Saturday, January 9, 2010

Wittgenstein on ethics

When I was just beginning graduate studies in Philosophy, which I did not complete, one professor, a well known ethicist, a great person, and talented teacher told me that based on my senior thesis I should pursue the study of ethics. I said in that quasi-arrogant manner of the budding grad student that I would not study ethics because to do so would be to pretend that the more fundamental problems of philosophy, particularly those posed in epistemology and logic, the latter of which is in the realm of metaphysics. I still stand by this statement, at least as it pertains to philosophical ethics, but I do so with far more humility. This conviction is the direct result of reading Wittgenstein.

In what is proving to be his fine introduction to W's thought, How To Read Wittgenstein, Ray Monk, citing a letter Wittgenstein wrote to Ludwig von Ficker immediately following his service of behalf of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during WWI, writes that before the war W believed himself to be writing a work of logic, whereas after his service and being taken prisoner-of-war he thought his work to be one on ethics. Ficker was on of three people to whom Wittgenstein sent copies of his completed work, later given the title by G.E. Moore Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was to remain the only book published during his lifetime, along with Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. Ficker was a publisher who W did not expect to understand the book. However, it was a disappointment to W that, in the end, Frege, the mathematician on whose work much of W's logical excursions was built, did not "get" it.

In the Tractatus itself W writes this about ethics:

"The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form 'thou shalt . . .' is: And what if I do not do it? But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least thse consequences will not be events. For there must be something right in that formulation of the qustion. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself.

(And this is clear also that the reward must be something acceptable, and the punishment something unacceptable)" (6.422).

That the consequences of an action do not take the form of an event apart from the act itself is consonant with the objective character of classical Catholic morality, especially with the axiom that we may never do evil that good may come of it, or, stated another way, ends do not justify means. I would love to explore this connection more deeply.

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