Wittgenstein and Ethics

This page includes works that discuss Wittgenstein's influence on Ethics and Moral Philosophy.

Pleasants, Nigel ‘Wittgenstein, ethics and basic moral certainty’, Inquiry, 51 (3), 2008, 241- 67.

Alice Crary claims that “the standard view of the bearing of Wittgenstein’s philosophy on ethics” is dominated by “inviolability interpretations”, which often underlie conservative readings of Wittgenstein. Crary says that such interpretations are “especially marked in connection with On Certainty”, where Wittgenstein is represented as holding that “our linguistic practices are immune to rational criticism, or inviolable”. Crary’s own conception of the bearing of Wittgenstein’s philosophy on ethics, which I call the “intrinsically-ethical reading”, derives from the influential New Wittgenstein school of exegesis, and is also espoused by James Edwards, Cora Diamond, and Stephen Mulhall. To my eyes, intrinsically-ethical readings present a peculiar picture of ethics, which I endeavour to expose In Part I of the paper. In Part II I present a reading of On Certainty that Crary would call an “inviolability interpretation”, defend it against New Wittgensteinian critiques, and show that this kind of reading has nothing to do with ethical or political conservatism. I go on to show how Wittgenstein’s observations on the manner in which we can neither question nor affirm certain states of affairs that are fundamental to our epistemic practices can be fruitfully extended to ethics. Doing so sheds light on the phenomenon that I call “basic moral certainty”, which constitutes the “foundation” of our ethical practices, and the “scaffolding” or “framework” of moral perception, inquiry, and judgement. The nature and significance of basic moral certainty will be illustrated through consideration of the strangeness of philosophers’ attempts at explaining the wrongness of killing.

Pleasants, Nigel ‘Nonsense on stilts? Wittgenstein, ethics, and the lives of animals’, Inquiry, 49 (4), 2006, 314-36

Wittgenstein is often invoked in philosophical disputes over the ethical justifiability of our treatment of animals. Many protagonists believe that Wittgenstein’s philosophy points to a quantum difference between human and animal nature that arises out of humans’ linguistic capacity. For this reason – its alleged anthropocentrism - animal liberationists tend to dismiss Wittgenstein’s philosophy, whereas, for the same reason, anti-liberationists tend to embrace it. I endorse liberationist moral claims, but think that many on both sides of the dispute fail to grasp the import of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. My argument proceeds through close engagement with Michael Leahy’s Against Liberation, which makes extensive use of Wittgenstein’s ‘notion of language-games’ as an ‘essential methodological aid’ in its defence and justification of the moral status quo. Leahy’s understanding and application of that method exemplifies an entrenched interpretative stance in the wider Wittgensteinian scholarship which I seek to counter. This enables me to show that far from entailing conservatism, as some of his critics and followers contend, Wittgenstein’s philosophical method is just as conducive to radical moral and political critique as it is to any other normative position.

Athanasopoulos, Constantinos, “Good and Evil in Human Nature”, Philosophical Inquiry: International Quarterly, Vol.22, Summer, 2000, No.3, pp.104-15.

Abstract: An investigation on what is Good and Evil and what can be considered as Human Nature through the views of J.P. Sartre and L. Wittgenstein.

Campbell, Michael, "Inwardness and Sociability: A Reply to Carter", Philosophical Investigations 37 (1):57-77 (2014).

Abstract: Carter argues that Wittgensteinian moral philosophy – typified by the work of Raimond Gaita and Christopher Cordner – rests on shaky foundations because it vacillates between grounding moral judgements in grammar and in a form of life. In this article, I respond to Carter's criticism. I defend Wittgensteinian moral philosophy by showing that Gaita and Cordner specifically repudiate the purported dichotomy between grammar and a form of life. I then go on to explain why Wittgensteinian moral philosophers are right not to try to ground moral judgements in features of a shared form of life.

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