

This account suggests a naturalistic picture, i.e., that morally good behavior derives from recognizing what is good for human beings via the societies they live in (social goods) and acting in accord with such standards. . . .

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