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.


  1. 1.
    Regarding the distinction between personal preference judgments and moral judgments: Might we say that the difference is logical-grammatical? This might work something like this: If, when I say: “I think slavery is disgusting,” I take it to follow that you should also think that or that you are corrupted if you don’t, I’m making a moral judgment. Alternatively if something of that sort doesn’t follow for me, then I’m merely expressing a personal preference. That is, if I can say “I think slavery is disgusting, but I’m not going to frown upon it if you have some.”
    (This can leave room for the possibility that other kinds of moral judgments have different logical behaviors.)

    Would that be saying something different from what you are saying about the distinction? – Are you making a non-grammatical distinction between the judgments? Or are you making a different grammatical distinction?

    Another thing I’m not sure I understand is why—or to what extent—you take the religious and the moral to be on a par. How deep do you take the similarity to go? Is there a logical-grammatical similarity between the way religious judgments and moral judgments differ from personal preference judgments? If so, what is it?

    1. Thank you for your questions.
      I would lay emphasis on your point that different kinds of moral expression have different logical behaviours. In fact, it might be helpful to restrict the use of the phrase “moral judgment” to cases in which someone is pronouncing on the feelings, motives or conduct of other people. Given that restriction, it would be a point of grammar that in making a moral judgment I am at the same time passing judgment on those who do not agree or comply.

      But there are other, perhaps more interesting forms of morally significant expression. It seems clear to me that in declaring that he will not compete on the Sabbath, Eric Liddell is not making a moral judgment. As I recall it, he was not critical of his team-mates who had no compunction about running on a Sunday. And yet, it was clear that he was expressing a deep-felt conviction, not just a personal preference.

      I do not wish to make a general claim about the relation between moral and religious expressions. I believe that in many cases the distinction between them is hazy. In fact, all I am prepared to say is that they both differ from expressions of personal preference (I guess that notion too may be in need of closer scrutiny), in the way they may lay claim to respect, or in the sense that I may feel a need to be true to them. (In most cases, on the other hand, I may switch my allegiance from hockey to football without a question of betrayal making itself felt.)

  2. Chariots of Fire is such a great example. Not having read the debate in question, I may have missed the point, but it seems like the reaction of the British Olympic Committee is not enough to judge whether that they consider it a matter of personal preference rather than moral/religious conviction. First, because their reactions are mixed. Some take Liddell's decision as 'impertinence', while others treat it like a deeply held moral/religious conviction, which it is nevertheless in the interests of the country to attempt to overcome. That the Prince of Wales et al. attempt to sway him does not necessarily show that they considered it personal preference rather than moral conviction, but that they thought this moral conviction might be overcome by a different moral conviction. If I recall the movie correctly, there was a mixture of esteem and annoyance, even in the same person (Lord Birkenhead for example). If there was a modicum of guilt on the part of at least some members of the Olympic Committee, this might indicate a recognition of the immorality of their own behaviour. Also, to further complicate matters, I believe (in the movie) that although Liddell obviously is sacrificing his desire to run for his religious conviction, he also agrees with the Prince of Wales that going on to run the 100 metres anyway would also constitute a sacrifice (a sacrifice of his religious beliefs to his patriotism), further indicating that it was not a matter of preference vs conviction, but that it was rather a matter of two battling convictions.

    Beyond the moral messiness of the movie, the example might indicate a point that I think Wittgenstein makes in his lectures on religious belief, that moral/religious conviction is a category not to be distinguished just by what one would risk for the belief (albeit a good criterion of strength of belief, which is in turn a good criterion more moral conviction), nor just by how much 'respect' is accorded (because little respect can be given a belief that we nevertheless recognise as deeply moral/religious), but also by other criteria like what kinds of grounds are given (the glory of God, the glory of Britain, my personal glory, or my personal pleasure?), the subject matter of the belief (does the belief have to do with sexuality or with lollipops? the former is a better candidate for a moral/religious conviction), and whether it is a prescription or proscription (perhaps it is my cultural heritage talking but THOU SHALT NOTs seem like better candidates for moral/religious conviction than THOU SHALTs, or THOU MAYs).

    1. These are interesting comments. I was reconstructing the episode from *Chariots of Fire* from memory (it was quite a while since I saw it), and I may have simplified the argument. I agree that one may try to persuade someone to put aside a moral scruple by invoking some other ideal. Whereas if I simply say “Come off it”, it appears that I am either showing contempt for the other guy’s convictions (as in considering them impertinent) or revealing the fact that I don’t understand what he is trying to say. It seems to me that the parameters of the discussion as you describe them support my understanding of the contrast between moral/religious conviction and personal preference.

      It is true that, depending on the context, the criteria of what will count as a moral / religious conviction will vary – we might think of them as conceptual families. My concern wasn’t really to draw a limit to the category of moral / religious conviction so much as to account for the uneasiness one may feel about the idea that they are never anything other than matters of individual taste or social convention.

      You say: “little respect can be given a belief that we nevertheless recognise as deeply moral/religious”. But doesn’t this depend on how you fill out the picture? Saying that a conviction goes deep with the other might be an expression of respect in itself, even though I may disagree vehemently. Or I might mean that some thought system has taken a powerful hold on the other (“she has been brainwashed”) and yet insist that it is not an expression of her true self, and hence not worthy of true respect.

  3. Hmm, perhaps I did miss the point. I was trying to get at the sense in which moral conviction and personal preference might overlap, but if I understand you now, the point is rather that (although they are not absolutely distinct) in at least some important respects they may not overlap fully, that is, moral conviction is not identical to or reducible to mere personal preference. So, moral convictions, just like personal preferences, may be readily malleable, replaceable, dispensable, suspendable etc. but we insist that there is something importantly different in the way we change our minds in the two cases.

    Would it be right to suggest distinguishing moral conviction from personal preference in this manner is part of a job, the other half of which is to show how moral conviction need not be made sense of as somehow grounded in human nature?

  4. Your last suggestion is very much to the point. The worry I am addressing is that unless moral convictions can be shown to be grounded in human nature, they will reduce to mere personal preferences. *My* point (and I believe Campbell’s) would be that they may lack impersonal grounding, and yet not be a mere matter of preference.

    I thought your discussion of the episode from *Chariots of Fire* was meant to show that people may often disagree on how to relate to a person’s expression of what he wants in a particular case (whether as matters of conviction or preference), different understandings going with different responses.

    It does seem that the difference I am after is between different ways of changing one’s mind (different ways of thinking about what it means to change one’s mind) – and at the same time between different attitudes towards trying to change other people’s minds. Could we say: in calling some choice of mine a mere matter of preference, I am signalling the fact that I am not going to make any claims for it? It is, as it were, a negative quality. (This is very loose, I need to think harder about it.)

    1. Something that I always find puzzling in views of the kind you are criticizing is just what it is that their defenders are after when they speak of ‘a grounding in human nature’ or an ‘impersonal grounding’ – and why they think we need it. It is possible that there is an ambiguity in the notion of ‘grounding’ that fuels the issue somehow. The emphasis sometimes seems to be on the idea that it is important that I be able to justify my view to anyone – no matter how different they may be from me. In other contexts the emphasis may be less on ‘justifying’ and more on an idea of my view having ‘roots’ in a common human nature.

      Focusing on the first reading (though closely analogous points may apply to the second) we might ask: who is to be included in ‘anyone’? If the relevant group is ‘all human beings’, one might ask, first, why that should be the relevant group; and second, is this to include, for example, the hopelessly brain damaged with whom one might normally suppose any form of communication about such matters cannot even get off the ground? One can imagine possible answers to the first of those questions. But I guess the idea of ‘impersonal justification’ here is more often tied up less with ‘all human beings’ as such and more with Kantian ideas of ‘all rational beings’. In that case we will be faced with questions about whether content of the kind needed can be given to this notion: in particular, whether there is, as we might put this, an ethically neutral conception of ‘rationality’. Well, I guess many are pretty deeply committed to the idea that there is. But setting aside questions of whether anything can be made of that, there is also the question: why should such a possibility be thought to be relevant to my (or your) attitude towards my ‘moral convictions’?

      Centrally, what I would like to be clearer about is what is the pull of views of this form – views that are so difficult to articulate clearly. In my experience, such views tend to go with an idea that it is important that I be able to think that others who differ from me are wrong. This may connect in some way with your suggestion (in your response of 30th January) that ‘it might be helpful to restrict the use of the phrase “moral judgement” to cases in which someone is pronouncing on the feelings, motives or conduct of other people’. I wonder if you meant that in quite the way one might take it. Your following comments about Eric Liddell suggest (to me) a slightly different thought ie that a judgement I make about myself may be a “moral judgement”, but only in so far as in making it I take myself to be committed to making an analogous claim about others. Well, I don’t know if you will be happy with that formulation. But it seems to me that something in the area of your suggestion might be extremely helpful. Helpful in part because it brings into focus the question: which others do I mean to speak of? (There is also the question: to which others do I feel the need to justify myself?)

      One might think those who are concerned with the possibility of justifying my position to all other rational/human beings would probably be sympathetic to Wittgenstein’s rule following considerations but think they don’t go far enough. In fact, it seems to me, it is not like that at all – I mean, that their sympathies don’t run at all in that direction. I wonder a bit if it might be helpful to think of the views you are considering as ones that give a metaphysical turn to something that Wittgenstein approaches in a very different spirit.

      I am rambling now.

    2. Reply to David Feb 2014

      I’m sure you’re right about there being these two types of motivation for wishing to invoke human nature. Mind you, the latter form of grounding, too, may be used for purposes of persuasion, that is, in a sort of justificatory function, just as the former is. People will, for instance, advance the claim that women are by nature submissive as an argument against gender equality. (The appeal would either be to the notion that going against nature is futile or that it will have disastrous consequences.) Arguments of this type are legio. Of course, as an approach to the justification of moral attitudes, this notion is well and away as problematic as the other one.

      Maybe the idea of a morally neutral rationality goes with the notion that a healthy human mind will have the ability to perceive matters “as they really are”. Just as anyone with normal eyesight, having gone through a normal process of enculturation, will be able to tell that that pillarbox is red, a person of normal development and understanding will be able to perceive how things stand in the moral realm. Or is that too simple-minded? (The trouble with such a view, I think, is centred around the difficulty, both in the case of colour judgments and moral claims, of identifying the relevant sense of normality in a neutral way.) In any case, empirical judgment seems a powerful model for those who wish to evade subjectivism in their conception of moral thought – or for those who, as you say, wish to retain the notion that anyone who differs from me is wrong; or, in any case, that one of us must be wrong.

      You suggest that “a judgement I make about myself may be a ’moral judgement’, but only in so far as in making it I take myself to be committed to making an analogous claim about others”. And you add that that raises the question of who those others are. This may be right. One would have to imagine an example. In Eric Liddell’s case, one might suppose he would be thinking of his co-religionists. But who are they? His fellow Christians? Or simply other Scottish Presbyterians (I assume that that is what Liddell is)? (And would he indeed have to be judgmental about some other Scottish Presbyterian who was ready to compete on a Sunday? )

      About those who would invoke Wittgenstein’s rule-following considerations in support of an idea of universal rationality, is there someone in particular you have in mind?

    3. You ask: ‘About those who would invoke Wittgenstein’s rule-following considerations in support of an idea of universal rationality, is there someone in particular you have in mind?’ Actually, my thought was that it is surprising that we don’t find that line of thought too often. But I may be wrong about that. If you are inclined to pursue this you might have a look at essay 4 in Korsgaard, The sources of normativity.

      Cora Diamond’s 2012 paper on Winch in Philosophical Investigations seems to me to connect closely with the issues you are concerned with here. Diamond formulates her point in terms of whether one has a ‘right to call erroneous the view that people in that other [eg Azande] culture take’. I think the point she makes against Winch’s appeal to an ‘established universe of discourse’, and her analogy with ‘resolving a mathematical problem by a totally new sort of proof’, contains something important. (These points go, it seems to me, with doubts that one should have about common ‘Wittgensteinian’ appeals to ‘standards’ or ‘criteria’ for judging.) But it seems to me there may be something here that she does not do justice to.

      Diamond: ‘There is thus an important sort of contrast between the way the notion of real and unreal works in the dispute and the way that notions of real and unreal work in the two systems of thought that are at odds’. But shouldn’t one, with that, acknowledge that there is an important sort of contrast between the way talk of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ works in the dispute and the way it works in the two systems of thought that are at odds. Diamond, it seems to me, is not sufficiently sensitive to this possibility. This comes out in unremarked differences in the ways in which she formulates the issues. At one point she writes: ‘Anscombe’s view as I have understood it is that we may legitimately hold that “they” are in error, that we may have rational grounds’. At another, summarising what she has argued in the paper: ‘We can (I’ve suggested) get things right and can legitimately take ourselves to have done so, without claiming that this is something than can be “shown” in the sense that the demonstration would appeal to considerations that everyone who understood the issue would have to accept’. Winch’s view, surely, turns on distinguishing those. What he might say (I think should say) is that ‘taking ourselves to have got things right’ comes to different things in different contexts. One might put it this way. That a certain idea (eg that Jones is guilty) governs how one thinks and feels is one thing; that one says that Jones is guilty amongst people who ‘speak the same language’ is another; and that one says it amongst, or to, people who don’t ‘speak the same language’ is another again. (And there will be plenty more distinctions to be drawn there.) And closely linked with that: ‘Holding that they are in error’ about some matter need not follow immediately and automatically from, for example, acting with total, and self-conscious, confidence on the opposite view on that matter. A philosophical picture in which placing mental ticks or crosses beside ‘propositions’ looms large may blind one to the possibility of crucial distinctions in attitudes here. (There are connections here with something that seems to me to merit more work than, so far as I know, it has received: the fact that assertoric sentences may appear in two quite different sorts of context – for example, in ‘It is raining’ and in ‘He believes it is raining’. (Of course, it is not really just two.) The early Wittgenstein had a very clear line on the relation between those two forms of appearance. I don’t have a sense of how clear a rejection of that line we find in the later work.)

    4. Let me fasten on a quotation from Cora Diamond in your comment:
      ‘We can (I’ve suggested) get things right and can legitimately take ourselves to have done so, without claiming that this is something than can be “shown” in the sense that the demonstration would appeal to considerations that everyone who understood the issue would have to accept.’

      You go on: “Winch’s view, surely, turns on distinguishing those.” I’m wondering whether there is a real distinction here. We do say things like, “Anyone who has any kind of taste can see that these two colours don’t go together”, or “Anyone who understands about soccer can see that he is a lousy player”, etc. We might go on to appeal to considerations, but I suspect that in many cases, we’d regard the acceptance of those considerations as a criterion of having the right sort of understanding. In other words, the “anyone-who-understands-must-accept” has a kind of circularity about it.

      The temptation (I think you would agree) is to wish to give the notion of considerations everyone must accept a kind of “philosophical” sense. To think in terms of of a basic understanding or rationality which then gets expressed in our judging each case on its own merits, where the notion of merits has a suprahistorical, supracultural content.

      The point, I believe, is to recognize that what a speaker means by terms like “real”/”unreal”, “right”/”wrong”, “reasonable”/”unreasonable”, “true”/”false” is to be seen by looking at the particular use she makes of those terms in the context of an actual conversation. Just like “winning” looks different in a race, a card game and a soccer match. What they have in common is that winning is what one is supposed to strive for, and this also goes for “real”, “true”, etc. (This does not entail relativism: to suppose that it does is to presume that there is a direct comparison to be made between the use of these terms in different conversations.)

      You would perhaps go along with this. (And so perhaps would Cora Diamond, according to Reshef.)

  5. To David Cockburn,

    You say that Diamond is “not sufficiently sensitive to the contrast between the way talk of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ works in the dispute and the way it works in the two systems of thought that are at odds.”

    I’m not sure why you say that Diamond’s argument is not sensitive to that. Are you saying she is assuming some completely general way in which talk of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ works?

    In contrast to that,she writes: “The articulation of what is at stake in the ‘meeting’ of two irreconcilable principles is what gives the space.” (That’s just before one of your quotation from her paper. It is from an unpublished (as far as I know) manuscript, not from the Philosophical Investigation paper.)

    It seems to me that on a plausible reading of Diamond here, far from assuming some completely general way in which talk of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ works, she is aiming to describe the grammar of a particular use of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’—one that would presumably not be in view to Dilman and Winch: one that does not belong in an established universe of discourse, but is given by the articulation of the contrast between two such universes, as it were. And my sense is that she means here something that might be given for the very first time in that articulation: that is, not something that already belongs in some (perhaps third) universe of discourse, but something that may be invented, or thought up for the first time when the contrast is brought to one’s attention.

  6. If I may make a few remarks. First of all, thank you very much for the helpful discussion - it’s gratifying and humbling to see my paper discussed, especially by philosophers whose work I have read and enjoyed for many years.

    I think David is right to highlight that there are at least two reasons one might try to relate moral judgements to human nature; 1 out of a desire to justify a particular moral outlook, 2 out of a more nebulous interest in showing how moral outlooks arise from (or are “rooted in”, to use David’s phrase) aspects of our creaturely condition.

    I am suspicious of both of these approaches, and in my paper I tried to articulate (in a tentative way), how a Wittgensteinian might avoid commitment to the picture of the relation between concepts and the world which seems to underlie them.

    However, it seems to me that Wittgenstein himself does often argue that our conceptual life is an outgrowth of instinctive human responses in the way that 2 suggests. I am thinking in particular of his dictum ‘Im Anfang war die Tat’ and the distinction between concepts and facts of nature in PI 2 xii.

    Winch follows Wittgenstein here - even after he repudiates his earlier attempt to justify our concepts by reference to natural necessity, he nevertheless still makes claims such as that in the relation of our concepts to certain primitive reactions, “our concepts are given a natural foundation” (Simone Weil: The Just Balance p.190).

    Both the meaning and purpose of this kind of remark are unclear to me. (One of the best papers on the subject is Lars’ own ‘Primitive Reactions: Logic or Anthropology?’ so perhaps he will have some interesting to say about this.) It may be that the purpose of the remark is purely negative - to undermine a confused view of concepts (/concept-possession). For example, Wittgenstein says in PI 2 xii:

    "If anyone thinks that our concepts are absolutely the right ones…"

    — And the thought experiment that follows is supposed to undermine that supposition. But we do not want to say that our concepts are the right ones relative to the current general facts of nature, as Wittgenstein’s response suggests. Surely the correct response to the imagined interlocutor is to show them the notion of concepts as the kind of thing that can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is simply confused.

    Another point: in response to David, Lars endorses the claim that moral judgements may be distinguished from mere preferences in terms of imparting some kind of commitment to others in relevantly similar circumstances being obliged to behave in the same way. But Winch’s example of Vere in ‘The Universalisability of Moral Judgements’ is supposed to undermine that thought - on the grounds that one can, without contradiction, take oneself to be morally obliged to act in a certain way while recognising that another person might, in the same circumstances, not be morally obliged so to act.

    It is (inter alia) the conceivability of this kind of response that makes Bernard Williams think that moral judgements are just one part of the broader category of the ethical, and as such not different in kind from matters of personal preference.

    So, if one accepts Winch’s claim here, and one thinks that the moral cannot be distinguished from mere preference in terms of its relation to facts about human nature, then it becomes pressing to find some other way to distinguish the moral from the ethical.

    1. Hi, Michael, nice to hear from you.

      You say ”... we do not want to say that our concepts are the right ones relative to the current general facts of nature, as Wittgenstein’s response suggests. Surely the correct response to the imagined interlocutor is to show them the notion of concepts as the kind of thing that can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is simply confused.”

      As I’ve read these remarks, it’s the latter point Wittgenstein wants to be making. Someone who is inclined to think that our concepts are the only conceivable ones might be brought to recognize that there might be other ways of speaking about the world if certain facts of nature were different (and those would not only be facts about the objects we talk about, but also facts about the kinds of beings we are). Cp *Zettel* 320 about the rules of grammar being “arbitrary”. Aside from this negative point there’s also, I guess, the positive exhortation to think about concepts in the wider context of human life.

      (It’s curious that Winch talks about “a natural foundation” in this connection. He also talks about “roots” and “sources”. But my inclination is to say that he, invoking Weil, is not thinking in terms of justification here, but rather wishing to paint a picture of the human being as a natural being.)

      I might mention that I’ve returned to these issues in “Very General Facts of Nature” (in Oskari Kuusela & Marie McGinn, eds, *The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein*).


      Further you say: “Lars endorses the claim that moral judgements may be distinguished from mere preferences in terms of imparting some kind of commitment to others in relevantly similar circumstances being obliged to behave in the same way.”

      I may have been unclear, but that wasn’t my intention. Rather, I meant to suggest that the term “moral judgment” might be reserved for those cases in which moral expressions are used specifically to pronounce on other people’s thoughts, feelings or actions. (These cases, I think, tend to get overly much attention in conventional moral philosophy.) We may often express moral reactions without intending to be telling others how to live. I thought that Liddell was doing that in declaring he wouldn’t race on a Sunday. Yet we would not rate that as a mere expression of preference if we thought his attitude merited respect. (I recognize that this is not the way Winch uses the term “moral judgment” in the Vere essay.)

    2. PS.

      I should have expressed myself more clearly. When I said that our concepts are not the only conceivable ones I didn’t mean to imply that other concepts would be correct under other circumstances, but simply that we could *imagine* people speaking differently if they lived in different conditions. (Wittgenstein speaks about other concepts being “verständlich*.)

    3. I am very much in sympathy with much, probably most, of what you say Michael – both here and in your paper. Lars has responded to one concern that you raise in the blog: relating to his suggestion about the word ‘moral’. There is one other point where I am inclined to have doubts. You suggest that the correct response to a certain kind of move “is to show them the notion of concepts as the kind of thing that can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is simply confused”. I have doubts about the generality of this remark. (They are linked with doubts that Lars has expressed, perhaps in previous blogs, about some of the work the notion of a ‘concept’ is expected to do in philosophy.) At any rate, we sometimes take the fact that a certain word is part of someone’s normal vocabulary as a mark that something is amiss in his thinking. I’m not sure that there are good grounds for insisting that the words ‘concept’ or ‘wrong’ would be out of place in such cases (and I have some suspicion that it is a dubious philosophical picture that suggests to us that there are.)

      There is an ambiguity in something I said and I believe Lars reads me in a way I hadn’t intended. My point was that there is a distinction between these: ‘we may legitimately hold that “they” are in error’ and ‘We can get things right and can legitimately take ourselves to have done so, without claiming that this is something than can be “shown” in the sense that the demonstration would appeal to considerations that everyone who understood the issue would have to accept’. But actually, I think it may well be that the way you read me Lars comes to very much the same. Anyway, my thought was that it is one thing to judge, after careful reflection, that things are a certain way and another to judge that anyone who says otherwise is in error. Certainly, we do sometimes say things like “Anyone who has any kind of taste can see that these two colours don’t go together”. But is it a condition of judging that these colours don’t go together than one is prepared to say this? That doesn’t seem to me to be so. More specifically, one may, it seems to me, take it to be clear that these colours don’t go together (or whatever the issue may be), and be prepared, amongst people who ‘speak the same language’ but disagree on this matter, to insists that I am right and they are wrong, without taking any stand at all on people whom one believes to be ‘beyond the reach’ of any considerations that one might bring forward in defence of one’s judgement.

      It may be worth adding that there seems to me a certain important artificiality in disputes about what one can legitimately say about, and to, people whom one knows to be beyond the reach of any reasons one could offer for one’s own view on some matter. How often is one in a position to know such a thing? I am inclined to think that only an artificially narrow notion of ‘reasons for judging’ (a notion that may sometimes lurk in ‘Wittgensteinian’ talk of ‘criteria’, or ‘standards’, for judging) will incline one to find this unproblematic. (Knowing that one never will convince the other is another matter – for example, one hasn’t the time or patience, or she manifestly isn’t listening.)

      I do see the force of Reshef’s objection to what I said. I am still not quite convinced that Diamond’s discussion is free of confusions in this area. But that is not something I am inclined to press now.

    4. All right, I think I understand your point now. Of course it wasn’t my intention to argue that whenever you disagree you have to insist that the other party doesn’t know what she is talking about. Perhaps we could say, “Anyone who doesn’t agree doesn’t understand” is just a very strong expression of opinion. But then it seems that the difference between the cases is more a difference in degree than in kind.

      Yes, the idea that certain people are simply “beyond the reach of reason” is undoubtedly a philosophers’ fiction. The presupposition seems to be that everybody’s thinking is grounded in a given set of standards, criteria or premises, and that accordingly there are rigorous boundaries to what each one of us is capable of grasping. And thus it is settled from the start whether this is a person I shall be able to convince. But it’s not a point of logic that this is a person I shan’t be able to bring around; this may be a conclusion I reach after trying various different forms of persuasion. (How quickly will I give up? Well, it may matter whether I’m appealing for my life or trying to convince the other that Nebraska should have won an Oscar.)

    5. Hannes Nykänen11 March 2014 at 14:11

      I would like to contribute with one specific and one more general remark. The first concern Lars’ idea, that one can take the “degree of depth” of someone’s convictions as a way of distinguishing between moral (and religious) views and mere personal preference. Is not this a bit too unspecific? I think that what must be taken into account here is first, the fact that being evil is not a superficial attitude but can be as deep as anything. To refer to the depth of an attitude makes, as far as I can see, by itself nothing clearer. Secondly, deeply evil actions and attitudes are often legitimised in terms that refer to something that transcends personal preference or even personal conviction. Thus, if the degree of depth of someone’s conviction is used as a way of distinguishing between moral views and mere personal preference, it is quite crucial to show the difference between self-deceptive and deeply corrupt ways of referring to things “deeper” than personal preference and conviction. Moreover, also references to personal conviction can be used in both deceptive and self-deceptive ways. I think that it should be obvious how crucially important these distinctions are. And when one starts to think about them, the whole issue might begin to look different.

      With the last sentence of the preceding paragraph I want to hint at my more general remark, which is that the typically philosophical and confused perspective on morality shows itself in such a way that the question concerning the validity of moral claims and remarks announces itself as central. Every one of us knows how the insight that one has wronged another person strikes us. The issue of validity has got nothing to do with this insight but typically announces itself when we are reluctant to take to heart our insight. If we would describe the grammar that surrounds the way this insight strikes us and all the endless forms we have of avoiding it, we would see how the whole issue of whether there can be moral claims and how their validity in that case should be understood, involves that one overlooks the self-deceptive role of the question of moral validity. I can imagine that not many philosophers agree with this suggestion. But is it not a bit odd that so few philosophers work with a task that, as far as I can see, is crucially important, namely distinguishing between self-deceptive and supposedly honest forms of moral justification?

      Finally: Do not moral issues quite grammatically concern one’s own ways of acting and thinking – not the acting and thinking of others? Is not the latter occupation called moralism; something we are tempted to do?

    6. Thank you for your comments. I begin with your second paragraph. I take it this means that we are in agreement: the point I wanted to make was that it is misleading to suppose that the question whether a conviction calls for respect is to be construed in terms of its being right (or “true, or “valid”, etc.) To think along those lines is to construe moral thinking on the model of empirical judgment, or perhaps that of legal expertise.

      You say: “being evil is not a superficial attitude but can be as deep as anything”. Of course, people may be infinitely evil, but that does not characterize a depth of attitude. The question is: what would it be to imagine a deep commitment to evil qua evil? Someone can choose to do evil for the sake of some good or desired end (calculated evil), or out of bitterness or vindictiveness (reactive evil), or from sadism (pathological evil). I take it these are not examples of a pure commitment to evil. Can we, on the other hand, imagine someone who simply opts for evil as a balanced, open-eyed, life-defining project? Is that any easier to understand than the case of someone who commits himself to walking backward as a life-defining project?

      In my original entry I said something that is liable to be misleading: “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 makes it sound as if depth of conviction were a state that could be identified in neutral terms, say, through psychological testing. I should have said something more along the lines of: acknowledging depth and according respect are internally connected responses.

      I’m inclined to agree that moral issues are centrally concerned with one’s own acting and thinking,but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that being concerned with other people’s conduct is always moralistic. I think parents may be genuinely concerned with the moral character of their children, a man or woman with that of their partner, teachers with that of their pupils, etc.

    7. Hannes Nykänen14 March 2014 at 14:01

      Thank you for your response Lars! As to the question of validity: The issue is a tangled one so I do not know to what extent we agree. My intention was to say not only that claims about moral validity and truth are misguided but also that counter-claims to such truths are confused. To try to show that philosophical efforts to establish moral truths must be confused is itself equally confused. What should be shown is how the very perspective where this question arises misses what is important about ethics.

      On evil and depth: First of all, I do not see why “commitment” would have any particular relevance for understanding ethics. We speak about committing oneself to a relationship, committing crime and suicide, being committed to a cause, etc. I don’t see why any of these uses would by themselves be expressive of a moral way of seeing things. For instance, we need further descriptions to distinguish between being obsessed by a person and being “committed” to a person. Here the notion of “being genuinely committed” is useless.

      I don’t think that there is any such thing as “evil qua evil” (or pure evil) so I do not see how we could do anything at all with that notion. Was your intention to say this? However, there is evil so we should try to give a pertinent description of what “evil intention” is about - and we should be prepared to accept that the concept of “intention” confuses the issue, as I believe it does.

      If we ask ourselves whether one can be deeply committed to evil I think that we miss the whole issue. One could for instance consider the fact that evil actions are often terrible even in the eyes of the perpetrator, so these actions themselves are not deeply rooted. But the hatred that “makes” a person kill is deeply rooted. The envy that can poison a whole life is deeply rooted. The fear that arouses hatred for people who look different is deeply rooted. (Think of the “deep South”.)

      Another aspect of the depth of evil could be hinted at by pointing out that in most countries far more than half of the homicides are committed against family members, spouses, friends, etc. Moreover, all therapists know how much anxiety there is that is caused by loveless parents – and this is not only a problem with parents who are alcoholics or violent. If we are to give a good account of evil we must be able to describe how people who are in a certain sense close to each other can be so cruel to each other (and in this sense not so close to each other).

      If, say, a parent refuses to acknowledge her lovelessness to her children, there is no proof that could make her change her mind. But the one who contemplates such a case has a responsibility for her own understanding of the situation. If in her thoughts she tends to side with the parent, telling herself that moral issues are so entangled, that no one can say what is morally right, that children often have unreasonable expectations on their parents, etc. then the things that she tells herself and are prepared to tell others do constitute a defence of lovelessness. And again: there is no way of proving this to her. But we should note how a disinclination to take one’s responsibility creates theses about ethics while if one dares to address the situation of the persons involved, there is no place for this.

      We should describe the background to such deep anxieties, avoidances and cruelties if we are to acquire a perspicuous picture of ethics.

    8. If you mean that it is pointless to argue about whether words like “true”, “valid”, “correct”, etc can be used about moral expressions, I agree. My point was not a verbal one, rather I wished to argue that what makes me respect somebody’s moral stance on an issue looks very different from the question whether someone is a reliable authority on indoor plumbing or Kremlin politics. My respecting or not respecting someone’s moral stance (in the sense of not trying to make her act against it) is not tied to there being some standard which the correctness of her stance is to be assessed. In fact I may disagree with her stance and yet respect it – on the other hand I may agree with what someone is saying and yet be unable to take his saying it seriously.

      As for deep hatred: I have a sense that hatred needs a reason (or at least a cause) in a way that love does not. In other words, I find it hard to understand hatred that is pure hatred all the way down.