February 22, 2014

Morality grounded in grammar?

I want to continue my reflections on the interchange between Drew Carter and Michael Campbell (see my previous entry).  According to Carter (as I read him), Wittgensteinian moral philosophers – such as Raimond Gaita and Christopher Cordner – regard morality as grounded in propositions possessing a kind of indubitable truth. Two of his examples are “One can’t love evil” and “One can’t love cow dung”. The first he understands to be a grammatical claim, the second a basic fact of human nature. He considers a grounding in human nature as solid, while a grammatical grounding seems to reduce morality to a mere matter of convention; he speaks of a “slide to relativism and subjectivism”. (I discussed the idea of a grounding in human nature in the first entry.)
Campbell, in my view rightly, rejects the proposed dichotomy between two kinds of grounding. I’d be inclined to say: to think of grammar and of human nature as somehow offering parallel modalities – each setting its own kind of limit to what is possible in moral thought – is confused. Indeed, I’m not even clear what it would be to think of the two sentences above, taken in isolation, as expressing either an empirical claim or a point of grammar. Deciding whether someone loves evil (or cow dung) is not like establishing whether someone is allergic to fish roe. For one thing, the terms of the relation, “fish roe” and “allergy” are distinct. But love and its object cannot in this way be thought of separately. How love is expressed, what it demands of us, is dependent on the object of love. To show my love of someone is to show my understanding of her.
It is also unclear under what aspect a person might be taken to love evil. Does he love evil for its own sake (e.g. a sadist, a person embittered by life, someone in the grip of vindictiveness, etc), or for what he hopes it will bring (e.g. a terrorist)?
For another thing, and connected with this, we are acquainted with the kinds of context in which food allergies are spoken about, the reasons for being concerned about it, the practical consequences. But when the philosopher raises the question whether it is possible or impossible to love evil, there is no context enabling us to get clear about the nature of the relation being considered.
What about the notion that morality might be grounded in grammar? How are we to think of the idea that the wrongness of an action is part of the very concept of the action (is internal to its description)? Would that mean that someone who murders an innocent human being or who lies to a friend is in violation of grammar or in the grip of a grammatical confusion?
                       Campbell quotes Cora Diamond’s “Eating Meat and Eating People”:
[T]here are some actions. . . that are part of the way we come to understand and indicate our recognition of what kind it is with which we are concerned. [. . .] [I]t is not “morally wrong” to eat our pets; people who ate their pets would not have pets in the same sense of the term. (C. Diamond, The Realistic Spirit, MIT Press, 1991,  p. 323.)
Well, there might be circumstances in which a person would find herself reduced to eating her dog, for instance, to fend off imminent starvation. So perhaps we might reformulate the point as follows: to think of an animal as a pet is not to think of it as food - though the fact that a person will eat something in a dire situation, or, say, as part of a ritual, does not entail that she thinks of it as food.
                      Would the realization that if I thought of my dog as food I would not regard it as a pet in the same sense as others do somehow keep me from eating it? Why should it? I might simply shrug my shoulders and say to myself: “All right, so my dog isn’t a pet in that sense.” The fact that we don’t think of pets as food is bound up with the fact that we aren’t tempted to eat them, indeed we normally have a revulsion to eating them. In that sense, not regarding pets as food is not a “mere convention”, notwithstanding the fact that customs concerning what kinds of animal are food vary between cultures. (In China, for instance, the attitude towards eating dog meat is different: there is a movement afoot there to discourage the eating of dogs and cats. In this connection, one may need to distinguish between eating certain species of animals often kept as pets, and eating one’s own pets.)
                      Now could we imagine people who shared our attitudes to pets in most respects, but regarded them as food? First, we should recall that “our” attitude to pets vary greatly: pets are a varied category (the Swedish category husdjur even more so), and so is the category of pet owner: not every dog owner has his dog sign Christmas cards or brings flowers to his cat’s grave each year on the date of her death. Anyway, if there is a conflict between regarding an animal as food and having towards it the other attitudes that go with regarding an animal as a pet, the conflict is of a psychological kind; a matter of “human nature”. This by itself entails nothing as to the way pets should be treated.
                      Could we, on the other hand, imagine a society lacking anything corresponding to our concept of a pet? Without difficulty: though of course, life in that society would differ markedly from ours in several respects.

January 29, 2014

Morality and the (im)personal

In a recent article, Drew Carter (“’Part of the Very Concept’: Wittgensteinian Moral Philosophy”, Philosophical Investigations, 36 (2013), 37-55 ), criticizes philosophers like Raimond Gaita and Christopher Cordner for leaving the foundation of morality unclear. They appear to suggest, he claims, that moral judgments are grounded in a conceptual scheme (a grammar), but if so, they constitute mere conventions. This is obscured, it appears, by the fact that what these philosophers claim to construe as matters of mere grammar are actually facts of human nature. Carter’s underlying worry, if I understand him correctly, is that in the absence of a grounding in human nature, nothing distinguishes moral convictions from mere matters of personal taste or preference.

In a response (“Inwardness and Sociability”, Philosophical Investigations, 37 (2014),  57-77),  Michael Campbell questions the idea of a grounding of morality whether in grammar or in facts of human nature. In the same issue there is a rejoinder by Carter . I found Campbell’s response on the whole well-argued and instructive. At the same time, there were things in the discussion I found it hard to get a grip on. In this and a later installment I wish to make a few comments, mainly with the purpose of trying to work out the issues for myself.  

Why is it a problem if moral convictions cannot be distinguished from matters of taste or preference? One central reason, I take it (though this is not made explicit in the debate), is that this would make it impossible to understand why we should accord a person’s moral convictions a respect which we do not accord, say, his taste in curtains or his preference for watching hockey rather than football on tv. Respect, I should empasize, is compatible with rejection, though it will show itself in the manner in which the rejection gets expressed.

Thus, for instance, there is the question of whether the unwillingness of health-care personnel to participate in abortions is to be respected, or whether they can be obliged to participate as part of their professional duties. This, one might suggest, is connected with whether we think of their unwillingness as an expression of a moral conviction or just a personal reluctance.

For another example, let us consider an episode in the film Chariots of Fire, which is based on real events. Eric Liddell was on the British team for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. He was deeply religious, and was reported to have said, "I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." This meant that he would not race on the Sabbath. He is selected to run the 100 metres, but when it turns out that the trial heats for the event are on a Sunday, he declares that he cannot compete. The British Olympic Committee, including the Prince of Wales, try to persuade him to change his mind, but he does not budge. (The standoff is resolved by his swapping events with another member of the British team.)

What I found of interest in this connection is the way the committee members approach the issue. They ask Liddell whether he would not be willing to make a sacrifice for Britain by competing on a Sunday. Thus, they seem to treat his unwillingness to compete as a matter of personal preference rather than an ethical / religious conviction. (I submit that the ethical and the religious are on a par in this respect.) They think that for him running on the Sabbath is something he prefers not to do, and thus running would involve a sacrifice on his part, one that he might be persuaded to undertake for a more important cause (the glory of Britain). But actually abstaining from running was the sacrifice he felt obliged to make; for him, there was no higher cause.

As I construe Carter’s position, if it is to be intelligible why certain convictions are to be accorded respect, they must be grounded in something independent of the individual or the practices of some group. A conviction deserves respect if it is “right”, as it were. The analogy here seems to be with being a credible witness: the speaker deserves to be believed if she has what we can all agree are valid grounds for the claims she is making. Similarly, the Olympic Committee might have been able to respect Liddell’s abstention if he had adduced grounds on which we can all agree, e.g. considerations of health. Since he could not adduce such grounds, there was no right or wrong about his wish, it simply boiled down to a matter of personal (or group) preference, and thus had no particular claim to be respected.

Campbell’s position, I gather, is almost the opposite of this. What makes a conviction deserving of respect is the depth with which it is held by the individual, the degree to which it is anchored in his or her life. This is why it is hard to imagine, for instance, how a love of evil – one of the examples discussed by Carter and Campbell – could take a form worthy of respect. Perhaps we could say: the more alien the proposed object of love appears to us, the heavier the burden of proof required if we are to be able to meet it with respect.

In a later entry, I plan to comment on the relation between morality and grammar.

December 08, 2013

Everyday Language and Workday Language

What is the ”everyday” of the everyday language Wittgenstein talks about in the Philosophical Investigations? Actually, there are several contrasts between the everyday and the non-everyday that seem to be of relevance in connection with Wittgenstein’s thought.
In most cases in the Philosophical Investigations where the English has ”everyday” it’s a translation of “alltäglich” (§ 106 “alltägliches Denken”, § 116 “alltägliche Verwendung”, § 134 “alltägliche Sprache”, § 412 “alltäglicher Sinn”). In § 81 Wittgenstein uses the word “Umgangssprache” [literally “the language of social intercourse”]. The contrast in most of these cases is with a metaphysical use (§ 116) or with an ideal language (e.g. §§ 81, 106, 134); as we might put it, with a language imagined by philosophers, a language in which things are expressed, as it were, in a mode true to their real essence; this could also be something like Frege’s concept script which, although it may not be intended for actual use, is supposed to express thoughts in a logically transparent way. This idea exerted a powerful attraction on philosophers of the day, but Wittgenstein at this stage considered its attraction to be insidious: the idea that such an imagined language might somehow deepen our understanding of our concepts was illusory. To get clear about them we should attend to their actual uses.


§ 18 hints at a different contrast:

Our language can be regarded as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, of houses with extensions from various periods, and all this surrounded by a multitude of new suburbs with straight and regular streets and uniform houses.

Here the contrast is between different areas of our actual language. The suburbs, it would appear, are mainly symbolic of the technical terminologies used in science and in various professions, words like “ionized”, or “erythrocyte”, or “conditioned reflex”, or “Alzheimer’s disease”, or “eminent domain”. These are well-regulated terminologies, often created by means of stipulative definitions, and hence their use is mostly easy to survey, in distinction to that of the central parts of the city with its mixture of old and new buildings, and a street pattern that has developed more organically. It is because the organic, “vernacular” parts of language (we might call it the language of everyman, and every woman) are difficult to survey that they tend to give rise to philosophical problems. The suburbs hold less of philosophical interest. They are a kind of artifical language. (Though sometimes seemingly clean and straightforward technical terms carry a subconscious burden inherited from the areas of language out of which they have been created. Or they may take on a life of their own, perhaps returning to the contexts of everyday conversation.)
                      Many, though not all, of the words belonging to what might be called the ageless core of our language are philosophically problematic because they have a variety of different but related uses, and thus tend to recur in a large variety of contexts: I am thinking of words such as “see”, “know”, “think”, “will”, “feel”, “mean”, “time”, “because”, “just”. (In some passage that I have been unable to retrieve, Strawson, I believe, refers to this vocabulary as words without a history. In some sense, we might say, they have always been there. Indeed, what would it be to imagine language without them?)
                      Wittgenstein makes a related point, in Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Volume II: 

§ 216 ... our concept “thinking” is widely ramified. Like a ramified traffic network which connects many out-of-the-way places with each other.

§ 218 Couldn’t the same be said of “believing”, “doing”, “being glad”?

Between the “ageless” and the artificial lie words with a history, words such as “religion”, or “citizen”, or “intelligence”, or “literature”. They too give rise to philosophical bewilderment, but maybe not as deep or intractable as the other kind. (This trichotomy is not intended to be exhaustive, simply to point to some characteristic differences between types of words.)


A third contrast is that between thinking about a word or sentence in isolation and thinking about its role in human interaction; holiday vs. workday. This of course is the theme of two oft-quoted remarks in the Philosophical Investigations:

§ 38: Naming seems to be a strange connection of a word with an object. – And such a strange connection really obtains, particularly when a philosopher tries to fathom the relation between name and what is named by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word “this” innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. And then we may indeed imagine naming to be some remarkable mental act , as it were the baptism of an object.

§ 132: ... a reform for particular practical purposes, an improvement in our terminology designed to prevent misunderstandings in practice, may well be possible. But these are not the cases we are dealing with. The confusions which occupy us arise when language is, as it were, idling, not when it is doing work. 

Here the idea is that our bewilderment is dissolved when we attend to the actual functioning of our expressions. Not because doing so provides answers to our questions, but because it reminds us that in the context of actual conversation, the problems that beset us do not arise. The need to attend to actual functioning, of course, does not simply concern the language of social intercourse, but the languages of the sciences, law, theology, etc as well. The everyday of the language, not just the language of everyday.

October 31, 2013

Questionnaire caution and context oblivion

Pär Segerdahl  provides an important caution against the thoughtless use of questionnaires in his blog.

Opinion poll makers no less than (many) philosophers apparently suffer from an affliction one might dub context oblivion.

October 29, 2013

Redeemable and irredeemable nonsense

 I shall try to do good on my promise to explain why I think there is a form of nonsense – what might be called irredeemable nonsense – to which we are particularly prone in doing philosophy. This has to do with the kind of communicative predicament in which we frequently place ourselves when we attempt to formulate philosophical theses.
                      First, for contrast, let’s consider what I should like to call a case of redeemable nonsense. The following line has been attributed to the formidable baseball player Yogi Berra, famous for his talent for apparent malapropisms and logical slips. One of the things he is reported to have said, commenting on a famous restaurant, is 

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

The remark, on the face of it, is self-contradictory. But it doesn’t seem hard to unpack the sense of what he was saying. Berra may have meant something like, “Nobody who is in the know goes to that restaurant any more”, or, “I and most people I know have started to avoid that restaurant because it is so crowded these days”, or the like. Whether he deliberately chose a paradoxical mode of expression or just happened to hit on a somewhat confusing formulation I don’t know.
                      Of course I’m just surmising what he meant. If we had been present at the uttering, this might have shaped our encounter with his words: at first we might have thought the remark weird or funny, then through widening our perspective we might have got what he was saying.

On the other hand, consider the remark “We can’t know the future”. (This is sometimes rendered in the form “We can’t predict the future”, which is a rather awkward formulation since it is only with regard to future happenings that we speak of prediction.)
For one thing, there is a perfectly normal use for sayings like this, or related ones such as “We never know what may happen / how things will turn out”, etc. A couple are relating their plans for a long and complex journey, and then they add, “Of course, one can never tell how things will work out, we may have to improvise”, “We’ll simply have to hope that neither of us gets sick”, etc. Of course such remarks are not meant to inform the listener of something she wasn’t aware of (nor are they intended as conceptual clarification). The words function as an admonition, as the expression of an attitude towards contingencies. A religious person might say, “We’ll just have to place things in God’s hands”. (A healthy person wouldn’t say things like these when going to the supermarket, unless she had reason to fear something like a terrorist attack or an earthquake.)
                      Sometimes we may say things like these in retrospect, as when some unfortunate (or fortunate) turn of events that we had never (or never really) taken into consideration gives our lives a radical twist, maybe changing the whole frame in which we regard our lives. We may then be struck by our inability to anticipate the twists and turns of fate. Of course, in other cases we may find that things run exactly as we expect them to (and then someone might even complain that life is boring).
                      So far so good. But there is a temptation to turn these kinds of expression into epistemological observations, to argue that the future is unknowable in principle. David Hume, of course, is a famous representative of this idea. One way of expressing this would be to say that the form of words “NN knows / knew that ...” has no genuine application when followed by a clause in the future tense. (Probably an exception would be made for sentences like “I know that Easter Sunday next year will fall on 20 April – trust me, I just checked it in a calendar”. But the claim would apply to what are held to be contingent events, including solar eclipses and suchlike.)
                      Perhaps it is thought that this principle somehow grounds our attitude to the contingencies of life. But that would just be whimsical.
                      In fact we very often use the word “know” in violation of this principle. Joe tells me, “I know there will be a test next Wednesday – Professor Morowski said so himself”, or Jim says , “Molly knows that the sunflowers will freeze if there’s a frost tonight”, or  Sarah says, “You know what will happen if you place Uncle Herbert next to Aunt Agatha – they’ll get into a frightful row!”
                      The philosophical temptation is to say that such a use of “know” is strictly speaking erroneous. Whence the temptation? This may be one source of it: if after the event I ask Joe whether there had been a test, then unless he had evidence that there had actually been one, he would probably say he didn’t know. But how can his relation to the test being held on Wednesday change from one of knowledge to one of uncertainty? It is tempting to conclude that it wasn’t a genuine case of knowledge to begin with. And similarly for the other cases.
                      There is, then, a clash here between how people actually speak and the way they ought to speak according to the philosopher. Suppose in a particular case we get into a disagreement on whether somebody actually knows what will happen. I may tell Sarah, “You don’t know that they’ll get into a row – give them some credit”, or Joe, “Professor Morawski keeps changing his plans, so you can’t really go by his words”. The question is, what bearing is the philosopher’s observation meant to have on these conversations? Should he say,
(1) You’re all confused - there’s no distinction between knowing and not knowing the future so there’s nothing to argue about.
Or perhaps,
(2) It’s all right to speak about knowledge they way you do for everyday purposes, as long as you realize that it’s not really knowledge?
In the first case, the philosopher is telling us to change our practices. He might want us to conclude that there’s no point in scrutinizing the evidence for future happenings, we won’t know what will happen anyway. Or he tells us never to regard anything as settled when it comes to the future: don’t assume the train will depart at five, that the chair won’t break when you sit on it, that this apple tree will not yield pears next year, etc. But that is hardly what he wants to be doing; nor has he provided any grounds for such a change of practice.
If the second case, he would himself be admitting that his principle had no bearing on the discussion.
The philosopher’s principle, then, is a conversational dead end. He has simply registered an impulse to utter a remark about knowledge and the future. There is no way of going on with his remark (other than to repeat his words).
The situation is the opposite of that concerning Yogi Berra’s comment. Here, we believe at first something important has been said, but when we try to widen the perspective we are left empty-handed. The philosopher’s nonsense is beyond redemption.