Wittgenstein and Ethical Inquiry
Wittgenstein and Ethical Inquiry: A Defense of Ethics as Clarification (Continuum, 2007)
My aim in this book is to argue that Wittgenstein, though himself (mostly) silent on the issue of ethics, offers us immense resources for understanding the appropriate aims of any philosophical ethics. Because the aim of this book is to re-think our approach to ethics, Wittgenstein is only my point of departure. My aim is to provide a Wittgensteinian approach to ethics, and then to see what implications this vision of ethics has for the way we are to understand ethical theory.
Chapter one of the book sets the stage for the use of Wittgensteinian resources. In this stage-setting chapter, I argue that the Wittgensteinian corpus centers around one fundamental task: to distinguish a proposition from a (constitutive) rule. Using material from the Philosophical Investigations, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, On Certainty, and elsewhere, I argue that Wittgenstein’s crucial insight (and the way in which the later Wittgenstein moves beyond the atomism of the Tractatus) lies in recognizing that utterances admit of different conditions under which they are meaningful (i.e. they have different significance conditions). In this way, Wittgenstein is engaged in a type of speech act analysis. The two primary speech acts he consistently considers are the assertoric speech act and the clarificatory speech act—reminding his reader that what has the appearance of an empirical proposition (what appears to assert something about the world) need not be one (it might be a rule of the form ‘x counts as y in c’).
What is unique about my analysis is twofold: first, it unifies a number of the distinctions that litter the Wittgensteinian corpus. In the first chapter, I will make a point of spelling out how the rule/proposition analysis manages to usefully unify a diverse set of distinctions. (e.g., the distinctions between explanation/description, prediction/calculation, and reason/cause). Second, my analysis allows us to reconsider how a Wittgensteinian approach to ethical inquiry might work. Wittgenstein is usually regarded as maintaining the view of ethics he puts forth in the Tractatus—namely, that ethics “cannot be put into words”—that it is nonsense, even if it is important. I will provide the groundwork, in chapter one, for putting ethics into words—even if the words in which we express the moral dimension of our form of life are remarkably flexible and open-ended. I will claim that we can regard ethical theory as the clarification of the normative dimension of our workaday world—and I will further insist that ethical theory is only successful when it captures the constitutive rules of our form of life. This is a radical departure from much mainstream moral philosophy.
Of course, any constitutive rule that purports to make a claim about the empirical world (and not about, for example, our socio-linguistic practices) is nonsense in Wittgenstein’s view. (This is precisely why Wittgenstein characterizes all of the propositions of his own Tractatus as nonsense). Once we recognize, however, that different types of speech acts have different significance conditions (as Wittgenstein sees in the Investigations), we need no longer endorse a melancholy view of ethical inquiry. What we will insist, rather, is that the project of ethics cannot be assertoric—that is, that ethics cannot aim to produce a procedure for algorithmically solving our ethical dilemmas (as a naïve reading of Kant suggests), and, moreover, that any ethical inquiry will necessarily aim at clarifying (at least part of) those values to which we are already antecedently committed.
What is useful about this project is not that it adds something new to the already substantial literature on Wittgenstein (though it does add something new). The value, it seems to me, is that it gives us a perspective from which we might re-evaluate the tradition of ethical theory. It is precisely this task that I turn to in chapters two through four. In these chapters, I will argue that the groundwork laid in chapter one gives us valuable resources for a re-appraisal of traditional, purportedly action-guiding, ethical theory—as well as the relation between those theories (more particularly, the relationship between Kantian deontology and Millian utilitarianism) that are typically regarded as irreparably antagonistic to one another.
Allow me to be more specific about how I deal with traditional ethical theory in the second section of this book. In chapter two, I argue that the standard interpretation of Kant has been misled by a tradition in ethics obsessed with the assertoric; obsessed with the purported ability of a singular rule to generate all of our duties. Reading the ‘categorical imperative’ as just this sort of procedural device, I argue, is a misunderstanding of Kantian ethics. Kant was much more in line with the Wittgensteinian approach to ethics that I advocate. Although a complete treatment of this claim is provided in Chapter two, it will be useful to say something about it here, if only to dissuade the reader from promptly putting down this book in the face of what likely seems an implausible thesis.
The dominant understanding of Kant’s categorical imperative (hereafter, ‘CI’) makes this imperative a procedural notion designed to reveal when properly construed human actions conflict with the demands of duty. The (simplified) story goes as follows: we identify the maxim of a given action (i.e. the reason it was done; its undergirding intentional component). We then conduct a thought-experiment, imagining that this maxim had, through our will, become a law of nature—something immutable; something which held without exception. If this is possible—that is, if we can imagine our maxim as a universal law without generating contradictions in conception or contradictions in willing—the action in question does not conflict with the dictates of duty. This ‘universalizability test’ initially seems to make the CI a regulative notion: whenever we have a question about the moral permissibility of an action, we crunch through the CI procedure. The result of the procedure tells us what we ought to do, or what we ought to have done.
This reading of Kant is not without textual support. In chapter two, however, I will offer the outline of an alternative, and I think much more plausible, approach to understanding Kant’s CI—one which is commensurate with the Wittgensteinian view that ethics should be viewed as clarificatory, and not assertoric, in nature. The view for which I will argue is this: the CI is not regulative, and it is not designed to be part of some procedure for determining what course of action conflicts with duty. Rather, the CI is meant to be a constitutive notion. Kant is clarifying what will count as moral reasoning—what makes such reasoning distinct from pure, theoretical reason, on the one hand, and practical, prudential reasoning on the other. To read the CI as a regulative rule is to mistake a clarification for an assertion; a constitutive rule for a regulative one.
There are several arguments which lend some support to this understanding of Kant’s aim in the Groundwork: the first (and most important) argument is a structural one. Kant claims he can derive the CI from our everyday moral understanding. Indeed, it is only from such a derivation, leaving the empirical entirely behind, that Kant thinks he can adequately excavate morality. Kant says explicitly that the analysis he offers in the first two sections of the Groundwork is analytic: he is not telling us anything we do not already know. Thus, when we are first introduced to the CI in Section I, Kant is engaged in a clarificatory endeavor: he is spelling out the meaning and structure of moral reasoning—its crucial core.
Two additional arguments are here worth mentioning, if only briefly, in order to lend more antecedent plausibility to the argument put forth in this book: The first of these two is an argument from isomorphism. In addition to the CI, Kant offers another principle of rationality: the Hypothetical Imperative (‘he who wills the end also will the means’—hereafter ‘HI’). It is obvious that this principle of rationality is not regulative. To have willed an end, and not willed what one believes to be the means to the end, is simply to be irrational. One does not here say ‘You are acting in an inappropriate way.’ Rather, one is forced to claim that the action in question cannot count as rational. Given that the HI and the CI are both principles of rationality, it is plausible to think that they share clarificatory status: neither regulate; both clarify. The second of the two additional arguments might be called the argument from equivalence. In Section II of the Groundwork, Kant offers several articulations of (what he claims is) a single categorical imperative: the formula of universal law, the formula of humanity, and the formula of the kingdom of ends. These are purportedly equivalent in some sense. If we read the CI as regulative, the logical equivalence of the various CIs becomes highly problematic: the formula of humanity will permit some things that the formula of universal law will exclude, for example. An entire literature has developed around this problematic aspect of Kant’s Groundwork. But no such problem arises when we read the CI as a constitutive rule: as a clarification of moral reasoning, the CI can be articulated in a number of ways (or so I will argue). Obviously, much remains to be said to clarify this reading of Kant—a project I complete in chapter 2.
In chapter three, I will turn my attention to Mill’s utilitarianism, arguing that we can understand Mill in the same manner. He too is attempting to clarify our moral understanding. This reading of Mill has been almost entirely neglected—largely because Mill’s views are taken from the ethical writings in isolation. When one emphasizes the claims Mill makes in Book VI of the System of Logic, it is virtually impossible to regard him as offering a regulative rule for engaging in ethical action. Mill claims that our characters are determinative of our actions, and that our characters are shaped much like everything else: namely, by a series of antecedent causes. This means that, even if we are exposed to a principle that could guide us in our ethical deliberations, we are not free to simply adopt that principle. Rather, whether or not we adopt the principle of utility will depend on the character we already have. Given this view of human agency, it is a mistake to think that the principle of utility is meant to be action-guiding and regulative.
The way to read the principle of utility, I will claim, is in terms of politics. Mill advocates this principle as a means of engaging in social engineering (this comes through even in Utilitarianism, but more so in the section on ethology in his System of Logic). The justification for this political principle, however, depends on a clarificatory argument: in order to apply the principle of utility to social institutions, that principle must articulate what is involved in being human. Mill claims precisely this when he notes that the principle of utility is based on “the social feelings of mankind,” and thus cannot be analyzed away.
Given this reading of Kant and Mill, I proceed to show (in Chapter 4) the significant sense in which Kant and Mill can be regarded as proceeding from broadly Wittgensteinian commitments. Once this methodological move has been made, I will argue that we can view Kant and Mill as compatible, provided that we understand them as clarifying divergent parts of our common moral understanding. To put it succinctly: we can understand Kant as clarifying the logic of moral rationality, and Mill as clarifying the constituents of human flourishing.
In Chapter 5, I will further argue that we should not confuse this Wittgensteinian approach to ethics with merely descriptive ethics: the values to which we are committed are not transparent to us. Moreover, a description of some x as ‘valuable’ can never be merely a description. It also implicitly asserts that x should be valued. Articulating the values we already have is thus an intrinsically critical endeavor—not a mere defense of the status quo. I will argue for this point by looking at a common criticism leveled against Wittgenstein: namely, that his philosophy is intrinsically quietistic. I will examine in detail Marcuse’s articulation of this criticism, arguing that Wittgenstein has much to offer Marcusian critical theory, and hence is not to be regarded as engaging in a merely descriptive project.
In the final chapter of the book, I will argue that the Wittgensteinian picture of ethical inquiry I advocate does not condemn us to any kind of relativism—despite the fact that it seems as though there are many ways to clarify our moral understanding. The view is not relativistic, to put the point bluntly, because ethics aims at clarifications of what we are already committed to, and it looks like we share quite a bit simply in virtue of the fact that we are human agents (one candidate for a shared value here, of course, is a commitment to autonomy). Elucidating these commitments—making them clearer—can enrich our lives, and has the potential to help us deal with inconsistencies in our evaluational stances toward the world and to others. In this respect, our clarificatory efforts in ethics might still be immensely useful—even if we utterly abandon the view that ethics can provide us with a set of duties, or a procedure for generating these duties.
One might well wonder what the use of elucidation is if it is not to determine our duties. On the Wittgensteinian view I advocate, clarity is a good in itself—but I do not expect this to satisfy those who have higher hopes for ethical theory. Thus, let me say a few more things about what I take clarification to accomplish. In my view, part of the human form of life is to recognize particular things as maintaining moral significance: that cruelty is wrong, that autonomy is valuable, that the cultivation of our talents—and of our humanity—is something that we ought to work towards. These are among the many things I should like to call moral primitives. They are among the constituent features of our everyday phenomenology, and recognizing this amounts to acknowledging that there is a normative structure to the way we experience the world. Ethical theory—though it is by no means alone in this—can serve to articulate this structure, can serve to put our inchoate moral perception into words. Thus, the project of clarification can enable us to make the only dimly recognized more fully recognized. Clarification can make us more transparent to ourselves—and while this might have no direct bearing on the way we act in the world, it will certainly have some bearing on the way we are in the world. Ethical theory can thus act as a sort of moral phenomenology. It can act as a means of understanding the moral dimension of our form of life. Of course, I will not insist that the capacity to articulate one’s value-orientaton is in any way intrinsically good. Articulation can do as much harm as good. What I will claim, though, is that understanding ourselves—whether this is achieved through putting ethics into words or by passing it over in silence—is a project worthy of our attention, and it is a project for which ethical theory will sometimes be of immense use.