Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Understanding of Moral Philosophy

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Understanding of Moral Philosophy

June 27, 2021 Off By Felso

It is known that Wittgenstein has been interested in issues related to ethics (moral philosophy) since his youth. On the other hand, the vast majority of the Tractatus contains discussions about language and its logic. What can we say about Wittgenstein’s fundamental concerns? Wittgenstein, in the letter he wrote to a publisher while publishing the Tractatus, explains what he did or did not write on the subject as follows:

The main point of the book is about ethics. I wanted to include a sentence in the preface that is not there now, but now I am writing it for you here because it will be a key to your understanding of the work. What I intended to write at the time was this: My work consists of two parts: All that I have not written presented here, and (this is the second part that is the most important). My book draws an inner boundary to the moral philosophy, and I am convinced that this is the only rigorous way of drawing those boundaries. In short, I believe that nowadays others are just gassing. By keeping quiet about it (your ethics) in my book, I have succeeded in putting everything in its proper place (Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, p.143-4).

What does Wittgenstein mean by these writings? What can be said about this more important part that he did not write? Some historians working on Wittgenstein think that clues about this unwritten part are available in the written part.

First of all, let’s remember that the world is made up of things as it is, and that the sum of true statements in terms of picture theory includes all that natural science can say about the world. There is no place for moral propositions (which we cannot even call propositions) in these propositions. Propositions expressing what is good for us to do, bad for what we do, or what the meaning of life is are not included in this total. So, where is the place of the ethics in question in this picture:

6.4 All propositions are of equal value.
6.41 The meaning of the world must lie outside the world. Everything in the world is as it is, and everything happens as it is happening: there is no value in it, and if it existed, it would have no value. If there is any value that has value, it must lie outside the realm of what is and what happens.
6.42. And so it is impossible for propositions of ethics to exist.
Propositions cannot express anything higher.
6.421 Obviously, ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental.
How should we understand ethics to be transcendent and higher? It may be helpful to look at what Wittgenstein has to say about ourselves, which is supposed to be binding on ethics.

5,632 The subject does not belong to the world; in fact, it is a limit of the world.
5.641 The philosophical self (self) is not human, not the human body or the human soul that psychology deals with, but a metaphysical subject, the limit of the world, not a part of it.

Ethics is not of this world; We ourselves do not belong to this world. Since good and evil do not exist in this world, what can we say about good and bad and our self? A clue in this regard can be found in Wittgenstein’s views on the will:

6,373 The world is independent of my will.
6.374 Even if everything we desire may come to pass, it may still be a blessing, so to speak, that only fortune bestows upon us.

My willingness and ability to do anything depends on the realization of many things, many things beyond my control: neurons transmitting impulses, muscles contracting, many external conditions being met, etc. It is beyond my will for all of these to happen and for me to do anything in the world. In this case, my only action is that I want something. My will is my action. It can be said that this action is good or bad, or whether I am happy as a result of this action:

6.422 When an ethical code of “…you will” is introduced, the first thought that comes to mind is, “What will happen if I don’t do it?” is the question. However, it is clear that ethics is not about punishment and reward in the common sense of words. So our question about the consequences of action is trivial. There must be something true about the question we pose. There must indeed be some ethical kind of reward and punishment, but they must be found in the act itself. (Clearly, the reward must be something pleasant, and punishment something unpleasant.)

What are the rewards and punishments in question, if not things external to action, added to this world? Wittgenstein explains it this way:

6.43 If the good or bad use of the will changes the world, it changes only the boundaries of the world, not facts, not what can be explained by language.

The resulting effect must be a different world. For instance, it should enlarge or wither away the world as a whole.

The happy person’s world is different from the unhappy person’s world.

As far as we can understand from this, good use of will is ethically good behavior.