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« Anscombe's "Intention" | Main | Morals and Metaphysics »

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.

Taking a leaf from Anscombe's book, Richter has argued that some things are just intrinsically right or wrong, good or bad, and, like Moore's argument about the intuited quality of the non-natural quality of goodness, Richter seems to think we know these things when we see them. He doesn't say what enables us to know such things but acknowledges that it may be the training we receive in a social setting and it may also reflect some thing or things that are intrinsically a part of human beings as a biological species. That is, the good-making qualities we see in various complex activities we can describe and think about are conceptually built into them because of the way we, as humans, are prone to think. Richter agrees that we aren't all just the same, that there are variations both culturally and even biologically (or at least there can be in principle) from human to human. But he argues that there is a general tendency on the part of most of us to share these same views about what's good (less so about what's beautiful though). With Anscombe, too, he associates having these views with having a sense (if we are sufficiently informed and thinking about this) of what is best for humans as humans, i.e., what the ancient Greek philosophers called eudaimonia or flourishing.

With the ancient Greeks, Richter (and Anscombe before him) argued that the best things to do, those we count as ethically right or good, are those which contribute to, by enabling us to achieve, eudaimonia. The bad things, the wrong things, are those which work against eudaimonia. What is eudaimonia? As the Greeks held, it will vary with human types but some of them held that there are some commonalities and that we can ascertain the best kind for humanity in general. Aristotle thought that that meant being a man of thought, a philosopher, though he acknowledged that there were many other kinds of flourishing a man might legitimately want such as living a satisfying life (though for Aristotle at least the highest type of such a life, meaning the best of the best, would be one of contemplation). The point here is that what counts as being the best sort of life is doing the best sort of things and avoiding the bad sort. For Aristotle it was a matter of habit formation. Knowing what's good and what isn't, we will, if sufficiently informed and have enough understanding, embark on practices which will reinforce the best habits and diminish or eradicate the worst ones.

Of course, all of this hinges on how we know what the right and wrong things to do are. It would never be enough to say they're those things which most accord with the best and worst ways to be (i.e., to flourish or not to flourish) since it is doing the right kinds of things and avoiding the wrong kinds that amount to flourishing or not flourishing. It thus comes back to the question of how we know what to do. Richter's answer, echoing Anscombe, is that we know what's right and wrong because we learn to discern what is intrinsically one or the other. That is, this all hinges on acceptance of the existence of intrinsic goodness.

Arguably Anscombe was heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, her teacher, and Richter, who wrote a book on Anscombe's thinking (http://www.amazon.com/Anscombes-Moral-Philosophy-Duncan-Richter/dp/0739138855), follows Anscombe in arguing that our moral claims are ultimately based on our capacity to recognize intrinsic goodness and badness in different possibilities which present themselves to us. Should we abort that baby? Anscombe rejects the possibility as "despicable", regardless of the circumstances. Anscombe argued, in essence, for a particular sensibility or set of sensibilities, hers. Richter doesn't go quite that far but still sees goodness or badness as intrinsic in some situations and actions we may undertake. He argues that things like murder are intrinsically bad. To be that, of course, we must agree that it is always bad, in every possible case, to commit a murder. Murder is defined as the deliberate killing of an innocent human being (innocent, that is, of anything warranting his or her killing). This must always be wrong, Richter thinks, and so, he feels do certain other things become wrong or right in the same way. Richter, here, is reacting to what Anscombe called "consequentialism," that sort of utilitarianism that makes the morally right thing to do whatever actions have consequences that produce more good for humans, on balance, than bad (where "good" is defined as the state of being happy).

Of course we can imagine scenarios in which murder doesn't look wrong to us, even if it is legally still murder. Perhaps killing a person who is about to kill another isn't wrong, even if we cannot prove to another's satisfaction that that is what was going to happen if we failed to act. Is it still murder? Murder is a legal term, not just a moral one. If we kill another in self defense or in defense of a prospective victim, the law wouldn't count that as murder as long as it was clear that it was self-defense or defense of a genuine innocent. But what if only we knew that our victim was going to do some heinous crime yet couldn't prove it to others?

The law would still call it murder though perhaps if the law enforcers had our knowledge they would not do so. Richter allows that there are some cases like this, in which we might say that there are extenuating circumstances and that killing an individual who is technically innocent, at the moment, while knowing he has no intention of remaining so (and that what he plans to do will be despicable in Anscombe's sense would), at least for Richter, be justified as the commission of a wrong to prevent a greater one. It would still count as murder, for him though and thus, by his definition, intrinsically wrong. But sometimes, he acknowledges, we have to do less than optimal things, even acting immorally to forestall a greater immoral act.

But this speaks directly to the notion of intrinsicness, i.e., that what is morally right or wrong is intrinsically so. And this depends on understanding goodness or badness as something a thing (a situation, an event, an action) has. That is, Richter's approach presumes that the best way we have of explaining what goodness is is to think of it as a quality or property belonging to the thing we call or think of as good. It's the same paradigm that Moore called upon when suggesting the non-naturalness of goodness in the things we call good. But those notes from Wittgenstein's lecture suggest a different tack is possible and that perhaps Anscombe, and others writing on this in Wittgenstein's wake, need to consider a different paradigm. Wittgenstein in those notes:

The question in ethics, about the goodness of an action, and in aesthetics, about the beauty of a face, is whether the characteristics of the action, the lines and colours of the face, are like the arrangement of particles: a symptom of goodness, or of beauty. Or do they constitute them?

Here, I think, is the crux: If the characteristics of things evaluated are "symptoms" of the goodness, then goodness is something other than those characteristics which cause the symptoms and we want to know what is it that makes them good. Wittgenstein rejects "arrangement" as being, itself good or beautiful. But he also seems to reject the idea that it is something separate from the features it has, a special sort of feature occurring alongside the natural ones as a property or quality of that thing.

The error he seems to be pointing at, lies in how we are prone to think of goodness as a property or quality or feature of a thing. In fact, he seems to be saying, why should we suppose goodness is in the thing we call "good" at all? Is hereness in the place we point to?

In the case of both goodness and beauty we seem to be looking for something attached, in some fashion, to the thing which we call good or beautiful. But "good" and "beautiful" operate more like "here" and "there" than they do like color words. "Here" and "there" don't denote any particular place but only a place in relation to the speaker (and his/her interlocutor). That is, they announce a relation between some place and some speaker(s). Similarly, value terms like "good" and "beautiful" announce a relation between speakers and things in terms of the speaker's propensity to act with regard to those things. Calling a thing "good" is no more than to report that one believes one has (or that one's interlocutor has) a reason to do/acquire/pursue the thing. Having a reason to act is the relation-making condition just as physical location to a speaker is the relation-making condition for being here and not there.

Just as we don't deny the cognitive content of a word like "here," whose meaning is entirely relative and shifts with the moment and the speakers, so we have no reason to deny cognitive content to "good" (as expressivists in metaethical theory do), merely because it doesn't designate a property or quality in that thing we call "good," whether natural (in the Anscombian sense) or non-natural (in the Moorean sense). Instead of properties or qualities, we should be thinking in terms of the state or status of the thing. Calling it "good" is just to report a relation of reasonableness in selecting it (though the reasons will vary depending on the type of thing and its features and our reactions to those features).

But, if we aren't to look for some property or quality in the thing itself, then there is nothing that can be there intrinsically. If being good or bad is not intrinsic to the thing but entirely dependent on the contingencies of how we're made and what the target things have as features that affect us, then we don't have to say, with Richter, that murder is always wrong. Sometimes, in fact it might not be (as in the case of killing a would be murderer before he's done the intended deed), even if it continues to be wrong under the law.

Legal and moral concerns don't always precisely coincide.

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