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.