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« Can Value Be "Transcendental"? | Main | Too Much Philosophy? »

Wittgenstein's Later Ethics: A Reply to Duncan Richter

Writing in an omnibus compilation of Wittgensteinian scholars on the subject of Wittgenstein's approach to Ethics, Wittgenstein's Moral Thought, Edited by Reshef Agam-Segal and Edmund Dain, Duncan Richter who teaches philosophy and ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, reminds us that, like G. E. Moore and Henry Sidgwick before him, Wittgenstein thought the terminology of ethics (words like "good," "right," etc.) could not be reduced to any naturally occurring element in the world. Unlike the Utilitarians who hold that goodness is definable as whatever makes the greatest number of us happiest (or some variant of that condition), or deontologists who, writing in a Kantian tradition, take the good or whatever we deem right to mean fulfilling one's duty, however defined (Kant offers one way, others may offer another), for self-styled ethical intuitionists like Moore and Sidgwick the good is an indefinable because it is a simple feature we discern in things. It cannot be reduced to anything else. But if it can be discerned in things, it cannot be pinned down in any natural way, as some particular feature of the thing or activity which we count as "good" or "right."

In his article, Sketches of Blurred Landscapes, Richter reminds us that, while Wittgenstein shared the view that goodness is indefinable, he held this to be so for a different reason than Moore or Sidgwick. He rejected their notion of intuited goodness or rightness, an idea that hinges on the occurrence of a presumed non-natural feature discernible to us in some unexplicated way analogous with how we discern natural features of things (the physical aspects of things we know about through sensory encounter). In his early years Wittgenstein thought claims of ethical goodness to be a matter of the status of ethical claims themselves, i.e., that they cannot refer to anything in the world because everything in it is contingent (it might or might not have existed) while ethics, to be that, cannot rest on contingencies. Ethical claims, Wittgenstein thought must be “absolute,” that is, there can be no question of the goodness of something that is good when it is so-called on an ethical level (although this is different for other types of valuational claims, i.e., other kinds of assertions of goodness in which the goodness asserted depends on the objective which anything so designated might be intended to bring about).

What is good or right in an ethical sense is so in a way that can admit of no ifs, ands or buts. If it is wrong to lie or cheat or steal, it must be so whether or not it would serve our purpose to do so. Because of this quality which he ascribed to moral claims of goodness, he rejected not only the idea that moral goodness is discernible in the world by observation but also the very idea that it can be found in the world at all. But if not there, then it must not be in ourselves either, mere projections of our wants and needs upon the world displayed through our sensory apparatus before us for that would undermine its claim to absoluteness as applied to what we must do.

Thus, he placed ethics outside the world in the sense that it must be one of the conditions for having a world. Like logic, which enables us to develop a picture in words of the world in which we stand, ethics, he held, must be outside that world but part of the framework in which it can be pictured.

But Wittgenstein famously moved away from his earlier thinking about language, and how it enables us to picture our world, in his second phase, on returning to Cambridge after more than a decade's hiatus. During that time, he came to think some of his earlier thoughts on how language fits the world incorrect and, while he had made much of ethics as an aspect of human life in his first period, he left off extensive discussion of the subject later on. During his later period he shifted his views on language from seeing it as a means of reflecting how things are to something human beings do for many different purposes. Duncan Richter takes this aspect of Wittgenstein very seriously, as we all must, in addressing Wittgenstein's approach to ethics in his later years.

While the early Wittgenstein had seen ethics as "transcendental" (that is, as standing outside the framework of things we can talk about), he had not been prepared to deny the significance of ethical concerns in human life as some others in his time had been prompted to do. Even if ethics could not, on Wittgenstein’s early view, be connected with anything found in the world as such (a requirement according to his early thinking for any verbiage to be meaningful), it still could find a place in our lives. Only we could not make assertions about it or try to justify our ethical choices by invoking and elaborating reasons. Like logic, which he considered a necessary framework for linguistic meaning to occur, ethical claims, on his early view, were seen to be part of the structure of our knowledge of the world but not part of the world that is known.

This “transcendental” approach had to be given up, however, once Wittgenstein came to see that a model of language as reflecting the world was not adequate to his purpose of explaining language in toto, or the many roles it plays for its speakers. Although Wittgenstein mostly gave up addressing the question of ethics' significance through philosophical inquiry in his later phase (except for a brief lecture he gave on his return to Cambridge in 1929), he did address the related topic of aesthetics in subsequent lectures offered to his students and colleagues of which we have a record in the form of notes taken by select students. Richter sees a connection between the aesthetic and the ethical because Wittgenstein did, of course, and because both, after all, are valuational issues with "good" and "right" providing us with typical terminology in the ethical realm and "beautiful" the equivalent in the aesthetic. As Richter points out, Wittgenstein, in his later phase, noted the way in which we use these words and reminded us that we often apply "beautiful" or similar terms when we are insufficiently conversant with the fine points that make something beautiful or lovely or the like. But listening to a concerto, if we are familiar with the mechanics of the art form, speaking in such generalities (that was lovely!) is never enough. Thus, the suggestion is that words like "good" or "beautiful" are proxy words, generalizations we may use when unable to come to grips with the details, the fine points, of what renders any artistic work satisfying to our sensibilities.

Richter reminds us that Wittgenstein, in his later period, emphasized the range of uses any word can have in lieu of essential meanings (a view of meaning that supposes it to always boil down to something which all things called by the word in question must have in common). Wittgenstein pointed out that words have many different uses and sometimes these span a range of things and activities, hence no single meaning is possible. A good dog is not the same as a good person, a good ball player not the same as a good road to take if we would make it home by a certain hour. Words like "good" (and a whole host of others of the valuational type) serve many purposes, from praising to characterizing to expressing—and they may express or characterize a host of quite different things. I might respond "good" on witnessing a happy event and only mean by that how pleased I am for having seen it. Or perhaps not mean anything at all in a conceptual way. Perhaps “good” in this case is just an expostulation, a moment’s expression of delight.

Within the context of ethics, too (a more specialized application of valuing) "good" may have different meanings. Some things we do may be good because they meet some pre-established criterion to which we subscribe while other things may be because they move us in a certain way. In such cases the criteria we count as “good-making” will vary with the territory, with the nature of the item or objective targeted. A morally good action may be explained by the actor as being the sort which he or she counts as enjoined upon us or as expressing a type of concern for the person or persons affected. They may invoke religions teachings, perhaps, in asserting the standard or, if more philosophically inclined, some rule of reason which obliges us to act one way rather than another. The goodness or rightness may be justified by us in different ways and, in that justification, take on a very different quality. A good act that is taken to be so because of its expected tendency to increase the amount of pleasure or happiness in the world (the utilitarian standard for moral goodness) will have a different nature than the goodness we think ourselves compelled to do no matter the result, or the goodness we take as stemming from a certain way of understanding our world and our place in it, e.g., a claim that there is a spiritual quality to which those of us who would act rightly must aspire.

Goodness as such and moral goodness especially may have a variety of forms, of explanations, of justifications for why we act thusly or ought to.

Duncan Richter explains that it is here that Wittgenstein, at least in his later phase, departs sharply from Moore and Sidgwick while agreeing with both that a word like "good" or "right" cannot be reduced to something we can find in the natural world. But unlike them, Wittgenstein does not conclude that there is some intuitive quality of goodness or rightness to be discerned by the discerning among us. Rather he concludes that such words have too many meanings to boil them all down to any single use, too many referents to produce a single drop of concentrated goodness or rightness which all good and right things must have some share in. There are only the uses themselves, which is to say the things we do with the words we use to play the language games of moral activity. Hence, Richter concludes, there is no ethics per se, no subject of study targeting the good or the right—or, in the case of aesthetics, the beautiful. There are just the things we do with those words, the activities in which their uses play a role for us.

But this suggests that ethics is subjective in a way that undermines the ethical claims we actually make since an ethics that just consists of many different things we may do with so-called ethical words cannot have a compelling claim on us. We could, after all, simply decide to do different things. Wittgenstein in his early years thought ethical value claims must be "absolute," admitting of no contingencies and, indeed, that is the way we tend to think of ethics—at least as absolute in the sense of forestalling alternative valuational claims based on self-interest when these conflict with something we take to be the ethically right thing to do. If something is right to do, if it is good (or bad for that matter), it must be so, regardless of our interests for it to have an ethical penumbra about it—a status without which we cease to consider the matter one of an ethically motivated choice. Self-interestedness undermines the ethical status of a valuational claim because such claims are not absolute in the sense Wittgenstein conceived it.

Richter takes the later Wittgensteinian shift from a claim about ethics being transcendental (beyond our ability to explain or justify the ethical) to one that ethical claims are a function of different things we do which suggests that, in fact, ethics is not a fit subject for philosophical inquiry at all, thus perhaps explaining Wittgenstein's later aversion to ethics in his philosophical work. This is not to say that he became, as it were, unethical but only that he seems to have lost interest in any effort to philosophically unpack our ethical claims besides noting that we use words associated with such claims in different ways. He does not, thereby, cancel out the ethical in human life but, as Richter shows, he no longer seems to see ethics as a fit subject for his inquiries.

But is that a sensible way for those of us interested in philosophical inquiry to proceed and can this approach explain Wittgenstein's apparent loss of interest in accounting for ethics in human activity?

"Wittgenstein does not appear to have had much faith in the value of studying ethics as a subject," writes Richter (page 167, Wittgenstein's Moral Thought). "If this is Wittgenstein's view," Richter adds (on page 168 after likening it to the take of one of Wittgenstein's former students, O. K. Bowsma), "then it seems that only meta-ethics is left" (being the study of what we mean by ethical claims and such). Richter adds that, since "the concepts used in ethics do not correspond to any definitions" then meta-ethics itself would be largely "futile" on Wittgenstein's view. "To ask whether an act is right," adds Richter, "is not to ask a question with a clear meaning." It may be right (or not) in a variety of different ways and so we should be addressing the particulars rather than dwelling on the more general question of so-called moral rightness, of moral value.

I want to challenge that assumption on several grounds. First, the argument that words like "good" or "beautiful" are incorrigibly general and so cannot exemplify meaningful terms in any definite sense, and so lead to meaningful inquiries, strikes me as wrong. After all, many other words act like this and still we think it worth asking what we mean by our usage of them and what sorts of things using them count as for us. I may say so and so is overweight or short or smart and all these terms are generalizations in the same way "good" and "beautiful" are. They stand in for more specific assertions about the party so described. Being overweight or short or tall or smart are context-dependent (as words must be to have meaning and so count as words in a language) and will find their meanings in the course of further explication. Jennie is smart because I mean she's a wiz in investing or does well in school or has several degrees or has common sense and is worth going to for advice. John is overweight if he's heavier than average in one sense, or if what I mean is that he's carrying more weight than is good for him healthwise, in another. Perhaps he's too heavy for his arthritic knees or his weight is a contributant to dangerously high cholesterol levels. Jill is short for a woman in Sweden or Norway but not, perhaps, for someone from one of the Mediterranean countries or from southern Asia. All terms like this are context dependent and stand in for further, more detailed information. This is not unique to words like “good” or “beautiful.” Nor, as stand-in terms, are they without purpose or function in themselves.

The analysis that explores their function (or the range of functions they stand in for) can be no less worthy of exploration, philosophically, than any other linguistic usage that represents some aspect or dimension of human life.

It's not just that these words take their meaning in some context but that we can always say more about them when we use them and, if we can't, then there is something wrong with our use. What’s the point of calling anything "good" if we can't offer others some reason for doing so when asked? Such assertions occur within a domain of asking for and giving reasons as Robert Brandom and others have reminded us. To know that an apple is red is to know something about how we use the word "red" and, to know that, we have to know when we are using it correctly and when not. Correct and incorrect usage is determined by the response of our interlocutors around us. If those responses don’t match our expectations then there is some degree of incomprehension on the part of our listeners or we, ourselves, have failed to use the terms in a manner likely to elicit the expected responses.

As Brandom has pointed out, knowing how to use a word is not just about following rules. It’s about following a certain kind of rules, namely those which involve recognizing good inferences, which the use kicks up for us, and knowing when and how to reject the bad ones. A parrot may be able to make the sound "red" on cue when presented with something red, but if it can do no more than that, if it cannot recognize that "red" is a color and that it isn't, say, blue, and that many things can be red, then it cannot be said to grasp the meaning of the word it has uttered.

Similarly, when using "good" or "beautiful," we need to be able to give reasons for our use if asked, reasons based on our ability to identify what counts as these and why we think so. Being able to give and assess reasons for a usage amounts to knowing when it's correct to use the term and when it isn't. If we can't do that, all we have is the rote response of thermostats (kicking the boiler on at a certain temperature) or the sound identified with the written letters "red," repeated on cue by the parrot.

In this sense, "good" and "beautiful" are no less meaningful than "red" or "fat" because, to understand them, we must have access to an entire assortment of implicative connections. Thus, the fact that we are sometimes reduced to generalizations like these is not an indication they lack meaning, or enough meaning, in themselves to justify our attending to them, that we should ignore them in favor of more specific terms in more specific contexts.

Here an inquiry into the meaning of even these general terms related to the ethical or aesthetics is not out of the realm of the philosophical because we do use these terms and we do so for certain purposes as part of engaging in activities specific to their use when such use is correct within the language in which these words occur.

Understanding meaning in terms of family relations does not mean more general terms have no meaning of their own, that grasping that meaning is no more than grasping every particular use they stand in for, especially because there is no reason to presume that we can ever have a full account of every possible particular use they stand in for, nor does Wittgenstein propose that there is.

In the case of ethics, the generalizations that interest us are those which stand in for specific valuational claims vis a vis our moral discourse claims, generalizations we support by drilling down to specifics when pressed, but which, at the general level, continue to represent a particular type of activity which all the particular usages are part of and which constitute one of the many types of things we do as humans.

The study of ethics need not be about what is right or wrong for anyone to do, under particular scenarios, so-called normative ethics, but only about what it means to make such claims as in identifying what underlies them and the role that plays for us in ordinary human life. If this is meta-ethics, as Richter notes, then it is no less meaningful for that. Isn't much of the philosophical work we do vis a vis ethics like that, after all?

Before we can have a system of norms which we may want to claim as definitive (if any can be), we must understand what it means to make such claims and why they have a cognitive sense in our various uses (or whether they don't, of course, in which case different conclusions about how much any ethical claim can be relied on will follow).

Richter ends by pointing out that "Principia Ethica-style inquiries," a la Moore, "are bound to fail" (page 170) because of the family of uses insight which Wittgenstein famously asserted. But, while Moore's intuitionist account can be seen to fail (if ethics are intuited, as he imagines, how can we argue for doing one thing rather than another when the standard is intrinsically private to the intuiter—in which case what can the point of ethical talk ultimately be?), it doesn’t follow that any attempt to explore the meaning of terms like "good" and "right" to explicate what it means to call anything a moral good must be unsatisfying to the philosopher.

We still want to know what claims of goodness amount to in the particular cases even as the general term covers a variety of such cases (just as "beautiful" covers various cases in the aesthetic domain). The supposition that a multiplicity of uses precludes any meaningful inquiry into generalized meaning takes the notion of family relations in word usage (and, thus, meaning) further than we need to take it. So, while it may make some sense to suggest that Wittgenstein withheld comment on ethical matters in his later philosophical work because of a conclusion that ethics (or, at least, our ethical claims) do not consist of only one thing we do, it hardly seems fair or reasonable to suggest that that conclusion deprives philosophy of room for inquiry into the nature and purpose of the ethical in human life at all. Nor does Richter seem to think so in his own work.

If Wittgenstein's later work provides an explanation, perhaps even an excuse, for his apparent loss of interest in the topic, it does not also put paid to it, or exclude ethics as a proper subject for philosophers.

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