MORAL REASONING: A "Wittgensteinian" Approach
April 26, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Comparative Ethics, Duncan Richter, Moral Philosophy, R. W. Beardsmore, Stuart Mirsky, Wittgenstein, moral valuing

Over the weekend I've done a bit of searching through what's left of my books since Hurricane Sandy swept through our community and destroyed a decades old library I had built up which my wife had insisted I keep in our basement. I found a volume published in 1969 that I had once picked up in a second hand bookstore back in the late seventies/early eighties but never had time to read (or perhaps I just lost track of it). It's called Moral Reasoning by a British philosopher I hadn't heard of before named R. W. Beardsmore. I'd obviously picked it up because of my interest, even then, in moral philosophy. Perhaps I started to read it and laid it aside but I have no recollection of doing so. Must have meant to get to it but lost track of it. Anyway, I read it today and was pleasantly surprised. Beardsmore makes an attempt to give an account of moral valuing from a Wittgensteinian perspective. And it's a good try, too.

He begins by taking on the two prominent British moral philosophers of his era, R. M. Hare and Philippa Foot, maintaining that both have the matter quite wrong:

R. M. Hare developed the thesis of prescriptivism, which has certain superficial similarities with Wittgenstein's account of language as doing many things, in the wake of G. E. Moore's intuitionism. Moore had held that the good is like the color yellow, we "perceive" it, but that, unlike yellow, a natural phenomenon in the universe, the property that "good" denotes is non-natural -- although Moore never gave a successful account of what it means to be such a non-natural property. The logical positivists who followed Moore did away with the intuitionist notion and replaced it with emotivism (the idea that assertions of goodness were merely expressions of positive attitudes towards things and lacked cognitive content entirely). The subjectivist view sought to accommodate morality to emotivism by proposing that claims of goodness were just announcements of a speaker's preferences. Hare's view was meant to answer these by noting that our uses of the term good were not intended to name a feature in the world even if they looked superficially as if that was their purpose (though, Hare allowed, our uses sometimes do that, too). Assertions of goodness, Hare offered, mainly serve a commendatory function, i.e., they express our pro-attitudes toward things (and "bad" expresses our negative attitudes). But that doesn't mean they are just emotive expressions of approval without useful content.

On Hare's view, their "content" is found not in what they denote but in the role they play of expressing our beliefs about the desirability of doing this or that. Hare proposed that particular moral claims arise as conclusions supported by arguments having a syllogistic form in which the major premise is some standard we hold ('Do X in the case of Y') and the minor premise is a claim about some fact (which can be true or false), e.g., Y. Combining the standard with the factual premise, we arrive at particular moral judgment claims, as in this or that is good (to do, obtain, etc.). As Beardsmore notes, Hare's view, which partakes of a Kantian-like notion of universalizability applied to the syllogism's major premise, allows the speaker to choose his own standards for, unlike Kant, who argued that we were constrained by what abstract reason allows, Hare held that anything can be a moral standard for us so long as we are prepared to hold it for everyone in principle. Such universalized standards serve as a basis for prescriptive statements of the form "x is good" (which then amounts to saying "do or choose x"). (If we are not prepared to universalize it, however, then it would not rise, for Hare, to the level of a moral standard.)

Beardsmore argues that this isn't how moral valuing works. He says we can't just pick any old thing as a universalizable standard since some possibilities are manifestly irrelevant. Beardsmore argues, instead, that we are constrained by questions of relevance and thus do not have the luxury of choosing our standards ad hoc, i.e., in the private way proposed by Hare. We must first have standards within which to select and act, says Beardsmore, for otherwise the notion that we have a standard becomes "unintelligible". If anything can be a moral standard, he adds, then nothing stands out as particularly moral.

Philippa Foot's approach, he argues, is no better, however. While Hare argues for a syllogistic basis for understanding the logic of moral assertions of goodness (since he thinks there is no thing in the world that can uniquely answer to the name "good"), Foot, in arguing the opposite, plunks for an empirical basis for our moral judgments. That is, she takes the position that whatever is good in a moral way will be just those conditions or states of affairs that are good for human beings as such. That is, the moral good is whatever are proper human ends as recognized and acknowledged by all humans who are prepared to think the matter through. To determine just what the moral thing to do or to aim for is, on her view then, one has only to ascertain what the human goods are. Once we have discovered these, we have only to look at the world and see what actions exemplify them or can serve to bring them about. Beardsmore argues that this is a somewhat "vacuous" position since it does no more than provide us a list of "goods" which all of us can still continue to dispute under the right circumstances with no reasonable basis for supposing we can prove to another that one "good" is more good than the other and so the proper human end. (Moore initially highlighted this problem when he formulated his notion of a "naturalistic fallacy" and the open question test.) Because Foot's empirical approach cannot provide us with a reliable means to adjudicate competing claims, he points out that her solution doesn't really get to the bottom of what we mean by assertions or claims of moral goodness.

Of course, this is only a brief summary of Beardsmore's critique of these two writers. There's much more but I won't go into it here and now. Beardsmore proceeds to offer a third way by discarding certain assumptions he believes both Hare and Foot tacitly make. One such is the is/ought dichotomy which Hume famously formulated and which holds that no claim of what we ought to do can ever be derived from a factual statement alone about what is. Hare aimed to resolve the dichotomy by showing that moral talk plays a different role in the logic of our discourse and that we resolve the is/ought problem by adding a standard as the major premise to every factual claim and that conjoining the two gets us the derivation we need. Foot solves it by arguing that the meaning of "good" in every relevant case can be found in terms of some natural feature or phenomenon or state of affairs, etc., in the world (contra Moore's "naturalistic fallacy") and that once this is seen the is/ought irreducibility problem simply fades away.

Beardsmore argues instead that moral claims and beliefs are already embedded in our forms of life, which we take on from a very young age, and that, rather than our factual claims standing apart in some purely descriptive sense, the language we rely on (which is part of our form of life) comes pre-loaded with moral ammunition, i.e., learning the descriptive part of language, he proposes, is like learning the notes to a musical piece (my analogy) while the moral aspect is analogous with simultaneously learning the tone and tempo of the piece. He argues that we never learn language in a purely descriptive/empirical mode but that it comes with the moral perspective already built in. Thus a great many of our descriptive claims carry with them implicit moral positions, hence there is no real is/ought dichotomy because there are no purely "is" statements. These come to us already primed with a moral tone. Just as Wittgenstein argued that we cannot have a private language, so Beardsmore argues we cannot have a private morality. The standards we hold, he says, are bequeathed to us by and through our forms of life and only in this way can debates about moral claims work for, he insists, Hare's notion of ad hoc development of our moral claims fails to match the way our use of moral standards actually manifests.

Beardsmore's position reflects Wittgenstein's on hinge statements as found in On Certainty, although there is no evidence Beardsmore read that book in the writing of this one (neither in his text itself nor in the book's bibliographical references). He explains that his position differs from what he calls "conventionalism" which, he tells us, holds that claims of goodness are made based on adhering to particular conventions. He says that his position differs from the latter because he is not arguing that we take inventory of others' views in order to be sure ours match theirs, which is what he takes the conventionalist account of morality to represent. Rather, he argues, our shared agreement vis a vis moral standards is a matter of shared rules we have learned in the course of our growth within a community, rules which we do not have to discuss or even think explicitly about but which form the axes of our behavioral choices. We could have had other axes, of course, and maybe other societies will have some which are rather different from our own. But, he suggests, we have the ones we have and cannot simply divest ourselves of them as Hare thinks, nor do we each build up our own set and then somehow share our rules with others at some point.

It's an interesting effort but, I fear, unsuccessful for while his criticisms of Hare and Foot are sharp, his own account of moral valuing, offered in lieu of theirs, fails to handle certain important issues, in particular the role of competing moralities in different societies. To the extent that there are, or can be, very different moralities we are left with two problems: Either none are better than any other or one or more are, but we have no way of distinguishing the better from the worse. And while it is tempting to want to embrace just such a broad, relativist view because it seems so open-minded, and even politically correct, to do so, doing this must finally be the death knell of moral judgment entirely. For, if relativism is true, then no moral judgment can be, which gives us nihilism. And yet, as Duncan Richter has pointed out on his blog, even nihilism (the rejection of moralities in general) is a kind of morality itself, since it presents us with a rule that nothing is right or wrong, i.e., that anything goes. But if that is the rule we follow, then indeed something goes for how can we reject all rules of action for being rules of action but just not this one?

So it seems we must have some rules to follow in choosing our actions, even when we want to discard some particular rules. But a nihilism that only rejects some moral rules is not genuine nihilism but only the rejection of some other rules! That is, nihilism itself becomes a kind of morality. Beardsmore's Wittgensteinian effort doesn't solve this kind of problem, nor does it give an adequate account of how or why particular social groups develop and pass on to their children the moral parameters that they do. Is it just serendipity? Evolution? The characteristics of the environments in which the cultural groups find themselves? Some arbitrary decisions which each group just kind of gets stuck with? Some combination? Something else? The reasons underlying any given moral belief system will matter to those who begin to think about and compare competing belief systems.

So the answer to these questions will have a significant impact on how we think about the moral standards we inherit for how we think about them matters in terms of what we choose to do.

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