Thursday, October 28, 2010

[see also earlier post]

Simon Blackburn defends quasi-realism (preprint)
...The crucial passage in Egan’s paper reads as follows:
For me to be fundamentally in error, I need to have some moral view that’s (a) stable, and (b) mistaken. But given Blackburn’s account of moral error, this can’t happen. For my moral belief that P to be stable is for it to be such that it would survive any improving change (or course of improving changes). For my moral belief that P to be mistaken is for there to be some improving change (or course of improving changes) that would lead me to abandon P. So on Blackburn’s account of moral error, a moral belief is mistaken only if it’s not stable. So for me to be fundamentally in error, I’d need to have some moral view that was (a) stable, and (b) not stable, which I pretty clearly can’t have.

So if I’m a reflective quasi-realist, I can know in advance, just by thinking about what moral error is, that I can’t be fundamentally morally mistaken. (Egan 2007: 214)
Now unfortunately this is not quite right, and the extent to which it misses being an accurate formulation of anything the quasi-realist ought to accept is critical. It is not quite right that for a belief that p to be stable is ‘for it to be such that it would survive any improving change (or course of improving changes)’. This gives a criterion of stability in terms of whatever is an improving change. Whereas as we have seen, officially stability is a matter of surviving anything that the subject would regard as an improving change, either antecedently, or post hoc. Without this conflation, the result that a moral belief is mistaken only if it is not stable does not follow, and the contradiction does not follow either. To see this, let us distinguish the two ideas more carefully. It is the difference between:

(M) If something is entrenched in my outlook, in such a way that nothing I could recognize as an improvement would undermine it, then it is true.
(I) If something is entrenched in my outlook, in such a way that nothing that is an improvement would undermine it, then it is true.

The first of these is the gun Egan would point at the quasi-realist: the a prioricity of (M) would deliver a kind of first-person smugness that I was concerned to avoid. The second is very different. It talks of immunity to actual improvement: something at least close to Crispin Wright’s notion of superassertibility. And it may be a priori that if something is immune to all actual and possible improvement, then it is true—given a natural connection between improving and getting towards the truth. But (I) is not a problem, for it introduces no asymmetry between myself and others. If I hold (I) to be a priori true, I should equally hold its impersonal version to be so:

(I´) If something is entrenched in anyone’s outlook, in such a way that nothing that is an improvement would undermine it, then it is true.

For that matter, neither version of (I) introduces anything specific to ethics: it may be a priori that if someone’s belief that the film starts at eight o’clock is immune to improvement, then it is true. For if it were false, then an improvement is clearly on the cards, namely replacing it with the truth. Deflationism about truth is quite compatible with (I´). A deflationist will interpret it as a generalization corresponding to the schema ‘if p then an outlook which includes ¬p is capable of improvement’ and under any acceptable interpretation of improvement, this will be something to be asserted.

So a swift rebuttal on my part would be simply to reject the conflation between (M) and (I).
Blackburn's analogy: "if someone’s belief that the film starts at eight o’clock is immune to improvement, then it is true. For if it were false, then an improvement is clearly on the cards, namely replacing it with the truth."

And mine:


Venus de Milo front and side views

Outlook/Viewpoint/Point of view. My analogy takes outlook literally to mean a view from a place, in this case in front of the statue. The side view is off limits.


Analogy is a literary device. Blackburn's "swift rebuttal" is lawyer's rhetoric and mine is no better. But we can respond to him in other ways and with arguments that should be obvious to any educated non-philosopher:

How forceful would arguments for the equality of women have been without arguments by women? Is there a substantive [non-political] reason for women and minorities to be represented in government? Why do we separate the executive and legislative, the prosecution and defense?

I've said all this before and none of the points are original. Blackburn is struggling to hold on to an ideal of moral individualism, and quasi-realism only makes sense if you let go of it. Lawyers are under no requirement to believe in the truth of their clients' arguments. Their only obligation is to represent them.

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