Rambling thoughts on rambling topics

West Lake, Hangzhou

The space of ethics

Rather than allowing our view on reality (on physical reality, on ourselves, on our fellow human beings, on living beings in general) determine the space of ethics, one might also take the opposite stance: it is ethics that determines the space of possible theories and explanations of reality, or some particular aspect of it, that we can (should?) consider.

That seems utterly implausible, but once we realise that at least on certain points we actually have a choice between various theories that present different possibilities, it seems more likely that ethical considerations have a positive role to play. One such aspect is intentionality. Once we rid ourselves of a strictly physicalistic perspective, which simply ignores intentionality as an empirical issue, and we accept that one way or other we need to account for it, we are faced with a choice between approaches, or perspectives, that is not exclusively determined by empirical observations, and in which normative considerations may very well enter as an independent source of arguments. Thus, for example, the choice between  Dennett’s intentional stance and Wittgenstein’s idea of the attitude of treating the other (and oneself) as having a soul presents itself fundamentally, I would argue, as an ethical choice. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 01/04/2007

Random thoughts on random topics

Lingyin temple, Hangzhou

Ineffability and judgment

Why would the ineffability of ethics preclude ethical judgments? Of course, if we construct ‘judgment’ as ‘meaningful proposition’ the answer is obvious, but we do not need to do that. Couldn’t a judgment take on a different form, say that of an action, or an attitude? Or do we lack objective criteria for two such judgments to be the same, i.e., wouldn’t we be able to decide whether we agreed on the ethical aspect of an action unless we were able to discuss it? But why would that be the case? (And why think that the ability to discuss does come with any guarantee?)

Although the mark of a happy life can not be expressed, it must be an intrinsic aspect of our actions, not something over and above them. And that suggests that it is accessible even though it is ineffable. In general the question whether we need a verbally explicit statement of ethical principles must be distinguished from the question whether there can be such a statement. For if the answer to the first is negative, the answer to the second becomes immaterial from an ethical point of view. Whether we can do without verbalisations presumably depends on whether other means of conveying ethical principles are available. Would poetry, music, action itself, qualify?

Could we say that the ‘experiences of the second kind’ that Wittgenstein mentions in ‘A Lecture on Ethics’ (i.e., not experiences of facts in the world, but experiences that pertain to the world as such), although ineffable, do have an intersubjective potential? I.e., they point towards similar experiences other people may have had in virtue of which they are able to understand what Wittgenstein is aiming at? That would go beyond the mere recognition of other subjects as willing subjects, since it would actually differentiate between people, and could be the basis of moral conversation (instruction, etc.)

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2004

Rambling thoughts on random topics

New Cathedral, Salamanca

“Ethics and aesthetics are one”

The internal relation between ethics and aesthetics that Wittgenstein suggests in this statement is difficult to come to grips with. However, it is clear that whatever the commonality, there is also difference. 

To start with the latter, aesthetic judgements are expressible, in language, by means of gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice. But ethical judgments are not. Aesthetic judgments form a practice, a system of norms, actions, objects, that is shared by a community. With that comes relativism: over time, and also contemporaneously, over communities. But ethical values are universal. In these (and related) respects ethics and aesthetics are definitely not one. 

The counterpart of an aesthetic practice in the realm of ethics seems to be a moral practice. Moral judgements, too, are expressible, are based on norms that are shared in a community, and thus form a practice . And like aesthetic practices, moral practices, too, display relativism, over time and contemporaneously.

Now for the commonality. As we have argued elsewhere (World and Life as One, chapter 4), morality can be regarded as instrumental with respect to ethics: that is to say, moral norms are not expressions of absolute value, but are instruments that can be used to realise those values. If “being in harmony” with whatever way the world is constitutes the absolute ethical goal, then the moral norms of a community serve as the reflection of those contingent, but relatively stable aspects of the world that this community finds itself in that are morally relevant in that are conducive to the realisation of that ethical goal.

Could we construct a similar relationship in the domain of aesthetics between the absolute and the relative-instrumental? There are at least two reasons to think so. 

First of all, there is the short reference to the sublime in the Lectures on Aesthetics: the gothic cathedral, the Beethoven symphony. These are objects that transcend the rules of aesthetic practices, in much the same way as absolute ethical value transcends the rules of moral practices. It is the nature of the sublime, its absoluteness, that is responsible for that. From that angle, we can view an aesthetic practice as instrumental with respect to the sublime. Engaging in aesthetic practices is a way of preparing oneself for what transcends it, viz., the creation and experience of works that are sublime.  

Secondly, there is the discussion in Culture and Value of the expressive relation between civilisation (culture) and human value. A civilisation, Wittgenstein argues, is a contingent expression of absolute value, and the disappearance  of a particular such expression (much as we may regret it) leaves the absolute value untouched. What is important to note is that what Wittgenstein identifies as expressions of the sublime, of the absolute, are exactly that: expressions, not the thing itself. (Recall the finger pointing to the reflection of the moon.) 

Here we do well to recall Wittgenstein’s characterisation of his ethical experiences in A Lecture on Ethics: these, too,  are emphatically mere expressions, and not the values themselves. Thus, expressions may differ, and will differ, according to the moral or aesthetic practices that they are a part of. And the variation may even extend to the individual level. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2020