Answering Dan Kaufman on our moral exhaustion

Dan Kaufman asked some good questions about our obsession with finding “morality everywhere” in one of his blog posts yesterday. He makes some good observations, so it is worth reading. The point he is making is that we are in this uncomfortable position where everything seems to have moral implications. It looks as if anything and everything we do can be judged in some way from a moral perspective. The question is why this should be.

This was my response:

I see this as one more example of our culture’s obsession with judging (in its many forms and pathways). My own little obsession has been examining our fixation with ordinary justifying and measuring, but I can easily see how the “general moral exhaustion” you bring up is really a special case of what comes as our temptation to measure anything and everything to ‘find its value’. The similarity isn’t so much in the subject matter but in our need, our *compulsion*, to ask and come up with answers to these questions.

And the difference between a culture that tries to measure everything and one that resists the temptation is simply a difference in practices. As you put it, “we aren’t going to be able to come up with some theory or principle that will tell a person when something should be morally scrutinized or not.” That is, we cannot base the difference on differences in the subject matter we are scrutinizing. We don’t need a theory of the particular ‘things’ in question. Instead, as Wittgenstein might caution us, the real question is “What are these humans doing?”

I have made these same observations in comments over the last few months, but I should perhaps restate them here. The main issue seems to be how we make sense of things, whether they have certain specific roles within the practices of our daily life. My guess is that our culture has simply become very comfortable in taking measurements (blame scientists?), in making certain kinds of judgment (blame Peter Singer?), and in asking for and receiving justification (blame bureaucrats?). We almost accept this as the natural state of affairs. Everything can be investigated and everything *should* be investigated. There are no natural limits. We treat the world as an open question. (Think of it as like an infant that has learned to put things in its mouth indiscriminately.)

The distinction that makes most sense to me is that we generally assume this when we go out into the unfamiliar world and explore. This is *not* our attitude toward our own values, to our own measures. But we don’t see that. Our own measures are simply assumed. They are not questioned. They are not brought up on trial. And we don’t feel they need to be justified. From the inside of our lives they are what we use to make sense of the world. They are almost too familiar to us to be seen as things requiring measurement. They don’t fit that particular default. Something only performs *as* a measure when it is itself NOT being measured.

But the truth is that everything seemingly *can* be measured. When we look at other people’s values and fail to see their sense our first recourse is to find the justification, to find the best way of measuring and judging. Unfortunately two things go wrong in that attempt. Other people’s values as much as our own are not always *BASED* on justification. Sometimes, yes (of course), but in general, no. As Wittgenstein would tell you, at bedrock this is simply what we do.

But the other misstep is that attempting to measure the things that are *themselves* measures inevitably fails to embrace its role AS a measure. The fact that it can be measured is not a sign we are closer to understanding the value of its use as a measure. Subjecting-to-measurement is the *wrong* way to understand measures. You might say that we understand measures *BY* *using* *them* as measures (It is, after all, what we learned). Somehow we fail to see that. We also fail to see why that might just be important……

I get the feeling that in our culture we are prone to looking at the world as outsiders in some sense. With the eyes of science, as it were. The attitude that anything and everything can and should be measured is a stance we take regarding the world. It is also a form of blindness. It looks outward as though provisional agnosticism were our natural state. This says more about US and our cultural practices than it does necessarily about the world we are investigating. It specifically fails to capture the human practices involved in navigating the world. We are so focused on the measurable world that we fail to see our own selves doing the investigating. We ignore all the other normal daily activities, the-human-form-of-life, in which any of it comes to make sense in the first place…..

You’ve heard all of this from me before, but maybe cast in this light it actually makes more sense than the other framing I have given it. This is not what we want to hear. It is not what we are comfortable hearing.

Who’s afraid of Ludwig Wittgenstein?

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