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.


  1. 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.

    In the case of "One can't love cow dung", it is "unpacked" in my mind – in the way the famous "Caesar is a prime number" is – as an empirical claim that means something like 'Nobody is ever known to have expressed an affection for cow dung, either explicitly or implicitly'.

    But when I try to get the same unpacking going for "One can't love evil", I immediately draw a blank.

    By the way, doesn't domestic animal equal the Swedish husdjur quite unproblematically, while pet is more like keldjur? Of course the latter is a sub-category of the former.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I don’t think the big question is whether anyone would ever SAY that they loved cow dung (in fact Carter imagines someone saying that in connection with remembering a country childhood, I think), but what we could make of it. In other words, as I see it, establishing whether those words would ever have application would not advance our understanding of love or morality.

      (As for loving evil, Anscombe, in *Intention*, quotes Milton’s Satan saying: “Evil, be thou my good.” Couldn’t we imagine an actual person sayig that?)

      You’re right about the parallels “domestic animal” – “husdjur” and “pet” – “keldjur” (though for some reason “keldjur” isn’t very commonly used, unlike the Finnish “lemmikki”).

  2. While the main thrust of this seems to me absolutely right I am slightly sceptical about one aspect of what you say: ‘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’. There are, of course, important psychological facts in play in this area. But if one were tempted to put a ‘merely’ before the ‘psychological’ (which you don’t actually do, but I can’t help hearing it) that would seem to me misleading. I’m not sure how to show this, but one might try this.

    What is it to ‘regard an animal as food’? Are we to think of someone who occasionally glances at their dog, while it is alive, sizing various parts of it up as potential tasty steaks? Less crudely, are we to imagine them anxiously tending their grievously sick dog, and then shifting it straight to the kitchen when it dies; and, with that, presumably grieving for the dog while popping him into the casserole? I am inclined to say that in these surroundings the ‘anxiety’ and ‘grief’ would not be the conditions that we take them to be when we think of these, rightly, as important aspects of having a pet . Coming at this from the opposite direction: ‘not regarding an animal as food’ takes different forms. I don’t regard slugs as food: the thought of eating them disgusts me. But it is not like that in relation to one’s pet. What it is like in relation to a pet is only to be spelled out by reference to what surrounds it. It is what it is only in so far as it is embedded in a range of other ways of thinking of this creature; and that is to say, the connection with these other ways of thinking is not ‘merely’ psychological.

    Where does this leave your thought about ‘the way pets should be treated’? My only hesitation here is about whether your claim may not have a slightly too confident generality. We might think of a child learning what a pet is: in the sense of learning how to think of and to treat the family dog. She may be told that there are things she shouldn’t do to it. (I have a memory of being told that I shouldn’t point my toy gun at the family dog.) While I have no clear picture of how discussion around this might go, is it clear that there couldn’t be a giving of reasons of a kind that you may seem here to be excluding?

  3. Thank you for your comment. You bring up issues that are really difficult. I’ll make an attempt to address some of them.

    A lot seems to depend on how sharp you make the contrast between treating an animal as a pet and treating it (him/her) as food. As Cora Diamond points out, our companionship with animals will take a variety of forms, involving different kinds of human-like relations (we might contrast the hunter’s relation to his dog with the relation one may have to a lapdog; or the variety of relations one may have to a workhorse with those one may have to a riding horse). Thus, we might say, pets are not a *category*, like human beings, or men/women. Some forms of companionship are in sharper tension with viewing an animal as food than others are (children in a farm may have quite friendly relations to pigs and chicks, yet eat them without compunction).

    In the cases you bring up the tension is so sharp as to make them seem absurd. Grieving an animal seems incompatible with sizing him up for the dinner table (at least without feeling guilty about doing so). So we are at a loss *how to describe* the case: “would we really call it grief?” etc. In that sense the tension seems to be more than contingent, psychological.

    This, of course, is a region in which the grammatical and the psychological are subtly intertwined. Sorting out the issue would require reflection on the points to be made by using the distinction. And this in turn would involve attention to the uses made of it in particular discussions. Perhaps in the present case, one point of emphasizing the psychological aspect of our relations is to forestall the temptation to regard our familiar form of life as a universal norm, rather than being open to the huge variety of human cultures. (My wife suggests that “anthropological” would be a better word than “psychological” here, and she is probably right.)

    Anyway, my claim that the conflict is psychological was too sweeping.

  4. Yes. I agree that there will be an intertwining of the ‘grammatical’ and the ‘psychological’ here that it is going to be very difficult to disentangle. I agree, too, that it is important to ask what it is one wants to highlight when one appeals to this distinction (for what purposes there is any point in the disentangling.) I am less certain about the particular grounds that you offer for emphasizing the psychological. I mean, while the point you make is important I am not sure how closely it relates to the ‘grammatical’/’psychological’ contrast (and I am inclined to agree that ‘anthropological’ might capture it better.)

    I wonder if there might be two different concerns that could lie behind a doubt that certain relations here are correctly characterized as ‘psychological’: (i) A wish to stress that how something is to be described – what we make of something - is dependent on its context: so the relation between what is happening now (described, eg, as ‘grief’) to other things in his life is not ‘merely psychological’ (The point that I raised; and that certainly needs more careful work.); (ii) A wish to suggest that one aspect of our relation to something provides a reason, a justification, for certain other things. (‘If you are going to live with your dog in this way you ought to show a certain respect to its corpse’.) My sense is that your original use of the term ‘psychological’ may have been directed primarily against this second idea. If that is right, it may be important (in the broader context of your discussion) to see that this can be distinguished from (i). (I am not certain whether, if this is your point, I would completely agree with it. As I indicated before, I would be inclined to think it might depend on the context of the proposed ‘justification’.)