Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Quasi-Realism Intro Pt. 1

I've been reading Simon Blackburn on ethics recently. He is primarily interested in questions about the nature of moral claims rather than which moral claims are actually correct. So he isn't so much presenting a moral system as describing how moral systems or theories operate. For instance, people who believe that people act only out of selfishness (not Blackburn's view), are telling us something about the nature of moral claims, but they are not saying of any particular action that it is right or wrong, or that we should or shouldn't do it. On the other hand, a Kantian might tell us that we shouldn't lie because it is an action that is logically inconsistent (or ununiversalizable).

Blackburn is a projectivist, which means that he believes that our moral claims, beliefs, or attitudes are based on our sensibilities rather than any kind of external law or reason. This is a view that is popular with many naturalists because of the difficulty in deriving a moral imperative, an "ought," from some fact about the world alone. For instance, it seems like a morally admirable thing to help support those less well-off. But why? For a naturalist anything that exists can be described (broadly speaking) by science. But it is difficult to see how we can describe a natural fact which necessitates an action without first appealing to some human desire. So it seems that these desires end up being the basis for action. And furthermore, these desires are ultimately things we accept (for what might be good reasons, but still, explanation comes to an end somewhere). We have an innate desire to preserve our own live, and this is not a desire that is particularly amenable to rational reasoning.

One of the major problems with this viewpoint is that it seems to leave truth out of the picture. If our moral claims are ultimately based on our sensibilities, then when I make a moral claim I am not describing some fact about the world, but rather expressing a particular emotion or stance towards life. Thus, if I say that slavery is immoral I am not expressing a belief in a proposition that can be checked for truth against the world, but relating something about my own stance and priorities. However, there ends up being many problems with understanding the meaning, however construed, of moral terms if we cannot talk about them being true or false in a way that connects to our ordinary use of the terms.

Blackburn attempts to solve this problem by proposing a view he calls "quasi-realism." This position marries projectivism with a Wittgenstein-influenced view of language. Wittgenstein claimed that our language is made up of distinct, but interlocking discourses he called "language games." What he meant is that the concepts that we use in a particular language game are understood and make sense only relative to that language game. Thus, science is a language game that talks about some parts of the world in scientific (naturalistic) terms. However, we can talk about the world in other ways as well--for instance, in religious terms, or aesthetic or ethical terms. It would however be a mistake to try to reduce the meaning of religious words to what they would mean when talking in scientific terms. Any attempt to do this would fail because the we only understand the family of religious terms that we use in relation to other religious terms. If you try to interpret them in, for instance, ethical terms you will be making an error--misunderstanding how these words are meant to be used.

Blackburn takes this notion and says that while naturalism is true we can still talk about the truth of ethical and moral terms as well. We just have to be careful to not transport the understanding of truth as scientific truth into the ethics language game. This is the basic notion: if you ask moral questions or make moral statements you are engaged in the moral questions language game. That means that these words have meaning, and can even be said to be true or false (keeping in mind that this is not meant to refer to some object--"goodness"--that we meet in the natural world), and in fact we can do all the things with moral language that we ordinarily do. This has to follow, because if we ordinarily do it, that means there is some kind of meaning when we ordinarily do it, and the only confusion we had was when we thought that it had to refer to something in the world outside of us. But in fact, since, he claims, the way in which we are set up to respond morally to the world is through our emotional and attitudinal responses, those end up being the determining factors on the meaning of these terms.

So, is this an adequate story of what we are talking about when we talk about morality?

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