Metaphysics, Idealism and Moral Goodness
February 2, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Atman, Brahma, Dennett, Dualism, Ethics, Idealism, Indian Philosophy, Physicalism, Searle, Stuart Mirsky, Wittgenstein, metaphysics, self

A correspondent of mine, from India, has been interested in Wittgenstein for quite a while. Recently some of his comments have brought me to the realization that it is the mystical in Wittgenstein (seen in the Tractatus and, later, in the indirect way Wittgenstein attacks traditional philosophical issues in the Philosophical Investigations) that most appeals to him. Perhaps he is not entirely wrong for surely he is in good company. Nevertheless, on this he and I are not quite on the same wavelength. After reading my piece here on Anscombe's take on Wittgenstein's treatment of the mental, he sent me an e-mail which I won't reproduce here since he chose not to post it for public consumption. Nevertheless, he had some interesting things to say on how he sees Western philosophy fitting in with that of the East, particularly with traditional Indian thought. Along the way he raised some issues concerning Anscombe's moral view. After responding this morning, it occurred to me that what I had to say ought to be said by me more publicly. So without divulging my correspondent's name or his words (since doing so must be his choice not mine!) I will just reproduce my response to him here:

The point of people like Wittgenstein and Dennett (but not Searle) is to blow up the dichotomy that we think exists between mental and physical. After many years of thinking the mental is a special realm (during my Zen Buddhist days I was very much an Idealist though Idealism is not quite right for Buddhism either which denies even THAT category when you come down to the most basic level -- still Idealism held a very strong appeal to me), it took my re-acquaintance with Wittgenstein in my later years and then my exposure first to Searle, then to Dennett, to shake me of the Idealist picture which seemed to have me in its grip.

While it's true that the philosophy of Dualism in the West, an account which has many forms, depends on treating the physical and the mental as separate but, in a sense, equal, I think that is an unsatisfactory account, no matter how strong its appeal may be.

I had preferred Idealism in my youth but came to feel it, too, was unsatisfactory, though I was not able to shake it entirely until my late life re-acquaintance with these philosophical issues. Dualism is unsatisfactory because it is, on my view, incoherent, i.e., it kicks up too many conceptual problems while Idealism seems unsatisfactory because it doesn't seem finally to be how things actually work. (It could be, I grant, but, absent a positive reason to believe it is, I prefer the simpler, cleaner picture of physicalism though I don't think we can argue for physicalism any more successfully than we can for Idealism.) In the end, I accept a physically grounded picture without arguing for it or thinking we must, but grant the role and realm of the mental in a way doctrinaire physicalists decline to do. That is, I don't think we can do without the idea of a mental dimension to our existence (the recognition that we have a mental life as well as a life lived in the public realm of physical things which we share with others like ourselves). I just think we can adequately explain the mental in terms of the physical while not jettisoning it in favor of a wholly physical picture of how things are.

I think you should post your thinking on Sean's site and add to the discussion there. I suspect you will find allies (though you will probably need a thick skin because many there can be quite blunt -- still you can't get started in the world of ideas unless you test yours on others). I like what you say about the Indian perspective and think it would be a valuable addition to the discussion where too many seem stuck in the Western mire of thinking on this subject.

Wittgenstein actually developed faith fairly early in life, while he was a soldier during World War I, but struggled with how to express it and relate it to his more hard headed philosophical side throughout his mature years. In the end, one could say that he had not completely and fully reconciled his faith with his analytical way of thinking (but people like Sean would surely argue that point with me -- Sean thinks of Wittgenstein as a kind of spiritual guide, a prophet, perhaps even like a Buddha!).

I do understand what you're getting at with the idea of Brahma (and also Atman) though I am not sure those terms represent categories that are genuinely intelligible. Nevertheless, I recognize the important role they play in thinking differently about the physical reality in which we find ourselves and also that it is certainly not beyond the pale that these concepts represent a deeper reality than the one we encounter everyday in our physical lives. It's just that as of now I find it simpler and cleaner to dispense with such concepts because, to me, they complicate our picture of how things are without adding anything we cannot do without and without standing on any evidentiary ground for including such concepts in our general picture. But I'll grant that our general picture, as we have it in our everyday lives and as expressed in Western thought, could certainly be wrong.

I certainly think the point you make below, that the "physical and the mental are not two things but one" is a good and important one, although one has to be careful here of not simply falling into a simplistic Idealism which lards onto things we know a whole host of additional phenomena in which it's hard to distinguish real from imagined.

The problem, in Western philosophy, is to say and show this unity you allude to coherently since Western philosophy hinges on discourse rather than practice and subjective realization. I think it's just this problem that lies at the heart of all the debates in the West about dualism as a viable explanation for how things are.

I guess you might say of me that I prefer silence on such subjects, for want of a coherent way of talking about them.

As to Anscombe, I share some of your thinking. I have found her oddly formalistic and rigid in her ethical thinking. My own view, now more fully evolved thanks to the essays you prompted me to write, is that moral judgment is an experiential activity, i.e., it's dependent on the way we feel at the moment we encounter the problem, how it strikes us. Our responses are ad hoc in the sense of being grounded in the feelings we have when facing the situation in which a value judgment is to be made. The idea of acting by comparing our options to a set of known rules, whatever their source, strikes me as a superficial and inadequate representation of how we actually make these kinds of judgments. No set of rules can be sufficiently complete or detailed to cover all circumstances.

And we don't deliberate on all the fine points when we act in any case. If we did we probably could never come to a conclusion, never decide to act because there are always further considerations and unknowns which must be weighted in an agreed upon way. To value according to sets of rules would reduce us to arguing the details interminably because the process of reasoning every act out, before acting, not only doesn't fit with how we actually behave, it would take too long, be too clumsy as a means to deciding, etc. It's a legalistic model, driven, in Anscombe's case, by a belief in a moral law as a kind of prescribed template (though she would eschew the term "moral" in favor of "human" according to Duncan Richter who suggests that she and Philippa Foot wanted to make questions of moral goodness a matter of what is best for humans, i.e., that which realizes the agent's humanness most fully -- I actually have some sympathy for that view, but handled somewhat differently -- see below). If making the right moral choices depended on being a philosopher, precious few of us could ever hope to be moral, perhaps not even most philosophers!

My view of moral choosing comes down to the idea that, while we use "moral" for any kind of evaluation of our actions which consider actions in full (as opposed to when we just evaluate an act as a proxy for some object or objective at which it aims), the most important element that matters (in evaluating actions in full) is the intentional state which underlies and produces the actions, i.e., the state of mind of the agent which the action expresses.

That is, I would say that moral judgment is, finally, judging intentions through behavior and that intentions are only fully comprehensible as momentary snapshots of the fuller self of which every intention is an aspect or slice.

Thus judging acts in terms of their intentions (the activity of moral valuing) turns out to be the activity of judging the acting self, in toto, each time the actor acts.

I think the state of a self can be recognized as better or worse based on the degree to which it matches the kind of state intentional creatures like ourselves must be in to fully realize our own intentionality and that what we call that state is "empathy." Empathy is to put ourselves in the other's shoes.

We are intentional creatures and, to the extent we cease to act intentionally, we diminish the quality or state of being intentional in ourselves.

Now there is no law that says we must be empathetic, feel for the other, etc., not even a moral law as some sometimes think morality requires. Nor is it the case that we will be empathetic in all cases or all the time or to the same degree. But being in that state is the condition in which we realize our own intentionality most fully. So, if we want to live intentionally, which we can hardly avoid doing but can do more or less fully, then we might as well do it well.

We can, of course, reject our own intentionality just as we can reject going to school, taking a job or living up to this or that responsibility which we may happen to have. But doing so does not render us unintentional per se because it's in our nature to be intentional. It only diminishes our intentionality, compromises it, leaves it enfeebled.

The nature of what we are allows us to choose our path in these things for ourselves. If it did not, there would be no blame or praise to accrue for doing what we could choose not to do. But, once the role of empathy is understood as lying at the core of what we are as intentional creatures, rejecting it (or just weakening it) impairs the model of our own intentionality. It would be as if we wanted to play a game of chess or make a purchase at the local store or go to a concert and failed to follow through. We are always able to do that, of course, but it it leaves whatever we would do undone.

Empathy, being the condition in which we put ourselves in the other's shoes, grants the intentionality of other creatures, which are generally and roughly like ourselves, because it expresses the reciprocity that is built into being intentional.

That is, an intentional creature has an implied mental life (has subjectivity, awareness and all that that implies), such as we find in ourselves when we act. To the extent we recognize intentionality in the other, we also recognize subjectivity, i.e., that it can recognize intentionality in us because having intentionality, as we do, means it has what we have, subjective capacity. Intentionality is thus a reciprocal phenomenon. The intentional creature sees itself through other intentional creatures' eyes (though degrees of intentionality will vary with the extent of mental capacity in the particular creatures). This reciprocity relation implies the capacity for empathy.

An argument can thus be made to be empathetic based on the claim that it is implicit in being intentional, which we manifestly are, and by choosing empathy we choose to more fully realize our underlying nature as intentional creatures. Moral actions are those which are consistent with the condition of empathy, either because they reflect that state or because they represent behaviors calculated to lead to that state. To the extent we lack empathy, our intentionality will be incomplete.

But even though empathy comes along with intentionality and intentionality is in our natures, it's not a given that everyone will agree on moral claims because: 1) we don't all share empathy to the same degree; and 2) we don't all recognize its tight relationship with the kind of creatures we are. But we can argue for having empathy and fostering it in ourselves and others based on this recognition of its being an integral element in how we relate to the world.

What we human beings will agree on, I think -- when what it means to be intentional is fully analyzed -- is that empathy is essential to being fully intentional and so, if we want to be fully intentional, to fully acknowledge and accept the importance of intentionality in how we live in the world, we must also choose empathy -- and the behaviors which foster it.

This is a narrow view of morality to be sure because it excludes from the classification the wider array of behavioral dispositions we normally think of as moral (e.g., from avoiding so-called illicit behaviors, to promise-keeping, having courage, being trustworthy, demonstrating fidelity, faithfulness, etc.). But I think that the really critical question for any moral inquiry must be why and when we should ever put the interests of others ahead of our own. My aim in these essays has been to explore and say something about that aspect of moral judgment and how it works.

And that is a synopsis of the thinking which your e-mails have recently brought me to. Whether it stands up to intellectual scrutiny though is another question. For now I think it can but it has not yet faced much challenge as an argument for moral judgment and behavior. We'll see.

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