Wittgenstein Does Ethics
October 11, 2019
Stuart W. Mirsky

It's well known that Wittgenstein shied away from mentions of ethics and so-called moral theory questions in his later work while, in his earlier efforts, particularly the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the notes leading up to it (published after his death as The Notebooks) he paid a significant amount of attention to such questions. Even so, his statements and thinking on ethics in those earlier years was hardly clear or definitive. In sum his basic view seems to have been to think of ethical thought, ideas, expressions as something about which we cannot usefully talk. By that he seems to have meant that we cannot justify our ethical claims and beliefs, or the choices we make based on them, by recourse to words, by giving reasons. Even though ethical discourse seems to constantly call forth reasons to justify what we do, Wittgenstein's early view on the subject seems to have been that such reasons were pointless, their impact on our choices at best illusory.

For Wittgenstein at this point, ethics is, as he puts it in the Tractatus, transcendental, in the same class in which he puts logic and aesthetic concerns. We cannot give reasons for the logical rules we abide by when speaking intelligibly (and which, failing to abide by such rules renders our speech unintelligible, i.e., "nonsense"). We just learn the rules in learning to speak intelligibly. They need no further justification than that they work to enable intelligibility. Likewise with aesthetics. Like logic aesthetic considerations are not, as he put it, in the world as such but a feature or condition of it. If our world is realized through intelligible talk, so, too, are our expressions of aesthetic appreciation. We cannot justify our aesthetic claims. We don't have to. They are, like logic, a condition of our world as we have it, the guidelines or gridwork within which meaningfulness happens.

If logic, as those rules of intelligible communication through language, structures what we can know about the world, similar unjustifiable rules structure our manner of appreciating it. In the same way, he maintained (but did not argue), ethics consists of those enstructuring rules of action which enable us to interact with the world. "Ethics and aesthetics are one" he famously says in the Tractatus. But he declines to tell us how that is so, i.e., what sort of "one" they are. Are they one type of thing or are they really just one thing? Is ethics to be understood as an analogue of aesthetic appreciation, the moral claims that we subscribe to taken up because they appeal to us in an aesthetic way? Or are they merely of the same type, along with logic which he also labels transcendental? Are ethics and aesthetics one thing but only of a similar type to logic because all three lie, as he put it, outside the world, being part of the mechanisms by which we know our world and so not themselves knowable in the same sort of descriptive, assertoric way?

What he does say of these things, or at least asserts, is that there is nothing to be said about them in the way we can speak of things in the world though we can "show" what language fails to empower us to say about them, presumably by the actions we take in the world (how else do you show anything at all?). All such activities -- logic, aesthetics and ethics -- are a matter of how we interact with the world of observable facts. Logic enables intelligible discourse and discourse, speech, is a form of action. Similarly, aesthetics consist of our reactions to and behavior towards the things that are knowable through observation, and, of course, our capacity to describe and denote them. Ethics are those choices we make in regards to our situation in the world -- on Wittgenstein's view with regard to others or not. For Wittgenstein, at least at that point in his career, ethics was not necessarily a matter of how we interact with others, whose presence as part of our world was contingent, a matter of fact but not a given. We could, after all, find ourselves entirely alone on some desert island -- yet there, too, for the early Wittgenstein, there would be an ethical dimension.

On his early view of ethics, the whole thing is a matter of how we stand in the world, how we relate to it, whether involving others or just ourselves in the face of the facts that constitute our world, the facts we can identify and describe through assertoric language. My ethical being is not so much about treating others decently or maintaining a certain regard for their interests -- though as part of the contingent world others and their interests may well be part of my experience of things. What it is about is carrying myself with a certain kind of integrity in relation to the world. How that would manifest in a world without others is hard to imagine and never really addressed by early Wittgenstein. What he appears to have thought was to equate what he deemed ethical matters with something spiritual, something that reflects our connection to our world rather than anything found within it. Hence, "ethics and aesthetics are one."

But arguably this doesn't get us very far in ordinary ethical matters since ethics as such seems to be about telling others or ourselves what things we ought to do when there are choices to be made and we are in a position to make them. For the early Wittgenstein, what we ought to do seems to be just to position ourselves rightly with our world where the right position is to be understood as the one that removes us from the contingencies of the world which buffet and toss us around, contingencies over which we can have no control. In his 1929 Lecture on Ethics to the Moral Sciences Club, a philosophical group at Cambridge, Wittgenstein delivered a paper which focused on this, the personal spiritual aspect of ethics. Here he told his listeners that it was the sense of wonder that one sometimes feels about the world itself that underlies the ethical impetus and that "feeling absolutely safe," as though none of the facts of the world can reach us and thus cause us harm is the kind of ethical expression he counted as important.

Dismissing in that lecture the inclination to describe or justify one's ethical beliefs and positions as so much hot air, Wittgenstein sought to dissociate himself from the practices, then current in English philosophy, of trying to pin down and explain why some things are better to do than others. He divided what we take to be good or bad, better or worse, based on outcomes from what he asserted was the ethical which must, he thought, involve making assertions of an absolute sort, i.e., which cannot be anything but what they are and which meant we must do whatever was seen as ethical without regard to outcomes.

On his view, the Kantian notion of a categorical imperative, which involves a claim that must be accepted and thus acted on, regardless of our particular preferences or desires (as opposed to Kant's notion of a hypothetical imperative which involved doing one thing to achieve another), became a question of what he took to be "absolute" vs. what is contingent. Ethics, he asserted, was about what we absolutely must do, regardless of consequences. And here he found such absolute understandings in a kind of religio-spiritual enterprise, though not one to be articulated in any linguistically meaningful way. But it was, he announced at the paper's end, one for which he felt the utmost respect.

It's not surprising that he later came to dismiss that paper as not up to the standards of philosophy he would have liked to achieve. It is vague and in places uncertain and it tells us very little about the subject he is ostensibly attempting to explicate. But the thoughts in it are of a piece with his earlier assertions that ethics is transcendental, meaning it is outside the world of which we can speak, even if it is a feature of our interactions with the world (that is with its parts). In his later work, he pretty much let go of assertions like these about ethics, even as he seemed to drop ethical concerns from his philosophical work in general.

Except for a few mentions in his later work, he is absorbed with a new picture of language and how it operates there, a picture that dispenses with his earlier view that language is about asserting things about the world through a kind of picturing mechanism and that our words thus take their meaning from their coincidence with the parts of it that they are about. In lieu of that earlier picture of language, he came to see linguistic activity as multifaceted, a matter of doing many different things with our words beyond just describing/asserting -- beyond, that is, the empirical paradigm of truth and falsity as a function of our observations.

In his later work he presented language as activity, as practices, with each of our practices having a different role in our lives and the meaning of our terms arising from the role those words play in the particular set of practices ("language games") in which they are deployed. On this view, ethical claims have their significance, get their meaning, within certain contexts and it is our participation in those contexts that enables us to use our ethical words intelligibly. No longer is it about successfully picturing some fact in the world, as it was for him in the Tractatus. In his later work, characterized by his posthumously published master work, Philosophical Investigations, ethics remains outside of that picture of how things work but is comprehensible (if not talked about much) only insofar as it is connected with the purpose and use to which ethical words are put.

Here ethics seems to become relative in the sense of being dependent on the practices we happen to be participating in. If we enter into a set of activities in which ethical issues seem to matter, i.e., applying the behavioral standards of this or that community within which we may be enrolled or with which we may be affiliated, then such terms will have significance for us. They will help determine how we will act in this or that circumstance. But this also has the unfortunate corollary of making ethics seem relative to the community and sets of practices which happen to include us at any given moment. On such a view what is seen as ethically right to do in one place or among one community can be ethically wrong or ethically neutral in another. Here the older notion, expressed by Wittgenstein, of an absoluteness to our ethical judgments, is lost. Yet Wittgenstein, himself, remained concerned with ethics in his personal life, as best we can tell from the record of his interactions with others, to the end of his life. What he did not do, apparently, was find a way to reconcile that sort of concern, where ethics has an absolute "feel" to it (to the individual under its spell), to the relativist implications of his later thinking.

Arguably ethics requires the kind of sense of absoluteness Wittgenstein spoke of in his earlier years and perhaps the failure to find it, through his later work, prompted his later silence on ethical matters. While the early Wittgenstein asserted that we must be silent about ethics because of its transcendental nature (it stands outside the role of discursive reasoning) the later Wittgenstein may have remained silent because he could not preserve the absoluteness ethics seems to require to be meaningful. After all, if you cannot establish that the ethics of your community or of this or that individual is definitive, then from community to community, from individual to individual, anything might go. And that is inimical to the point of ethics in the end. After all, if murder is wrong it must be so wherever we find ourselves. It must be wrong absolutely.

If human sacrifice is a form of murder, it, too, must be wrong whether we are in downtown Manhattan today or in the land of the Aztecs in the 15th century. Otherwise why think we should not change the rules and do now as the Aztecs did then if it happens to please us or suit our purposes? And isn't that the point of what the Nazis did to the Jews and other groups in the mid twentieth century in Europe or what the recently defeated Islamic State did to others within the territories they seized? If ethics doesn't involve moral judgments used for moral guidance, then what is its point at all?

Ethics does seem to have an absolute quality to it that overrules whatever particular gains are to be had when we think about our value judgments as applied to behavior in a moral (ethical) way. The ethical cannot simply be about individual advantage or preference. Yet the later Wittgenstein does not seem to leave room for this sort of ethics while the earlier Wittgenstein's ethical notions are too mystical to be useful in ordinary discourse. How, after all, are we to move from claims about how we should be in the world, in relation to everything, to claims about how we should behave in particular situations in relation to others? The earlier Wittgenstein did not seem overly concerned with how we are to treat others but, rather, with how we are to be, how we are, that is, to treat the world around us vis a vis how we think about it. Seeing the world "aright" as he puts it at the end of the Tractatus, is not necessarily about whether or not we should accept or reject things like human sacrifice or human slavery though both may be rejected if one happens to think they are contrary to rightly seeing the world. But what if we don't find our way to that thought? Is it somehow intrinsic to seeing "the world aright"? But if so, how and why should we think so? Is it just a natural intuition that arises in those of us who come to "see the world aright"? But how do we know and how do we tell when we are seeing it thus?

To have ethical force (in the sense of a claim providing us reason to urge others to avoid such things or to tell ourselves that we must do so should we happen to be otherwise inclined), we must be able to move from the idea that there is a correct way to see the world "aright" to the notion that that correct way includes opposing, or not engaging in, human sacrifice or slavery or any of a number of other behaviors of this sort. If we cannot say how we get from there to here, one must ask what is the point of speaking of ethics at all? And if it is all a matter of the particular language game your community engages in, then why think that game or that community has it right? Why not, that is simply do as the Romans do when in Rome? Or head there if its practices seem more appealing to you?

Neither the early Wittgenstein nor the later offers a satisfactory account of the ethical if we take the ethical to be a matter of making certain choices in the world in which we find ourselves. Neither the notion that ethics is grounded in some unarticulated (because unarticulable) fact about (but not in) the world as such, nor that it is purely a matter of enrolling in particular modes of practice which are available to members of the human species seems to get at the problem that ethics poses for us as human beings and in our attempts to explicate the whys and whats of our behavioral decision-making practices.

If ethics is spiritual (because it is transcendental), as the early Wittgenstein maintained, or if language is a set of tools we use for different purposes, as the later Wittgenstein thought, our ethical choices still remain outside the framework of such pictures. At least they do if they are to retain the elements we suppose them to have which make them ethics and not something else (emotional responses, conditioned but unjustified beliefs, confused illusions, or just plain mistakes in how we think).

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