Sunday, May 25, 2014

Some Recent Thoughts on Morality: A Summing Up

For those who saw my last post on Wittgenstein, it will not require especially keen vision to read some autobiography between its lines – particularly in the passages having to do with Wittgenstein’s tortured relationship to his own discipline.  Wittgenstein, on my reading, did philosophy because he was looking for a way to stop philosophizing, which is something I can relate to.  Whatever things in life Wittgenstein found “intrinsically interesting” were not the things he wrote and thought about.  A persistent theme of Ray Monk’s biography is Wittgenstein’s perpetual attempts to flee into the real world, to really enter into the “stream of life” (a romantic phrase that appears frequently in the biography and in W.'s written output).  Wittgenstein often expressed an urge to do something with his life that would be more "helpful" to people—curing their ailments or their psyches, for instance.  To him, the philosopher was a strange and parasitic excrescence on society-- one who created non-problems in realms that other people seemed to inhabit without the least trouble.  A passage from one of Wittgenstein’s lectures reads: “Suppose people are playing chess.  I see queer problems when I look into the rules […] But Smith and Brown play chess with no difficulty.  Do they understand the game?  Well, they play it.” (Quoted in Monk, 356).  Monk hypothesizes that in this passage, Wittgenstein was attempting to persuade himself of something as much as he was his students:  it is “redolent of Wittgenstein’s own doubts about his status as a philosopher, his weariness of ‘seeing queer problems,’ and his desire to start playing the game rather than scrutinizing its rules,” says Monk (Ibid.)

Why then didn’t W. give up philosophy, and simply abide by the rules of life's game whether he saw problems in them or not?  Clearly, he was not able fully to follow his own advice.  Some stumbling block lay in his way that he felt he had to remove before he could enter the “stream of life” as a doctor, psychiatrist, or other idealized helping professional.  I suspect in his case it was chiefly metaphysical doubt that stood in his path; and for much of his life he appears to have labored under the belief that he would be able at some point to resolve this doubt and proceed on to other more practical business.

I suggested in the last post that this hope was chimerical—W. was by nature a philosopher, not a healer, and would not have liked things outside of the fly-bottle even if he had found a way to emerge.  Besides, metaphysical doubts only deepen the more they are explored.  One cannot ever return to the Eden of philosophical naivety.  This does not mean that one becomes more of a nihilist as one becomes more of a philosopher, but that one comes to hold one’s beliefs in a different way.  

In failing to acknowledge these things for much of his life, I suggested W. had never truly resolved his adolescent crisis of identity.  I advised others not to follow his path.

Whether I follow my own advice is, as it was for Wittgenstein, quite a different matter.  In my case the doubts are not so much metaphysical as they are ethical, but the structure of the problem is the same as it was for W., as are my idealized solutions.  I have never expressed any idle curiosity about abstract ethics, and have always assured myself that my true destiny lies in doing some more practical work to benefit other people.  One can only proceed with an attempt to help others, though, if one has a coherent ethical view of the world that motivates one to do so, or so it has seemed to me.  If I have fundamental doubts, as Wittgenstein did, I must remove them before I can get on with the “real work.”  Yet of course I never can seem to remove them sufficiently, any more than Wittgenstein could.

Of course, having ethical doubts has not actually incapacitated me for ethical action, you will be relieved to hear—no more than doubts about the nature of reality prevented Wittgenstein from opening his eyes each morning upon a world that might not exist and walking down a street that might vanish.  But I do not believe this is so because it is possible to truly doubt at the same moment that one acts in the world.  Rather, our lives are made up of negotiated truces and temporary stays of combat between ourselves and our doubts.  It is the truces that allow us to act.  Behaving ethically in the world may be Christmas in no-man’s land, but the war is still on.

I always think of each truce as a victory, however, no matter how many times this is disconfirmed by experience.  Even the title of this post displays a Wittgensteinian presumption in declaring itself a “summing up,” implying thereby that I have reached some sort of conclusion about things.  At any given moment, I have an answer that I think will finally quiet my doubts, even if all past instances suggest that it is not really so, and that the artillery is still rumbling somewhere in the distance.  

This essay will not really be a conclusion of anything, therefore, but a summary of the story so far.


Let's remove a basic misconception, first of all: ethical doubts do not emerge because we ask ourselves the naïve question of whether or not we should be ethical.  The domain of the ethical is defined as that which we should do.  Ethical doubts emerge, rather, from the question of whether or not an ethical life is possible.  Most of all, they begin to strike at us when we turn an honest gaze inward, to our own thoughts and motives.  There we often find something rather troubling: we discover that our convictions about what it is right for us to do have a tendency to comport with what we want to do—perhaps not with what we want to do immediately, but with what serves our long-term ambitions.

This sort of thing is very easy to notice when we are confronted with other people’s moral codes, especially the moral codes of the past. Glance at Ben Franklin's 13 virtues, for instance, and it is rather obvious that these are not a manual for altruism, but a recipe for benefitting Ben Franklin.  His definition of "justice" is a pretty bloodless one, we notice, and comes late in the list ("Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.")  Franklin tends to allow himself just as much sensual pleasure, meanwhile, as he likes.  "Rarely use venery but for health or offspring," he says.  Just how much "venery" is required for one's health is of course left open to interpretation.

Let's not go thinking our own age is so set apart from Franklin's, however.  We tend to think of our post-Nietzschean, post-Marxist, post-Freudian era as prone to an especially morbid variety of self-doubt, because we have realized that there is such a thing as “ideology” and so on, but one sees in the earlier epochs of history that there were cynics and skeptics back then as well.  Much as we smirk at classical liberals like Franklin now, they smirked at others in their day, and future generations will no doubt smirk at us.

The classical liberals were quick to perceive, for instance, that the aristocratic “virtues” of honor and glory were not in fact virtuous at all, in the sense of serving some common good of humanity.  Rather, they served merely to demonstrate the superior force of aristocrats.  Those of us who might end up skewered on the battlefield in defense of a nobleman’s honor would have every reason to doubt just how altruistic this virtue might be.  What once had been virtues therefore became transmuted in the liberals’ hands into deadly “passions,” that needed to be curbed wherever possible (See Hirschman, "The Concept of Interest," for more on this point).  The liberals did not stop there, however. Even the quintessentially self-abnegating virtues of the cloister and the church, it transpired, could be shown up as methods of power-seeking in their own way—as means of winning respect and influence on the spiritual and intellectual planes for those who could win little of either on the tournament grounds or the marketplace.

The only group, it appeared, who were truly altruistic in the liberals'  eyes were the liberals themselves, and the merchant classes whom they tended to represent in that era. According to their teachings, it spelled disaster whenever aristocrats pursued their passions, and monks their callings.  The merchant classes were therefore unique in that the pursuit of their “interests” was actually to everyone else’s benefit, as much as their own (just as the liberation of Marx’s proletariat would, by a rather mysterious mechanism, free humanity as a whole). 

The question-begging convenience of this notion for the merchants seems obvious to those of us who never directed our ambitions toward success in business anyways.  Yet we tend not to suspect that we might be equally naïve about the motives underlying our own pursuits.  We tend to carve out for ourselves an exception to the general rule of ideology.  Our work, we think, is truly altruistic, concerning as it does the higher spheres of art or the intellect or of service to others.  Perhaps, if we are being more honest, we might grant that we do our work in large part because we like it, and not because of some utility it might have for others, yet we still tend to think that our pursuit of our own goals spills over into the benefit of humankind, if only indirectly.  

I have yet to encounter any human group that did not believe something like this-- that did not maintain at some point that its own characteristic ambitions were pure and beneficial to others in a way no one else' were.  Even the ‘Sixties counterculture, which claimed to reject all the usual business of striving and grasping that seemed to define the word "ambition" in American life, still made it clear that it had goals.  And as soon as these were known, the familiar pattern of ideology re-emerged.  Here's Norman Mailer, writing in a famous essay on the "hipster" aesthetic of the '50s that served as the basis for the emerging 'Sixties chic.  Note how quickly selfishness is transmuted in this paragraph into “altruism," due to the magic of ideology:
“The only Hip morality (but of course it is an ever-present morality) is to do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible, and—this is how the war of the Hip and the Square begins—to be engaged in one primal battle: to open the limits of the possible for oneself, for oneself alone because that is one’s need. Yet in widening the arena of the possible, one widens it reciprocally for others as well, so that the nihilistic fulfillment of each man’s desire contains its antithesis of human cooperation.”
It is here that the voice of true ethical doubt and moral cynicism begins to whisper in our ear.  This voice does not speak with the serpent tongue of temptation, you must understand.  The one who tastes the forbidden fruit does so in the full knowledge that it is forbidden, and the tempting voice never denies that assessment.  Rather, ethical doubt speaks with the stentorian voice of conscience, accompanied by the cry of despair, which makes it difficult for the conscientious person to resist.  The saint and the moral skeptic are a hair’s breadth away from one another, you see—because they both perceive, or think they perceive, selfishness in everything.  

The saint and the skeptic speak in such similar tones, in fact, that at times history has been unable to tell one from the other.  Bernard Mandeville, the author of The Fable of the Bees, for instance, is often regarded as a moral skeptic of a Hobbesian cast, because his famous work suggests that the wealth of a society is directly proportionate to its tendency to vice.  Others read him, however (more accurately, according to Joan Robinson), as a saintly ascetic.  Robinson quotes Samuel Johnson to the effect that Mandeville's book expressed a “monastick morality,” for instance (Robinson, 15).  Moreover, neither side had to mistake or misread Mandeville’s argument in order to support their claims.  After all, both the saint and the cynic would agree, would they not, that the pursuit of one’s own ambition is ultimately in no one's real interest but one's own?

So why not become saints, then, and purge ourselves of ambition? Surely this would quiet the ethical doubts, if anything would.  Well, to put it mildly, ridding oneself of ambition is more difficult than it sounds, and I don’t just mean this in the clichéd sense that the ascetic life is a harsh and demanding one.  I mean rather that we generally adopt a new form of ambition when we abandon another.  You should beware the man who believes he has no ambition whatsoever, just as one should suspect that the man who thinks he has no vanity is the most arrogant of all.  One can be ambitious about many different things -- and the things we most nobly abjure, meanwhile, tend to be the ones we never actually wanted.  Religious ascetics have tended to renounce the ambition to own property and rear children, for instance—but what about the ambitions they do pursue-- such as those of achieving spiritual advancement and perfection, of plumbing ever more deeply the wells of speculation and philosophical wisdom, and of attaining all other sorts of introspective goals with whose fulfillment children and property might actually conflict? 

What would the ascetic life be like that entirely lacked ambition, in however spiritualized and internalized a form?  There could be no reading and no praying in it, that's for sure, and probably no thinking either, lest the ascetic's thoughts make her cleverer than other people.  It is not too much to say, in fact, that such a life would be death, in the most literal sense.  The only truly ethical act in such a system of morality would be suicide (if only at the spiritual rather than the physical level).  Some, indeed, have been willing to proceed all  the way to this conclusion.  Schopenhauer regarded the deepest insight of the world’s religions to be that the will to live is the beginning of evil—the root of all suffering and cruelty.  Buddhism has at various points in its history suggested something similar.

Schopenhauer's solution, however, will not do—and not only because it is an unpalatable one and we are, in spite of ourselves, quite attached to life.  Rather, it will not do because the protection of human life is precisely the goal of the whole sphere of ethical action.  I mean “preserving life” here not just in the sense of preventing death, but also in that of helping people to find a deeper satisfaction and a sense of meaning in their existence.  This is what we mean when we speak of ethical activity.  It is because of the seeming impossibility of finding this sort of altruism, with its pure devotion to preserving the lives of others, that we were first drawn into the spiral that led to our despairing, Schopenhauerian ethics above.  If these ethics end up in a life-denying place, then they have undermined their own basis.  One cannot maintain that one should annihilate life in order to preserve it—yet when Schopenhauer suggests that extinguishing the will to live is the highest act of altruism, this is effectively what he is saying.

We conclude, then, that there must be ways of expressing our ambitions and our wills to live that actually do help other people, and not just ourselves.  -- But then, hisses the voice of doubt, is this not mere ideology again?  Are we not back with the classical liberals declaring that, however implausible it may seem, the robber baron's pursuit of his own interests will actually benefit all the rest of us, and is in fact the kindliest of actions?  How about that artist who says that when she paints or sculpts, she is benefitting the world by her creations as much as herself-- is this any less of an ideological self-justification than the words of Mandeville’s bees or Schumpeter’s entrepreneurs? Is it “Trickle-down” aestheticism?  Supply-side statuary?

Well, maybe instead of dismissing all such arguments, we should take more seriously the possibility that none of them is "pure ideology."  Perhaps in each case it is possible that they were half-right in stating that the pursuit of their own goals might help them serve others (if none of them is completely right either.)  

It is very easy for us to laugh at poor Adam Smith—those of us whose ambitions never inclined toward industry anyways.  But if we really listen to his defense of the classical liberal's belief that some means of pursuing one’s private ambitions must also be helpful, rather than harmful, to others, it is very similar to the argument we made above against life-denying ethics.  Smith is arguing against Bernard Mandeville in the passage that follows, and if Mandeville was the Schopenhauer of his day (or the Nietzsche, depending on how one reads his stance toward his bees), then Smith was the Six Foot Turkey.  (Once again, I owe the quotation to Joan Robinson’s Economic Philosophy, p. 18-19):  
“It is the great fallacy of Dr. Mandeville’s book to represent every passion as wholly vicious, which is so in any degree and any direction [….] It is by means of this sophistry, that he establishes his favourite conclusion, that private vices are public benefits.  [….] Some popular ascetic doctrines, which had been current before his time, and which placed virtue in the entire extirpation and annihilation of all our passions, were the real foundation of this licentious system.  It was easy for Dr. Mandeville to prove, first, that this entire conquest [of all passions] never actually took place among men; and secondly, that, if it was to take place universally, it would be pernicious to society, by putting an end to all industry and commerce, and in a manner to the whole business of human life.  By the first of these propositions he seemed to prove that there was no real virtue and that what pretended to be such, was a mere cheat and imposition upon mankind; and by the second, that private vices were public benefits, since without them no society could prosper or flourish.”
Now, does Smith's argument still strike you as pure and silly ideology, dear reader?  It doesn't so strike me.  Perhaps Smith is right, I now think, that a moralistic hostility to all “passion,” all desire, and all ambition to live, in fact ends by sawing off the branch it sits on, to use an old phrase.  If morality leads us to reject the will to live, then it is not only repellent, it is self-contradictory.  It will end up justifying Nietzschean cynicism or Schopenhauerian pessimism—two frères ennemis if there every were such.

Okay, but what form of self-expression is genuinely helpful to others?  What passions and ambitions can we pursue in our lives that serve other people as well as ourselves?  I won’t try to provide an answer to this question, because whatever I say will most likely reflect, at least in some part, my own interests and ambitions rather than an altruistic perspective.  There will be some most convenient alignment between what I suppose to be the interests of humanity and what I am already inclined to do.

All I want to suggest here is that there must be such an answer, and we are therefore justified in looking for it, rather than settling for moral cynicism.  There must be ways of expressing our ambitions and passions and desires in life that help rather than hurt others, even if we are justly skeptical of any particular person’s list of what these ways might be.

I arrive at this solution to my ethical doubt, for now, by much the same route that Wittgenstein reached a truce with his metaphysical doubt.  In Wittgenstein’s final speculations on the subject of “certainty,” he argued that there are some doubts which try to call into question the very ideas, the “framework,” that we use to pose doubts in the first place.  Yet one cannot doubt the things that are needful to doubting, if one is not to fall into a contradiction (See Monk 557-558).  

I am not wholly persuaded by this, but it offers a way to reach a truce for now with my ethical doubt.  For we have seen that the ethical doubts described above call into question the very possibility of formulating an ethical stance toward the world.  They suggest that every possible belief system in fact serves the interest of a definite group, and not the interests of humanity (or we should say, of conscious life) as a whole.  As Smith points out, these doubts proceed from the untested assumption that all passions and ambitions are wicked and harmful.  Then they present us with the truism that the “entire conquest [of all passions and ambitions] never actually took place among men,” and it is proved that no stance toward the world is more ethical than any another.

Yet even to form this thought, the doubter must proceed from an ethical stance.  She or he must assume, for one thing, that it is wrong to deny the truth.  Otherwise, the doubter could raise no objection to the ideologist for being deluded.  

More importantly, in order to think the thought “all of these ethical stances that I am considering are self-interested and therefore warped, rather than truthful,” one must simultaneously suppose oneself to be a disinterested observer of all ethical systems-- as Kant's impartial mediator.  If one did not do so, then one would have to suppose: “My own judgment that all ethical stances are self-interested, warped, and untruthful is itself pure ideology and therefore self-interested, warped, and untruthful.”   Yet this is a thought that it is not possible to think—unless one posits oneself at a still further remove of impartiality.  In any case, one cannot escape from the thought that one is capable of imagining a truly ethical stance toward the world, and thus a means of living this life that provides both for one’s own ultimate fulfillment and that of the people around one.  

This at least is my current means of negotiating a truce with my doubts.  If the doubts conveyed in this essay seem to carry more conviction than their proffered solutions, it is because I am wary of such truces and have seen before their fragility.  

I find that it takes me more courage and effort to commit doubts to paper than to commit answers, because one is always blamed for one’s doubts, and probably with justice.  As much as you may resent your doubts, after all, and try to purge yourself of them, they are very much a part of you.  They are your own mental offspring and cannot be disowned.  Writing them down is to admit as much.  “You’re afraid of writing what you think about life, because you might find yourself in an exposed position,” says a character in The Golden Notebook, “[…] you might be alone."

Well, it doesn’t have to be what you think that inspires this fear.  It can be what you doubt.

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