Saying, Showing and Doing

The distinction Wittgenstein makes between saying and showing in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a famous one. He later repudiated that exact account, but it could be said there was a kernel of truth in that distinction that remained important to his writing afterwards.

What I am talking about is his later distinction between empirical and grammatical propositions. Empirical propositions may be true or false, their truth or falsity depending on the way the world is. For example, Sherbrooke is east of Montreal. Grammatical propositions are neither true nor false, and retain their status regardless of the way the world is. For example, you kick with your foot. In a sense, empirical propositions ‘say’ and grammatical ‘show’. Do not be misled, since these are idiosyncratic and not normal uses of ‘say’ and ‘show’.

In the normal cases of saying and showing, one is also doing. Yet, we make an important distinction between saying and doing in the ethical arena. The threat of violence is not as bad as violence, for instance. Insofar as the threat of violence is bad, our judgment of it is also context-dependent. Why threaten? we might ask. From another current popular angle: words are not violence.

Here our discussion connects with the notion of free speech, the idea that while it makes sense that one cannot do what one wishes, one should be allowed to say what one wishes, with certain exceptions applying. What are those exceptions and why are they exceptional?


Personal Responsibility

Our notion of personal responsibility is an important one; much can ride on its proper application in the course of human life.

In this case, there is the description of the concept and a related ethical component. If someone were to ask for a brief explanation of its nature, you could sum it up like this: Personal responsibility means that blame or praise, punishment or reward, if necessary, is applied to the person who intentionally committed the act in question. Everybody knows this – it goes without saying. However, in certain circumstances it can be tempting to deny one’s own responsibility or transfer one’s own responsibility onto others who do not deserve it.

There are legitimate and illegitimate reasons to deny or transfer responsibility.

One may deny personal responsibility when one either acted unintentionally, or intentionally while lacking full knowledge of the consequences of one’s action. In the former case, one cannot be willfully neglectful, for then one would be responsible for that. In the latter case, one cannot be willfully ignorant, for then one would be responsible for that. 

One may transfer personal responsibility when an action can reasonably be considered to be forced, by some means, by another actor.

These considerations factor in to the practices of communal punishment and circumstances in which an actor is faced with a no-win scenario. In communal punishment, the actions of a single member are said to justify the punishment of the group. It is a corrective method, meant to influence the behavior of the group, whose members will likely directly pressure the transgressor to change their future behavior. The transgressor will also likely feel the added need to change their behavior knowing that any future actions’ consequences will affect the group.

There is no doubt that communal punishment may be warranted within certain guidelines, and in other cases, not.

Can you think of examples of either? What are the guidelines of its application?

The Alpha

This blog is for tinkering with some current ideas, practicing my writing and attempting to engage other like-minded people in thoughtful and productive debate. Do not hesitate to criticize anything at all and, please, feel free to suggest topics if you think I can do them justice.