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The impossibility of Wittgenstein’s ethics and a solution by Sam Harris

“Nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it“
Hamlet in
Shakespeare’s play

“Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”
Albert Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and Sam Harris (1967- ) (photo 1 and 2)
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and Sam Harris (1967- ) (photo 1 and 2)

In 1929 Ludwig Wittgenstein gave a lecture on Ethics, a subject he has otherwise refrained from thoroughly analyzing. His definitions on ethics are: the inquiry into what is good, valuable or truly important, or into the meaning of life or that which makes life worth living. In the end, ethics, for him, concern how the world should be.

So, according to Wittgenstein, there’s a relative view of what is good, and an absolute one. The relative view consists of opining that, for example, “this pianist is good”, meaning this pianist serves the purpose which we predetermined he should serve in order to be deemed a good pianist. But this, he says, is close to a tautology. It does not offer us an objective, absolute value that we can call a good value; therefore it cannot be included as a part of an ethical system. Phrases as the above consist of facts, and facts themselves do not have an ethical value. They just happen, in the same manner in which objects exist. A good pianist is he who can play certain musical pieces of some difficulty with some level of dexterity. That is not an ethical value, it is a notional description. So, if we tell the pianist that he is not good, because we don’t think he is dexterous enough, he (even if he would agree) could very well say he is not interested in being better that he already is, and we, on our part, can do nothing but draw back. But if we tell someone he is a thief (because he has indeed stolen something) and he replies “I know I behave badly, but I don’t care to behave better”, we have every right to say “you should behave better”. Meaning, we try to ascribe to him an absolute ethical value, even if he doesn’t accept it or is not even aware of it.

The difference lies with the language we use. In the first occasion, our claim to the pianist might as well have been phrased differently; for example, in this way: “You are not good enough a pianist so that you can have the career of a soloist”. His reply that he is not interested in something like that cannot beget objective opposition on our part, since he considers himself to be good enough in order, let’s say, to entertain himself. The purpose he has predetermined for his abilities is served; therefore he is a good pianist, according to him. But we are still talking about facts. “I want to entertain myself playing piano, I managed to reach this level, and therefore I am a good pianist” – all these are facts. The thief also might decide he does not mind stealing, even if he’s to get caught, but he cannot say “I am a good person” with the same ease the pianist can say “I am a good pianist”. He could only say “I am a good thief” (I guess not if he does get caught), but surely he cannot say “I am an ethical person”, if we want the word “ethical” to have any meaning.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) (photo)
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) (photo)

So, what’s the meaning of the word “ethics”? It must certainly not be dependant on the whims of anyone who would redefine it so that it fits his own behavior; it must be absolute. We all must, using reason alone, be able to reach to the same conclusion when we judge the ethics of an action. So, what is the language we should use to describe an absolute notion like “ethics”? Words, and the way we use them, can only describe the natural condition of things, meaning facts. But since facts themselves do not have an intrinsic ethical value (the fall of an apple and the pulling of a trigger are equally amoral occurrences, beyond ethics), language is not capable of giving ethical answers, and therefore ethics recedes outside language and the world language describes, and is moved to metaphysics.

“What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence“(Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) (photo)
“What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence“(Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) (photo)

In his book Tractatus Logicο-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein writes: “It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)” Here, Wittgenstein approaches Hume who said that we could opine on how the world is, but not how the world should be (“given knowledge of the way the universe is, in what sense can we say it ought to be different?”). Wittgenstein says that phrases like “how extraordinary that the world should exist” or “how extraordinary that anything should exist” are misuses of language. This is because we can only characterize something as extraordinary if we have something to compare it with. The phrase “this dog is big” only means that it is bigger than others of the same breed that we have seen in the past. But what could we compare existence itself with? We don’t have knowledge of non-existence and it is therefore impossible to make a judgement on the existence of the world. We can only use language for things that are verifiable.

The metaphysics where Wittgenstein places his hopes of locating ethics are not the metaphysics of religion, as near the end of his lecture he says that his efforts and “the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language”, meaning they were “nonsensical” (claims without meaning). Those who talk of god, in essence use similes: the sense of guilt implies that god does not approve of our behavior, and when we feel safety we mean we feel safe in the hands of god. “But a simile has to be the simile for something”. And since we can speak with similes, we should be able to talk about the same things without the similes. Those who try this, since they use words that can only describe natural facts and things, cannot decide on meta-physical notions; therefore they also speak nonsense.

“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself“ (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) (photo 1, 2 and 3)
“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself“ (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) (photo 1, 2 and 3)

For Wittgenstein to identify something as “nonsense” is not to deprive it of any value. He finishes his lecture saying: “Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it”. Later, in Culture and Value, he says: “Don’t, for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense”. We must not make the mistake of always looking for a vindication or and explanation. The security of a false certainty about our perceptions of the world, detach us from a critical stance towards our conjectures about it. These conjectures, he says, whether philosophical or scientific, are doomed to failure, and they’re not going to solve any problem. There is no answer to the problem of life. We have a solution when the problem of life disappears, meaning when we die.

So, since our hypothesis will always be wrong, since every ethical position must lie upon metaphysics and since language itself is incapable of describing how we should act, according to Wittgenstein, concerning ethics –how the world should be-, we ought to be silent, or recognize that we are talking nonsense.

But is it possible that things are actually so? Is it alright to resign from the search of the right way of living? We are continually met with ethical problems, whether in our private affairs or concerning our political responsibilities, and Wittgenstein’s reasoning doesn’t seem to offer anything to resolve them.

“Religious ideas about good and evil tend to focus on how to achieve well-being in the next life, and this makes them terrible guides to securing it in this one.” (Amazon Q&A) (photo)
“Religious ideas about good and evil tend to focus on how to achieve well-being in the next life, and this makes them terrible guides to securing it in this one.” (Amazon Q&A) (photo)

What perhaps eludes Wittgenstein is that ethical values too are, in a way, facts. This would, of course, allow him to not consider the use of language to describe them as nonsense. For example, the reason we care more about animals than insects, is that we deem the former to be exposed to a wider range of well-being/misery than the latter. Animals have a greater ability to feel pain or pleasure than insects. This is a literal, honest claim. To be exact, it is a fact. It is something that can be either right or wrong; it is something that is verified. Science continually adjudicates on facts that describe the kind of experiences conscious beings may have.

According to Wittgenstein, philosophy, at best, leads to tautology, religious teachings seem arbitrary (and are anyway unclear) and science is put on the sidelines concerning ethics. But should it be this way? I will try and illustrate here that the claim that science is incapable of solving ethical problems is an illusion. I will do this using Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, though it was certainly not meant to reply to Wittgenstein in particular.

Sam Harris offers a more pragmatist approach to the problem of ethics. What is a moral action, he asks, if not an action that increases the well-being of someone? Which action that does not do that could be characterized as “ethical” or “moral”? Let’s take a hypothetical example. Let’s imagine the worst possible universe, Harris says, where all humans are absolutely miserable forever and where there is no hope for improvement. In the opposite, we can imagine the best possible universe. The real world, the one we live in, is somewhere in between. Whichever action would lead us towards one end or the other would be called “immoral” or “moral”, respectively. Any other action would be irrelevant to morality, or amoral[1]. If an innocent child is murdered in some part of the world, who could say it’s not an objectively immoral thing to have happened? Meaning, one that would not necessarily lead towards the worst possible universe?

Since we can accept that the worst possible universe is not a preferred outcome for us, we have to admit that there are other universes, which are preferable. We therefore have a continuum before us, and all we can do is walk along on it. And since the experience of every conscious being will depend in some way on the natural laws, there will be a right way and a wrong way to move along this continuum. Since well-being depends on natural factors (on actions that affect a person) and natural factors are studied by science, it can be deduced that well-being is the object of science. So, it lies on science to guide us towards it.

The problem here, one might say, is the fleeting notion of well-being; that its definition is not clearly stated. Moreover, how will we isolate any subjectivity from any adjudications relating to it? Is it enough, or even possible, to perform an MRI to figure out if someone feels pleasure or happiness or not? The answer is yes. The mapping of the brain gives us a relatively precise view of when someone is feeling good and when not, of what makes him feel happy and what causes repulsion to him. Of course, we can’t say that well-being is measurable or that there is such a thing as “perfect” or “complete” well-being. But don’t the same apply to health? Health is not measurable, nor is there any predetermined goal when we check someone’s physical condition. We can say of no one that he is “perfectly healthy” at any given moment. This does not stop us from considering health to be the object of science and talk about it using scientific terms and reason. We can, for example, say that someone with the flu is less healthy than someone without the flu. As we can prove that the pathological lack of pleasure in the cases of anhedonia and dysphoria constitute obstacles of well-being.

“How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering?” (TED Talk 2010) (photo)
“How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering?” (TED Talk 2010) (photo)

It is indeed possible for someone to believe he is moving towards the best possible universe and, simply, be wrong. One could, for example, say he rejoices killing infidels because that will allow him to enter into heaven. To him, it seems like a good thing for infidels to be killed. Should this force us to abandon the idea of objectivity about what is good? Let’s revisit the example of health, to consider someone who says he wants to experience migraines; that they give him some kind of satisfaction. Can we object to this? Probably not –and we probably can’t refuse his demand to not receive treatment- but surely we cannot say he is healthy if he does get migraines (anorexia nervosa might be a good example as well). In the same manner, we should not give up when trying to judge someone’s claim to feel pleasure in killing. We can recognize his circumstances, we might understand his reasoning for doing it, but we certainly don’t have to shake our views on whether killing is good or bad, based on the fact that he has “his own ethics”, supposedly equally as valid as anybody else’s. Besides, we should take into account the well-being of his victims, their relatives etc. His actions obviously lead us toward the worst possible universe.

It is as difficult to define the notion of well-being as it is to define health. Many years ago, life expectancy barely reached 30 years. He who would be deemed “healthy” at 25 back then, would be receiving aid today. This difficulty in accurately defining health, or the fluidity of who can be considered healthy, does not make the idea of health empty of meaning.

Another possible objection is this: How can we talk of objectivity and absolute truths in ethics, when there are many alternate available ways to deal with a problem, and not just the two: moral/immoral? The plethora of alternatives in dealing with well-being should not cause confusion as to whether an action is absolutely ethical or not. In the same way, there are many ways to counter a disease, and this fact does not provide confusion as to whether giving poison to a patient is a good thing to do or not. Meaning, there might be a disagreement on whether to give medicine A or medicine B to the patient in order to have the best possible results, but surely to give him poison is absolutely wrong. Correspondingly, it can be argued that a child should be raised in discipline or with the method of reward/punishment, but to whip it for every wrongdoing is objectively wrong.

“It’s simply untrue that religion provides the only framework for a universal morality” (CBC interview with Mary Hynes in a Tapestry episode) (photo)
“It’s simply untrue that religion provides the only framework for a universal morality” (CBC interview with Mary Hynes in a Tapestry episode) (photo)

We see women in some regions of the world being treated as slaves. In what sense can we not say this is objectively wrong? Anything we know about the human condition tells us that humans are born as equals. And it is the science of biology that verifies it, by showing us there is no axiological difference between the two sexes (whatever that might be). Why do we consider it as a given fact that each culture has an opinion on an ethical issue that we necessarily have to take seriously? How have we convinced ourselves that a claim on an ethical problem cannot have more bearing than another? Why do we think we are incapable of condemning actions that we would find heinous in the West, simply because they happen to take place in another country or culture, or within the context of a “foreign” religion? It is only a supposed humbleness and a wrongly understood cultural relativism (related to the notion of “white guilt”) that deters us from defending what we already know; from supporting vested western values, which are universal values (because they are objective values) against behaviors that we know cause as much convulsion in an open society as the HIV virus causes in a healthy organism.

Ethics is not a metaphysical problem. It is a practical, everyday issue; and our judgments on morality have practical consequences on the material world around us. Language has been built to describe this material world and therefore, I think, we can talk about ethics.



[1] I am using the terms “ethics” and “morality” interchangeably as, in context, they are the same.

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One comment

  1. Insects are animals. Do you mean invertabrates and vertabrates.

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