Wittgenstinian Relativity: Neither Chaos nor Absolute

Erica K. Lucast
Gustavus Adolphus College
May 1999


Western philosophy has never been able to discover the rock-bottom, solid, final foundation for our systems of morality- at least, not one universally acceptable. It has always been a department of philosophy to discover such a foundation: this is the branch we term “ethical theory.” We have long held a belief in an underlying “absolute,” and to discover this bedrock, the approach many philosophers (with the notable exception of Immanuel Kant) took was to observe the society in which the inquirer lives and determine patterns of ethical judgments. By examining a wide range of actions and their classifications into “right” or “good” and “wrong” or “bad,” philosophers hoped to discover the universal principles of morality. From the way people as a whole actually act, and from the actions which they approve and disapprove, many philosophers sought to distill a determination of how they ought to act. This, according to twentieth century philosophers such as Russell, Wittgenstein and Ayer, is an unwarranted leap, for the method carries no necessity. For these men, the jump from “is” to “ought” is a step out of the knowable world into the unknowable realm of nonsense, and because of this ethics as we usually understand it was thrown out as a legitimate pursuit of philosophy. Yet to Wittgenstein, and to most people of today, ethics remains an important subject matter. Although we cannot pin it down, morality is a genuine and legitimate concern of humanity and, it appears, will continue to be so- although not, perhaps, in the form in which it has hitherto been conceived. This paper will discuss the development of ethical theory which led to its dismissal by analytic philosophers such as the early Ludwig Wittgenstein, examine Wittgenstein’s stance regarding the place of ethics in philosophy and more generally, and suggest how Wittgenstein’s view need not lead to a chaotic relativism.


There is no agreement on the universal foundation, the “first principles,” of ethics, if indeed there are any. Neither seeking an a priori basis for morals, as Kant did, nor determining how people ought to behave from observing how they actually do has yielded a sturdy ethical foundation, for no one is bound by any one of the resultant systems. They hold no necessity.

A seemingly natural conclusion from this is that perhaps there is no single foundation to ethics. This is the view taken by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as well as by the logical positivists who built on this work. In fact, according to Wittgenstein, ethics is a field of nonsense, that is, its propositions are not verifiable by comparison to facts in the world; not only is there no foundation on which to build morality, but the entire inquiry is outside the sphere of facts and therefore yields no knowledge about the world.

On Wittgenstein’s view, the world is exactly those propositions which have sense. The so-called propositions of ethics, moral judgments of right and wrong, are nonsense, however, since there is no way to verify them in the world. How would we verify the truth of a statement such as “Murder is wrong”? The obvious approach is do it by finding “wrongness” somewhere and comparing the act of murder to it; and this is what moral realists attempted to do. As mentioned, this approach yielded no definite solution to the problem of finding a foundation for ethics.

The problem, as Wittgenstein identifies it in his “Lecture on Ethics,” is that this sort of judgment implies an absolute in some way or another. Yet where is this absolute? We cannot point it out, for there is no such thing in the world. Rightness and wrongness are not empirical. Everything we can say about the world is contingent, for in Wittgenstein’s view tautologies on the one hand and contradictions on the other are the outer limits of facts. A proposition’s being contingent implies that the fact it states could be other than it is, and if this is the case, nothing in the world holds any necessity. The existence of an absolute such as rightness or wrongness, however, implies some sort of non-logical necessity; but since there can be no necessity in the world, there cannot be an absolute either. Ethics, therefore, since it seems to depend on an absolute, cannot not be expressible in the world. Nothing can sensible be said about ethics.

Wittgenstein ends the Tractatus with the pronouncement that “[w]hat we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” It sounds almost like a death knell for ethics. Indeed, earlier he states, “[A] question [can exist] only where an answer exists, and an answer only where something can be said.” Thus no ethical questions can sensibly be asked, and “this itself is the answer.”


A subject as important to humanity as ethics is not so easily dismissed, and even Wittgenstein did not trivialize the role morality plays in life. His 1929 lecture on the subject closes with the remark that
Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.
Rather than the common conception of ethics as a branch of definitive knowledge, Wittgenstein reformulated it as reflecting an attitude toward the world. John C. Kelly, in an article entitled “Wittgenstein, the Self, and Ethics,” points out that Wittgenstein saw the Tractatus as a work with an ethical purpose. Kelly enumerates two concerns Wittgenstein had in the Tractatus as first, the wish “to delineate what it is that gives life meaning and purpose” and second, “the more theoretical question of how it is possible for there to be value at all in a world of contingent facts.” To these concerns, Kelly notes, Wittgenstein “in effect gave the same answer.” This was, as mentioned, that ethics lies in our view of and attitude toward the world.

The concerns mentioned above are also present in Wittgenstein’s lecture. His discussion of the second, the question of how it is possible for there to be value in a world of facts, begins with the observation that “no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value.” There is, he notes, another sense in which statements of fact appear to be ethical judgments. To use his examples, ‘This is the right way to Granchester’ is not an ethical judgment about “right” as such, but could be equivalent to ‘This is the right way you have to go if you want to get to Granchester in the shortest time.’ Similarly, ‘This is a good chair’ means that it fulfills the purposes we define for chairs. Truly ethical judgments, however, refer to an absolute not contained in these examples (and therefore cannot be facts). Wittgenstein illustrates this with the hypothetical situation of an omniscient person who records every possible detail of humans’ actions and descriptions of all objects and their relations in the world. “If... in this world-book we read the description of a murder with all its details physical and psychological, the mere description of these facts will contain nothing which we could call an ethical proposition.” The description may enrage or cause pain in us, but those emotions are not contained in the description. Even the description of the murderer’s or victim’s states of mind during the event are merely recorded, and are “in no ethical sense good or bad.” “Is” does not imply “ought.” The point, as John Kelly notes, is “not that empirical facts are irrelevant to our concerns, which is absurd, but that their relevance is not to be explained by the facts themselves.” The relevance is in what we choose to do with the facts we are given. That the feelings of pain and suffering evoked in a murder cause us to react negatively to murder has to do with us and our attitudes, which as Wittgenstein asserts in the Tractatus, are outside the world and are thus not recordable by facts. Value is possible in that it is added to the facts by observers.

Since the world is comprised of facts, the psychological will of “metaphysical subjects” such as humans lies outside it, for as Hume showed, there are no facts to speak of when dealing with mental functions. Yet as Kelly states, “Wittgenstein’s position is that the existence of ethical meaning and value is... the result of the constituting activity of the metaphysical subject.” It is this psychological will which answers the first of Wittgenstein’s “concerns” mentioned above, the question of what gives life meaning and purpose. The metaphysical subject gives supernatural value to natural facts. “If the good or bad exercise of the will does alter the world, it can alter only the limits of the world, not the facts... In short the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world. It must, so to speak, wax and wane as a whole.” It is a person’s choice of how to interpret the unchangeable facts which changes the world, something like the chicken-egg question or the famous silhouette-or-candlestick illusion, so that “[t]he world of the happy man is a different world from that of the unhappy man.” The happy man, for instance, may see in everyone he meets an opportunity to form a friendship and add to his sanguine existence, whereas an unhappy man may enter every new acquaintance with the view that this is yet another person who may do him harm. The worlds of these two men are profoundly different because of it; one is bursting with delightful opportunity and the other brimming with sorrow. Kelly observes that Wittgenstein is led to this conclusion “by his commitment to the doctrine that all the facts in the world are contingent. ...Were the will capable of producing effects in the realm of facts, then those effects would be necessitated by the will, and some facts would therefore not be contingent, which is impossible.”

Experiences such as witnessing the murder in the above example are constituted entirely and simply of facts, as the world-book illustration demonstrates. “It is nonsense,” therefore, “to say that [such experiences] have absolute value.” Wittgenstein goes further and points out that it is paradoxical that a factual experience can seem to have a supernatural value. How does the murder, and event which took place in the world and is recorded in every minute detail in a succession of facts, acquire its moral significance? Again, the answer is in the point of view of the witness; as Wittgenstein aptly phrases it, “The scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle.”

The “way to look at it as a miracle” is provided by the person outside the world, viewing the world as “a limited whole.” “[V]iewing the world as a totality… constitutes the ‘ethical space’ in which value and meaning can enter into life. For without a unifying perspective on life and the world there are only ethically neutral contingent facts.” Each person’s interpretation of and, derivatively, attitude toward the facts of the world are dependent on that person. Suppose, for instance, that two people read in the “world-book” the description of the murder, as mentioned above. One witness may view the murder as cold-blooded and terrible, an unforgivable offense, simply because of the nature of the act: ending a person’s life is never right. Another may see it as unfortunate, but as an act of self-defense, for which the perpetrator may be justified, or at least forgiven. These two views are different not because they witnessed the act differently, for they both read exactly the same description down to the minutest detail, but because they come to the situation with different attitudes and values; their worlds have different limits. To take a well-used example, what happens when the Nazis come to the door and Anne Frank is hiding in the attic? When they ask whether any Jews are hidden on the premises, a person has two choices: either tell the truth or lie. He will reveal her presence or not according to the importance he places on lying as opposed to protecting another person. This illustrates another point Kelly brings up, which is that although there is one “logical space” which is the same for all subjects, there are multiple “ethical spaces,” because ethics is a function of the subject.

We have seen that since the metaphysical subject which makes ethics possible is outside the world, ethics itself must be as well. This is true also because we cannot express in any factual fashion the wonder, outrage, disgust or rapture inspired by a situation or experience. That we have the experience of wonder or outrage is a fact, but the feeling itself is not, for an attempt to make it so is an attempt to use language to go beyond the world. And this is impossible, for language, on Wittgenstein’s view, is the world. Like logic, ethics is transcendental. What ethics would say cannot be said, but only shown, as Wittgenstein would say.


Does this not leave us with the feeling that morality, having no place in the world and depending on the individual, is relative? How do the two people above argue about whether the murder recorded in the world-book was a morally justified act? Apparently they cannot- not logically. Argument over attitude has nothing to fall back on; there is no good basis to say that such-and-such an outlook is the correct one, or that any particular view is better than any other, for there is no known absolute with which to compare them. Perhaps, then, it makes sense to approach morality as relative. Does relativity necessarily dictate relativism? In the realm of science, the introduction of relativity theory meant a reevaluation of what was meant by scientific knowledge, but not the scrapping of everything Newton had discovered. Einstein’s relativity did not introduce absolute chaos into physics, for the laws remain constant in different reference frames even when actual measurements vary. Every reference frame has its correct measurements, but there is no one correct reference frame from which to measure. Perhaps the field of ethics can take a cue from this model.

Recall that in his “Lecture on Ethics” Wittgenstein points out that there are two senses in which statements of value are meant: one in the absolute sense, which we have seen leads nowhere, but also one in a “trivial” or “relative” sense. This second sense defines “good” in terms of a certain goal or predetermined purpose (i.e. “frame of reference”): the “right” way to Granchester depends on whether you wish to get there as quickly as possible or if you prefer the scenic route; a “good” musical instrument is determined by the performer’s preferences regarding tone quality, durability, craftsmanship, and so on. A woman wears a silk gown to a ball, but jeans and a coffee-stained sweatshirt to work in the garden. What is considered good in any situation depends upon what the people involved have as their intended purposes. This can be thought of as analogous to mathematics: in this field, consistent systems very different from each other can be obtained by changing the axioms on which the system is built (for example, Euclidean geometry differs from hyperbolic only in one postulate). Perhaps an analogous idea can be found in ethics: if we change our ethical “axioms,” our moral reference frame, another equally legitimate system is obtained and the answer to the same question is entirely different (for Euclidean and hyperbolic geometry, for instance, the angle sum in a triangle is different). These axioms are the values, goals and intentions we have in any situation, and also the conditions we impose on the moral “laws” we create. In the situation of Nazis at the door and Anne Frank in the attic, the axioms involved could be 1) lying is unacceptable, 2) killing people purely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity is unacceptable (these two represent the values involved), and 3) the value of human life is greater than the need to speak the truth in all situations (this is a mitigating condition). The person who holds these axioms will lie rather than let Ms. Frank be sent to a concentration camp. Another person who places greater value on truth telling will do the opposite. Since situations are specific and involve particular persons, axioms are fundamentally personal, although they become societal when many people come together with a shared purpose; such are the codified laws of a country, state or city.

Can an entire ethical system be built on this “Wittgenstinian relativity” principle? At first glance it seems plausible, for once the standard, goal or purpose (that is, the set of “axioms”) is set, determining proper action is given, for it is once again a matter of facts. Once a traveler has decided to go to Granchester, a certain set of actions which will get her there are given. To choose the “right” one, she specifies her goal further: she wishes to arrive in town in as short a time as possible. Then of the several routes she could take, one will serve her purposes better than any other. That route A is faster than route B can be determined with certainty by measuring the time it takes to get to Granchester taking either of the two routes. “Rightness” is arrived at through factual investigation; we no longer make a leap from “is” to “ought” in reference to an abstract absolute, but rather a concrete set of goals. Ethical statements are no longer of the form “One must do x because it is right,” but “If one’s goals are y, one should do x.”

Are there other plausible views of relative morality? Again, ethics might take a cue from science. In quantum theory, a particle’s behavior is unpredictable in any precise fashion, but the probability of its behavior can be known and measured. At the quantum level, what humans can know is only patterns of particle behavior. Ethics might be based on such a scheme as well: we can determine what sorts of general behavior patterns we wish to condone or discourage on the whole, but no hard and fast rules will ever be applicable. Killing other human beings is generally frowned upon, but at times will be justified, as in self-defense, for example; likewise a universal pattern of lying would be self-defeating, but the occasional exception to the rule “Thou shalt not lie” will at times be a proper action, as (for most people) in the case of hiding Anne Frank. And so on. Acknowledging that ethics does not have an absolute basis need not lead us into a chaos of unbridled relativism; we can still have a general framework on which to base moral decisions.


Although certainty is unattainable in issues of morality, ethics remains a branch of human interest in which some knowledge is possible. It is simply not the knowledge we once thought it could be. Morality’s “first principles” are not discoverable by investigating human behavior and values; for extrapolating from what is the case to what ought to be holds no necessity when based on a universal abstraction. Philosophical investigation of ethics into the nineteenth century, therefore, was “nonsense,” according to Ludwig Wittgenstein. ‘Ought’ implies a necessity that cannot exist in the world of contingent facts. To Wittgenstein, therefore, ethics did not belong to the factual world, but was the result of a person’s viewing and judging the facts which make up the world. This move does not open ethics up to pure relativism, however. Herein lies the key: ethics is not so easily dismissible precisely because it is related to the facts of the world. The world-book of Wittgenstein’s illustration is a theoretically possible idea. “The scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle,” but they are both ways of looking at facts. This makes room for an organized “Wittgenstinian relativity” (not relativism) in which action is judged in relation to a general pattern of appropriate behavior and a more specific set of goals or intentions (“axioms”) applicable in a given situation. Rather than determining what actions are “right,” therefore, we can get no better than to know what is most suitable given the facts and a reference frame. If ethical theory cannot deal in absolutes, neither should it be dismissed. We must adjust our expectations of what ethics can tell us.

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