Cover image for Morality and Our Complicated Form of Life: Feminist Wittgensteinian Metaethics By Peg O’Connor

Morality and Our Complicated Form of Life

Feminist Wittgensteinian Metaethics

Peg O’Connor


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192 pages
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Morality and Our Complicated Form of Life

Feminist Wittgensteinian Metaethics

Peg O’Connor

Peg O’Connor offers a compelling Wittgensteinian alternative to the realist-versus-antirealist debates in metaethics. Grounded in ‘deep conventionalism,’ she argues that ‘our world is not one part natural and one part social, but rather is a shared world where these are intermingled and tangled, resulting in ways of acting and conventions that are inescapably bound together.’ In a field that remains paralyzed by whether there exist objective moral values, O’Connor’s work offers a breath of fresh air.


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  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Moral philosophy, like much of philosophy generally, has been bedeviled by an obsession with seeking secure epistemological foundations and with dichotomies between mind and body, fact and value, subjectivity and objectivity, nature and normativity. These are still alive today in the realism-versus-antirealism debates in ethics. Peg O'Connor draws inspiration from the later Wittgenstein's philosophy to sidestep these pitfalls and develop a new approach to the grounding of ethics (i.e., metaethics) that looks to the interconnected nature of social practices, most especially those that Wittgenstein called “language games.” These language games provide structure and stability to our moral lives while they permit the flexibility to accommodate change in moral understandings and attitudes.

To this end, O'Connor deploys new metaphors from architecture and knitting to describe her approach as “felted stabilism,” which locates morality in a large set of overlapping and crisscrossing language games such as engaging in moral inquiry, seeking justifications for our beliefs and actions, formulating reasons for actions, making judgments, disagreeing with other people or dissenting from dominant norms, manifesting moral understandings, and taking and assigning responsibility.

Peg O’Connor offers a compelling Wittgensteinian alternative to the realist-versus-antirealist debates in metaethics. Grounded in ‘deep conventionalism,’ she argues that ‘our world is not one part natural and one part social, but rather is a shared world where these are intermingled and tangled, resulting in ways of acting and conventions that are inescapably bound together.’ In a field that remains paralyzed by whether there exist objective moral values, O’Connor’s work offers a breath of fresh air.
In this original work O’Connor develops a genuinely novel approach to metaethics. O’Connor’s views are radical, since she replaces both realism and antirealism with a Wittgensteinian approach that firmly relocates metaethics within the context of practical ongoing moral concerns. This is an exciting and important book.

Peg O’Connor is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies Program at Gustavus Adolphus College. She is the author of Oppression and Responsibility: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Social Practices and Moral Theory (Penn State, 2002) and co-editor (with Naomi Scheman) of Feminist Interpretations of Ludwig Wittgenstein (Penn State, 2002).



Prolegomenon to Any Future Feminist Metaethics

List of Abbreviations

1. Feminist Wittgensteinian Metaethics? Revising the Big Book

2. Does the Fabric of the World Include Moral Properties? Realist/Antirealist Debates

3. Neither a Realist nor an Antirealist Be

4. Felted Contextualism: Heterogeneous Stability

5. Normativity and Grammar

6. Philosophical Rags and Mice: Changing the Subject in Moral Epistemology

7. Stability and Objectivity: The Felted World



Feminist Wittgensteinian Metaethics? Revising the Big Book

Disquiet in philosophy might be said to arise from looking at philosophy wrongly, seeing it wrong, namely as if it were divided into (infinite) longitudinal strips instead of into (finite) cross strips. This inversion in our conception produces the greatest difficulty. So we try as it were to grasp the unlimited strips and complain that it cannot be done piecemeal. To be sure it cannot, if by a piece one means an infinite longitudinal strip. But it may well be done, if one means a cross-strip.—But in that case we never get to the end of our work!—Of course not, for it has no end.

—Wittgenstein, Zettel, § 447

I have arrived at the rock bottom of my convictions.

And one might almost say that these foundation-walls are carried by the whole house.

On Certainty, § 248

Chapters 2 and 3 offer a diagnosis and an analysis of metaethics through the lens of one set of dominant questions. Chapter 2, “Does the Fabric of the World Include Moral Properties? Realist/Antirealist Debates,” is most in John Locke’s spirit of being an underlaborer who clears the ground and removes confusions. This chapter examines the shape that antirealist/realist debates have taken in the exchanges between Gilbert Harman and Nicholas Sturgeon, a moral antirealist and moral realist respectively. These exchanges are, I submit, canonical in contemporary metaethics, and present the clearest framing of the main issues. These debates revolve around metaphysical and epistemological considerations of moral properties. The question is posed, do moral properties behave like scientific properties in our observations and explanations? If the answer is no, then moral relativism follows. A positive answer to this question is evidence for moral objectivism or absolutism. The asymmetrical framing of this question enshrines scientific expectations for moral phenomena. The ethical naturalist, no less so than the moral antirealist, has pledged allegiance to these expectations. With the focus on moral properties—how they exist and function and how they can be known—human nature and agency drop out of the picture. Whereas in the past metaethics has asked those sorts of questions, recent work in metaethics, operating under the influence of scientism, largely passes those questions by. The displacement of questions about human nature, agency, and location contributes to the problematic tendency to divorce metaethics from normative ethics.

This chapter also introduces the issues of normativity and normative authority, and the expectations that a naturalist has for objectivity. One prominent approach to normativity treats it as a matter of necessity. This approach rests on a naturalistic metaphysics, which is also a prominent theme in the next chapter.

The third chapter, “Neither a Realist nor Antirealist Be,” continues the critique begun in the previous chapter, challenging the coherence of the philosophical theses of realism and antirealism. Many of Wittgenstein’s investigations aim to deflate metaphysical theses such as “realism,” “naturalism,” “idealism,” and “conventionalism.” As he notes, these are posited as explanations for the nature or essence of the world. He concludes that metaphysical theses or concepts oftentimes mask grammatical principles, and philosophers have failed to appreciate this. Thus, metaphysics produces some of the most vexing and long-lasting confusions in philosophy. The predicament in which philosophers (including me) find themselves is that we fail to recognize the fact that two sides of a dualism often rest on shared assumptions. Wittgenstein aims his investigations right at those shared assumptions. In this chapter, my aim is the assumption that world and language, or if you prefer, nature and normativity, are radically distinct. I use these expressions interchangeably.

It is precisely against the backdrop of this assumption of the world/language dichotomy that normativity becomes a problem, especially in regard to ethics. One can tack into the alleged problem from several fronts. How do norms produce or generate reasons that have objective authority that holds for all? Whence comes the power or authority of moral judgments? How does the ought exercise a pull on all of us? What are the sources of normativity? Another way to put the question is, In what ways is normativity authoritative for us (and in ways that we can come to know)? Morality is fundamentally concerned with prescriptions and recommendations, judgments and evaluations. Morality wears its normativity on its sleeve, and needs no apologies for doing so. It certainly does not need to obscure its constitutive role in moral practices. The overt normativity of morality gives rise to the charge that ethics bears a special burden, especially when someone wants to argue for objectivity in morals.

Wittgenstein reframes discussions of necessity, offering a deflationary account. Rather than apologizing for context dependence, and assuming that it negates its necessity, he posited that all forms of necessity are context dependent. The next question, of course, is, what is the context. It was tempting to think that logical and mathematical necessities are anchored in logical and mathematical facts. The same temptation holds for metaphysical necessity. These necessities, it is assumed, hold without exception and regardless of context. But Wittgenstein’s critique against just this temptation is devastating. Wittgenstein shows that this demand for independence is exactly what makes them untenable.

Ultimately, neither realism nor antirealism provides a coherent account of normativity, one that is adequate to the task of providing any criterion for correctness. The failure of these metaphysical theses traces back to their shared assumption about the world/language relationship. Thus, we find ourselves needing to reconceive both the relationship between world and language and our expectations for normativity.

Reconceiving the relationship between world and language is one way to address the worry that John McDowell has about the ways that nature has been disenchanted. When we acquiesce in the disenchantment of nature and expel meaning from the “merely natural,” we will be left with philosophical mysteries about how to bring meaning back into the world.

The first step in resisting this acquiescence is to show the twin failings of realism and antirealism. Once the confusions have been cleared, it is important to note what is there; this is an important descriptive task. The fourth chapter, “Felted Contextualism: Heterogeneous Stability,” develops the alternative to the dominant realist/antirealist dichotomy. The chapter begins with a new metaphor for understanding the nature of the world, one that does not presume the world/language gap discussed in the previous chapter. This chapter addresses explicitly the context in which any forms of necessity and normativity have their lives. Wittgenstein’s discussions of forms of life and natural history serve as my starting points in generating the position I call “felted contextualism.” Using language in certain ways is one of our characteristic human activities, and it enables us to engage in moral practices. I read Wittgenstein to be using the concept “form of life” in two different but related ways. The first way is to mark the differences between human and nonhuman animals. This usage is concerned with the similarities and commonalities in activities shared by humans and that distinguish us from other animals. In this context, “form of life” refers to what I call the human form of life. Wittgenstein is not so much concerned with biological inflexibilities as with what different animals can and cannot do.

The second way Wittgenstein uses the term is to mark differences among humans. Communities having widely different moral and nonmoral practices would have different forms of life. These two interpretations of this concept (one human form of life among other natural kinds and multiple forms of life within humanity) are often set up in opposition to one another, with the assumption that only one can be right. I take the two usages to be consistent and compatible, however, and ultimately important to my argument that there is an immanent and real grounding of our moral practices and judgments, which also has a remarkable diversity.

In this Wittgensteinian view, there is no radical break between what we are and what we do. In order to understand the nature of morality, the importance of the embodiedness of humans cannot be underestimated. Morality, on this view, is created and maintained through the actions and interactions of humans with one another, other beings, and the physical and social environments.

On Certainty is a centrally important text for the arguments in this chapter. As opposed to Avrum Stroll, who argues that Wittgenstein advances a certain form of foundationalism, I argue that Wittgenstein shows that foundations—understood as separable and distinct from language—are impossible. Felted contextualism and what I will call “stabilism” emerge as is an alternative to both absolutism and relativism.

Various elements make up the stability, and with respect to metaethics, I argue that it is what Wittgenstein describes as certainty. This certainty includes a diversity of elements that in recent metaethics are shunted off to the side, ignored equally by both camps in the realist and antirealist debates.

Chapter 5, “Normativity and Grammar,” addresses explicitly what naturalists call “the problem of normativity.” This “problem” gets off the ground so quickly and effectively due to the assumption there is a dichotomy between natural features of the world (amenable to scientific inquiry) and normative features. If the natural is real or independent, which we readily assume, the normative seems that much stranger and in need of explanation (if not apology). In light of this assumption, the relationship between normativity and the natural is as vexing and challenging as the other big relationship of radically different kinds in philosophy—the mind and body.

The discussions of necessity, certainty, and the stability of our felted world of practices as the context of our living are intended to provide a very different starting point for discussions of normativity. With the felted-contextualist view, the normativity question takes on a very different cast. My account of normativity will rely heavily on Wittgenstein’s conception of grammar. I will argue that grammar is part of the certainty that provides the stability in our shared ways of living. Grammar is an ineliminable feature of any and all practices; it is that which provides the possibility of intelligibility and meaningfulness. Grammar, in Wittgenstein’s hands, becomes a remarkably complex concept. Grammar cuts across and is infused in both dimensions of forms of life. Actions function grammatically, as can attitudes. Thus, grammar has a heterogeneous character, the existence of which can give rise to tensions. But given its heterogeneous nature, there are also tensions. In our world, grammar is both arbitrary and nonarbitrary, and these dimensions are inseparable from each other. Some features of the world and life contribute to grammar’s arbitrariness, while others contribute to its nonarbitrariness. One common mistake is to treat them as separable, or to isolate their dynamic elements and treat them either as absolute or as contingent. Contingency is centrally important here. Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations brings out the contingency (what can also be called the arbitrariness) of our actual ways of living. Wittgenstein insists that it is a contingent fact that the world exists and that it contains humans. He takes it that there are general facts about the world and human beings that are stable and sure but cautions against taking these as foundations or as absolutes that can justify first principles or prove the existence of the world. Wittgenstein understands it as a given that there have been long-term uses of ordinary languages, and that grammar presupposes these uses. But many of his examples in On Certainty and Philosophical Investigations show the contingency of our actual ways of living, thus warding off the claim that ours must be the right ones. This is why it is a mistake to read On Certainty in any foundationalist sense.

Grammar is both constitutive of practices along with their meanings and intelligibility and regulative within a practice. Grammar has a force and authority; it is that which provides a standard of correctness through use. Each individual, as she becomes a member of communities, begins to feel and operate under the pull of grammar. As we mature, each of us begins to exert its pull ourselves, an activity that is part of what it means to develop what John McDowell calls a second nature. This grammatical account demystifies normativity, and shows its rather prosaic and plebian character. Normativity is not something metaphysically queer. I argue that there is really no difference in kind in moral normativity from the normativity that governs our answering “four” to the question of “What is two plus two?” Moral necessity is no more mysterious (and in some ways duller) than normativity in other domains of life.

Moral epistemology is in need of a curative in order to resist the pull to more theoretical and abstract ways of knowing. Rejecting a picture that simply assumes a sharp division between natural and normative, and a sharp distinction between humans and the objects of our knowledge, will effect a profound shift in our expectations for moral knowledge.

Chapter 6, “Philosophical Rags and Mice: Changing the Subject in Moral Epistemology,” makes an argument for broadening what is included under the category of moral epistemology. Virginia Held argues that with respect to morality, we ought to retire the term “epistemology” because of its close associations with science and its empiricist roots. This limits moral knowledge to the propositional sort, with the accompanying expectations for inquiry and standards of justification and verification. Instead, the broader category of “moral understandings” is more appropriate to and reflective of what we do when engaged in myriad moral practices and activities. If we take seriously the fact that activities and practices composing the certainty are the felted context, then we see that moral knowledge is best understood as a kind of practical knowledge along the lines discussed by Plato. The “rags” are the basic preconditions, background conditions, and skills that a traditional propositional approach of “S knows that p” takes for granted. These rags, I argue, are philosophically significant.

Moral knowledge involves practical understandings that are necessarily public and shared. Only as embodied and engaged persons can people be participants in the practices of daily living who contribute to the makings of moral understandings and who show understandings in our actions. Moral problems are not theoretical problems requiring theoretical solutions. Rather, moral problems are practical problems that require practical wisdom and embodied solutions. This effects a significant change in our expectations for moral knowledge or understandings. Moral understanding neither requires some sort of special faculty for apprehending the moral dimensions of a situation nor is it beholden to empiricism narrowly conceived.

Reasons and justifications, which play significant roles in our shared ways of living, are primary components of one important form of moral inquiry. Reasons, by their use and role in our lives, have normative authority. Reasons and justifications demonstrate our intelligibility and the meaningfulness of our actions. They involve myriad skills and, even more basically, the acknowledgment and recognition of others. And it is here that we see one way in which normative ethics and metaethics are deeply entwined.

Justifications assume that one has recognized another as being worthy of a justification. But what are the conditions under which individuals or groups are recognized as being worthy of justification? The final section of this chapter raises just this question, making use of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July.” This speech of Douglass is an instance of moral inquiry, pointing to very real, practical, and embodied problems that moral understandings need to address and transform. This speech brilliantly identifies the ways that acknowledgments and recognitions are shaped by structural injustices or systems of oppression.

In the final chapter, “Stability and Objectivity: The Felted World,” I return most explicitly to a discussion of moral absolutes, on the one hand, and surface conventionalism/relativism on the other. Throughout this work, I will argue against the view that conventions are social and cultural creations in which individuals can choose to participate. Typically, these conventions are seen as arbitrary and, in some sense, free-floating. Unlike the laws, objects, or properties found in the natural world, conventions have a much less stable grounding; because they are in no way given or inevitable, they are likely to change. This surface conventionalism entails relativism of a certain sort, and this relativism has implications for how we understand the nature and importance as well as the resolution of moral disagreement. As much as I have disagreed (and will continue to disagree) with Gilbert Harman, he is right when he claims that relativism is really not about truth but about objectivity.

Harman’s expectations for moral objectivity, however, are fundamentally misguided. Harman’s characterizations of relativism and objectivity will serve as a foil against which I will generate an alternative account of objectivity that is consistent with felted contextualism. I call my alternative stabilism, and this account will provide feminists with much of what we want in order to make normative judgments.

To highlight what my stabilist account offers, I will examine some of the events and aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina is itself a set of felted phenomena. My intent is to show how our obligations of justice are generated and met in the stable felted world. That knowledge will enable us to make use of claims to objectivity. The possibility for and expectation of transformation of structural injustices and systems of oppression are centrally important to feminist ethics.

For feminist arguments about oppression to be philosophically (and politically) compelling, we need to have a well-developed metaethics. Feminists’ silence on metaethical questions threatens the progress that we have made in normative ethics. Because we have chosen not to address the grounding question explicitly, we find ourselves charged with having embraced an anything-goes relativism and having rejected objectivity. We end up developing de facto metaethical positions in the process of defending ourselves against these charges. We need a stable grounding for our claims and judgments; this could be something more than feeling or surface convention but certainly not something like a metaphysical property, in part because this sort of realism is often accompanied by moral absolutism.

This work offers a diagnosis of the ways that metaethics has been practiced in the last twenty-five years, by asking what it is that we are hoping to find in our search for foundations. What purpose do we want our foundations to serve? Our shared need, I hope to show, is not a foundation comprising universal principles or metaphysical properties, but rather something different. Our real need is stability, and this work shows how our morality has its life in the stability that practices create.

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