Monday, October 18, 2010

Simon Blackburn on Moral Quasi-Realism
Single case probabilities are those of particular events, such as Eclipse winning the 2.30pm race this afternoon, an asteroid hitting the earth in the next century, or Parfit changing his mind about expressivism before Christmas. The background to Ramsey’s view can be sketched quite quickly, and is not really important to what follows. It is the pessimistic but plausible view that no satisfactory theory of such probabilities is forthcoming. Frequencies require sets of events, and putting events into sets does not help unless we have a principle for selecting the right sets. Any such principle is in danger of leaving all single case probabilities at either 0 or 1, although we will usually not know which, or, if the world is indeterministic, leaving them equally unknowable. Hence, probabilists such as Richard von Mises had banned them altogether, and scepticism about the notion—what is now called an error theory— seemed to be the only scientific course.

And yet outside the philosophy classroom the notion refused to die. Horse races still took place, and bookmakers thrived as before. Discussions about a particular horse’s chances filled sporting columns and bars. Insurance companies and actuaries still worked. People made up their minds, or changed them, oblivious to the pained cries of philosophers. So Ramsey, more charitable than von Mises, offered an explanation and vindication of the practices connected with voicing and discussing single-case probabilities. The manifestation, he said, of a sincere judgment of this kind is a distribution of confidence, and that in turn can most easily be regarded as a disposition to buy or sell bets at appropriate prices, under certain idealized conditions.[1] Such dispositions, of course, are not true or false in themselves. But they have what I called a propositional reflection, in the single case judgment. Thus, if I find I am disposed to risk $1 on Eclipse winning the 2.30, in the hope of getting $2 back if he does, I can voice this disposition by saying that Eclipse’s chances are at least 50 – 50. The disposition is discussable, for it may be that this is a very foolish bet. If you know that Eclipse is off-form, entirely outclassed by the field, has shown symptoms of equine flu, or recently lost a leg, you may helpfully seek to dissuade me. It is these discussions that fill racecourse bars and the sporting columns and the single-case probability proposition is the focus for them.

...We now turn to ethics, where, over many years, I have tried to articulate and defend a precisely parallel position, standing, for instance, to error theorists exactly as Ramsey stood to von Mises. The parallelism has not been hidden: I have explicitly drawn attention to it in many writings. Moral and evaluative propositions are foci for the arguments and thoughts with which men and women discuss, reject, accept, ways of conducting their lives. We urge them on each other in order to change peoples’ practical dispositions: their motivations and concerns, their sense of honour, guilt and shame, or of what will do and what will not. So now I turn to some of the things Parfit says, and see how they might sound if we applied them to Ramsey’s theory. Since I do not want to put words into Ramsey’s mouth, I shall invent a persona, Bramsey, to act as my spokesman.
Blackburn suggests that such attitudes (moral and conative attitudes) might be mistaken in the sense that we would not have these attitudes if our standpoint were improved in certain ways. But to explain the sense in which this standpoint would be improved, Blackburn would have to claim that, if we had this standpoint, our attitudes would be less likely to be mistaken. This explanation would fail because it would have to use the word ‘mistaken’ in the sense that Blackburn is trying to explain.
P. 359
The parallel will be:
Bramsey suggests that betting dispositions might be mistaken in the sense that we would not have these dispositions if our standpoint were improved in certain ways. But to explain the sense in which this standpoint would be improved, Bramsey would have to claim that, if we had this standpoint, our betting dispositions would be less likely to be mistaken. This explanation would fail because it would have to use the word ‘mistaken’ in the sense that Bramsey is trying to explain.
Zionism as Quasi-Realism. This sort of snapshot "research", without reference to recent Israeli actions is like a history of Israel with no reference to events before 1948. "Finally, our data showed..." that if you ignore data you get "X". But the amount of data is limitless. And where you start is your choice. [I have to say it's worse then that: "...while others claimed that his government is constitutionally illegitimate." Following the text of the constitution it is illegitimate.]

I'm not arguing with Blackburn, but he's doing no more than scoring academic points. He'll never get to politics, even the social politics of daily life. Every lawyer argues cases from the position of quasi realism: his obligation is to his client. But every lawyer has an opponent in argument. "Research", the terminology of science applied to social life (and debate is social life) remains perspectival even at its best. For my purposes it doesn't matter if the authors are being disingenuous or if their myopia is the result of ideological formalism. It doesn't matter if they're cynics or fiddlers. Blackburn is a fiddler, that's what interests me here.
The politics of mathematics and formal logic, of the functionalism of tools, is anti-politics. The politics of Truth is anti-politics.

Interesting that Zizek and Badiou [see yesterday], an Eastern European former dissident and a Western European ex-Maoist, are arguing the importance of aspiration, of hope, the desire to be better than mostly we are, while Western left-liberals, now "left-neoliberals" (including those calling themselves socialists) are arguing for the creation of systems of control that limit our capacity for self-harm. It seemed clear to me that Badiou has returned to the Church, or maybe he never left. The choice is between the rationalism of engaged hope and the rationalism of individualism and cold moral reason (and moral seriousness is not moral responsibility). The secularist empiricism of language and experience is the third option that's ignored. Too bad about that dinner, it would've been fun.

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