Friday, November 11, 2005

Simon Says

When I was in graduate school I was fortunate to be able to study under Simon Blackburn while he was still the Edna J. Koury Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has since returned to Cambridge, where he continues to hold forth in his witty and sagacious way on matters of Truth and Morality, not only in his teaching but in a series of popular books on, well, Truth and Morality.

In a recent contribution to the Times Literary Supplement (available online here) of 30 September 2005, Blackburn does a fine job of highlighting the merits of a recent selection of essays by the late G. E. M. Anscombe. For those who are not philosophy wonks, Anscombe was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein and, perhaps of even more interest to readers of this forum, a very dedicated Roman Catholic. She was also, as all sides agree, something of a genius. Many Catholic moral philosophers do a pretty good job of hiding the fact that they're Catholic--it's one of the many symptoms of the debauched times in which we live--but Anscombe argued forcefully for many of the moral tenets of the Catholic faith, including the absolute prohibition on euthanasia, abortion, and contraception. She defended, in other words, a version of moral realism that was quite congenial to the Magisterium's view of normativity in the world.

Simon Blackburn, by contrast, describes himself (not in this particular essay, but in plenty of other places) as a Humean, though not as an out-and-out moral relativist. The trouble is, the only difference between his moral philosophy and moral relativism is the stridency with which he asserts the correctness of his views. Humeans are, by and large, both skeptics and empiricist materialists as well as rather truculent, so none of this should come as a surprise. One does not want so much to fault him as to pity him, but that is another matter.

It is rather interesting to note, however, the pomposity with which he dismisses the sort of morality defended by Anscombe. He begins by criticizing her view, which he characterizes as "Dostoevskian," that
if God is dead everything is permitted: "where one does not think there is a judge or a law, the notion of a verdict may retain its psychological effect, but not its meaning".
His own verdict, however, is that this is just a load of hooey, and in fact has been proven to be hooey by none other than Plato.
Suppose you are a colleague, and I find you taking bribes in order to fiddle exam results and am shocked and horrified as a result. I believe you have failed in your duty, that you have betrayed your obligations to the university and to your students. Is this "merely" psychological, and am I using words with "merely" talismanic force? Well, just try me. Suppose I break off relations with you, or make the matter public, or invoke sanctions, strip you of your rank or drum you out of your job. Suppose, in addition, I look askance at anybody who fails to share my outrage, and strenuously try to change their minds. Am I supposed to say, po-faced and even while I do these things or worse, "By the way, I do not say that what you did was morally wrong. That's a concept I cannot deploy"? This is poppycock: what I do shows in spades that this is exactly how I regard you and your doings.
Well, that's just great: you can claim to be as realist as you like just so long as you are enough of a popinjay to use words like "poppycock" in a sentence.

The difficulty with the analysis comes only when one wants to know why he would treat a morally offensive colleague in this way. For the Humean the only reason is because the behavior is repulsive to some particular point of view, not because there is anything wrong with it in itself. What makes it repulsive to Simon Blackburn, however, may not strike another as quite so deserving of such opprobrium. In short, by ignoring the fundamental belief behind Anscombe's moral theory--the existence of final causes--Blackburn misses the whole motivation for being moral in her system.

This is why his appeal to Plato is so perplexing. I suppose he must have in mind places like the Gorgias or Book I of the Republic--places where Plato argues that just living is its own reward, there is no "divine command" that makes something morally right or wrong. But Plato would not have agreed that the mere fact that Simon Blackburn finds bribery offensive is a sufficient condition on its actually being offensive, no matter how deeply Simon Blackburn believes it, or what he threatens to do about it. Maybe it isn't Plato himself whom Blackburn has in mind. Callicles, in the Gorgias, would have been quite happy to agree that what a particular individual regards as morally offensive is morally offensive, even though he would have drawn a very different inference about the moral licitness of bribery. I'm sure Callicles would have agreed with Blackburn about just who are the ones who are most likely to have the best views about morality, too, since Callicles seems to have held a rather Nietzschean view about, well, Sophists.

But for Plato himself, moral normativity lies in the notion of an objective human good, something that does not differ from person to person and, more importantly, something about which it is possible to be mistaken, that is, you can fail to know that something is really the right thing for you to do, even though you are very sincere in your belief that it is not. Now, this is not necessarily inconsistent with Simon's argument, at least so far. But if we were to turn the tables things would be somewhat different. If we were to ask, "What about you, Simon? What if you were the one contemplating taking the bribe? What reasoned argument would prevent you from doing so?" He would not have at his disposal recourse to an answer like "I know that I cannot morally do such a thing, because doing so is contrary to the human good, thus making it wrong per se, a violation of my place in the rational order of things." If he claims that he does have recourse to that answer--if he does, in fact, endorse the realist notion of an objective human good--he has not revealed in any of his writings just what he thinks that objective good is. If he denies that there is such a thing, he begs the question against Anscombe and the realists.

In particular, since he seems horrified and offended by the idea that human life itself might have an objective value and the concommitant idea that certain things, such as the needless taking of human life, might be categorically prohibited, he begs the question against the Catholic Church's understanding of what the objective human good is. Some folks--Simon Blackburn among them--misunderstand what it means to say that if God is dead anything is permitted. The misunderstanding appears to stem from the mistaken belief that it is nothing more than fear of God, fear of retribution, that keeps the believer from doing wrong things, and that if only God (or our virus-like belief in such a being) weren't there we could do anything we like "and get away with it". That is a very banal understanding of what a moral realist like Plato--or Anscombe--is arguing for. The idea is rather that all things, including human beings, have a natural end, and normativity is defined in terms of what that natural end actually is, not what we might (perhaps mistakenly) believe or wish it to be. It is this end that gives us a compelling reason to act one way rather than another. We do not act out of fear of God, but out of love for God. Without God, we may love whatever we like, and that is why, without God, anything is permitted.

The only "reason" that Blackburn offers for refraining from bribery is the fact that he, and others like him, will scorn the folks who take bribes. Well, unless depth of feeling and sincerity can persuade, that argument fails to persuade. One can rightly ask, "Why should I care whether I offend Simon Blackburn?" If the answer is really nothing more than "Because I will humiliate you in front of others, wreck your career, and in general make your life miserable"--well, that is just an ugly might-makes-right sort of argument and, ironically, differs in no way at all from what Blackburn himself appears to think is the point of having God be the source of normativity!

For the Catholic, unlike Plato, the objective human good is God himself, and our love for God is a manifestation of our innate desire to seek our final cause, our natural end. If, like Simon Blackburn, you simply don't believe that any such natural end exists, there's not much anybody can do about that. But to merely assert, without argument, that there simply is no such natural end of man, is surely no better than to assert that there is. And it is clearly worse to not only assert without argument, but to childishly ridicule one's opposition when argument fails. Perhaps he thinks he is only emulating the brilliant Ms. Anscombe, who was rather famous for the well-placed barb, but Blackburn scoffs at the whole idea of final causation in his essay, comparing it to Michael Frayn's parody (the "natural end of travel" is to move forward, so all looking backwards, including the use of rear-view mirrors in cars, is immoral). When I knew Simon Blackburn he was not quite so, well, full of himself, at least not most of the time. He was always very kind to me, even though his open scorn for all conservatives is something that he proudly parades in the press. Perhaps he is enough of a moralist, of sorts, to recognize the possibility that there may be a difference between when it is appropriate to merely think that someone is a scumbag and when it is appropriate to tell them to their face that they are one. It is more than likely, though, that the explanation for his treatment of me was nothing more sophisticated than his ignorance of my politics, thus proving Plato right once again--it is possible to be mistaken about what the "right" thing to do is, since if he had known my politics he surely would have treated me differently. His ignorance was my bliss.

The title of Blackburn's essay, by the way, is "Simply wrong", which I suppose is intended as a sly response to what he perceives as Anscombe's "absolutism" about ethics. I'm sure the irony was unintentional, but it is rather delicious.

3 comments:

Apollodorus said...

I realize that Blackburn's review is, well, a review and not a critical essay. Even still, I really can't figure out how someone who thinks such arguments worty of print has become one of the most well-known and apparently respected professors of philosophy in the English-speaking world. His review fails to pay any attention at all to any of Anscombe's arguments and merely sketches the outlines of her positions and then tells us why he finds them implausible. My degree wasn't in philosophy, after all, so I might be mistaken, but I thought that the one thing I had learned to count on in philosophy was that the business of philosophy is in the argument, not in the mere statement of position.

You've made most of the points that need to be made, I think, and they have force even for someone who isn't ultimately committed to Catholicism. That is, I don't have to believe that we have God as our natural end in order to see that Anscombe's arguments rely on that idea and that Blackburn has completely failed to address it in favor of patting himself on the back for insulting a dead philosopher.

To my mind, the most glaring error he makes is in his discussion of Anscombe's rejection of the idea of moral duty. I haven't read a great deal of Anscombe's work, but I think that she was far more serious about doing away with the idea of duty than Blackburn believes; she was not, that is, simply arguing that we need a divine command theory of ethics if we want to employ the concept of duty, and so we'd better give it up or become theists. As I understand it, the thrust of her argument was that we should reject the concept of moral duty and obligation as the kind of autonomous, free-floating entity of pure practical reason that Kantians would have made of it and instead derive the contents of our obligations from a broader conception of human life and ethics, a conception ultimately derived from the ancients. That is, there is no interest in rejecting obligation -- the interest is in rejecting a conception of special, autonomous 'moral' obligations derived from formal constraints on practical reason or whatever. Maybe I'm reading too much of MacIntyre into Anscombe, but
at any rate, it seems clear enough that Anscombe was not a divine command theorist in the straightforward sense, but rather a eudaimonist who believed that our final end was God, in the sense you've described.

His reference to Plato is, I think, a reference to the Euthyphro dilemma. That in itself shows that Blackburn doesn't really understand Anscombe at all, since neither she nor the whole classical tradition fall into the problem. It is a genuine problem, I think, for a great amount of theistic ethics. Most of your everyday evangelists don't seem to understand that God's commands qua commands establish nothing whatsoever about their goodness, and that they'd better not be good simply because he issues them. God's commands, on the common divine command conception, really are in danger of seeming arbitrary, because God is conceived in an excessively anthropomorphic fashion expressing his will, which is presented as radically disjoined from our nature. The solution to the problem, as I see it, is just as you've proposed here and elsewhere; God issues his 'commands' because they are good, and they are good because following them constitutes the kind of life that allows us to achieve our good. But that good is God, and so the good is not independent of God. The only structural difference between the theistic and a non-theistic account is that God can be both the determinant of our good and can issue commands, whereas in a more naturalistic context, nature (however 'enchanted' we make it) can only issue 'commands' in a metaphoric sense. Of course, my failure to grasp how it is that God can be said to issue commands in any way except as an analogy to or symbolic description of the independently established truth about our natural end -- in sum, I guess, my apparently insurmountable problem with divine revelation as such -- remains the biggest reason why I am not a Christian.

At any rate, it's a shame that Simon Blackburn has managed to convince some people that he's a competent philosopher. Then again, it's a shame that any Humean has ever done so. Maybe it's too subtle for me. I suppose that he's writing in "quasi" mode, and not in "real realist" mode, when he talks about how important it is for philosophers to talk about 'dignity and value in human life,' since he has gone to such lengths to deny explicitly that there is any dignity or value in human life beyond our projections of such. It's easy to forgive Hume for holding that belief while also making positive moral claims, since he lacked a proper experience of how deeply varied our projections can be, and so failed to see that sentimentalism provides no greater foundation for ethics than for debates about the superiority of one or another kind of pizza. Blackburn has no similar excuse, and yet he continues to imagine that we can carry on in his 'quasi-realist' manner without deceiving ourselves.

I'll stick with Plato and Aristotle. And maybe even Anscombe, if I can just get over those few dozen or so issues...

Scott Carson said...

I think you may be right about the ultimate source of Blackburn's appeal to Plato--I confess I hadn't really taken the possibility seriously since, in my view, the Gorgias and Republic offer much better exemplars of that argument. But the more I think about it, the more I think you've probably nailed him: the Euthyphro may be the only dialogue he's read with any care recently.

I don't remember whether you were at OU when he was our Forum speaker, but we pressed him very hard about his projectivism, and I'm afraid that in the end he was quite open about the arbitrariness of it all. I suppose one would have to be if one were a Humean, and one would have no particular reason to feel ashamed (at least in front of other Humeans). It left most of us rather unsatisfied. But we really liked him as a person: he can be very warm, and he's far less condescending in person. I suppose that for a Humean morality boils down to good manners.

Certainly your analysis of what has gone awry in his argument is spot on. In fact, I think you made a better case than I did! He does note, early in the review, that Anscombe thought Kant's view ridiculous, but other than that he does not really discuss the problems of motivation or duty arising from formal constraints and how these problems affect either the realist or the anti-realist position in ethics. It would be interesting to hear what he has to say about such things, but in general what I've found him saying on these topics (in, for example, Ruling Passions) is extremely spotty, usually in the form of a rough summary that is used merely for the purpose of setting up his own rejection of realism. There's not much quasi to it that I can see--he's not even close most of the time.

It's too bad in a way, at least in my view, because I find many aspects of anti-realism quite attractive. In scientific contexts, for example, I think that it is absolutely necessary, at least for a Christian, but arguably for everyone else as well, to adopt anti-realism (just think of what it would be like to try to defend a realist view of the theorems of Quantum Mechanics!). I suppose things would be rather different in moral contexts, at least for the Christian, but not necessarily for anyone else.

My advice: keep reading Anscombe, but read Augustine and Aquinas, too. I'm willing to bet that you'll get past those issues eventually.

Apollodorus said...

I know a fellow who bases a belief in his own immortality on a realist interpretation of the Everitt-Wheeler (which I may have misspelled) interpretation of QM. He mixes in his own personal experience, too, so he isn't claiming simply that a many-worlds understanding of QM leads directly to immortality. He thinks, basically, that whenever we 'die' in one of these universes, 'we' (on some consciousness-focused understanding of what 'we' are supposed to be) just 'branch off' into another one. His real reason for believing this is that he claims to have had far too many experiences in which he 'should have died' and survived only by what seemed to be sheer luck. It's fairly sci-fi, of course, but you mentioned it. Aren't there some influential accounts that derive 'free will' from a realistic interpretation of QM? Or am I misunderstanding what it means to take a realist view?

I don't think anybody really has very good reasons to be an anti-realist in ethics, though there may be plenty of good reasons to reject the view that human life is sufficiently uniform or static to yield a coherent picture of what the specifically human good could be. Yet even if what is good for us is wildly different depending on time, place, and circumstance, there is still an important distinction between understanding those goods to be real goods and understanding them to be ends that we simply value for non-cognitive reasons. I am generally unsatisfied with arguments that purport to derive some metaphysical conclusion from our moral experience, but I do think that our moral experience should at least lead us to reject, or seek grounds for rejecting, any metaphysics that necessarily excludes authentic, rather than merely subjective, human goods. I would say, that is, that our need for some form of moral realism (even if a realistic relativism) gives us a motivation for scientific anti-realism.

There's a lot to read in Aquinas, and I have to admit that I've never made much progress because I always feel like I haven't started in the right place. Where should I begin? Not that I really have time to do a serious reading of Aquinas, of course; I've got the entire corpus of classical Greek literature to read, after all.