Blackburn's Expressivism -- Extending the Humean Tradition
December 24, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in David Hume, Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Sentimentalism, Stuart Mirsky

Writing in Ruling Passions, Simon Blackburn picks up and continues the sentimentalist tradition in ethics made famous by David Hume and which has, since Hume's account, posed a serious challenge to all those seeking to find truth in moral claims, to treat moral beliefs as assertions of knowledge, that is, of fact. The idea that moral judgments are objectively grounded seems to stick with us when we make such judgments but the sentimentalist account, which makes our moral claims about expressing our feelings about things rather than about asserting facts we know about them, runs counter to what seems to be part of the actual practice of moral valuing. Blackburn's book aims to restore a sense of objectivity to moral judgments within the context of an expressivist (or, as he sometimes calls it, projectivist) account.

In a nutshell, he proposes that all moral claims of value can be understood as part of the psychological dimension of our lives in terms of how we interact with others and how we feel in the process of such interactions. For Blackburn, moral judgment is a matter of expressing our desires, preferences and so forth and valuing, he suggests, is just another activity-related mental state like these others. But such states are not discreet things nor are they reducible to any particular behavior or complex of behaviors of the actor. Rather, he suggests, they are elements in a "kind of web or field or force in which no single element has its own self-standing connection with action. Different beliefs and desires (and perhaps other states, such as emotions, attitudes, wishes, fantasies, fears and, of course, values) come together to issue in an action." (p. 52) On his view, then, valuing is just another mental feature like its fellows and not anything apart from them.

Thus, moral judgments are instances of having a particular mindset like our other mindsets associated with the mental state(s) in which we happen to be. As such, he supposes that asserting moral value is about navigating our way between our various mental states with claims about the goodness or badness of some action or thing, or about its rightness or wrongness, being equivalent to claims which express our feelings of the moment concerning current and longer term matters. Yet he wants to preserve the possibility of objectivity here which he does by noting that words like "truth" play more than just the fact-descriptive role we encounter in the sciences and in our daily lives when we talk about the things before us or that we may think about. He argues for a broader paradigm which allows for other uses of the term because calling something true "simply acknowledges that in many areas we signal our own commitments, and our endorsements of those of others, using the word 'true'" (p. 318). He adds that that the idea of knowledge, itself, allows for this because that term's "primary function . . . is to indicate that a judgment is beyond revision" (p.318) and to make moral claims is to assert our commitments based on feelings and inclinations, i.e., our preferences. It is, he adds, to "rule out any chance that an improvement [of one's understanding or sensibility] might occur, that would properly lead to revision of the judgment." (p. 318)

On such a view, the idea of moral belief as a form of objective knowledge, can, he feels, be sustained without doing violence to the core Humean insight which makes moral judgment a function of our feelings. At the end of the book he reports a challenge by Colin McGinn who poses this problem:

Didn't Moore show us that morality "stands above the flux of feelings and desires and tendencies, because you can ask of any of these whether it is morally good"? "Goodness cannot be a mere projection from human sentiment because it is always possible to ask of a given sentiment whether it is really good. Judgments of value are logically independent of the existence of patterns of desire. You cannot deduce an ought from an is -- even at this late stage of the twentieth century."

Blackburn's response pivots on the idea that we always judge our motivations, our feelings, our inclinations according to others of the same qualitative nature. We cannot, on Blackburn's view, step outside our own natures at any given moment nor do we do that elsewhere for we don't ask, says Blackburn, if a perception is an illusion without relying on other perceptions. He thinks we have no call to do so in the case of our moral sentiments either. Nor, he adds, is this to deduce an ought from an is. We judge ought claims, he says, "because of something that is true: because of the shape of our prescriptions and attitudes and stances, because of our desires, and because of our emotional natures." "I make no inference from expressivism to any particular moral conclusion," he adds (p. 319).

So has he got it right? Can we suppose that our moral beliefs are no more than the particular configuration of our feelings, and other states that relate to them, and can this be enough to enable us to believe in the truth or falsity of some moral claims vs. others? Blackburn's first problem, I think, is that his account is overly complex which he would surely consider in his favor since he aspires to describe a way of talking that's grounded in the complex phenomena of our mental lives. Yet that very complexity works against a clear account. Secondly, while his argument that truth and knowledge can be understood in more robust ways, which depart from the traditional strict asertoric paradigm we encounter in science and empirical claims generally, this does not change the fundamental problem that an assertion of a moral judgment on his view is finally subjective in nature. However much we may feel our claims to have objective authority, they cannot have that if they are ultimately grounded in subjective experiences. And this means there is little to no room for adjudicating between conflicting moral claims when they are made under markedly different cultural rubrics.

In the end the moral claimant stands in his or her own cultural milieu and judges others from there. Yet this undermines the idea that moral valuing has a universal sense that transcends personal perspectives. Blackburn argues that reinterpreting what is meant by "universal" along with reinterpreting what we mean by "true" and "knowledge" is enough to buttress our beliefs in the objectivity of what we hold to be the case morally. He argues, in fact, that the very notion of "objective" needs to be understood in this way, too. There is the objectivity, he reminds us, of the courtroom (fairness and being evenhanded) as well as the objectivity of how the world works, and he argues that the former is a more suitable model in the moral case than the latter. Yet, even so, moral claims must finally be seen to stand, on his view, on subjective ground, even if we sometimes have reason to treat such ground as having some degree of authority external to ourselves. But treating is not the same as being.

I suspect that one big problem for Blackburn's account lies in his approach to valuing, itself. To the extent that he thinks of valuing as on a par with our feelings, as just another activity-related mental feature, he is obliged to treat it as sentiment and nothing more. Yet he, himself, runs into trouble midway in the book based on this account when he tells us that, given that, for him, all value claims are expressive of our mental states (such as our desires), we cannot then hope to value mental states because doing so would amount to our attempting to determine which mental state we should take up, e.g., choosing our desires on the basis of whether we desired them or not. It would amount to using the thing as a basis for judging itself.

In this vein he writes of a particular desire to act in a certain way that:

The fact that currently I admire and encourage [the desire for others to act with mutual respect and compassion, etc.] is not independent of my current wants and desires, for we recognize no interesting split between values and desires. p. 275

Yet this runs counter to his ultimate point in his response to McGinn that all moral judgments occur only as an expression of other sentiments we hold. In that case, how can we not suppose that we sometimes value our particular desires though doing so by comparing one desire to some other can't work? Blackburn either wants to have it both ways or hasn't noticed the conflict between a claim that our values have ontological parity with our desires and the fact that we do, at times, make value judgments about our particular desires.

If he were actually right that we don't value our desires because valuing and desiring have this ontological parity, it would leave those cases in which we certainly do place values on desires which we or others may have unaccounted for. We may, for instance, think it a morally objectionable idea to desire to take an injection of heroin everyday or to desire our neighbor's spouse. If desires aren't themselves subject to valuation, as Blackburn maintains midway (but seems to disavow in his response to McGinn), then what is moral valuation finally about?

For desires to be subject to valuation in a fashion that avoids the circularity of construing this as a matter of judging our desires on the basis of whether we desire them or not, then valuing (whatever else it is) does seem to stand, precisely as McGinn asserts, apart, in a logical sense, from mental states like desire. "Judgments of value," writes McGinn, "are logically independent of the existence of patterns of desire" and that is hard to take issue with if we are to also conclude that, contrary to Blackburn's own earlier claim, we do value or disvalue our particular desires in many perfectly standard cases of moral judgment.

And if valuing is logically independent of mental states like desiring, then an account which equates giving and acting on value judgments with a bevy of other activity-related mental states cannot suffice to account for the valuational component in this picture -- in which case valuation cannot assert any judgment over particular desires. In the end, Blackburn's effort, which includes some very good stuff on Adam Smith, Hume, Locke and Kant, fails because it doesn't give us a fully coherent account of how moral valuing can be seen to work in the way we expect it to when we indulge in it. In thinking that valuing is just another mental state, he cannot bootstrap the sentimentalist tradition to the level of objectivity required to support our moral judgments in the way that they require if they are to do the work we set them to do.

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