Wittgenstein and Ethics

Alice Crary


This talk contains material on Wittgenstein that I worked on three or four years ago but then set aside until very recently. When I returned to it, it was with an eye toward connecting it with a project in ethics that in the meantime preoccupied me. This project can be sketched as follows. Ethics is concerned with moral thought, and a survey of recent conversations in ethics reveals the existence of extensive agreement about where to find such thought. Moral philosophers generally agree in assuming that the moral work of language is the prerogative of moral concepts, where these are understood as concepts that are specifically in the business of articulating our moral outlook. Further, despite lacking a clear consensus about which of our concepts are the moral ones, moral philosophers generally agree in assuming that moral thought invariably comes in the form of moral judgments, where these are understood as judgments that apply some moral concept or other. One clear sign of agreement on these matters is the widespread, if also mostly tacit, acceptance of a view of ethics on which it is taken to be distinguished by a preoccupation with moral judgments or, alternately, with judgments that make up one particular region of language and specify one particular (practical or theoretical) subject-matter. This familiar view of ethics is the central critical target of a research project that has engaged me recently. I have wanted to argue that moral thinking is not restricted to moral judgment-making and, further, that it is inevitably possible that a stretch of thought that does not make use of moral concepts, and that is not concerned with ‘moral topics’, might nevertheless play the kind of role in expressing or elaborating our moral outlook that establishes it as genuine moral thought. My goal in this talk is to show that Wittgenstein is rightly seen as an ally for this project.


philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; 20th century philosophy; ethics; moral concept; moral judgment; moral philosophy; language; Lecture on ethics

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