Jason was in Syracuse yesterday, and told me about this
interview with Simon Blackburn from a couple of years ago:


Blackburn’s explanation of quasi-realism confirmed my
non-expert opinion that there is no such thing as quasi-realism. Maybe someone can set me straight. Here is what he says:

I called it “quasi-realism” because it starts from with
[sic] an emotivist, a fundamental expressionist, account of the fundamental
elements of what we are doing when we moralize. And that is a particular activity, a particular thing you do,
which is basically to express attitudes, to put pressure on plans, intentions,
conducts. It’s something
practical. But we talk as if there were
a truth in that talk, that’s why the
quasi. We talk as if there were a reality, a normative reality, the kind
of reality Plato believed in. Now,
Mackie thought that was an error. I
said “No! The talk is okay, it is the
philosopher who is wrong.” The philosophers
make the error when they are demanding some fact, some kind of Platonic forms
in the world, or, in Aristotle, some kind of teleology of human nature.

I can’t see how to make sense of this. Start with this:

We talk as if there were a reality, a normative reality, the
kind of reality Plato believed in.

Blackburn says that this talk is “okay,” which seems to
indicate that we (“we” presumably meaning we non-philosophers?) are right to
believe in the kind of reality Plato believed in. That is, contrary to what Mackie says, we are right to believe in
objective moral properties and facts. If that’s what he’s really saying, then he’s just a moral realist. But in the very next sentence he seems to
remember that he is not a moral realist, and says that philosophers make an
error in believing in such facts or Platonic forms.

Is there a way to interpret Blackburn that does not ascribe
contradictory views to him? Maybe
“okay” is a technical term here?  Or is there a better way to state quasi-realism?

(I guess it might seem unfair to focus on what he says in an
interview; he might have misspoken, or been misquoted. But what he says does seem exactly like the
sort of thing he says in his published writings.)


15 Replies to “Interview with Blackburn

  1. Ben,
    I suspect Blackburn was talking somewhat loosely. The gist of quasi-realism, as I understand it, is to deny that moral language is cognitive or descriptive, while still maintaining the legitimacy of treating morality as if it were cognitive or descriptive. In this respect, Blackburn is part of a mini-tradition that tries to account for the realist veneer of moral thought and discourse while holding that this veneer is only a veneer. The trick of course is how to achieve OK-ness or ‘as if’-ness with respect to moral thought and discourse if these are ultimately attitudinal rather than descriptive. The classic problem is the Frege-Geach worry. (Back to Dan’s posts on expressivism!)
    (Incidentally, I’m often bothered by how moral non-realists like Blackburn and Mackie impose a false dilemma on realism: Either moral discourse is in fact not descriptive, or it would have to describe some obscure domain, like non-natural Platonic forms or Moorean properties. The passage from the interview is an example of this.)

  2. Right, that’s part of what Blackburn wants to do, but quasi-realism is not just supposed to be a view about moral language, right? It’s at least partly a metaphysical view about whether there are moral properties. And I wonder what Blackburn can say about that. If he says there aren’t any moral properties, then he either has to say (a) that our moral talk does not commit us to the existence of moral properties, or (b) that it does, so our moral judgments are all false. He emphatically rejects both (a) and (b) in the quoted passage. Maybe he shouldn’t have rejected (a) – is that why you think he was being sloppy?

  3. Ben,
    It’s actually unclear (to me at least) exactly what Blackburn says about (a). I think he’s happy to let relatively unreflective non-philosophical moral agents talk as if there are moral properties, though there aren’t. He’s aiming for an account of moral discourse that does not commit us to the existence of moral properties but captures all the logical, attitudinal features of a discourse that would commit us to such properties. So, I guess, yes, I do think he ultimately rejecs (a). (b) raises its own questions with regard to quasi-realism, in particular, whether Blackburn wants to say that moral statements can be true or false tihout there being moral properties that function as their truthmakers.

  4. I don’t see the problem in this particular interview, actually. Couldn’t it be okay to talk as if p even if not-p? I can think of lots of examples. It is okay, for instance, to speak as if evolution had intentions, even though it doesn’t have any.
    I do think there is a general issue about how to distinguish quasi-realism from the non-quasi kind, but I’m not seeing it looking especially problematic in the interview.

  5. Sure, there are lots of cases where it’s “okay” to talk as if something were the case when it really isn’t the case. But if that’s the sense of “okay” that Blackburn has in mind, why does he think he’s disagreeing with Mackie? I don’t remember Mackie saying that ordinary people shouldn’t talk the way they do about morality – just that we should realize that such talk is strictly speaking not true.

  6. So I don’t really understand what it is in the interview, in particular, that is contradictory. I would have thought that this

    But if that’s the sense of “okay” that Blackburn has in mind, why does he think he’s disagreeing with Mackie?

    was a separate question. I think the answer is: Mackie says that ordinary users of moral expressions are making an error, whereas Blackburn thinks that ordinary users are making no error (except, of course, when they make substantive moral errors).

  7. OK, I’m no longer sure that Blackburn actually contradicts himself. Here’s my contentious paraphrase of the quoted passage that made me think he was contradicting himself: ordinary folks talk as if realism were true; Mackie says they are wrong; but they are not wrong; the ones who are wrong are the philosophers who think realism is true. I see that the “as if” is crucial, but I’m still confused.
    I think part of my confusion has to do with “as if” talk, and when it is okay. Because it isn’t always okay. Suppose I say that a plant desires to grow towards the sunlight. If I’m a reasonably sophisticated person, I am probably speaking metaphorically, and what I’m really expressing is something about the plant’s tendencies. It seems okay for me to talk as if the plant has desires, even though what I say is literally not true. But what if I really think the plant has desires? Then what I say doesn’t seem okay anymore. It just seems false. When I talk as if the plant has desires, I make an error.
    Since Blackburn does not think we always make errors in our ordinary moral talk, he must think that we are reasonably sophisticated people, who realize that we are just speaking metaphorically when we speak as if there are moral properties.

  8. But I notice that Michael says that Blackburn wants to allow unreflective people to count as not making errors when they use moral language. If that’s right, then what I just said can’t be Blackburn’s view.

  9. Right, I don’t think Blackburn believes that ordinary people are speaking metaphorically. (That would be quite an interesting meta-ethical view, though! Somebody adopt it, quick.) Steve Yablo has suggested that all sorts of metaphysical talk might be understood metaphorically (or anyway as some kind of figure of speech). The pay-off is that the ontological commitments are all discharged, while the intuitions are (in some sense) vindicated. But this isn’t Blackburn’s view about moral language.
    As I said, I do think this is a confusing and complicated issue. Although Blackburn, unlike Mackie, does not want to deny that moral language is literally true (uh, count up the negations… ok, that’s what I meant to say), he does want to say something that is somehow along those

  10. I wonder if the difference between Mackie and Blackburn can’t be made more clear by thinking about this in semantic terms which is, I think, how quasi-realism as a view in the philosophy of language connects with quasi-realism in the morals.
    Mackie believes that when we use moral sentences we are using language which is fitted to express a proposition. Sentences of moral language are true when whatever it is in the world that corresponds to the propositions expressed, e.g. facts, are as the sentences state. Mackie’s view is that all moral sentences are as a matter of fact false, that is, there is never anything in the world that corresponds to the propositions expressed by moral sentences. The error is our continuing to use language which is fitted for expressing propositions in this way. There are two solutions now:
    1. Change the subject matter of moral language so that the propositions expressed do sometimes correspond to the world;
    2. Change the nature of moral language so that it is no longer fitted for expressing propositions.
    In the second half of Ethics, Mackie opts for the first solution.
    Blackburn opts for the second by claiming that moral language does not express propositions, but instead expresses and makes, roughly, shifts in one’s motivational bearing. He thinks that moral language is useful just as it is–in its motivational making and reporting way–without its needing to express (world-involving) propositions. That is the nub of his saying that it is a mistake to demand a fact or similar as being to what moral language relates.
    Taken that way, there is no reason, I think, to convict Blackburn of incoherence or contradictory views.
    The challenge is for him to explain why moral language appears syntactically like other language–i.e. appears to be proposition-expressing–yet is not. So far as I know, he has never done so, though he has tried to ameliorate the Frege-Geach problem which is a pressing consequence of saying that moral language is not truth-apt.

  11. David, that is helpful. And I agree that Blackburn faces the Frege-Geach problem. But I think it’s worse than that. Blackburn says “we talk as if there were a moral reality.” That is, we talk as if there are moral facts. And he says that talk is “okay,” even though there aren’t any moral facts. What I want to know is, in what sense is that talk “okay”? If there aren’t any moral facts, but we talk as if there are, then there’s *something* wrong with the way we talk, right?

  12. Ben,
    Perhaps a comparison that might help Blackburn articulate his position: Think of ordinary moral language as a kind of code couched in moral facts, but where each utterance can be truth-conditionally translated into a statement about people’s non-cognitive attitudes. So for each moral utterance U, U will be taken to existentially imply a moral fact that makes the utterance true or false. So I utter ‘animal cruelty is wrong.’ In ordinary talk, this implies the existence of a moral fact about animal cruelty (more accurately: it implies the existence of a moral fact about actions that have some set of natural facts in common with acts of animal cruelty). But each such utterance is truth-functionally equivalent to a statement about natural facts and my evaluative pro-attitudes that makes no mention of moral facts:
    “U” iff P (where P is a complex proposition concerning acts, policies, etc. individuated on the basis of their natural propertes and my evaluative attitudes toward acts, policies, etc. that possess such natural properties)
    So when I utter ‘U’ I’m taken to be talking as if there are moral facts, though there aren’t. But what makes such moral fact-implying talk OK is that it can be translated into non-moral-fact implying propositions about certain concatentations of natural facts and my pro-attitudes toward them. This captures, I think, something of the as-if quality of moral language on the quasi-realist view. Typical uses of moral language are examples of speaking in code. This is how “the talk” can be OK even if it doesn’t measure up against a reality whose existence it existentially implies.
    What seems to differentiate Blackburn from Mackie is that Mackie wants the fact that moral language is a kind of code to be generally recognized, so that we see that morality is little more than a projection of diverse moral attitudes, whereas Blackburn is willing to let ordinary moral fact-implying stick around. I follow David Levy in thinking that Blackburn’s explanation of this is that only if ordinary moral language retains its factive veneer will it fulfills some of its social functions. E.g., moral language would lose its prescriptive and motivational force if it lost its factive veneer.

  13. Thanks Michael. It seems to me the position you describe is just a fancy sort of moral realism. But I will have to think about it some more.

  14. I don’t know much about Blackburn’s view, but let me share some thoughts I had while reading through this thread.
    Maybe we could say the following. When Blackburn says that people talk as if there were moral facts he means that they talk in the way that they would talk if they believed there to be moral facts. But from this it does not follow that they do believe there to be moral facts. (To think otherwise would be to affirm the consequent: if people believed there to be moral facts, they would talk in this way; they do talk in this way; therefore, they do believe in moral facts.) So, even if there are no moral facts, people need not be in error when they talk as if there were such facts. (Similarly, perhaps, people need not be in error when they talk as if Santa Claus exists.)
    However, although it doesn’t follow deductively, one might think that we could establish by inference to the best explanation that people believe in moral facts. Why do people talk as if they believe in moral facts? One obvious explanation is that they do, in fact, believe in moral facts. I guess this is where Blackburn’s quasi-realist project enters the picture. Perhaps we can understand that project as an attempt to supply an alternative explanation of people’s moral talk — an explanation that explains why people talk as if they believe in moral facts even though they do not, in fact, believe in moral facts. If the project succeeds, then Blackburn will have shown people’s moral talk to be “OK” in the sense that it need not express any false beliefs.
    Perhap’s Blackburn’s criticism of Mackie is that he moves too quickly form the observation that people talk as if they believe in moral facts to the conclusion that they do believe in such facts.

  15. Maybe “Think” ought not be taken as the most sophisticated or representative expression of Blackburn’s views, but chapter 8 of that book contains a good deal that’s relevant to how he understands the function of moral language. The following bit seems particularly important:
    (Blackburn is here arguing for a non-cognitivist, left-to-right reading of:
    One of X’s concerns is to aim for/promote/endorse ø = X thinks ø is good/thinks ø is a reason for action.)
    “When people have concerns, they express themselves by talking of reasons, and seeing the features that weigh with them as desirable or good. …I believe we invent the normative propositions (‘This is good’; ‘That is a reason for action’; ‘You ought to do this’) in order to think about the concerns to demand of ourselves and others. We talk in these terms in order to clarify our motivational states, to lay them out for admiration or criticism and improvement. There is no mysterious normative order into which we are plugged.
    So is no set of concersn better than any other? Certainly they are. But their superiority does not lie in conformity to an independent normative order. Their superiority lies in the ways of life embodying them. A set of concerns that leads to lives that are loyal, friendly, prudent, sympathetic, fair is indeed superior to one that leads to lives that are treachersou, suspicious, malicious, careless, hard-hearted, unjust.” (286-87)
    An illuminating passage, I think, as it suggests what Blackburn thinks moral language does if it does not represent moral reality. The tone of the passage is strikingly Aristotelian.

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