[lit-ideas] Re: The Independent Moralist

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 1 May 2014 08:19:34 +0100 (BST)

>I wonder if Wittgenstein would say something on this. As I believe, he  
trusted there was some thing as a 'form of life', which is reflected in  
language, and it may well be the case that those notions apply here.>

The Wittgenstein of my understanding would not be interested in writing a work 
on moral philosophy as these are written by so-called moral philosophers. Not 
because W is not interested in ethics or thinks it unimportant; on the contrary 
W is most interested and thinks ethics most important: Monk emphasises this and 
almost makes the purpose of W's work an over-ridingly ethical one [hence the 
subtitle "The Duty of Genius"]. But W's purpose is not to defend or preach an 
ethics but to defend the status of ethics and its importance by way of a 
philosophical account of the "logic of our language": in particular, W wants to 
defend the ethical status of ethics i.e. defend "ethics" from any account that 
reduces it by way of an explanation in terms of non-ethical categories [for 
this reason alone W would not subscribe to utilitarianism as an account of what 
constitutes ethics even if he would admit that considerations of 'utility' may 
play a part in ethical

So even the early Tractatarian W, who admits only the propositions of natural 
science as having sense, offers a characterisation of "sense" that privileges 
"science" but within a framework where what is most important (including 
ethics) lies beyond what can be captured in this "sense" [for both the early 
and later W there could never be a "science of ethics"]. And this touches on a 
fundamental reason why W would not have anything much "to say" in terms of a 
work of moral philosophy: not only does the philosopher have no privileged 
position from which to say anything to others about morals [after all "nothing 
is hidden" about ethical language anymore than any other kind], but the 
philosophical character of "ethics" is something that is shown by (among other 
things [actions would be another]) the ethical language we use and is not 
something that a philosopher can capture in language by saying anything. 

In the approach of the later W, the philosopher can at best say things that 
show aspects of ethics that ward off both attempts to capture ethics by 
(reductive) analysis and attempts to explain "ethics" in terms of non-ethical 

In this light, the ethical debate as to pushing fat men and pulling levers (so 
as to minimise the numbers who die), appears largely fatuous: and W might even 
see it as a result of pernicious 'scientism' in our modern culture that 
researchers found people to participate seriously in their study rather than 
brushing them off with their umbrellas (I assume most people are more likely to 
be carrying umbrellas than pokers when accosted by researchers).


On Thursday, 1 May 2014, 1:54, "dmarc-noreply@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" 
<dmarc-noreply@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:
How foreign can morality get? When we read of a moral decision in an a  
country whose language we don't understand, can we _join_ in the discussion?  
Habermas would say: yes, we _can_ and we _should_.

Morality and Language

It is slightly ironic that it's THE INDEPENDENT that's running an essay on  
morality DEPENDING on language!

But I guess there is a point in the research. It comes from Barcelona, from 
what I understand, the capital of a notably BILINGUAL region!

I wonder if Wittgenstein would say something on this. As I believe, he  
trusted there was some thing as a 'form of life', which is reflected in  
language, and it may well be the case that those notions apply here.

On top of all that being discussed by O. K. and D. McE. in "Pitfalls in  
understanding moral differentiations" there's the polemic amongst 
philosophers.  Take two examples:

i. The Romans thought they were aptly translating the Greek system  when 
they speak of 'mos' (the root of morality) as translating Greek 'ethos' (as  
in 'ethics'). This important point is dismissed when the idea of a decision  
being 'moral' is used in the title of the essays (reporting experiments) 
being  discussed.

When "The Independent" retitles the essays being discussed as being an  
issue of 'morality' depending on 'language', one wonders...

ii. Grice thinks that Hare is wrong and that 'ought' is NOT the keyword  
moral modal. Rather, Hampshire was closer to the truth when he suggested  
'should' was. Grice prefers 'must'. Are these all translatable? 

The large man must...
The large man ought to...
The large man should...
The large man WILL...

and so on. The intricacies of the ethical and meta-ethical vocabulary are  
so complex in L1 that for philosophers to even start conceiving the  
complications when L2 comes into the picture are vast. And still, THE  
INDEPENDENT's wording reminds one of Sapir-Whorf.

For the record, the references being discussed here seem to be two, one  

The main item is:

Albert Costa, Alice Foucart, Sayuri Hayakawa,  Melina Aparici, Jose 
Apesteguia, Joy Heafner, Boaz Keysar. Your Morals Depend on  Language. PLoS 
2014; 9 

----- where Boaz is affiliated with Chicago. 

The second piece mainly concerns Boaz and is

Boaz, K. "Using a  foreign language changes moral decisions." Science 
Daily. ScienceDaily, 28 April  2014. 

None of the authors seem to have a philosophical background and  their 
degrees and teaching affiliations are with psychology, rather -- whereas  some 
of us would rather see the thing discussed not as per an allegedly  empirical 
laboratory experiment but in terms like Warnock's "Morality and  Language"!

The references to 'emotions' reminds one of philosophers like C. L.  
Stevenson, who, in "Ethics and Language" mainly stays at the 'imperative' level 
of analysis of moral discourse (also adopted by Ayer, in "Language, Truth and 
Logic" -- moral decisions as yielding imperatives which are 'emotive' in  




In a message dated  4/30/2014 4:20:33 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, 
omarkusto@xxxxxxxxx writes:
Or  that 'the large man' might pull you instead. 
A fairly large man,
On Wed,  Apr 30, 2014 at 9:30 PM, Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>  
"Would  you push a stranger off a bridge? How your morals depend on 
>To  clarify the role emotions play in mediating the effect between 
language and  moral decision making, the researchers included a second dilemma. 
their  alternative scenario, the lone man is on a different branch of the 
railway  track, and all you would need to do to save the five workers (and 
kill that  single man), is to divert the train by switching a lever. This is a 
less  emotional action, and regardless of language, the majority of people 
would  divert the train in this way (around 80%). The effect of language only 
comes  into play when dealing with a higher level of emotion, such as 
imagining having  to physically push the man off the bridge. In that unpleasant 
scenario, only 18%  of native speakers would sacrifice the large man, 
compared to 44% of those  questioned in a foreign language.>
The researchers fail to consider that  the pivotal difference, between the 
case of switching a lever and the case of  heaving a fat man onto the track, 
lies not in that the first case is "a less  emotional action" but that in 
the second case there is more risk of putting your  back out.

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