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« Knowledge and Discourse | Main | Wittgenstein's Later Ethics: A Reply to Duncan Richter »

Can Value Be "Transcendental"?

Wittgenstein famously claimed in his early work that ethics (a form of valuation applied to human actions) is not in the world but outside it and thus "transcendental." He asserted this but did not explain it, likening ethics to aesthetics and, indeed, religious belief. In the same sense that these things seemed to the early Wittgenstein to be outside the realm of factual assertion (our artistic and religious inclinations are not reducible to facts about the world or things in it), so, too, did he hold that our ethical claims are a type of inclination. But that did not mean that, for him, they are to be ignored or discarded. Rather, as he told others at the time and later, he had the utmost respect for all three modes of human behavior (religion, the appreciation of art and ethics). Yet, as far as the matter of ethics may go, which is to say determining what is right or wrong to do when we deal with the world, he did not hold out hope for the use of reasoning as a means of furthering our understanding of ethical matters, either in making ethical choices or in explicating that activity.

Even though moral discourse, the linqua franca of ethics, seems to be about offering reasons to do one thing rather than another in certain situations (typically where others' interests are in play), on Wittgenstein's transcendentalist approach, there would seem to be nothing to be said. So how, then, do moral judgments make themselves felt in the world, that is without the ability to be described, explained, justified? On such a view can they be anything more than expressions of ourselves, of who we are, applied to the judgment of what others do or what we, ourselves, may do?

But expressions of our beliefs or, better, preferences in selecting a mode of behavior, can never be reasons for others to do anything if they don't share the same belief or sensibility. Nor can these serve to provide us with guidance in terms of our own future behavior, for my belief or sensibility today is what it is -- and if it is the same tomorrow then won't I express it through actions as I would today? And if it is different won't I act differently, what I feel about the matter today being irrelevant to my choices tomorrow?

The whole idea of the transcendent nature of ethical thought and choices simply removes ethics from the realm of meaningful disputation. And, if, by doing that, it elevates it to a level that is somehow beyond all questioning, to a realm in which those who know just know and those who don't don't, doesn't it remove it from the day to day experience of discourse? The individual who asserts that his or her ethics is transcendent, that is, beyond questioning via the discursive capacities by which we characterize our world, really just says "I know what's right and will do as I see fit" regardless of others' beliefs about the matter.

Such a view is no different, in the end, than the intuitionist accounts of people like G. E. Moore or the modern ethical intuitionist Michael Huemer. Asserting a transcendent nature for ethics is to remove it from the realm of discourse entirely and thus make moral assertions ('lying or stealing or murder is wrong') meaningless for the purpose of guiding behavior. In such a case there is nothing but silence to fall back on -- and doing what we take to be right. Others' views carry no weight because the transcendent ethicist already knows and does so through a faculty available to him or her in a way that is not discursively accounted for.

Transcendence, thus seen, cannot be an adequate way of characterizing moral judgment, and the discourse that attends it, not, that is, if we are to recognize and preserve the role we expect moral discourse to play in our lives. To say ethics, qua the ethical judgments we make, is beyond the scope of discourse in the sense of asserting there are no reasons to be given for doing one thing rather than another, that we just know what to do and if we don't there must be something wrong with such a person, a moral blindness perhaps, or a failure to operate within a certain framework in which ethically sound humans operate, is really to say nothing about ethics at all. Yet we cannot and, indeed, we don't divest ourselves of ethical concepts in actual life. We always play the ethical card even if it is not the same card for every player. Even the jhadi or the nazi have behavioral beliefs concerning the standards or norms by which they ought to comport themselves. Even the devil has norms. If ethics is about which norms we ought to abide by then we have to have reasons to differentiate those on offer. An ethics that is taken to be transcendent is finally bereft of any such standards since standards (having and understanding them) is about expressing and considering them.

The later Wittgenstein, of course, dropped reference to ethics as transcendent. Indeed, he more or less dropped reference in his work to ethics entirely, replacing his concern with making a place for ethics with the notion that, because we use words in many different ways, play many different "language games," ethical talk must be just one form of these. On this view, ethics has a place but it is not a single, uniform place any longer. We engage in "value" language for many different purposes and the explanation for how some human actions can be deemed to be better than others (and so better choices for the agents who may do them) is just one of those language games. And each language game will follow its own set of rules, implement its own practices which define that game. Yet here we have not gone beyond the earlier notion which transcendence implied, that in matters of the ethical, it's all rather personal. While the later Wittgenstein gave up reference to ethics as being "transcendent," he did not offer another way to deal with the very human activity of considering and evaluating different courses of action beyond a recognition that value words can be deployed for many different purposes.

Where does this leave ethics itself? It is hardly better to say that we play many different language games with value words, including identifying and recommending some behaviors over others, than to say ethical value is outside the realm of discourse entirely as the transcendent claim implies, outside the world, that is, which discourse targets via the descriptive and assertive language games we play. In both cases what is being said is only that, in regard to matters of ethical choice, there is nothing to be said.

While we can say useful things about what is to be found in our environment or more broadly in the world, and about how these occur in relation to one another, we cannot do this with the idea of the ethical, with what is deemed morally valuable, either by invoking transcendence or language games. Indeed, in the latter, the idea of "transcendence" persists, to the detriment of the moral language game as it is actually played (with its presumption of a definitive right and wrong). Moral judgments (the game in question here) are about what kinds of things in the world (and, more importantly, what kinds of things we do) have value and in what degree and of what sort and so how ought we to proceed in deciding what to do? This is, of course, to say something about something else, to assert a claim about things, whether objectives or behaviors, which do occur (and so are found) in the world.

In the end, if we are to grant credence to the moral, if we are to accept moral discourse as meaningful in human life, we must treat it as providing guidance, both for ourselves and for others, and that means we must grant it cognitive significance. Moral discourse must, on this view, tell us something of substance, something which can be true or false in a meaningful sense and not just in a personal way, for truth and falsity imply inter-subjectivity which is to say the ability to evoke agreement or disagreement between speakers. Moral discourse, like any assertive discourse, implies belief, on the part of the respective interlocutors, that something real is being asserted. But if it is nothing more than an expression of one's personal preferences, it will not be meaningful at all as a guide to action.

In the end a better account is needed than one in terms of ethical "transcendence" or participation in "language games" if ethics is to be salvaged as a meaningful part of human life. What's required is an account of the role of valuation itself in our lives, in the discourse that makes our sort of life possible. If ethics is to be salvaged in a cognitively substantive way, then valuation must be as well, for it is an ineradicable part of who and what we are and, of course, what we do. It is a part, that is, which is not limited to the valuation of human action alone, i.e., to what is called "ethics." We too often forget, in the search for a way to explain and affirm the ethical, that value is broader and more encompassing than that.

It is an integral part of our life as human beings for without it human life, as such, would not be possible. Before we can give a satisfactory account of the ethical we must first give one that explains and accounts for the valuational itself. And that means abandoning ideas which undercut the cognitive validity of such claims like supposing that ethics can only be seen as transcending the lives we all actually live.

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