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Blackburn - Errors and the Phenomenology of Value

(Text as at 26/03/2014 18:51:50)

This is a review of "Blackburn (Simon) - Errors and the Phenomenology of Value". It was no-doubt originally written in 2003 or thereabouts.

Section 1

  1. According to Mackie, there are no calls for action independent of our desires, nor courses of action that are wrong in themselves. A false assumption of objective values is ingrained in our moral vocabulary.
  2. If a vocabulary in some use embodies error, we ought to replace it or use it differently. Mackie makes no such stupid proposal, but carries on moralising, claiming that morals are made, not discovered.
  3. Why should we choose to fall into error? Blackburn seems to think Mackie claims that our practice, and not just theory, is in error.
  4. Maybe we ought to “shmoralise”, where “shmoral” views are purged of their erroneous metaphysical commitments. If Mackie doesn’t do this, this casts doubt on his diagnosis of error.
  5. But, maybe Mackie does shmoralise, using the old form of words with new meaning. But, how can we tell?
  6. Blackburn finds it gratuitous to infer two different activities from two different theories. Hence, Mackie and Hume moralise like everyone else, and the error theory shrinks to the claim that they have a better theory, but their practice is the same.
  7. Blackburn considers holism – that theories infect our meanings, and that we can’t have error-free practice but with erroneous theories about its nature.
  8. Blackburn rejects this argument – we can have different full meanings of terms without different practices. Hence no error of practice – because we can’t tell by observing practice which theory is held.
  9. The analogy is with arithmetic – we may hold different metaphysical accounts of numbers, yet still be able to add up.
  10. Maybe we can tell from practice which theory is held, but if so quasi-realism – “which shows how much of the apparently realist appearance of ordinary moral talk is explicable and justifiable on an anti-realist picture” – must be wrong. It isn’t, so shmoralising is proper moralising.

Section 2
  1. Projectivism gilds the world as though it answered to our sentiments. Quasi-realism is in opposition to revisionist projectivism, which claims our anti-realist metaphysics means we should smoralise, as well as to realists and quietists.
  2. Quietism is R.M.Hare’s view that it doesn’t much matter whether moral values are objective or not.
  3. Blackburn has argued in "Blackburn (Simon) - Attitudes and Contents" for a realist-seeming grammar that supports projectivism. Hence Mackie can’t use our practice of moralising to support his error theory.
  4. Mackie sometimes does just this – we don’t just express a desire that there be no bullfighting, but feel that our desires are right, an erroneous claim to objectivity.
  5. Blackburn thinks this is a mistake. Quasi-realism claims that our feelings are proper attitudes to our own attitudes, something to be cultivated in the right places & to the proper degree to avoid the moral defect of indifference. Rather than expressing realist second-order metaphysics this represents a first-order attitude or need.
  6. The counterfactual claim that “even were I to enjoy bear-baiting, it would still be wrong” sounds like a second-order realist commitment, but in fact expresses a first-order commitment to it being the effect on the bear, rather than our feelings of pleasure, that’s relevant to discovering the wrongness of bear-baiting.
  7. Protected by quasi-realism, projectivism supports and explains our ordinary moral talk (the “propositional grammar of ethics”). Even so, people still feel uneasy that the subjective source & objective “feel” or phenomenology associated with a properly working morality are in conflict. If duties and rights are projective, then morality no longer has the same force as we were brought up to believe.
  8. Can obligations be reflections of our own sentiments and yet have the power to bind us? Wouldn’t projectivism explain this away as a phenomenological distortion and falsify this aspect of our morality, as though the objectivist’s error is to think of some things as obligatory in opposition to all human desires and needs?
  9. It might seem that the error is simply one of adopting a deontological rather than teleological first-order morality; but, Mackie didn’t see the problem as adopting a defective (ie. non-consequentialist) first-order morality. To quote Blackburn, “doing this may be a natural consequence of a metaphysical mistake, but is not in itself an error intrinsic to the very nature of morality”. Mackie felt that the absolute and external phenomenology of obligation was not explicable on a projectivist account, and hence that projectivism threatens a fundamental part of morality1.
  10. Blackburn asks whether we have any reason to think Mackie is right. Fable of Mabel & Fred who can’t marry because of a duty not to, so that marrying would be wrong. The question is whether we’re trying to explain or justify moral psychology. Blackburn explains Fred’s acts by reference to his upbringing. While it’s moot whether it’s a good thing that Fred has been brought up as he has, it’s indubitable that it’s a good thing that people should sometimes feel constrained, or they’d do the most awful things.
  11. Hence, there’s no problem for the projectivist account. Blackburn notes the facts of the plasticity of our sensibilities and the devices that lead people to value different aspects of things; but, these are also noted by the realist in the guise that our moral perceptions need training. Blackburn thinks realism adds no explanatory weight, but that the Fred/Mabel case is one of justification.
  12. Can Fred’s resolve withstand a projectivist / quasi-realist awakening? Is it rational for him to recognise obligation as a fiction and ignore it when self-interest demands?
  13. Blackburn thinks any anxiety on this score is misplaced, because it’s not rationality that separates the altruistic from the self-interested. The altruist is simply different in what affects his happiness. We’re not forced by rationality to accept a particular sensibility merely on account of its origin.
  14. Blackburn makes an analogy between laughter and morality. It’s perfectly rational to carry on laughing even though we recognise its projectivist origins. Similarly for maintaining moral resolve in the face of projectivism.
  15. Maybe a projectivist explanation coupled with other values can undermine a sentiment, analogous to a psychological understanding of humour as sublimated aggression? Blackburn gives examples – the moral being that it’s not the explanation of the practise that undoes it, but only the effect of the explanation on wrongly directed sensibilities.
  16. Blackburn moves from obligations to values. We can carry on valuing the good things of life even while seeing them as projections of our own desires. But quasi-realism need not be anthropocentric any more than egocentric. It can assert that it’s not my sentiments that make bear-baiting wrong, and it’s preferable that the world be a beautiful place after the cessation of all consciousness. Those who are troubled by the thought that the meaning of their life and activities is something they confer are troubled because of other defective “all or nothing” sensibilities. “One should not adjust one’s metaphysics to pander to such defects”.
  17. But isn’t it the case that on projectivist metaphysics, there are no obligations (etc) really? Else, why are we defending anti-realism? Blackburn thinks we’re confusing two contexts. The projectivist isn’t saying one thing and believing something else in his heart. As far as first-order morality is concerned, he’s as staunch as the most fervent moralist. It’s just that his explanation of what he’s doing doesn’t rely on an independent moral aspect of reality2.

Section 3
  1. So far, Blackburn has been using quasi-realism to protect the appearance of morality, showing that there’s no error in our ordinary ways of thought, commitments and passions. The projectivist can accommodate the rich phenomena of moral life.
  2. Blackburn now turns to the suggestion that the metaphor of projection is deficient, and that we’d be better off with one modelled on secondary qualities – ie. the perception of a real property, but one intimately related to our sensibilities.
  3. Wiggins, McDowell, Nagel & Putnam understand projectivism to be an explanatory theory that maintains that we have a better explanation of our moral practises if we see ourselves as responding to a value-free world onto which we project our moral sentiments. There are three areas of disquiet:
    • 1. Colours really exist even though the reality that contains them is not independent of human modes of perception.
    • 2. This fails only if we have an incorrect idea of what is real (eg. primary properties or some ultimate scientific theory) or forget that the world cannot be separated from our concerns & manner of perceiving it.
    • 3. People need training to appreciate tunes & shades as well as values.
  4. Blackburn thinks the two explanations can go on in parallel, but also that the secondary quality route is a dud, because of several disanalogies, as follows:
    • a) Secondary properties supervene on primary properties, and it’s no sign of perceptual incompetence not to realise this, whereas moral properties don’t supervene on others.
    • b) There are well known mechanics of perception of secondary qualities, but not of moral properties. There are no causal mechanisms for moral blindness. Failure of sensory perception is immediate whereas failure of moral sensibility is gradual and often unnoticed.
    • c) Secondary qualities are mind-dependent relative to our perceptions of them. If red things suddenly appeared blue to everyone, they would be blue; but bad things appearing good wouldn’t be good.
    • d) The way perceptions of secondary qualities vary from society to society is in no way parallel to moral variation.
    • e) The subject can choose whether or not he cares about secondary qualities, but not about the moral properties he perceives.
    • f) Evaluative predicates are attributive. A thing is good relative to what it’s good for, but a thing is red whatever thing it is.
  5. This goes beyond our immediate concerns, but Blackburn raises a couple of relevant points concerning naturalism:
    • It’s not a scientific fact that moral properties supervene on natural ones, but it is a sign of moral incompetence to fail to see that they must do so3.
    • If everyone comes to think that it’s OK to mistreat animals, this doesn’t make it permissible – it only shows that everyone has deteriorated.
  6. Blackburn disagrees with Mackie about the parallel between morality and aesthetics, on the grounds that (a), (c), (e) and (f) above don’t apply, eg., to beauty. Sometimes physical beauty needs to be perceived, and cannot be told, whereas we’re only impeded in saying how good something is if there’s some other incommunicable fact.
  7. Blackburn doesn’t think that there’s any hope for the secondary quality approach. We know what it is to be causally affected by colours, and what it is to say that if something hadn’t been red, we wouldn’t have believed it was. There’s no parallel with morality. Any perceptual model of morality isn’t causal, and isn’t a matter of conformity with a community (see (c)). Hence, there is no perceptual theory of moral conditionals.
  8. Blackburn introduces a naturalistic explanation of why human beings fear things (in response to McDowell’s view that it is because they merit fear). We fear things because of the behavioural consequences and evolutionary advantages of doing so. This is properly part of philosophy, and not consigned to sociology, psychology or some other science, leaving philosophers with nothing to say beyond remarking on the phenomenology.

Section 4
  1. There’s no necessary connection between projectivism and consequentialism, but they are naturally related.
  2. A projectivist won’t take moral sentiments as basic, but will try to explain the practice of moralising, in particular its social function. As Mackie claimed, morality is a successful invention because it helps people to prosper, given their “natural inheritance of needs and desires they must fulfil”. Hence, we can see Fred’s psychology as defective – though it need not be seen so if the consequences having motivations like his – and people knowing that others have these motivations) are good.
  3. Blackburn distances himself from act consequentialism, supporting motive consequentialism, an improvement on rule consequentialism. He also rejects the utilitarian view that all values are ultimately commensurable. Human flourishing requires ultimately incommensurable goods amongst which there is n systematic way of making choices. The projectivist’s explanatory project starts from the heterogeneity of the ways in which human life can flourish or fail.

In-Page Footnotes:

Footnote 1: Is the point that therefore the phenomenology is erroneous?

Footnote 2: Isn’t the problem not that the virtuous anti-realist can justify why he continues in the paths of virtue, but that he can’t point to anything that obligates the wicked to do likewise?

Footnote 3: We are referred to "Blackburn (Simon) - Moral Realism" and "Blackburn (Simon) - Supervenience Revisited".

Printable Versions:

Note last updated Reading List for this Topic Parent Topic
26/03/2014 18:51:50 None available None

Authors, Books & Papers Citing this Note

Author Title Medium Extra Links Read?
Blackburn (Simon) Errors and the Phenomenology of Value Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes

References & Reading List

Author Title Medium Source Read?
Blackburn (Simon) Attitudes and Contents Paper - Cited Low Quality Abstract Blackburn - Essays in Quasi-Realism No
Blackburn (Simon) Errors and the Phenomenology of Value Paper - Cited High Quality Abstract Blackburn - Essays in Quasi-Realism Yes
Blackburn (Simon) Essays in Quasi-Realism Book - Cited (via Paper Cited) Low Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied 7%
Blackburn (Simon) Moral Realism Paper - Cited Blackburn - Essays in Quasi-Realism No
Blackburn (Simon) Supervenience Revisited Paper - Cited Low Quality Abstract Blackburn - Essays in Quasi-Realism No

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