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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. . . .

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