Why neuroscience is largely irrelevant to ethics

Benjamin Libet, neuroscientist

A few days ago, over at my other blog, I published an article that I touted on my social media as “the last piece on free will you will ever need to read.” That was a slight exaggeration, but only slight. The specific point of the post was to explain in some detail the ancient Stoic take on human decision making, what I and modern psychologists prefer to call volition rather than free will (given how loaded with metaphysical nonsense the latter term is). I also wanted to see how the Stoic position squares with the findings of modern science. As it turns out, that ancient view is highly compatible with what contemporary cognitive science says about the matter, but this is neither a miraculous coincidence nor indication that somehow the Stoics managed to anticipate scientific discoveries that would be made more than two millennia later. (Which would be just as preposterous as to maintain, as some do, that the pre-Socratic atomists “anticipated” modern physics. They didn’t, as even a superficial reading of the pre-Socratics, and a passing acquaintance with modern physics, should amply demonstrate.)

Rather, the reasons we still find so much of value in Stoic (or Aristotelian, or several other) ancient moral philosophy are twofold: first, some of the ancients were keen observers of human psychology; second, moral discourse has little to do with whatever mechanisms make it possible for human brains to think about morality (so long as some mechanisms that allow us to think do exist, of course). Both notions need to be unpacked a bit, which is what I intend to do in this essay.

What was so special about Aristotle, or Epicurus, or Epictetus? In a sense, not much. They were sharp thinkers who paid attention to the empirical side of what they were thinking about. We tend to forget that many others at the time and since have written about the same topics, and yet they are completely forgotten, or they appear at best as footnotes in philosophy books. (Have you ever heard of Aristippus of Cyrene? Not likely, and he was one of the major figures among the minor Greek philosophers…)

The reasons we read some ancient philosophers are, so to speak, evolutionary. Specifically, the cultural analogues of two basic processes that steer biological evolution: drift and selection. Drift is about statistical sampling: some books survive and others don’t because of luck. There probably never were too many copies — by modern standards — of the works of Chrysippus, one of the most noted Hellenistic philosophers, and unfortunately not a single one has come down to us. Selection makes it so that whatever authors are highly esteemed not just by their contemporaries, but further and further down in history, are the ones whose works and ideas tend to survive. In the case of Chrysippus, we know a good amount about what he thought because so many later commentators copied several of his passages, in order to praise him or criticize him. To put it into another fashion, we still read Plato and Aristotle because of what biologist Jacque Monod once called a combination of chance and necessity.

But we don’t read all of Plato and Aristotle nowadays, unless we are historians of philosophy, or of science. There isn’t much point in consulting Aristotle’s Physics if you are a physicist, because the field has moved very far from the Aristotelian positions, beginning with Galileo and arriving at Einstein and Stephen Hawking. By contrast, philosophers still find a lot of value in the Nichomachean Ethics. Ill informed people (who shall here go unmentioned) are under the impression that this is because philosophy, unlike physics, doesn’t make progress (usually, these people just happen to be physicists). But that’s sheer ignorance, which ought (morally) to be embarrassing. Philosophy does make progress (see here), but it is a very different kind of endeavor from physics, so any direct comparison is a category mistake.

No, the reason Aristotle, the Stoics, and so forth are relevant today (other than the above mentioned one that they were la creme de la creme of their period) is that modern science has little of relevance to say about certain branches of philosophy, and in particular ethics. (Yes, I know, certain individuals are making a cottage industry of arguing the opposite. But they too shall go mercifully unmentioned in this post. I’ve dealt with them ad nauseam in the past.)

The reason this is the case has been explained by philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Wilfrid Sellars, and is exemplified by the work of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. Let me explain.

First, Wittgenstein. In Tractatus 4.111 he famously wrote that “philosophy is not one of the natural sciences,” adding at 4.112 that “philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.” In the Philosophical Investigations we find:

“[Philosophy’s] investigation is a grammatical one. Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstandings away. Misunderstandings concerning the use of words, caused, among other things, by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language.” (90)

While I think that Wittgenstein had too narrow a view of what philosophy does, there is quite a bit of truth in the above. The job of philosophers isn’t to discover new things about the world (we’ve got science for that), but rather to clarify issues by way of critical analysis, and to see how things that appear disparate “hang together,” so to speak. That is, for instance, why metaphysics isn’t being replaced by physics, it is transforming itself into a discipline informed by physics (and biology, and other sciences) whose objective is to make sense of the picture of the world that emerges from the discoveries of individual special sciences, something that no single science does or is concerned with. (See, for instance, Ladyman and Ross’ Every Thing Must Go, a sort of manifesto for a naturalistic metaphysics.)

Wittgenstein becomes even more relevant to the present discussion when we consider his concept of “language games” as presented in the Investigations:

“The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block,’ ‘pillar,’ ‘slab,’ ‘beam.’ A calls them out; B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. Conceive this as a complete primitive language.” (2)

Ethics is another language game, or, rather, a multiplicity of language games, since there are a number of ways to conceive, talk about, and actually do, ethics. Within the human community, we talk about “good,” “bad,” “moral,” “immoral,” “ought,” and so forth, and any competent language user understands what others mean by those words. Moreover, .just like the words of the builder’s language actually help building things, so the words of ethical language actually help regulate our actions within a given community. The fact that science comes in and, say, tells us that “bricks” are really mostly empty space is interesting from within the science language game, but it is utterly useless, and indeed a distraction, to the builder. Analogously, that a neuroscientist may be able to tell us which parts of the human brain are involved in the production of ethical judgments, and by which cellular means, is interesting within the language game of neuroscience, but it is a useless distraction if we are concerned with improving social justice, or becoming a better person.

Which brings me to what I have termed the most important philosopher you likely never heard of: Wilfrid Sellars. My friend Dan Kaufman and I did an extensive video conversation on Sellars, which I think is worth checking out. One of Sellars’ landmark ideas was the distinction between what he called the manifest and the scientific images of the world. The manifest image is the way most people understand and navigate the world. The Sun “rises,” genocide is morally repellant. That sort of thing. The scientific image, by contrast, is the way science looks at the world: the Sun does not, actually, rise; it is the Earth that rotates on its axis. As for genocide? Ah, therein lies the rub. I’m sure there are scientific explanations for why genocide is such a recurring feature of human history, from the biology and neuroscience of violence to those of inter-group relations. While such scientific understanding of genocide may be useful, it does not give us the complete picture. Why not?

Because, according to Sellars, the manifest, but not the scientific, image deals with things like reasons and values. This is not a call to reject science. On the contrary. Sellars was quite clear that whenever the scientific and the manifest images of the world are in conflict (as in “the Sun rises” vs “the Earth rotates” case), then the sensible thing is for us to yield to science. But science simply isn’t in the business of doing a number of other things for which we have developed different tools: philosophy, literature, history, and so forth. These tools are complementary with, not opposed to, scientific ones. Ideally, says Sellars, we want to develop a conceptual stereoscopic vision, whereby we are capable of integrating the manifest and scientific images. Indeed, according to Sellars — and I wholeheartedly agree — developing and constantly updating such vision is a major task of philosophy, and our discipline is uniquely positioned to carry the task out because of both its methods (empirically-informed critical discourse) and its scope (very, very broad).

In a sense, what emerges from Wittgenstein, but even more so from Sellars’ thought is that there are a number of things about which we can talk at different levels of analysis, and which level(s) make the most sense depends on what it is that we wish to accomplish. While in theory a full integration of all levels may be possible, in practice it is often not desirable, because it doesn’t help with the particular language game we happen to be playing.

Let me then come back to “free will” (or volition), and use my discussion of Stoic philosophy as it compares to the famous experiments by Benjamin Libet to present a specific example of what I have outlined above, attempting to convince you of why I think science is largely irrelevant to moral discourse.

The Stoics thought that we have a faculty of judgment, which they call the hêgemonikon. It was a major goal of Stoic training to improve the way we use it, i.e., to arrive at better and better judgments about whatever life throws at us. In the post at my other blog I suggest that, roughly speaking, the hêgemonikon corresponds to the frontal lobes of the human brain, which are far more developed than in most other mammals, and are known to be associated, in fact, with our capacity for judgment, and in particular with our ability to “veto,” so to speak, certain actions that might otherwise come natural to us (as in: “there is a strange noise in my house in the middle of the night! Someone is about to kill me!! I need to run the hell out of here!!! … Oh, wait, it’s the cat. Back to sleep).

The Stoics themselves were spectacularly wrong about the likely location of the hêgemonikon: they thought it resided in the heart. But pretty much everything else they said about its functioning and how we can improve it was right on the money, as shown by the fact that 23 centuries later Stoic “psychology” still informs a number of evidence based psychotherapies, such as rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.

How is this possible? Because most of what the Stoics thought about the hêgemonikon was part of the manifest image, and was useful then as it is now for the simple reason that people still deal with the same basic issues: unhealthy emotions like anger and fear, and the search for better ways to relate to others and improve the human polis. What the Stoics got wrong, not at all surprisingly, is the bit that belongs to the scientific image: as it turns out, our faculty of judgment depends on a particular part of the brain, not the heart. Crucially, though, this has had no effect whatsoever on Stoic philosophy or its usefulness. A modern Stoic simply updates that bit of information, thanks the scientist, and goes back to her practice.

Nowadays, whenever the topic of human volition comes up someone is bound to cite the famous experiments carried out by Benjamin Libet, beginning in 1983. Briefly, he asked subjects to follow the movements of a dot on the screen of an oscilloscope. The dot moved like the hands of a clock, but faster. Libet told his subjects to move a finger at a moment of their choice during the experiment, noting the position of the dot when they became aware of their decision to act. The experiment showed that the decision to move the finger entered conscious awareness about 200 milliseconds before the actual movement. But, stunningly, there was a rise in the so-called “readiness potential,” which is thought to be associated with the preparation for action, about 550 milliseconds before movement. So the subjects appeared to get ready to move the finger a full 350 milliseconds before they became conscious of their decision to do so. (Indeed, in later experiments, the readiness potential has been shown to build up even as long as 1.5 seconds before movement.)

Taken at face value, Libet’s results seem to show that we decide our actions unconsciously, and that what we call consciousness is simply a (late) awareness of a decision that has been made. There are several well known criticisms of such conclusion, beginning with the obvious one, that the experimental conditions have precious little to do with the recursive, complex behavior that we normally label “conscious decision making,” and which is understood as a continuous feedback loop between what Daniel Kahneman calls System I (fast, subconscious) and System II (slow, deliberate) brain processing systems. Moreover, recent research has both amply confirmed, and yet significantly re-interpreted, Libet’s original findings.

But a good reason to think that Libet’s experiments do not mean what so many enthusiasts of the “free will is an illusion” bandwagon seem to think they mean, is Libet’s own commentary:

“The finding that the volitional process is initiated unconsciously leads to the question: is there then any role for conscious will in the performance of a voluntary act? The conscious will does appear 150 msec before the motor act, even though it follows the onset of the cerebral action by at least 400 msec. That allows it, potentially, to affect or control the final outcome of the volitional process. An interval msec before a muscle is activated is the time for the primary motor cortex to activate the spinal motor nerve cells, and through them, the muscles. During this final 50 msec, the act goes to completion with no possibility of its being stopped by the rest of the cerebral cortex. The conscious will could decide to allow the volitional process to go to completion, resulting in the motor act itself. Or, the conscious will could block or ‘veto’ the process, so that no motor act occurs.” (B. Libet, Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness, 2004, p. 137)

[Once more, to preempt distracting discussions: I do not think we should talk about “free will,” which is a hopelessly metaphysically confused concept. We are talking about what psychologists themselves call volition, i.e., the ability of human beings to make complex decisions informed by conscious thought. Hopefully no one will deny that we do have such ability.]

Interestingly, studies have found very good experimental evidence for the veto power Libet is talking about. But that is “interesting” from within the language game of neuroscience. It makes no difference at all in terms of the language game in which the Stoics — and most of us — are engaged, that of improving ourselves as individuals and of making society a better place for everyone to live.

That is why, as a scientist, I will keep following with interest the undoubtedly fascinating future developments of cognitive and neuro-science. But it is also why, as a philosopher and human being, I’m not very concerned with how those findings will impact my day to day life in the realm of ethics. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus aptly put it:

“You are not flesh or hair but volition; if you keep that beautiful, then you will be beautiful.” (Discourses III.1.40)

142 thoughts on “Why neuroscience is largely irrelevant to ethics

  1. Daniel Kaufman


    Information gleaned from science has rendered the very idea of normative ethics and “free will” incoherent.

    You have no control over atoms. No one does. Blaming people for their actions is incoherent.

    = = =

    So, when can we expect you to be leaving the human community?

    You really need to read Sellars. He explains very clearly why what you’ve said here is simply a non-starter.


  2. jbonnicerenoreg

    Part of morality is courage and bravery. Everyone seems to admire and praise the soldier or revolutionary who is ready to sacrifice his or her life for country or cause.
    I don’t think Morality as a language game can capture this important aspect of moral feelings or intuitions. When the Nazi comes around looking for Jews are you going to hold to your morality or switch language games and hand them over? Is it just a game or do humans have inherent worth?


  3. Massimo Post author


    I’m beginning to think that Wittgenstein should have stayed away from words like “language” and “games.” But just as he did not mean “language” in the sense of the particular tongue spoken by certain people, he did not mean “game” as in “it is just a game.” When the Nazi come around looking for the Jew, our response is still part of a language game, though which one will make a huge difference to the Nazi, the Jew, and ourselves.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. brodix


    “There is no “Department of Science as a Whole” but at every union between two sciences there are people working across the boundary and understanding how the two mesh together. That links everything together satisfactorily.”

    It’s good to see you showing some respect and understanding for the generalists!

    The problem is that knowledge is as much a function of our framing of the information, as the information. There is no God’s eye view to tie it all together.

    For instance, do all those multiverses exist as some larger whole, or is it just multiverses to infinity?

    If there are infinities, then knowledge is dependent on the framing.

    Now it is my experience most people don’t like stepping outside their frame and many will argue that nothing exists outside their frame, but that is belief, not knowledge.

    So we can either be specialists, or generalists.

    Though in the army, specialist is a rank just over private, while the generals are in charge.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Plutarch


    Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    I thought Wittgenstein didn’t even really want to use the word ‘game’ and only used it as a placeholder term of last resort. I thought that he, similarly to you, thought he shouldn’t have stayed around with the word ‘game’ but simply admitted he couldn’t think of a better to describe the problem he saw.

    If my memory serves, he thought it was impossible to come up a definition of the word game that includes everything we can call a game, which is what (maddeningly or helpfully) drew him to using the word to describe ‘language,’ which he also found just as hard to get an uber fine grasp (or SLAB) on. 🙂

    Of course, It’s been over 5 years since I (partially) read the philosophical investigations and Wittgenstein is certainly no cake walk. So I could very well be misunderstanding Wittgenstein. Thoughts?


  6. sethleon2015


    You suggest we no control over our own atoms. I am wondering if you did any walking today, or driving, or eating, or ……..etc.

    All of this was beyond your control? How did you end up where you intended?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. synred

    Part of morality is courage and bravery. Everyone seems to admire and praise the soldier or revolutionary who is ready to sacrifice his or her life for country or cause.

    Not me…

    https://goo.gl/TZNsoi ‘The Universal Soldier’ song by Buffy Sainte-Marie


  8. Alan White

    Great post Massimo. I am very sympathetic to your overall position, being a pragmatist on free will agency myself. But one problem for advancing discussion beyond “could have chosen otherwise”-style framing of these questions is that some jurisdictions of law still make such questions relevant. The specific issue is found in states–like mine–which still determine insanity (in part) as exculpating by assessing “the substantial capacity to conform behavior to the law”. Now certainly there are compatibilist stances that could accept this condition (reasons-responsiveness as “freedom to chose the good”, e.g.), but the traditional motivation I take it is incompatibilist libertarianism–a contra-causal but (somehow) controlled account of choice such as assumed by far too many neuroscientists investigating volition. Since in many states such considerations are still on the books–and strongly consistent with libertarian assumptions–it will be hard to make the contra-causal assumption made by neuroscientists go away. (This legal consideration used to be used at the Fed level too–but Congress eliminated it after the trial of John Hinckley.)


  9. valariansteel

    Off topic somewhat, but


    Trying to find a science-based explanation for an individual’s malignant behavior (e.g., Charles Whitman) is a losing cause that ought to be abandoned. E.g., every time there is a mass murder, the media is fixated on whether the killer had a history of mental illness, ignoring the observation that violent behavior does not correlate with mental illness, and other determinants of violent behavior have been identified. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1525086/


  10. brodix

    Random thought category;

    Yes, neuroscience is neutral for explaining ethics, but what does explain ethics?

    The functioning of an effective community.

    Which is a top down, presumably teleological function, rather than bottom up and emergent, from neurological and physical impulses. Which would seem counter to the idea of reality being fundamentally emergent. What is happening?

    Feedback. Nature/nurture. As a forest might be just a bunch of trees, much about the trees are determined by their environment. As in tall, with few lower branches and particular species that co-exist, etc.
    Similarly, our ability to function as large groups does shape our characteristics and select for those able to function in a group.

    Which explains religion. As in, “Shut up, sit down and listen, no matter what. Or else.”

    Ethics has the purpose of fitting into the whole.

    Obvious, maybe, but the topic seemed a little disjointed in my reading of it.


  11. Robin Herbert


    You have no control over atoms. No one does.

    I would be interested in the reasoning you used to come to this conclusion.

    Do you mean that all causality is from the smallest to the largest? Or that the position of an individual atom could not be said to be the consequence of any macro state?

    Or do you mean because every state is a deterministic function of an earlier state?


  12. Markk

    No one should be praised or blamed for their actions, including those who, based on the evidence, decided that there is no free will, as they could not have chosen otherwise, and therefore did not decide anything based on the evidence.


  13. synred

    You are the ‘process’ implemented on the basis of atoms. I like the analogy of soliton. The specific atoms are irrelevant (and indeed are identical to those in Jesus or anybody else, in the deep QM sense). You deciding things is that process.

    That may as much liberty as we’d like, but it’s all there is. It is not ‘incoherent’.


  14. davidlduffy

    I hate to bore and quote great slabs of text, but another philosopher you never heard of, Mario Bunge, wrote eloquently about the materialistic bases of value and thus ethics. This is from the intro to Vol 8 of his Treatise of Philosophy.

    We take it that all animals evaluate some things and some processes, and that some of them learn the social behavior patterns we call ‘moral principles’, and even act according to them at least some of the time. An animal incapable of evaluating anything would be very short-lived; and a social animal that did not observe the accepted social behavior
    patterns would be punished. These are facts about values, morals and behavior patterns: they are incorporated into the bodies of animals or the structure of social groups.

    We distinguish then the facts of valuation, morality and action from the study of such facts. This study can be scientific, philosophic or both. A zoologist may investigate the way an animal evaluates environmental or internal stimuli; a social psychologist may examine the way children learn, or fail to learn, certain values and norms when placed in certain
    environments. And a philosopher may study such descriptive or explanatory studies, with a view to evaluating valuations, moral norms, or behavior patterns…

    …so far most of these scientists have paid little if any attention to values and morals, because they have been shackled by the philosophical superstitions – common to empiricism and intuitionism – that values and morals are subjective, and that subjective experience lies beyond the ken of science. In fact, they have been told by influential philosophers that there is an unbridgeable chasm between fact (the domain of science) and value (the domain of philosophy and art). Consequently they have believed that they should confine their attention to what is, without meddling into what ought to be. No doubt, this superstition was initially useful to separate the scientific grain from the ideological chaff in the study of society. But now it has become an obstacle to further advances in the understanding of man and in the design of policies and plans aiming at human betterment. Indeed, there is nothing science and technology (in particular sociotechnology) can do to mitigate human misery if they ignore what we ought to value and how we ought to behave…

    Liked by 1 person

  15. SocraticGadfly

    Cousin: And “spiel” can even mean “gamble.”


    Valarian: A well-needed corrective, in your link. Related to this nonsense is the claims that “X percent of CEOs are sociopaths.” No, X percent of CEOs are greedy bastards.


    Alan: Courts are wrestling with such issues. That said, courts are often illy informed in matters of science. Such as using AA ideas to decide whether to convict a person for alcohol-related probation violations. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/12/opioids-massachusetts-supreme-court/548480/

    (I’ve got other links that show at the Supreme Court, even, judges and justices today still often have a poor grasp of matters scientific.)


  16. Mr.

    RE: Wittgenstein and language-games:

    The term ‘language-game’ itself is unfortunately prone to reinforcing several kinds of confusion — ironically enough, many of these confusions being the sort of thing that the remarks in PI (and most elsewhere in W’s later writings) set out to dissolve.

    There are a few points of context that help make sense of this. One thing: in PI (2) there is a sentence preceding the passage Massimo quotes:

    That philosophical concept of meaning has its place in a primitive idea of the way langauge functions. But one can also say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours.

    The “philosophical concept of meaning” that he refers to here is, in (1), elaborated from a well-known passage of St. Augustine’s, concerning some of the difficulties in articulating a concept of time. W says:

    These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the individual words in language name objects — sentences are combinations of such names. — In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. The meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.

    The opening remarks of the Investigations take aim at this “picture of language”, which is where the “slab language” enters the story. (A good chunk of the book could be reasonably understood as an attack on these “meaning objects” and the motivating idea that words in language are only meaningful in virtue of some correlation with non-linguistic reality.)

    The concept of the language-game itself is introduced in (7):

    In the practice of the use of language (2) one party calls out the words, the other acts on them. In instruction in the language the following process will occur: the learner names the objects; that is, he utters the word when the teacher points to the stone.—And there will be this still simpler exercise: the pupil repeats the words after the teacher—both of these being processes resembling language.

    We can also think of the whole process of using words in (2) as one of those games by means of which children learn their native language. I will call these games “language-games” and will sometimes speak of a primitive language as a language-game.

    And the processes of naming the stones and of repeating words after someone might also be called language-games. Think of much of the use of words in games like ring-a-ring-a-roses.

    I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the “language-game”.

    A few things stand out here. First of all, the “game” terminology is introduced in a deliberately metaphorical usage: when we’re imagining the simple folks with their primitive “slab” language as akin to the way we teach language to young children. It’s a “language-game” for that reason.

    Now, taking this back to the Augustinian picture of meaning in (1), we see that the very idea of naming things is not so much basic to langauge — it’s not an account of “how langauge works” in any grand sense — but is rather a feature of a certain kind of activity done in language. Hence the final sentence, which is worth keeping to mind in reading most anything else in PI — the language game is what he calls “the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven”. Language is not just uttering noises, nor expressing pre-formed thoughts — it is a kind of activity, of which naming, designating, defining etc. are simply certain characteristic modes.

    This all needs to be stressed because it cuts off a few lines of objection. One common misunderstanding is that W is some kind of linguistic idealist, like Berkeley translated into linguistic philosophy. But this can’t be the case; he doesn’t say that reality or its contents depend on language or its use, only that there is not quite the relationship between language and non-linguistic reality that the prevailing representationalist stories want to tell. Another problem is that many critics attack the ‘language-game’ concept as if it were a central feature of W’s philosophy. But as we see here, it’s not the case — this is a metaphorical and pedagogical notion meant to make a point about how language is learned and put to use by actual human beings. Finally, there’s something to be said about not presupposing, when objecting to his remarks, the very notions of language he puts under the sword. We don’t do well in supposing that some kind of representationalist or instrumentalist theory of language is correct when then going on to criticize the criticisms of those very views!

    Liked by 3 people

  17. ejwinner

    That neurological malfunctions impel some to engage ant-social behavior, or that psychological factors lead to an inability to follow social normative behavior, are not at all evidence that ‘our atoms control our behavior.’ They are simply evidence that the systems that allow both a sense of volition and the ability to behave socially sometimes breakdown. So what?

    Similarly, laws allowing an insanity plea, on the assumption that ‘sanity’ is instantiated by “the substantial capacity to conform behavior to the law,” do not necessitate discussions of libertarianism or determinism. Such discussions may have been involved in establishing such laws; but the question they raise is whether the volitional attitude of the accused is such that he or she can recognize social norms and adhere to them. This permits us to recognize a certain release of responsibility on the part of the accused, but also greater responsibility on the part of the courts attempting to judge them.

    Responsibility is not – and, despite arguments on all sides, never has been – a matter of free will or determinism. It is a matter of social obligation, which takes the debate outside of the realm of science or metaphysics, and into the province of social discussion, expectation, and the institutions formed out of these. No one lives free; and no one lives as automaton. We are always embedded in a social web, and maneuver within as response to the maneuvering of others. Lose the sense of volition, and you became a helpless pawn; assume total freedom and you become a monster.

    Obviously, the art of life is avoiding extremes, in this as in so much else.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. SocraticGadfly

    All of this also connects somewhat with Laland, whether that was Massimo’s intention or not. And, re language, we should (per Plato and the Brahmins and many others) also distinguish between linguistic ability as in the spoken language and literacy.


  19. Massimo Post author


    You have it right. Wittgenstein did use the phrase “language game” as a metaphor for lack of something better, and yes, his classic example was that of games, a category of activities notoriously difficult to define, and yet that we all “know it when we see it,” so to speak.


    I hear your concern, but my take from a Stoic viewpoint is that retribution doesn’t make sense anyway. When people do bad things they are misguided, their sense of judgment misfires. They need to be stopped from hurting others, but not “punished.” The proper Stoic response is one of pity and compassion. Similarly, when people do something right, praise is only meant as a recognition that their “prohairesis” (volition) functioned well, but not in any thicker metaphysical sense. That’s a major reason I like Stoic ethics: it’s compassionate, takes into account universal cause and effect, and yet provides a sensible way to think about responsibility.


    I’m not sure what you mean by “explaining ethics,” but the explanation is twofold: biologically, highly social and intelligent primates need a way to get along, hence the origin of our sense of right and wrong. This was then much elaborated via cultural evolution — hence the link that Socratic hinted at with our ongoing discussion of Laland’s book (to which I will return soon, btw).


    I’m aware of Bunge, though not as familiar with his work as I probably should be. His take seems to me very much compatible with that of a naturalistic philosophy such as Stoicism, which rejects any kind of string gap between is and ought.

    Also, what ej said.

    And thanks to Mr. for the Wittgenstein quotes.

    By the way, Socratic, the link to Augustine is indeed interesting, but note that Wittgensteinian rejected the Augustinian model of language, based on the correspondence of concepts to referents in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. synred

    simple folks with their primitive “slab” language as akin to the way we teach language to young children

    That is not my experience of how my kid learned nor my granddaughter. A ‘language’ as primitive has the ‘slab’ example can be taught to a dog and the dog could make a damned good assistant if the objects he needed to fetch were of suitable size and robustness. I’d almost bet a dog could learn to, say, bark when he can’t find the requested object.

    Now Massimo said that ‘language’in W usage was not like what we usually mean by language, yet here it seems like it’s being pictured as how children learn.

    It is very confusing when ‘language’ does not mean and ‘game’ does not mean game. Maybe he’s PLAYing with us </:-_)

    We just talked to our kid. Almost always in complete sentences. She sometimes picked up abstract concepts first, e.g., calling everything from peas to her beach ball ‘ball’.

    Saying ‘ball ball’ might mean wanting eat peas or wanting to play with one of her balls. This did not last long. Verbs showed up pretty quickly.


  21. Robin Herbert

    We seem to know what it means for something to be morally good or bad or what “ought” means just as long as we agree on what is morally good or bad or what we ought to do. When we disagree with there appears to be no getting at these concepts.

    I might take a guess that moral goods are things which generally increase well-being. But then most would not say that “it is morally good to generally increase well-being” is a tautology.

    If I suppose that “You ought to do X” means “I want you to do X” I realise that sometimes I want people to do what I think they ought not to do. When Malcolm Muggeridge says “firnication, I love it so” he does not mean “I ought to fornicate”

    So, no, I don’t know what these words mean. I don’t know what people mean when they say that I ought not to do certain things and I want to know why.

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