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« A Jamesian Wittgenstein? | Main | Logic and Value »

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. On Duncan Richter's blog a while back ( http://languagegoesonholiday.blogspot.com/ ) he posted about a song in which the lyrics tell us not to treat people badly because they are, well, people . Given his view of this, Whittaker would likely say that here we have a general rule, a moral standard that is simply beyond questioning. That is, if we actually think about it, we will see that we treat such a standard as a fact . That is, we proceed as if we know it to be the case because, without it, our moral system begins to unravel (even if this would not be the case in every culture, i.e., in every moral system -- or at least it need not be).

But here's the thing. There are people in our society who don't avoid treating people badly, just because they are people, even if they operate within the same culture that we do. If there weren't such people, then the group who wrote and performed the song would have had no reason to do that. If there was not the possibility in a society that some people would not treat others well just because they are people, then the lyrics would have no resonance, that song would be pointless. But it's not, and we recognize that it isn't which is why it seems to have appeal to us. It suggests that we can reach others by making a case, even if it is only a lyrical one, a case made through song. And sometimes, of course, it isn't just via lyrics because the song derives its potency from the fact that we do often speak this way when speaking of moral judgments with others and can often show others, through what we say, that they have reasons to alter their behavior.

An assertion that we should not treat people badly because they are people (like the assertion that we must treat the aborigines of Australia as people like ourselves in the example Whittaker, himself, gives) seems to require something more than simply a reminder that this is a foundational moral principle in our form of life for what if it isn't or doesn't seem to be to our interlocutor? How do we demonstrate that it is?

If some participants in the form of life in question don't recognize it as such a principle, then how can we show them otherwise? Through song? Poetry? Exhortation? Example? If there is no argument per se to be adduced, then there is only some form of showing, of reminding, and here we find that reasons as such run aground. The move Whittaker and Beardsmore before him are making appears to be one with the strategy Wittgenstein adopts in On Certainty. In that book Wittgenstein reminds us that certain things are simply outside the game of doubting and proving just because they serve to express certain underlying assumptions, or groups of assumptions, that we make. They act, that is, like hinges on which the doors of our knowledge swing back and forth. Remove the hinges and the doors of knowledge fall out of the doorway. The door no longer works.

The point then seems to be that such statements, whether those which express our epistemological system for collecting and assessing empirical information or those expressing the underlying standards we recognize as morally compelling, are not doubtable in the usual way, i.e., as being unreliable, absent some kind of empirically derived evidence of their truth or some bit of logical reasoning from such empirically supported claims. We don't take statements attesting to the reliability of our system of collecting knowledge to be compelling because they can be proved and have been within that system, but because they underlie the kinds of statements that do rely on evidence of this sort. Such statements need no proof because they are, themselves, the basis of the proofs we give ourselves. If someone were to doubt their truth, the whole game in which our empirical knowledge claims are offered collapses and so, too, Whittaker and Beardsmore seem to be suggesting, does the moral game we play as part of our participation in our form of life.

That is, Whittaker suggests the same thing would happen in the moral case as occurs if we admit the possibility of doubting statements which provide the foundation for our empirical beliefs. If someone once starts to disregard certain moral hinge statements in the moral game, that game, too, collapses. We would no longer b e able to speak on moral terms with others and, if we tried, we would find ourselves outside the moral framework entirely, engaging in a place where moral considerations no longer matter. But are the two cases (that of empirical claims and that of moral claims) sufficiently analogous in this way?

If someone were to doubt that the world of his experiences was real, or that there really was an external world in which he stands, or, perhaps on a somewhat less foundational level, that the planet Earth is round, because he, himself, had no direct empirical proof of that, and absent such proof, how can he believe it, we'd surely think him mad. No serious thinker really doubts such things, even if some express philosophically skeptical views sometimes -- though, perhaps, there are some lunatics in some institutions somewhere who might fit this bill. But the violator of a moral standard is not counted mad per se (though he may, in fact, be in some cases) just because he questions some seemingly foundational moral belief. It's not quite the same thing as supposing one doubts the truth of the world one experiences, after all.

Such a doubter, who violates moral rules, because he does not recognize their governing role, is generally counted as worthy of condemnation, not institutionalization (even though we do recognize that certain kinds of psychological pathologies may have an organic basis or otherwise warrant their bearers' removal from society and treatment; in such cases, the actions we institutionalize these people for are still considered not just to be a problem for others but wrong). We expect those we think have acted in morally criticizable ways to come round if supplied with claims we take to be good reasons for doing so and blame them when they don't. If we didn't because we thought we couldn't, the moral game could not work.

That is, we are always in a position to judge the value of another's behavior, or our own, whatever standards we settle on. We look at people like the Islamic State terrorists and think them morally reprehensible for beheading their captives, burning some alive and enslaving others. Such actions go against the standards we suppose to be morally sound (even if they represent standards mankind, in general, once accepted). Individuals acting this way in our society would be isolated either by imprisonment or institutionalization because their behaviors violate our norms. Such behavior is not how we do things in our society and how we do things reflects the standards we acknowledge and embrace. But that's not so with the Islamic State terrorists. If, in fact, the standards violated are only society-specific, then on what basis can we condemn their actions at all?

Yet for Whittaker and Beardsmore and, if they are right, for the later Wittgenstein (whether he acknowledged it or not) that must be how it is. We may certainly still oppose those who behead, burn and enslave others, and even assert moral claims of condemnation about what they've done, from our societal vantage point. But, in the end, we must recognize that their moral claims are no more unsound than the claims we make that condemn them. If the moral game is merely about which ultimately unassailable standards each side acknowledges, then moral claims can be no more than a veneer we use to fool others and, sometimes, ourselves. But once we think this way, the standards we acknowledge lose their power as standards and the whole moral game collapses. That is, for moral claims to do their work, we must believe them. But deciding to believe them just because we want to, because we happen to think that the work we want them to do should be done, is itself no reason to think so. If that work really should be done, then there must be still another standard which makes that case, which tells us so. That is, moral claims stand on other moral claims and this even applies to the claims which express the standards we take to underlie our particular moral claims in actual cases.

We may see this as like the case where the game of empirical knowledge gathering similarly collapses if once we lose our commitment to the underlying rules of that game, the prevention of such a collapse then providing us both a theoretical and practical reason not to lose such commitment. But the problem in the moral case is somewhat different. The knowledge gathering and assessing game which we call "empirical" cannot collapse if we are to go on (as Wittgenstein might have put it), but the particular behavioral game in which humans live and work with one another, and which constitutes any given system of moral practices they abide by, can certainly collapse without doing comparable damage to the human capacity to function in the world because so-called moral beliefs are not critical to survival in the way empirical beliefs (holding the right ones, that is) are. Every choice, even the choice to embrace diametrically opposite positions as moral standards, amounts to a moral choice, too, because it provides us with a framework within which to choose or discard our potential actions. Unlike the empirical case, where the framework is determined by our experience, in the moral case no such determination obtains. That is, we can undermine ourselves in terms of our ability to operate in the world by rejecting the basis for our empirical beliefs (by embracing, say, radical skepticism), but all a similar decision in the moral case does is put us outside one particular set of morally sound behaviors and into another.

If the things Islamic State terrorists do seem wrong to us, they don't, quite obviously, seem wrong to them. Nor is it entirely clear that their set of moral standards and beliefs are necessarily less sound than ours, even from the point of view of human success in the world. After all, Islam was remarkably successful as a belief system in the past (bursting out of Arabia to conquer several richer, more sophisticated cultures and producing, for centuries, a civilization whose accomplishments exceeded those of the West in wealth, intellectual output and the amount of land controlled). If success in the world is to be taken as the measure of a human society and its culture (including its attendant beliefs about how to behave), then even the harsher tenets of Islam, as followed by today's Islamic State adherents, cannot be written off out of hand.

If Islam hasn't been as successful as the West in recent centuries, this is still to say nothing of what might happen going forward. So unlike the issue of empirical knowledge gathering and assessment, which we generally think of as both common sense and the underlying basis for modern science, and which has certainly established itself through its successes in human history (and whose failure would, abruptly, open room for the kind of doubt that cannot now be granted in any rational way), a moral belief system is inherently different. It cannot just stand or fall on its successes if it is to be treated as the basis for acting in one way instead of another for even what seems morally wrong can succeed. A world ruled by cruelty and intolerance some time in the future must seem immoral to us now, were we to find ourselves under its domination tomorrow, or we could have no reason to oppose its formation today. Moral judgment is about human action and that is forward looking; as much about what we should do in the future as what has been done in the past.

Beardsmore and Whittaker seem to want to say that moral disputes can only occur on the level at which our standards are converted to specific choices and judgments but that we cannot then argue the standards themselves. We either share them with others or we don't. If we do, then the job in moral debate is so show others how we share them and nothing more. That is, moral discourse turns out to be nothing more than getting others to see that they really share the same foundational moral beliefs that we hold. But, if they don't, we can give no reason why they should. Yet it is precisely this failure, the inability to find and argue for particular moral standards, that fuels moral relativism which, followed logically, must undermine the notion of any kind of moral standards at all.

The notion that our moral standards are incontestable because they represent a kind of moral bedrock, driven by our culturally expressed "form of life," seems to work to a degree, even when considering moral disputes between individuals of different cultures. We can morally shift gears in such disputes, from demanding that our interlocutors realize that they really share our standards to an argument of sorts that our standards are better for empirical reasons. Better, that is, because they support the kind of life those in the other culture would really want if they only thought about it, if they could only envision themselves outside their cultural milieu. We can say something like, 'look here, can't you see that you would be ever so much better off with our standard than yours and here is why!' And then perhaps we can offer some facts about how people in our society get on better (have more good things) within our moral system vs. how they get on in theirs. But even here, in terms of the empirical facts which we take as good for us, there need be no agreement. The Islamic State terrorist may simply deny the benefits of more freedom for himself if it means more freedom for others so that some people would be free to act in ways he finds contrary to the standards he currently adheres to. Women in bikinis, say, or alcohol consumption, may just mean a bridge too far for such an individual, one he is not only not prepared to cross, but not interested in doing so. Thus arguing that more freedom in a society obliges him to grant the freedom to others besides himself and those who agree with him must simply fail to convince because of the deep divergence of competing standards in the case of the two cultures and their belief systems.

Just as it isn't always the case that pointing to some common wants and needs, and the benefits of some set of ideas in securing them, will be enough to overcome the attitudes of others from different cultures between societies, it isn't that within the same society either. Pointing out some common wants and needs, and the benefits of some set of ideas in securing them, does not assure agreement on the particular behaviors even with members of our own culture. Whether arguing with others from different cultures or with those from within our own, we often find ourselves in situations where the issue is the foundational standard itself and not just this or that implementation of it. Sometimes, whether between cultures or within them, one is called on to confront a moral skeptic or denier. And then it doesn't help to tell him or her 'this is part of OUR system' because, if he or she doesn't see it that way or admit to doing so, or understand why they should, then the moral force of our assertion collapses.

And yet we still believe it doesn't when we take a moral stand because we think a violator of a profound moral principle, particularly in the same society as the one in which we stand, remains just as culpable as a violator of some derived application. If some theft is wrong or murder is, then it's wrong because it violates some principle and we must have a reason for adhering to that principle that goes beyond simple enculturation.

There are some people who simply don't share the same fundamentally deep moral principles, even within a common form of life, and it's not enough to say of them that they're just mad. Unlike the knowledge skeptic, who is not actually a skeptic in the operational sense of that term (for no skeptic of this sort voluntarily defies the laws of gravity when the evidence of incurring physical hazard by doing so is available), both the moral skeptic and the moral violator are very much a part of our actual world for they face no such comparable hazards, no empirical feedback which obliges them to tailor their behaviors to accord with acknowledging the facts discovered by empirical means (observation or reliable argument that stands on some observations). And so we really do need to rely on moral terms, on the moral game that is, with such people, even if no one really thinks that anyone but a madman would doubt empirically descriptive claims about the world (as philosophical skeptics purport to do). There is a marked disanalogy between what we expect of our moral claims when we make them and Wittgenstein's insights about what it means to be certain of the things we believe about our world.

References (2)

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  • Source
    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. Thus, there are limits of sense to which the effort to justify our moral values can be taken; and th
  • Source
    There's no shortage of songs with an ethical or political message, of course. Action Pact's "People" comes to mind, with its attempt to argue that you shouldn't treat people badly because they are people. (I'm still not sure whether that's brilliant or stupid.)

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