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Entries in Moral Philospohy (3)


Ethics in Wittgenstein: Early and Late

There's a sharp dichotomy in Wittgenstein's later approach to ethics from what we find in his earlier work. Just as there's a recognizable break between his approach to philosophy and the kinds of claims he makes in The Tractatus and those he later presents us with via his later writings, especially Philosophical Investigations, the change in his approach to moral questions, though less visible because he is less explicit, is noticeable and important. In the Tractatus and in the wake of his immediate return to Cambridge in 1929 after more than a decade's hiatus, Wittgenstein takes a transcendental position vis a vis ethics. It's something, he asserts, that cannot be talked about but can only be felt in one's life. The Tractatus, he tells us, is really an ethical work though only a small part of it (near the end) actually addresses ethics explicitly (and, indeed, somewhat cryptically). There he tells us ethics cannot be talked about, is among those things we can only point mutely at. Later, in his address to the Heretics Society at Cambridge in '29 he says this more explicitly. Ethics involves values we hold for human behavior but there's nothing to be said about it philosophically. We would all be better off to maintain a studied silence on the matter for there is no deriving oughts from is claims, just as Hume told us. But if one could speak of ethics, write a book on the subject, it would shatter the world, he pronounces.

The later Wittgenstein seems to have kept his word on maintaining silence on the subject though ethical concerns run through his personal writings (see especially those published posthumously under the title Culture and Value). He did not contribute anything in philosophical discourse directly pertinent to the matter of ethics . . .

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Anscombe's Antidote

According to Duncan Richter in his book, Anscombe's Moral Philosophy, her position on what is good behavior boils down to this: There are certain states of affairs to do with human beings (being a human) which are part of the nature of humankind. That is, they represent practices, institutions, ways of being in the world that are part of what it means to be human. Those acts that are morally good will be seen to express, reflect or be consistent with those human activities and institutions. Given her strong religiosity (she was a committed, practicing Catholic) she holds that these natural human propensities are part of God's plan for mankind and so consistent with what God wants for us. Therefore, to abide by them is to conform with God's will. But we do not do them because God commands it. Moral actions (or ethical behavior, since she rejects the notion of "moral" as inappropriate for our age -- a period in which we view the divine differently than mankind once viewed it) is thus to be consistent with God's will but not necessarily to act out of the desire to obey.

Anscombe thus rejects a morality based on duties. To have duties implies some kind of adverse repercussions for failing to obey them but moral claims (perhaps "ethical" claims better captures her view here) have no such consequences in and of themselves. That is why we can act immorally if we like, with impunity (other than some prospect of a judgment visited upon us in the afterlife which not everyone will grant even though everyone is presumed morally assessable in this life). Duties imply commands and an enforcer who punishes deviance from those commands. To suppose one has duties without the possibility that one can suffer adverse consequences for specifically failing to fulfill those duties is to render the very notion of duty empty. Richter doesn't maintain that Anscombe rejects the idea of duty per se though . . .

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Motives Matter

Why moral valuing is a different sort of animal than its familial relatives

The term “moral” finds its meaning in a variety of uses which is just what we would expect since Wittgenstein first suggested that the meanings of our words lie in the uses we make of them and noted that a family resemblance relationship tends to characterize the way the different uses of a term connect with one another. There is not, generally, one particular use that best reflects or explains the meaning of our terms but a range of them which we learn in the course of doing the business of language. The moral idea is no different.

As a sub-class of the broader notion of valuing, it requires further analysis though if we want to understand its particular role in language and in our lives.

We value all sorts of things in the course of our lives, from objects to situations to people to goals. Not all valuing, however, is about what seems good or bad to us, better or best. There are also truth values (the positions we assign to claims on a scale justifying their acceptance or rejection as expressions of knowledge) for to value anything is just to set it on a scale or range which relates it to other things placed on the scale. Measuring is to engage in valuing, too, as is the assignment of content to markings or sounds which we take as signifiers (symbols representing something else). The kind of valuing we are doing, in every case, is dependent on what’s being valued and for what purpose.

. . . In the case of moral valuing, however, the issue seems to be to assess the action itself and not the objective which it is aimed at attaining. That is, we are less concerned with the objective(s) of the actions in the moral case than we are with the action itself. What is there about actions that stands apart then from the effects they are intended to bring about?

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