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Entries in David Hume (2)


Blackburn's Expressivism -- Extending the Humean Tradition

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 . . .

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Wittgenstein's Error

The early Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus made waves in the twentieth century between the world wars, considered ethics beyond the reach of philosophical inquiry because its propositions, he held, lacked content. In Tractatus 6.42 he said “. . . there can be no ethical propositions” and followed, at 6.421, with:

. . . ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics are transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one.)

In this (aside from the invocation of the “transcendental”!) he was fully in line with the tradition in Empiricist philosophy, since Hume, that ethical propositions do not express objectively discernible claims about things in the world but serve, rather, to express our feelings about such things. And feelings about things can be neither true nor false themselves, neither right nor wrong. They just are particular states in which we happen to find ourselves. Whatever we take to be the case about the world, as we find it, cannot imply anything about how we ought to feel about it. . . .

. . . On this Humean view we can neither be blamed nor condemned for what we feel, and what we feel can neither imply anything factual about the world nor itself be taken to be implied by the way the facts present themselves to us since we may react in any number of ways to the phenomena of the world. . . . But in that case we cannot be praised or blamed for being such creatures since we are not what we are by our own choice and ethics is, finally, about judging our options, the choices we make. . . .

Wittgenstein, whose early philosophy was much influenced by this post-Humean empiricism, as expressed in the work of the early analytic philosophers at Cambridge led by Bertrand Russell, came to think a little differently however. As he goes on to say immediately after at 6.422 in the Tractatus:

The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form “thou shalt . . . ” is: And what if I do not do it. But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least these consequences will not be events. For there must be something right in that formulation of the question. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself. (And this is clear also that the reward must be something acceptable, and the punishment something unacceptable.)

Immediately following, at 6.423, he adds:

Of the will as the bearer of the ethical we cannot speak. And the will as a phenomenon is only of interest to psychology.

Then, at 6.43:

If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language.

Wittgenstein moves here toward an account of ethical valuing which, while not rejecting the Humean analysis, endeavors to find a place for ethical concerns despite their exclusion from the realm of meaningful content. As he later suggested with regard to the Tractatus, its thrust, on his view, was not so much to show how ethical matters are excluded from our areas of concern but to show how ethics occupies a different, albeit still legitimate, position in our world. But he is not transparent about this in that work. At 6.52 he writes . . .

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