Wittgenstein on Absolute Value

Wittgenstein discusses “the state of mind in which one is inclined to say, ‘I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens’” in his “Lecture on Ethics.”  He goes on to characterize this as “the experience of absolute safety,” and to associate it with being “safe in the hands of God.”

Wittgenstein then makes the point that the concept of absolute safety is nonsensical. One is safe relative to certain events or certain classes of events, depending on the circumstances. If you’re in your room, for example, you’re safe from being hit by a bus. But there is no possible world in which you are safe from everything.

The concept of absolute safety indicates the concept of absolute value, or actions that have value regardless of anyone’s desires or goals, and this is the mystery. We believe there are actions that are good or bad in themselves, not just relative to some condition. They seem oriented towards another world, one that constitutes a standard against which we should measure this one.

We’d like to put what is meant by absolute value into words, but words only represent what is, not what ought to be. When we try to express what ought to be, therefore, we end up reducing it to a mere state of affairs to which, if we like, we may then attach the label “good” or “bad.” That I regard acts of kindness as intrinsically good is a fact about me and my beliefs, not about what ought to be.

Puzzles like this indicate “the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion,” which is “to run against the boundaries of language.” To talk about absolute value is to talk about something that can’t be represented as if it were representable. But, Wittgenstein adds, the fact that ethical and religious talk is nonsense shouldn’t lead us to ridicule those who engage in it. On the contrary, one should try to talk ethics and religion even though the result will be nonsense.

Thomas Cole, Childhood, from The Voyage of Life, 1842.

Wittgenstein (citing G.E. Moore) says: “Ethics is the general enquiry into what is good” and adds: “Now the first thing that strikes one about [the term “good”] is that [it] is actually used in two very different senses. I will call them the trivial or relative sense on the one hand and the ethical or absolute sense on the other.”

By “absolute” goodness, Wittgenstein means things that are good regardless of anyone’s desires or goals (and, more generally, without refence to a standard of any kind). An example would be an act done (or omitted) in order to comply with a moral principle that applies unconditionally, such as the prohibition against murder or unnecessary cruelty. A universal moral principle gives every rational being a reason to comply that applies regardless of that being’s desires or goals. A sufficient answer to the question of why one refrains from cruelty is “Because it’s morally prohibited.”

Reasons of this kind are called “non-prudential reasons.” Prudential reasons apply in so far as an agent has a particular desire or goal. For example, if your goal is to improve your tennis game you have reason to follow the rule “Practice at least two hours a day.” That’s a prudential reason. Those who lack the goal have no reason to follow the rule. A non-prudential reason, on the other hand, is not dependent on the condition that an agent has a certain goal. Non-prudential reasons apply to people unconditionally, or as Wittgenstein would say “absolutely.”

A prudential reason has what Wittgenstein calls “relative” rather than absolute value. The value of daily practice is relative to its effect on your tennis game, and the value of the latter is relative to your desire to improve it. But the goodness of complying with a moral principle is inherent in the act of compliance itself. Its value is not dependent on an agent’s preference for one state of affairs over another.

A peculiarity of absolute value, Wittgenstein says, is that it cannot be described or explained. The world, Wittgenstein says, is “everything that is the case,” meaning all possible states of affairs that can occur. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 1-2.0141. The point, as Wittgenstein goes on to explain, is that the world “is the totality of facts, not things.” An inventory of all the objects in the world would not fully describe it. To do so, we would have to compile all of the true statements about the world, i.e., all the facts. Among the facts are all possible as well as actual truths.)

But the thought that inflicting unnecessary pain is wrong doesn’t describe a state of affairs. Rather, it ranks states of affairs, saying that one state of affairs has greater value than another. Judgments of absolute value state what ought to be the case simpliciter, and therefore they don’t appear in a description of what is the case.

Consider what it would be to include goodness or value in a description of a state of affairs, such as the existence of a room with a desk, a chair, and an individual human being. How would the individual’s moral worth figure in the description of this state of affairs? It would have take the form of propositions about the individual’s understanding of himself as an agent with moral worth. But to put it this way is to turn a statement about value into a statement of fact. It’s a fact about this state of affairs that the individual regards himself as having moral value, but that’s different from the statement that he has moral value. Yet if we were to include the latter statement in our description, we’d have to answer the question of how, among the various aspects of this state of affairs, we are to identify the moral value the individual possesses, if not by reference to his self-understanding.

Note that Wittgenstein doesn’t deny the existence of absolute value (at least, I don’t think he does); he just says that it can’t be understood as a state of affairs. There’s something about the nature of language, however, that makes it suitable only for representing actual and possible states of affairs. Relative value can be described, but that’s because statements of relative value are really just statements of fact: to say that someone is a good tennis player is just to say that his playing comes up to a certain standard. If there is such a thing as absolute value, it would have to be value that is not assessed in terms of a standard. Such values wouldn’t be subject to rational justification; they would simply assert themselves.

(If this is right, wouldn’t absolute value be a fact? It would be a brute fact, one we couldn’t explain, like the fact that there is something rather than nothing. But it would be a fact nonetheless, and hence it would be describable.)

The real difficulty, Wittgenstein seems to think, is that the experience of absolute value is the experience that some natural fact has supernatural value. He doesn’t put it this way, but it’s as if some part of the natural world is good in relation to a standard that we can’t perceive because it is outside the natural world. For some reason we can see its goodness, but we can’t see what makes it good. If human beings were made in the image of God, for example, we might perceive the image’s goodness without being able to relate it to the original because the latter is beyond our experience.

Wittgenstein goes on to say that the experience of the supernatural is the experience of finding something miraculous, which is to say, finding that the impossible is possible. (The 20th century French writer Georges Bataille discusses what he calls “happy tears,” which are brought about when we encounter something about which we are inclined to say: “Impossible – and yet there it is.” Bataille gives as an example the discovery that someone thought dead is in fact alive and well.)

One can experience the existence of the world – that there is something rather than nothing – as a miracle. But the fact that the world exists isn’t a miracle, because there is no alternative.

Wittgenstein said that when he thinks about absolute value, he also wonders at the fact that there is something rather than nothing. Why does the sheer existence of the world arouse the feeling of wonder? One answer is that it’s because there can be no causal explanation of it. We normally explain something by grasping the various conditions, forces, and events by means of which it came to be as it is. But this doesn’t work for the question of why there is something rather than nothing: before everything that exists came to be there was nothing to cause it to do so. This is a case where something is (a) self-evident and undeniable and (b) inexplicable and unintelligible – which is why Wittgenstein likens the existence of the world to a miracle.

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