Monday, April 25, 2011


I should probably know more about fictionalism than I do, and that might remove my problems, but I have found myself thinking about Jean Kazez's comments on the subject several times since I read them. She writes:
I've been reading Richard Joyce's book The Myth of Morality, which is certainly interesting and very well written.  The main idea is that moral claims are all untrue--morality is a myth.  "Torturing babies is wrong" is not true, and "Torturing babies is right" isn't true either.  But no, we shouldn't banish all these sentences alike to the flames.   Morality is a myth we should hang on to.  Presumably we should hang on to the first sentence, not the second.  Joyce thinks we should continue to make believe it's true.

As I was reading this, I was struck by the fact that I am a fictionalist about some things, though not (or at least not yet) about morality. To wit, I am a religious fictionalist.  I don't just banish all religious sentences to the flames. I make believe some of them are true, and I think that's all to the good.
Let's start with the part about (what Kazez says Joyce says about) morality. If morality is a myth, aren't all moral claims false?  I'm not sure what to make of the idea that something can be untrue but not false. Especially since it is supposedly something we can make believe is true, so that it can't be nonsense either. I wonder why we should pretend that torturing babies is wrong if it isn't really? I guess I should just read the book or shut up about it.

But then there's the religion part.  What Kazez says about religious fictionalism sounds fine to me. She likes to keep Jewish traditions alive by telling the old stories every year, eating matzo, etc. "The important thing is that we keep telling the story." I don't know how future generations will feel about telling stories that no one they knew ever believed, but it works with the Tooth Fairy and Santa, so I don't see why it shouldn't. Turning to 
the subject of Christianity, she asks:

Could you find value in the story, and the yearly retelling of it, yet think at least the supernatural aspects are untrue?
I should think so.  That's seem to be what's happening in countries like Denmark, where most people don't embrace the tenets of Christianity, but still belong to the Lutheran church.  What are they doing, when they go to church for baptisms, weddings, confirmations, and funerals, but pretending there is a deity to sanctify these events?  Apparently they prefer this sort of "make believe" approach to complete rejection of religion (see here).  
This both reminds me of Britain and sounds not quite right to me. It reminds me of Britain because my sense is that when the Bishop of Durham got himself in trouble for denying that miracles like the virgin birth literally happened (if that is what he said) he took himself to be doing nothing more than saying in public what most of the clergy and sophisticated lay people in Britain agreed in private. I think that the views of people like D. Z. Phillips and Don Cupitt have been influential in Britain, which is not to say that they have been universally adopted, by any means. And while they might reject "the supernatural aspects" of religion, I doubt they would call their approach to religion "make believe."

Kazez links to this article in the New York Times about what the American sociologist Phil Zuckerman found when he interviewed Danes and Swedes about religion:
Beyond reticence, Mr. Zuckerman found what he terms “benign indifference” and even “utter obliviousness.” The key word in his description of their benign indifference is “nice.” Religion, in their view, is “nice.” Jesus “was a nice man who taught some nice things.” The Bible “is full of nice stories and good morals, isn’t it?”
Beyond niceness came utter obliviousness.
Thoughtful, well-educated Danes and Swedes reacted to Mr. Zuckerman’s basic questions about God, Jesus, death and so on as completely novel. “I really have never thought about that,” one of his interviewees answered, adding, “It’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about.”
Obliviousness is not pretense, it seems to me. It's in some ways closer to genuine faith. At least Wittgenstein appears to have thought that Mormons must simply not ask certain questions, and that this was a key to their faith. Zuckerman's interviewees seem also not to have asked certain questions. There might be questions that  a trained historian or scientist might ask that Mormons typically don't, and this Times article suggests that Scandinavians typically don't pursue the lines of inquiry that fundamentalist Christians do. Maybe 'faith' is the wrong word, but I'm pretty sure that 'pretense' isn't right either. It's more a kind of confidence in one's way of living, so that one simply does not think to ask certain questions that might appear to others to be fundamental. Perhaps it simply is not having that fundamentalist or literalist mindset.

Well, if in doubt, end with a quote.  Here's a great one from the Times piece:
“In Denmark,” a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”
If only everyone, religious and non-religious, felt that way. Or at least I wonder (living in the Bible belt) whether things would be better in such a world.


  1. I haven't read Joyce either, but if the upshot is that none of the claims about torture are true, then maybe that just means that truth isn't the right frame (which I'm sure is, in some sense, Joyce's point). But I don't know that "myth" is the right frame either. Or "make believe" for that matter. Like some realists, I'm sometimes attracted to mathematical analogies--that moral claims are like axioms, but then that raises all the usual questions about what makes them self-evident. That they are part of our "form of life" may seem like a cheap answer, and I don't find appeals to "intuition" helpful (pace a friend who's a committed intuitionist). But they certainly aren't "facts" in the empirical sense. But if fictions are, say, "untrue" (or hypothetical, or imagined) versions of facts, then I don't think moral claims can be fictions either. A fiction is something that could be true (in another possible world or something like that). It might be said that fictions can portray "truths" (about human nature, or particular types of characters, or ages), but this starts to look like a very different sense of truth (or so it seems to me). And maybe that's the kind of "truth" moral claims are after. But then it seems better to say that morality is like fiction, not that it is a fiction. In works of both types, we are looking for something like "insight." The similarity is not that both are untrue, but rather that they are concerned with something besides "mere" facts. (Given this, I guess the interesting thing to look at is what kind of account Joyce gives as to which "fictions" we should keep, and which should be abandoned or rejected...I guess I'll have to read it now...)

  2. Right, moral truths (if I can call them that) are not facts in the empirical sense. And I don't see that anything is to be gained from making believe that they are (not that anyone is necessarily suggesting this). Two things occur to me about this. The first is that Wittgenstein argues (or can be read as arguing) that moral judgments are like fiction in what appears to be the relevant sense (not true in the empirical way, not simply false, and not nonsense either). This seems so much better than talk of fictionalism that I wonder why fictionalism seems to be a respectable position in meta-ethics when Wittgensteinianism hardly seems to be recognized as a position at all. (But I might be way off about what is recognized, respected, etc.). The second is that maybe it is a mistake to think that there is a class of moral judgments at all. Evaluation might be an aspect of everything we do and say, rather than a subset of things we say/think/write. Either way, Joyce sounds wrong. But I should emphasize 'sounds' given that I haven't read his book.

  3. [Crap. I just lost a comment. Second try.] I looked at Joyce's TOC and the NDPR review. It looks like standard errory-theory for the most part. What you say about the mistake of thinking "that there is a class of moral judgments at all" seems right. (Cf. Alice Crary's Beyond Moral Judgment.)

    I think Wittgensteinian approaches aren't acknowledged in the "metaethical mainstream" because (a) W's claim to being a moral philosopher, or relevant, is slim--there's just the "Lecture on Ethics" (so the story goes) and the cryptic comments in the Tractatus (and it's easy to--mistakenly--assimilate his views to positivism and thereby emotivism a la Ayer); (b) the approach seems positively destructive to the "givens" that structure "mainstream" metaethical debates (of the PEA Soup type), and so it's easier to ignore it than to commit one's whole framework to the flames. (These are sociological speculations, not good arguments, of course.)

    (Maybe my forthcoming article on W in Inquiry, and you Phil Topics paper will spur the needed revolution...we can dream, right?)

    Word verification: bring (as in, the Wittgensteinians should "bring it"...)

  4. Sorry about your lost comment. That always drives me mad. It's usually the best ones, or longest anyway, that get eaten.

    Anyway, yes. I was thinking of Crary and Diamond when I made that comment. What you say about attitudes toward Wittgenstein sounds right too, although I don't trust my understanding of the PEA Soup arena enough to say much about it. And we can dream. My resolve might evaporate, but right now I'm feeling certain that I will try to write something about Joyce. At least I think I ought to do so.

    On amazon you can search inside Joyce's book and he discusses Wittgenstein a little. In fact, I suspect that he has got enough from Wittgenstein to be half right, but not enough to avoid what looks like fatal error. And if that isn't the kind of situation where Wittgensteinians should step in and provide the necessary correction then I don't know what is.

  5. (Here's one sample of those comments it would have taken me longer to draft in my head and write down than for you to write your next blog post. If you find it interesting enough for me to take the trouble, I can write more.)


    The main idea is that moral claims are all untrue--morality is a myth. "Torturing babies is wrong" is not true, and "Torturing babies is right" isn't true either.

    Whatever else can be said about this, it certainly plays fast and loose with conceptions of logical truth that are accepted practically universally. In logic, if something is not true, its negation is. If "Torturing babies is wrong" is not true, then "Torturing babies is right" (or at least "Torturing babies is not wrong") is true, and it's true precisely because "Torturing babies is wrong" isn't.


    I don't think one can run together Cupitt, Phillips, and the oblivious Danes and Swedes. Phillips reviewed at least two of Cupitt's books, Life Lines and Is Nothing Sacred?, and distinguished his own philosophical project from Cupitt's quite sharply. Already in 1970, Phillips reviewed Renford Bambrough's Reason, Truth and God, which is one of the classic early statements of fictionalism in analytic philosophy of religion, and was distinctly unimpressed by that as well.

    I can't find the passage now, and I don't recall the exact wording, but I remember that in one of his last publications (perhaps here or here) Phillips briefly mentioned current Scandinavian secularization. And it was clear from the context that he wasn't welcoming it; that he viewed it more as the continuation of the "monstrous illusion" (Kierkegaard's famous term for considering oneself a Christian when one isn't) that already struck religious observers about the much less secularized Denmark of Kierkegaard's day.

    To you, "a kind of confidence in one's way of living, so that one simply does not think to ask certain questions that might appear to others to be fundamental" is praise, but to Phillips, it wouldn't have been, if the "confidence in one's way of living" prevents one from seeing the point of - and acknowledging the right to exist of - other ways of living and others' equally strong confidence in them. And speaking as one whose own culture shares the way of living described by Zuckerman, I think it does prevent this, enough anyhow for this objection to be relevant.


  6. The situation here in Finland is indeed much the same as in Denmark and Sweden; I read Zuckerman's book when it came out, and was bemused by the outsider's fascinated anthropological description of the "exotic" culture into which I was born and in which I live from day to day. When my mother died last year, my sister phoned me and said that mother was with her brothers and sisters now. It struck me as a nice illustration of Zuckerman that this was not a metaphysical claim, much less a quasi-empirical claim such as are found in realist philosophy of religion, and that this went entirely without saying. It was simply what one says in a culture such as this one when one's mother dies.

    Later at the funeral, I kept hoping that the priest wouldn't say anything on which a non-metaphysical gloss would be more strained than a metaphysical one - and my wish was granted. (I felt ready to break out moaning, but was spared the necessity. The possibility pained me as much as the fact of my mother's death, and I'm not belittling the latter when I put it this way.) The priest was one of those nice Lutheran priests, with nice things to say in a nice way, and that was that.

    I myself am glad that the "monstrous illusion" has become ever more widespread. But here I'm speaking as a private citizen airing his personal value judgements, not as a philosopher of religion, and especially not as a Wittgensteinian philosopher of religion. I think Phillips's "cool" and "contemplative" conception of philosophy is excellent as an ideal, and the reading of Wittgenstein from which it is derived is certainly historically correct. But it's simply not an ideal anyone can ever live up to 100 per cent. One inevitably ends up smuggling one's own value judgements through the back door when trying to give contemplative Wittgensteinian descriptions.

    Phillips, for instance, repeatedly offered a certain sociological explanation, itself intended to be "contemplative" in his terms, for the unpopularity of Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy in academe. This explanation was in terms of a certain description of contemporary Western culture in terms of cultural pessimism. But if philosophy "leaves everything as it is" (PI §124), merely contemplating competing values and ideals coolly from a distance, then it must also leave the clash between cultural optimism and cultural pessimism as it is, instead of declaring in favour of cultural pessimism. When Phillips turns to cultural phenomena that were uncongenial to him as a private person, the imagery of decline and decay is never far away. And the very fact that it's so clear from the context that they were uncongenial to him as a private person is somehow inadvertently revealing. To even call something "decline" is already to acquiesce in one competing value judgement and reject others.

    I'm not saying this to put down Phillips; I didn't know him and never met him. From what I've heard (not from you, Duncan - you've never shared your experiences of studying with him much), I perhaps wouldn't even have got along with him as a person. But I do appreciate his work, and feel that his recurrent complaints about never having had good value for his money (or even a good run for same) were justified. I nevertheless think that the contemplative conception of philosophy is best seen as a programmatic ideal, not as something one either represents or fails to represent; because we all will sooner or later fail to represent it in some contexts and in some situations, despite our best honest intentions. There are brief moments in several of Phillips's texts that show how he was himself aware of this; but it was not constantly in the forefront of his thought in the way I think it should have been.