Monday, May 16, 2011

In Print: Speaking for Oneself: Wittgenstein on Ethics

As some have already noted, my paper on Wittgenstein on ethics has been published by Inquiry. (An unofficial version is here; if you need help acquiring the official pdf, let me know.)


  1. I haven't come up with any comments of sufficient relevance on your new paper. (Just as I was going to recommend, based on your separate mentions of Gandhi and Orwell, that you read Orwell's essay on Gandhi, you said you were going to read it without it being recommended. Uncanny!)

    But I now finally managed to write out what I described in a previous comment some weeks ago as my "misgivings" about this already published paper. I'm not sure if that's the best word for them, but here they are. They aren't really "objections" as such, as I'm not sure myself what to think of them; and if you respond to them, this is itself sure to make me think differently about them. That is in fact a major reason why I'm making them. I have thought about the paper a lot these past weeks.


    On the one hand we have in your paper Ramsey, with his superficial consequentialist considerations related to psychological benefits, and on the other hand we have Wittgenstein, to whom ethics is a deep personal commitment and who puts his life on the line. A very straightforward contrast. And yet, outside the Lecture on Ethics, we have Wittgenstein making some remarks that sound quite Ramseyan. His close friend and pupil Drury reports him as saying:

    "I believe it is right to try experiments in religion. To find out, by trying, what helps one and what doesn't. [...] Now why don't you see if starting the day by going to Mass each morning doesn't help you to begin the day in a good frame of mind?" (Recollections of Wittgenstein, p. 165)

    And yet he famously described religious belief as "(something like) passionately committing oneself to a system of coordinates", bringing it under the same umbrella of personal commitment as ethics - where it is widely held to have been located for him on other grounds as well. If we put two and two together, it would not seem possible to see passionate commitment and psychology-centric consequentialism as opposites. Instead, Wittgenstein seems to have recommended to Drury that he try out various creeds with a view to finding the one that is most beneficial psychologically for him, and then commit himself to it passionately after he has found it.

    Or consider this, from the remarks on Frazer:

    "Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied."

    Here, "acting in this way and then feeling satisfied" is denied to be criticisable as "aiming at something" in a way that would seem to make it impossible to criticise Ramsey for "aiming at mere psychological satisfaction" the way your paper seemingly does. What if you had put to Ramsey the criticisms you make in your paper and Ramsey had replied: "As Wittgenstein himself puts it, I act in this way and then feel satisfied"?

  2. 2)

    Wittgenstein is expressing a moral impossibility (abandoning his respect for ethical discourse) rather than a psychological impossibility. On this distinction, Raimond Gaita (2004) is wonderfully clear: “[T]here are interesting differences in the ways that it is impossible to do something. It is impossible that a person should try to run a mile in five seconds. It would be nonsensical to suggest that anyone should try. But if anyone had said to Luther when he said, 'Here I stand, I can do no other', that he should, nonetheless, give it a go, then that would be nonsensical in quite a different way. Within the class of incapacities to do with character, moral instances are distinguished from the rest as paradigmatically, if not exclusively, those that rebuff, as nonsensical in the second way, any suggestion to try. If we wish that a person would do what he says he (morally) cannot do, then we do not urge him to try, but rather, to see the situation differently. Whereas if he says that morally it is possible for him, but psychologically it is not, then it makes sense to say that he should try." (p. 274-275)

    I don't think this is "wonderfully clear". What if someone is, say, so viscerally disgusted with the suggestion that he do X that he cannot decide, even after concentrated introspection, whether he could try to do X or not, i.e. whether his own disgust is moral or psychological? What if he simply doesn't feel like trying, and is for this reason fated to remain in the dark himself about the nature of the impossibility in question? (Perhaps this sort of case falls under the qualification "paradigmatically, if not exclusively".)

    Any remarks you might feel like making on these points would be received with the greatest interest.

  3. Tommi,

    Here's a first crack at a response, though I will try to keep it short.

    1) I admit suspecting at times that I have been a bit hard on Ramsey in the paper, and if I have time in the future, I may return to this (perhaps thinking about the relation between Ramsey's remarks about being thrilled by the world, and LW's remarks in the Tractatus about the different worlds of the happy man and the sad man).

    What bothers me about the way Ramsey talks of being "thrilled" by the world isn't that being so is good "for all one's other activities." That is, I don't mean to rail against the instrumental value here. Nevertheless, if the world "thrills" him, then I assume there is something about it, or things in it, that thrill him, and these are the sorts of considerations that I wanted to suggest ought to be (or at least could be) discussed. Of course, his view is that we can only "compare notes," and my sense is that this attitude presupposes some kind of wall between discussants which an attempt to "have a discussion" could not surmount. I think that is wrong. (So, sorry, I'm speaking for myself here rather than thinking about the connection to LW; see below.)

    (However, if Ramsey is thinking along the lines of the Tractarian distinction between the worlds of the happy and sad man, then perhaps there would seem to be an insurmountable wall. My quick response to this is that I don't see why in an actual case we should make an a priori assumption to that effect. It's also important here that the kind of articulation of one's perspective which I would count as a contribution to a discussion--i.e. something beyond mere reason-giving or logical argumentation--might surmount such walls even where rational argumentation might not. Here, I think of such articulations as more than just "comparing notes" because, for example, the narrative form such articulations can take might be such as to produce experiences in others (e.g. inspire, convert, etc.) in ways that are, we might say, non-rational (though not irrational).)

    To connect this back to some of the remarks by Wittgenstein, consider the ones you give above concerning passionate commitment "to a system of coordinates." Perhaps what I'm requesting Ramsey bring to discussion above are those coordinates. Are these things which can only be passed over in silence? (Here, I might jump a little further ahead in Wittgensteinian thought and look at the private language considerations and other considerations about private objects, the upshot being, I take it, that these coordinates would not be essentially private, ineffable. Hard to eff? Perhaps so.)

  4. Continued:

    2) On Gaita and trying: well, if a person doesn't feel like trying (but the act is otherwise morally and/or psychologically possible), then it might not make practical sense to urge the person to do so (or to continue so urging). At some point, perhaps we should give up. But Gaita's talking about what sort of urgings would make sense, conceptually speaking.

    On the moral cases, I take it he's saying that it makes no sense to urge someone, say, to go ahead and try to torture a suspected terrorist, if this person has said that doing so is a moral impossibility. (Of course, there may be various worries about what Williams called moral self-indulgence here, but I will let that pass for now.)

    On the psychological cases, I think Gaita is assuming that sometimes we get wrong what is and is not psychologically possible for us. Consider a person with a fear of heights. We might be helping this person confront that fear by doing some kind of bridge exercise where he or she walks a short way out onto a bridge. This person says: "It's impossible. I can't do it." We say: "It is possible. Just try." If the person refuses, that doesn't confirm that it was even psychologically impossible for that person, since, as you say, he or she might just have not felt like doing it in the end (etc.). That is, nothing shows that our urging the person to try in this case fails to make sense (conceptually).