The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy

By Stanley Cavell | Go to book overview

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An Absence of Morality

The suggestion that Stevenson Ethics and Language is controlled by an underlying concept, or lack of the concept, of morality may seem to those to whom Stevenson's analysis has been convincing to beg the very question on which he has over and over claimed to maintain scrupulous neutrality and scientific detachment. It is, presumably, from commitment to this neutrality that Stevenson says: "Any statement about any matter of fact which any speaker considers likely to alter attitudes may be adduced as a reason for or against an ethical judgment" (p. 114). This is cardinal to the direction his analysis takes, and his examples will be accepted as ones concerning morality as long as that principle seems acceptable.

This principle of Stevenson's can be put this way: Any statement about any matter of fact must be considered morally relevant, provided only that it is considered likely to be effective. That seems to me as paradoxical an assertion about morality as one is likely to hit upon with the unaided intellect. But unlike the paradoxical conclusions of epistemology, it is not a statement Stevenson, and others, find it difficult to maintain belief in; and, related to this, it is not one which he finds incompatible with "what we all believe" or say, though perhaps it is incompatible with certain mistaken theories about ethical arguments (e.g., that they may be "valid" or "invalid"). Moreover, where it seems to conflict with what we believe, his claim is not that his discovery has greater weight, or is more precise, or undercuts our ordinary beliefs, but that it is a neutral description of what in fact we all believe (so far as we have assessed our beliefs) and of what

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