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« Hall, Wittgenstein and Dennett | Main | Wittgenstein on Heidegger and Ethics »

Was Wittgenstein Wrong on Ethics?

According to Paul Livingston of the Philosophy Department of the University of New Mexico, in early 1930 Wittgenstein reportedly told Waismann and Schlick, in a reference to the matter of ethics, that philosophical inquiries about ethics amounted to trying to run "up against the boundaries of language," suggesting that, in his view, there was little of conceptual significance that could be said explicitly about the classical ethical questions in philosophy (alluding, of course, to the manner in which philosophical thinkers in his time approached the matter):

This running up against the boundaries of language is Ethics. I hold it certainly to be very important that one makes an end to all the chatter about ethics – whether there can be knowledge in ethics, whether there are values, whether the Good can be defined, etc. In ethics one always makes the attempt to say something which cannot concern and never concerns the essence of the matter. It is a priori certain: whatever one may give as a definition of the Good – it is always only a misunderstanding to suppose that the expression corresponds to what one actually means (Moore)."

This is clearly in keeping with his suggestion re: The Tractatus that the real point of that effort, which laid out what he then took to be the limits of substantive linguistic expression, was ethical. Presumably, and in light of the above passage and in keeping with his talk on Ethics a few weeks earlier, delivered to the Heretics Society at Cambridge, he held the view that one could say nothing of substance concerning this matter at that time:

. . . if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world." (Ludwig Wittgenstein - Lecture on Ethics Delivered in November 1929 to the Heretics Society, Cambridge University http://sackett.net/WittgensteinEthics.pdf)

In that talk he spoke of Ethics as the search for an "absolute" good, something which is good for man despite all contingencies, and proposed that such a use of "good" is illicit for, in ordinary usage, what's "good" is always contingent on goals, on objectives. A thing is judged good only in light of this or that requirement we have of it, a good ballplayer being a man (or woman) who plays ball well. But what, he asked, can we mean by a "good person," when considered outside the framework of any particular thing a person might be thought to be good at? Statements about good ballplayers, he hastened to add, are essentially statements of fact which are, as he reminds us, incapable of yielding implications about what should be valued by us (put another way, of what it is good to call "good").

Supposing that I could play tennis and one of you saw me playing and said 'Well, you play pretty badly' and suppose I answered 'I know, I'm playing pretty badly but I don't want to play any better,' all the other man could say would be 'Ah, then that's all right.' But suppose I had told one of you a preposterous lie and he came up to me and said, 'You're behaving like a beast' and then I were to say 'I know I behave badly, but then I don't want to behave any better,' could he then say 'Ah, then that's all right'? Certainly not; he would say 'Well, you ought to want to behave better.' Here you have an absolute judgment of value, whereas the first instance was one of relative judgment."

The ordinary uses of "good" he adds, have nothing to do with what it means to speak of being a good person. What seems to be at issue in that latter case is the application of some standard of goodness that presumes some thing, or things, that a person should do or be, that they are always good for persons without regard to any aim or objective we or they may have in mind. And here Wittgenstein finds the notion of goodness wanting.

He offers only the possibility that what is thought good in this sense might be taken to be whatever a man finds to be good for himself in all cases, no matter what. But such things are a matter of personal inventory taking and must be highly personal to the individual, without any external standard that is applicable for all persons. Candidates he proposes for this type of goodness will be things like situations or conditions in which a person might feel utterly happy or content without reservation all of the times and in all the circumstances he has or can expect to experience such conditions, i.e., whatever is "absolute" for him will be so because of the way that person feels about it -- although there is no likelihood of generalizing such absoluteness to all.

Ethical judgments, Wittgenstein suggests, have a quality of absoluteness to them, one that does not partake of one's particular goals, or objectives, which are themselves matters of fact and which thereby imply reasons that we might judge something to be better than something else. Ethical claims seem to demand adherence to a standard that is not entirely contingent on what we want or what the circumstances offer us, some reason or factor that makes them good in all cases, good in themselves. But there is no such state or condition, Wittgenstein says in his talk, that fills that condition of absoluteness -- although there are many bottom line experiences or states of affairs to which any of us might willingly assert what seems to us like an absolute commitment. Speaking of such circumstances, in which we try to make "concrete" a notion of something that we take as absolutely good, he suggests:

. . . it is natural that I should recall cases in which I would certainly use these expressions [meaning 'absolute good' or what is said to have 'absolute value'] and I am then in the situation in which you would be if, for instance, I were to give you a lecture on the psychology of pleasure. What you would do then would be to try and recall some typical situation in which you always felt pleasure. For, bearing this situation in mind, all I should say to you would become concrete and, as it were, controllable. One man would perhaps choose as stock example the sensation when taking a walk on a fine summer's day. Now in this situation I am, if I want to fix my mind on what I mean by absolute or ethical value."

Wittgenstein here makes clear just what his conception of ethics, as it is done by philosophers, is: It's to discover whatever is so good that we cannot conceivably deny it and so will make it the object of all our actions, to obtain and preserve that goodness in ourselves. But an ethics, which tries to explain and justify our behavioral choices as securing some absolutely good state or condition, must, he suggests, finally be an entirely personal matter, i.e., it must be about the relation of one's behaviors to one's own ultimate "goods." But, being so personal, there is nothing here, he thinks, to argue about, no, not even to discuss, because it is expressive of one's personal tastes as it were, even granting that some personal tastes may be superior in some unarticulable sense to some others (at least as some may feel about the things they acknowledge absolute commitment to). In his own case, he seems to reach for the religious attitude:

. . . in my case, it always happens that the idea of one particular experience presents itself to me which therefore is, in a sense, my experience par excellence . . . (As I have said before, this is an entirely personal matter and others would find other examples more striking.) I will describe this experience in order, if possible, to make you recall the same or similar experiences, so that we may have a common ground for our investigation."

Instead of picking out some rather mundane notion of happiness or even happiness as the state of being purely contemplative, as some philosophers have suggested and as we might ordinarily anticipate, he makes, instead, a spiritual reference:

I believe the best way of describing it is to say that when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as 'how extraordinary that anything should exist' or ‘how extraordinary that the world should exist.'"

He goes on:

I will mention another experience straight away which I also know and which others of you might be acquainted with: it is, what one might call, the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say 'I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens.'"

But, he reminds us, this is a feeling never borne out by reality for we are never as safe as all that, given our human condition. About these states or conditions in which we may find ourselves and in which he himself has found himself he adds:

And there the first thing I have to say is, that the verbal expression which we give to these experiences is nonsense!"

Here is his rejection of the ethical inquiry in a nutshell for he tells us it is, finally, about things which are without sense. There is no possibility, he suggests, of speaking meaningfully about such feelings, other than to assert that we have them, though we cannot put them into words which are readily intelligible to others. Having ignored certain more mundane feelings of goodness (e.g., feeling contemplative, being in a general state of contentedness, etc., which some ancient philosophers had proposed as the right candidates for an ethical standard or objective to be aimed at), albeit without explicitly dismissing them (since he grants that some among his audience may have these as their "absolutes") he offers his personal candidates which, he is convinced, lack articulability because they seem to kick up in us contentless questions and assertions. These, he seems to suggest, are no more absolute than what others feel as absolute for themselves, though he does seem to believe that there is a great depth and admirablility to having such thoughts or feelings, even if we cannot talk meaningfully about what having them is like or involves. And this is part of his sense of their absoluteness, of course!

His point, though, seems to be that it is just these sorts of things that will have the sense of absoluteness required by ethical claims (as opposed to the more mundane uses of "good" in which we indulge) and that, being outside the possibility of meaningful discourse, they thrust ethical claims beyond that same pale. If, for Hume and his successors, being part of meaningful discourse is precluded because value assertions merely mask feelings of approval or disapproval, Wittgenstein seems to add another exclusion from intelligibility here, when such approval/disapproval feelings involve encounters with the inexpressibility, the mysteriousness of the universe in which we stand. Of course, this is a very different basis for unintelligibility than just lacking denotative content since not all feelings of approval or disapproval will be tied into one's feelings about the universe. (Nor does Wittgenstein offer an account of how being so tied in might produce ethical claims besides his assertion that some people may, like him, just happen to favor being in a state of awe toward the universe and that this may somehow yield ethical judgments.)

In the case of his own experiences, and assuming that others feel similarly about their own "absolutes," ethical discourse appears for Wittgenstein to have the character of being important in some sense, even while still being linguistically inapt because of conceptual impoverishment. Such "absolutes," he apparently allows, have importance in other ways and, in this, he echoes his earlier assertions about the Tractatus, that that book was finally about the ethical.

With Hume and many later philosophers in the Anglo-Empirical tradition, Wittgenstein rejects the is-to-ought presumptions of classical ethics (the idea that "good" can be "naturalized" by being thought to just be this or that natural phenomenon). But he goes further than Hume by focusing not merely on the is/ought dichotomy but on the idea that the sort of thing that underlies our moral sensibilities will be seen to be feelings of a very deep sort, feelings which reflect, in at least some of us, the kinds of thing we associate with spiritual awe in the face of a mysterious universe.

Since there can be no point in wondering about such things, however, and no content in speaking of such wonder -- although such wonder is not wrong and may, in fact, be a positive state in which to be -- he concludes, with Hume and those who follow him, that moral questions are fundamentally outside the realm of intelligibility. Yet, to the extent they reflect something deeper, a religious or spiritual inclination, they are not simply to be ignored. There is a strong, albeit unexplicated, reason in fact to pay attention to and implement one's religious sensibilities. It's just, Wittgenstein suggests, that they lie outside philosophy's realm. Hence, his statement some six weeks later to Waismann and Shlick that it is

. . . very important that one makes an end to all the chatter about ethics – whether there can be knowledge in ethics, whether there are values, whether the Good can be defined, etc. In ethics one always makes the attempt to say something which cannot concern and never concerns the essence of the matter."

Wittgenstein concludes his talk to the Heretics Society by proposing that religious language has a special significance but no content. It is, he say, a language of similes and that it serves to express our stance in relation to a universe that is finally mysterious to us:

I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself. But what then does it mean to be aware of this miracle at some times and not at other times? For all I have said by shifting the expression of the miraculous from an expression by means of language to the expression by the existence of language, all I have said is again that we cannot express what we want to express and that all we can say about the absolute miraculous remains nonsense."

Ethical just is the religious, he seems to be proposing, and the religious is beyond intelligible discourse. It's something else. But, of course, this is his ethics, is it not, his own sense of what has an "absolute," as in bottom line, importance to him. It doesn't follow, it cannot, that all men share in the same religious or spiritual feelings as he does, that all have the same religious inclinations. Does ethics then, as in being the basis for distinguishing our better or worse choices, always boil down to sharing the same deep seated-feelings about things (or the same things)? Hasn't Wittgenstein, at this stage, really made a mistake?

If ethical inquiry is to determine what we mean by "good" in certain cases (e.g., the case above, where he speaks of one's lying as being to act "beastly" as opposed to playing tennis badly), does it matter if he, himself, just feels that it all boils down to one's capacity to stand in awe of the universe, however expressed (in particular doctrinal terms or more generically)? How has that claim added anything to our understanding of ethics which, after all, does have a prominent and seemingly unavoidable place in our daily lives?

We are constantly urged to behave in one way and not another in our daily lives, either by family and friends, or by various societal authorities and spokespersons, or by ourselves (when we search our consciences about the right things to do). And there are many, many reasons to sort through when we want to make a correct decision. How can holding a particular feeling or set of feelings of awe (or recognizing some other very personal sense of what is "absolute") help us decide what the right choice is for others and, because for others, for ourselves? If others don't share the same "absolute" how can moral assertions, advice, judgments work? Sometimes, the issue will be about what will serve us best but sometimes, and this more often than many of us may like to admit, we are concerned about when and why we should subordinate our own interests for others. How does any particular person's beliefs about what is absolutely good from his own experience help to guide advice or judgment of others (except insofar as it allows us to form expressions of personal approval or disapproval)? Indeed, differentiating between times when one should concern oneself with one's own interests and those when others should matter more would seem to be the paramount moral case which ethics has historically been concerned with. And here an approach which says it's all very personal can't help very much.

If, as Wittgenstein seems to have proposed in this talk, ethics lies outside the sphere of legitimate philosophical inquiry, if it is only a matter of comporting ourselves in a way that we find consistent with our own highly personal sense of what is "absolutely" good or right for us, without any way of distinguishing between different notions and standards for what is to count as good or right in some bottom line sense, then ethics has gotten no farther than it did after Hume's devastating attack upon the is/ought connection -- a connection which Wittgenstein in this talk at least, appears to grant right out of the box.

In seeking to do away with an idea of ethics as a suitable field for inquiry, has Wittgenstein not done away with the very thing we need to do in order to better understand what lies beneath our ethical choices?

I hold it certainly to be very important that one makes an end to all the chatter about ethics – whether there can be knowledge in ethics, whether there are values, whether the Good can be defined, etc. In ethics one always makes the attempt to say something which cannot concern and never concerns the essence of the matter."

In light of the fact that ethical questions have not gone away since Wittgenstein told Russell that the Tractatus, which looks at language and logic in their relation to the world, was really about ethics, or spoke with Waismann and Shlick about the emptiness of ethical inquiries, or gave his talk to the Heretics Society rejecting the meaningfulness of ethical language, must we not conclude that he left a serious gap behind in the realm of philosophy, one that still cries out for consideration today?

The later Wittgenstein certainly moved beyond his Tractarian period and there is evidence, even in that talk to the Heretics Society, where he frequently refers to ordinary language use (the cornerstone of his future thinking), of this change. But ethical questions seem to have always remained personal for him, even in his later work. He did not concern himself with the matter and what he left for us in the later work, which seems to have application to ethical matters, was only the notion that language works differently in different areas of our lives. Given that insight, we cannot dismiss out of hand the ways in which ethical judgments and ethical assertions work for us, the parts they play in our language games. And, even more than sixty years after his death and after the advent of a whole host of writers who took up the ethics challenge which Wittgenstein seemed to eschew (many of whom wrote in his tradition or were heavily influenced by him), these issues remain to be elucidated.

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