Friday, January 11, 2019

Metaethics 0004: Simon Blackburn - Quasi-Realism

Expressionism holds that moral statements express attitudes - much like slapping one's hand on the table top expresses anger. And, like slapping one's hand on the table top, moral statements do not have a truth value. Such expressions are neither true nor false. They just are. Though, also like slapping one's hand on the table, such expressions can be justified or unjustified.

Expressivism is the view that Simon Blackburn has defended.

Expressivism and Truth

Desirism can accept some of this. After all, desirism holds that a moral statement is, in part, a statement of praise or condemnation. That is to say, it expresses praise or condemnation. It does so in an attempt to trigger the reward centers of the brain in others to generate a behavioral rule in favor of doing acts like those that were praised, or to avoid doing acts like those that were condemned. In this sense, desirism is an expressivist moral theory.

However, desirism holds that moral statements do this by adding expression to a proposition that can be true or false. In the same way that slapping one's hand on the table can be used to express a particular emotion, the utterance of a certain type of truth-bearing proposition can express an attitude as well. It may do so as a matter of evolutionary fact, or it may do so as a matter of social convention, but, either way, the slapping of a hand on the table and the use of a certain truth bearing proposition says more than is found in the literal meaning of the action.

Furthermore, desirism holds that the truth of the proposition and the praise or condemnation being expressed are linked in a particularly important way. If the proposition is unjustified, then the expression is justified. For example, if a stranger were to pick up what I think is my backpack and start to leave the room, I may shout, "Hey, that's mine!" My statement expresses a particular attitude. It is also a truth-bearing proposition. Furthermore, if the person who is the object of my attitude were to demonstrate that the proposition is false (e.g., that the bag he picked up has his stuff in it), then he has not only showed that the proposition is false, but also (and at the same time) that the condemnation was unjustified.

Blackburn's expressivism does not work that way. Or, more precisely, Blackburn never states explicitly that truth-bearing propositions can be used to express an attitude and that the justification for the attitude depends on the proposition being true.

Direction of Fit

There is an often used slogan that describes the difference between beliefs and desires. "If what is true in the world is not the same as what you believe, then change your beliefs. If what is true in the world is not the same as what you desire, change the world."

Blackburn, following Elizabeth Anscombe, notes that morality is about "changing the world". Consequently, he considers relating morality with desires. He considers the prospect that moral claims are claims about what we desire - but clearly what we desire is often quite different from what is moral. Furthermore, this view does not make sense of disagreement, since it is certainly possible (indeed, quite common) that one person can like one thing and another person like something else.

Blackburn looks at the desire to desire thesis. However, here he would have been better served if he had noted a distinction. There are second-order desires that take the form "I desire that I desire that P". And there are reasons to desire that take the form, "If I were to desire that P then this would help to fulfill my other desire that Q, desire that R, and desire that S". These are different situations, though, ultimately, both of them fail. Desirism fails because, even though morality is grounded on desires, they are not grounded on the desires of the agent. This also counters a third option that Blackburn considers, the most central and core desires of the agent with which the agent most identifies - also a view that wrongly focuses on the desires of the agent.

There is a reason why moral philosophers tend to focus on the desires of the agent. There is the view that moral statements are intimately tied to the agent's motivation. For an agent to call something good is for the agent to be motivated to realize that which the agent says is good. Because the agent must be motivated to realize that which the agent says is good, there must be some link to the agent's desires.

Here, I fear that some authors may be ignoring the fact that all speech acts are actions. As such, they all have a motive. However, it is a mistake to bury the motive for the action into the meaning of the term. A teacher may tell his students in a history class, "George Washington was the first President of the United States." His motive may well be so that he could get a paycheck and pay his rent. Yet, the motive of getting a paycheck and paying the rent is not a part of the meaning of the phrase, "George Washington was the first President of the United States."

Similarly, it may always be the case that an agent is always motivated to bring about that which he calls "good". However, we may be being a bit rash if we were to import this into the meaning of the phrase. It may well be the case that, by calling something good, I will tend to bring about, so I should limit my use of the term 'good' to that which I have a reason to bring about. Or, at least, that I not use the term when I do not want to bring about the end. Imagine that somebody were to hook up a light so that the light turns off every time I say the word 'snail'. Observers would not that I never used the word 'snail' in conditions where I wanted the light on. Yet, they would be making a mistake if they thought that this told them something about the meaning of the term 'snail'.

Desirism holds that moral terms offer praise and condemnation, which trigger the reward system so as to generate mental behavioral rules to do that which is praised and avoid doing that which is condemned. Consequently, people tend to use moral terms when they want to promote such rules and negative terms when they want to inhibit such rules. But it does not follow from this that the meanings of the phrases themselves are linked to the agent's desires - simply because the motive for making the statement must be.

The Appearance of Realism

One of the reasons that I have for adopting motivational internalism - the view that "X is good" if and only if "I have a reason to do X" is because it goes against some of what we understand about morality - mostly, its objectivity.

Blackburn expressed the idea this way:

We also recognize that moral truth is often ‘mind-independent’. Our thinking something is right or wrong does not make it so. Our responses have to answer to the moral truth. They do not create it.

Indeed, since desirism holds that "X is wrong" means "people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally an aversion to doing X by condemning those who do X and praising those who refrain," and since whether or not this is true is entirely independent of the mental states of those who are praised or condemned, desirism has no interest in making a moral claim "about" the mental states of the agent. It is not about the states that the agent has, it is about the states the agent should have - the states that others have reasons to cause him to have.

Blackburn mentions the question of whether women should have the right to vote. He reports that we consider the proposition within different possible worlds and it invites condemnation. Therefore, we condemn it. Certainly, we condemn it within a particular moral framework, but that is all that we can hope to do. According to Blackburn, "One cannot pass a verdict without using those parts of one's mind that enable one to pass a verdict." However, this is fully consistent with there being a community that denies women the right to vote, who imagine women having a right to vote and being repulsed by the idea. They would not be mistaken.

If moral terms concerned the attitudes that a person should have - that people generally have reasons to cause others to have - then an individual could, in fact, be mistaken. By giving votes only to men, the interests of women tend to be subjugated. Women have a reason to promote an aversion to denying them a vote, and a reason to use praise and condemnation to promote such an aversion (praising pro-suffrage individuals and condemning anti-suffrage individuals).

Regardless of the attitudes a person has, there may be many and strong reasons to cause him to have a different attitude - thus legitimate reasons to praise or condemn him. He cannot deflect that criticism simply by asserting, "I do not wish it to be true."

Study Questions

Why does Blackburn think that non-cognitivists were the real beneficiaries of Moore's open question argument?

G.E. Moore's open question argument establishes a distinction between facts and values. As Blackburn wrote, "But the Open Question Argument asserts that people might take all the empirical and scientific facts as settled, but still have room to doubt whether a particular moral judgment, or judgment of Goodness, is the one to make in the light of those facts." Because the evaluation is outside of or external to all of the known facts, it can be neither true nor false.

Specifically, Moore's argument created a dilemma. If moral statements were truth-bearing propositions, then they violated the is/ought gap and fell victim to the open question argument. If, instead, then they seem to have no connection to reality (dealing with "particular types of entities" that we can know about through a "particular faculty of intuition". Blackburn's response is to say that the way out of this dilemma is for moral statements to be expressions of attitude.

What is the main difference between expressivism and emotivism?

Expressivism, as Blackburn describes it, "leaves open what is expressed". Emotivism may be understood as a species of expressivism where one expresses one's emotions. The example of a person slapping a desk in anger would qualify as emotivist. Expressivism could, for example, include the expression of a desire or wish, one that is relatively free of emotion. The choice of chocolate over butterscotch ice cream for desert need not be associated with expressing any particular emotion . . . it simply expresses a preference.

What is quasi-realism?

Quasi-realism refers to a form of non-cognitivism that has the trappings of realism. People can have debates, see certain issues as right or wrong, and even asserting that there is only one correct answer to a question. For an example to the latter, if one person wants X and another wants not-X, they simply assume that there is only one correct answer to the question and they keep debating the question until there is only one winner. The principle of "only one right answer" is a principle of practical guidance.

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