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  • Le Fils and the Limits of Philosophical Ethics
  • Damian Cox (bio)


This paper is a study in contrasts. In the first part, I describe one prominent set of approaches to representing the ethical: those of analytic philosophy and the experimental moral psychology inspired by it. I argue that what is missing in this approach is a perspicuous representation of the ethical. The term “perspicuous representation” is drawn from the work of Wittgenstein, where it means a way of representing phenomena that reveals the inner connections between their parts or aspects and makes apparent their meaning for us. Arriving at perspicuous representations is fundamental to Wittgenstein’s interpretative/philosophical methodology. In Philosophical Investigations he says, “The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of account we give, the way we look at things” (122). I use the term in a slightly broader way than this. I take it to indicate a kind of achievement: the Wittgensteinian achievement of elucidating the inner connections between aspects of a thing, but also a representation that captures some of its richness, complexity and ambiguity. The opposite of a perspicuous representation is a partial sketch that oversimplifies the phenomenon represented and gives unwarranted prominence to certain aspects of it over other equally, if not more, important aspects.

I argue that what is missing in much contemporary philosophical ethics is a perspicuous representation of how ethics is experienced and the many and varied ways it enters into human affairs. This occurs in large part because of an unwarranted emphasis in contemporary philosophical ethics on moral judgment at the expense of moral experience. A perspicuous representation of the ethical must make lived ethical experience central; it must do justice to the complex phenomenology of ethical experience. Analytic philosophers and experimental moral psychologists tend to study the ethical in vitro; a perspicuous representation of the ethical needs it captured in vivo.

In the second part, I contrast the analytic approach with that of film-philosophy. I examine the philosophical-ethical potential of cinema through Le Fils (2002), a film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. I argue [End Page 84] that this film demonstrates the perspicuous representation of the ethical in a paradigmatic way.

Analyzing the Ethical

In order to study ethics philosophically or experimentally, one has to identify an object of study, an object amenable to analysis and experimental investigation. Moral judgment seems to be such a thing, and indeed, a preponderance of work in analytic ethics and experimental moral psychology is devoted to understanding the nature of moral judgment. To study moral judgment, it is necessary to examine exemplars of moral judgment. Two main kinds of moral judgment are studied: judgments of principle and judgments of cases. For example, Jeremy Stangroom runs a highly successful website of philosophy experiments, one of which investigates moral judgment by asking web-users to respond to propositions such as:

Question 1: Torture, as a matter of principle, is always morally wrong. (59% of roughly 200,000 respondents say that it is; 41% say that it isn’t.)

Question 2: The morality of an action is determined by whether, compared to the other available options, it maximizes the sum total of happiness of all the people affected by it. (57% of roughly 200,000 respondents disagree with this; 43% agree.) (“Should You Strangle”)

Strangroom runs another experiment that deals with a wide range of simple cases, asking for moral judgment at every turn. Questions include:

Question 1: You pass someone in the street who is in severe need and you are able to help them at little cost to yourself. Are you morally obliged to do so? (67% of 5000 respondents say that you are.)

Question 8: You can save the lives of a thousand patients by cancelling one hundred operations that would have saved the lives of a hundred different patients. (58% of 5000 respondents say that it is permissible to do so.)

Question 13: You see a charity advertisement in a newspaper about a person in severe need in India. There is no state welfare available to this person, but you can help them at little cost to yourself. You have...


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pp. 84-97
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