Relatively speaking

posted in: Ethics | 1

The Cambridge Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is reported to have said that at times he felt as if he was writing for “people who would think in a different way, who breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men”. Perhaps therefore Wittgenstein might have smiled knowingly had he contemplated how, 60 or more years after his death, and thanks to the initiative and support of my colleague and Cambridge Judge Business School Fellow, Ilyas Khan, we have established a Wittgenstein Society at CJBS. It gives us a chance to discuss topics beyond business optimisation and explore some of Wittgenstein’s thinking in today’s context.

At our second meeting, last month, Professor Alois Pichler, the eminent Wittgenstein expert from the University of Bergen, joined several senior academics and students from within Cambridge to read one of the few full lecture texts that still exist in English from Wittgenstein’s time in Cambridge and to discuss the subject of ethics.

Professor Pichler’s short introduction showed how Wittgenstein represented “relativism” (that ethics is not a judgment made in relation to a benchmark, but a judgment that is in the person), and thus refused to make general statements. Yet Wittgenstein maintained that ethics, although not amenable to generalisations, was extremely important. He saw ethics as a personal choice, which could not be mandated “objectively”.

The discussion that followed at our event was fascinating and wide-ranging, but sadly I don’t have the space here to go into the great detail it merits. I was, however, fascinated by the link between this view and the work of empirical scientists, specifically ethologists (people who observe animal behaviour) who have identified the roots of ethics in animals, and that got me thinking.

Ethics does not exist for most animals, who make individual or offspring-preserving choices dictated by their capabilities. The finely tuned balance between predators and prey seen in nature is not delicate because of ethical choices, but merely an expression of power. Where there is imbalance, one side wins, and either the prey is eliminated or the predator starves. We rarely glimpse “unbalanced” situations because they don’t last long before being resolved.

Ethics arises in the few animals that possess a theory of mind and who are therefore able to make conscious choices that balance the interest of the individual against the interest (or need) of the group.  For example, researchers have conducted psychological exercises among chimpanzees similar to those conducted among humans. Just like humans, chimps do get upset when a mate behaves selfishly; they want to punish the selfish mate.

Thus, ethics can be seen in groups of self-conscious and mutually conscious animals and humans, and revolves around the balancing of individual interests (selfishness) and group interests (within-group altruism). Ethical choice happens always in reference to a group.

This relativity with respect to a reference group causes confusion in many discussions of ethics. People have always been capable of admirable contributions, even sacrifices, with respect to their direct group (“I am a helpful and reliable member of my tribe, or my community”), while at the same time considering the exploitation or even destruction of externals as quite natural (“they are our enemies”, “they are not really human because they have a different skin colour”).

Are people good or bad? Well both, depending on where they draw the lines of their reference group. Moreover, ethical choices are typically made not in cold rational reflection but emotionally, fuelled by love towards the people you feel related to, and by hate, anger or contempt towards those on the outside.

Local reference groups were enough to maintain cooperation among humans when people lived in semi-isolated small groups: you were good in your community, and how you treated strangers was a different matter. As societies became larger scale, civilisation has (haltingly) developed larger reference groups such as religions and nations.

These reference groups have helped us to muster the emotional energy to behave altruistically towards more of the people with whom we interact. Take as extreme examples the religious martyrs who are willing to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs, or soldiers who are asked to sacrifice their lives for their nation. A more everyday example are people who pay taxes for the good of their nation. Many people pay taxes indeed because it’s the right thing to do, but the temptation to shirk is always there. Ethics helps us to overcome the temptation to shirk.

And yet at the global scale, this system of ethical reference groups no longer works well enough to enable humanity to address problems that arise at the global scale. It doesn’t work for two reasons: first, a system reliant on reference groups still enables the justification of war, genocide and national selfishness. Territorial conflicts are still with us (as a glimpse at the newspapers right now shows us). Even religion serves as a justification for war. Second, the highest-level reference group, namely humanity and the planet as a whole, is missing. The needs of humanity as a whole have no face or identity. In consequence, we pay too little attention to them.

The Canadian anthropologist Jerome Barkow observed 30 years ago: “We are not too stupid to understand the global issues, but we fail to muster the emotional energy to address them.” Because there is no face, no emotional identity, we tend to overlook the effects of our actions – in war, pollution or global wealth and human capital imbalances – on humanity as a whole. No one stands up for these issues in the global decision-making bodies, and we don’t adequately respond to the need for action.

Humanity has reached a more or less working ethics performance at the level of nations and religions (not perfectly of course, and it is never to be taken for granted, but it’s sort of working). It is at the world level where we have the largest ethics gap. Climate or equality summits are painful and unproductive affairs. Bilateral agreements between nations just shift the pain. The United Nations is too feeble and does not command an emotional identity to create the ethical pressure for investing real effort in global phenomena.

I think this is where ethics can make a huge contribution. I personally happen to think that we need to introduce a face where there currently is none, by establishing a world president. Maybe our ethics philosophers can show us a path to establishing the missing bit. Wittgenstein himself was not in doubt that ethics, and the value of standards of behaviour that are enshrined as “ethical,” are deserving of the highest accord.

  1. Alexander Higgs

    On one hand, the idea that you have a Wittgenstein society is very pleasing.

    On the other, Christoph’s post is a little questionable. There is a difference between statement a) language about ethics is relative, and relates to an individual set of meanings that are only accessible to those uttering them

    & statement b) Ethical statements are true relative to their context, and cannot be objectively true,

    b) Does not follow from a)

    And whilst I’m sure Wittgenstein would regard a) as true, I’m not sure he would have agreed with b). He would have regarded an ethical objective truth statement as something that cannot be expressed clearly, as unsayable. But unsayable does not equal false.

    And Christoph uses a philosopher making a point about language, to make a broader point around empathy and collaborative projects, which is tenuous.

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