Thursday, July 14, 2011

Debunking myths

Finally, the epilogue to The Myth of Morality. It begins with an interesting account of Bronislaw Malinowski's tripartite classification of narratives. The first class, folk tales, are "not believed for a moment" (p. 232). The second class, historical legends, are taken to be true, even if they are acknowledged to contain some embellishment and exaggeration. The third class is myths, and these are taken by their believers to be true in a higher sense. Being sacred they are certainly true, but they are not at all true in the ordinary, down-to-earth sense.

Joyce doubts whether myths like this should be counted as items of belief. Instead, he suggests, they are (more like) practices (see p. 236). Here, I think, he is closer to Wittgenstein than he is for most of the book. In the penultimate paragraph of the book he writes:
When appealing to myths is a well-defined practice -- as in the Trobriand lili'u, for example [Malinowski's example of narratives of the third class] -- then all participants are aware that they are "special" ("sacred," is Malinowski's preferred term. All parties know that the telling of a lili'u is a serious and distinct kind of appeal, and they are not likely to mistake it for the telling of a fairy tale or for the communication of "ordinary" information. But if a culture diversifies and fragments, or mis-comprehends its own traditions, or for whatever reasons impoverishes its own categories of assent to the extent that the only recognized kind of important positive attitude is belief, then this understanding may be lost. Fictionalism is predicated on the assumption that encouraging a habit of false belief has inevitable deleterious consequences. Its fragility is that a fiction that is presented as being of central practical weight, as something demanding allegiance, is likely to be read by the careless as something demanding belief. (p. 240)
Shades of MacIntyre here. I wonder how much our culture is in the kind of mess suggested here and, if so, how much philosophers are to blame. But I wonder also why Joyce excludes myths from the class of things that can genuinely be believed or, put another way, why he takes such a narrow view of belief. Surely some religious belief lies, as it were, between what he would count as belief and the attitude that Malinowski describes toward myths. That is, some believers in the Day of Judgment insist that they believe this in the ordinary way that I believe that the sun will go down this evening, but others regard that as a misunderstanding (perhaps even a sinful one) of such matters. Of these others, some might say that their beliefs are very much like Malinowski's myths, but others will insist that that too is a mis-characterization. And I think one could say the same, more or less, about ethical judgments. Wittgenstein's distinction in the Lecture on Ethics between relative value (value in the ordinary, down-to-earth sense) and absolute value (value of an ultimately mysterious, other kind) would be accepted by many people, I think. But absolute value is not a myth in the way that an atheist's talk of hell might be. For instance, a non-religious person, i.e. someone who freely accepts that they do not really believe in hell, the sacred, etc., might still find that they want to refer to hell, the sacred, and so on in order to express their beliefs. (Ronald Dworkin talks about the sacred in Life's Dominion, e.g., as does Morrissey in "Suffer Little Children," and I don't think either one of them is religious.) Such people might say that their words are not true in the ordinary sense but do express a higher truth, or something of the sort. This would be at least close to using words in what Wittgenstein calls a secondary sense.

If I say that murder is absolutely wrong, or a non-fundamentalist religious believer says that the Day of Judgment will come, is this the same kind of thing? It seems like a bad idea to lump these two things (ethics and religion) together, and obvious that a believer's use of religious language is not the same as a non-believer's. But it might also be helpful to see some similarities. Ethics and religion are surely pretty well entangled for the believer. And seeing both as lying somewhere between ordinary truth and myth (to each of which, after all, they are connected, I think) might help us avoid an overly literalistic understanding (which might make ethics seem to be mere nonsense) or an overly fictionalist one. 

Reading back over that I think I know what I mean, but suspect it might be all a little too obscure for anyone else. Maybe some examples will help. Let's say I am outraged by someone's behavior and find that the best way I can find to express my attitude is to scream "You will burn in hell for this!" at them. If I am, say, a Christian, then I might well mean this literally (what this means will vary among Christians, but never mind that for now). If I am not a Christian then I certainly won't mean it literally. I might be able to find (or be given) some other form of words that say what I mean just as well, or even better, in which case my reference to hell will have been merely metaphorical. But if no other words will capture my meaning (and I don't mean them literally), then I have used them in a secondary sense which, though not metaphorical, is related to literary uses of language and hence to fiction, myth, "higher" truth, etc. (For more on the concept of secondary sense see MKR's helpful comments here).     

If I am in that position, the position of having no language but that of a religion to which I do not subscribe, then clearly my beliefs and/or attitudes are connected to that religion (whether I like it or not). This hardly means that Christianity is reducible to questions of attitude and language, but it does show that it is related to such questions, perhaps importantly so. It is also connected, of course, to various historical ("ordinary") facts, but this does not show that it is reducible to that kind of thing either. But I'm trying to talk about ethics rather than religion.

What about "slavery is wrong," "genocide is wrong," or "murder is wrong"? Each of these sentences sounds trivially true and hopelessly inadequate to the truth and so inadequate as to be (if only very slightly) funny. They are (at least somewhat) like "eating people is wrong," which (as the title of this novel) is an actual joke. Of course they wouldn't be equally funny in all contexts. Bewildered and despairing at an actual act of genocide, saying "Genocide is ... wrong!" would not be funny at all. But neither would it hit the nail on the head. It is an inarticulate sentence. (Of course inarticulacy is entirely understandable in some situations, and might communicate your emotion or attitude very well. But showing that you are upset by being inarticulate is not saying that you are upset.) Thankfully (is that the word?) there is a lot more that we can say about the evils of genocide, slavery, and murder than this. Some of this might involve secondary uses of language, but much of it need not. So I don't think we need to regard moral discourse as a kind of fiction or pretense (or mistake).

Another thing to say about such evils is that for most of us they are unthinkable in a pretty literal way. They are not options we are capable of taking seriously (which is surely related to the comic aspect of "Eating people is wrong," etc.). And this is not a truth about the words we use but about thoughts that we don't have. Part -- not all -- of the horror of such things is the discovery that we live among beings for whom such things are thinkable. (Hume sort of suggests that this horror is moral disapproval, the feeling we get when we wonder what kind of person could do such a thing. But moral disapproval is a judgment, not a feeling.) This negative and psychological aspect of moral discourse is something that Joyce does not really address. But what we don't say, and why, seems important to me.


  1. So here's a question for the fictionalist: supposing fictionalism is the right metaethical analysis, then what? What are the criteria for separating good fiction from bad fiction, insight from sentimentality, and so forth? It seems like those are the important questions. And if metaethics (let's pretend) doesn't affect first-order moral theorizing, then aren't we back to talking about reasons, etc., and using the language of categorical reasons when that helps make the particular point we want to make? Or is fictionalism supposed to help us see that merely asserting categorical claims isn't enough--that we need, as it were, a story to tell? (Didn't we know that all along?)

    I guess I shouldn't beat up on metaethics too much. Telling stories about what we might be doing (versus what we think we are doing) when we tell stories surely can be valuable in some contexts. But as we've already discussed, the story Joyce tells seems, from your telling of it, to oversimplify the complexity of actual "folk" moral discourse. The whole thing might seem better pitched as just against a certain kind of moral discourse that shows up in various places, but is not the exclusive form of discourse of any actual, discernible folk.

  2. I think Joyce's answer to your "then what?" question is: business as usual. He doesn't discuss what you identify as the important questions. He's really only concerned with meta-ethics, which belongs not only to unusually reflective moments but to our most reflective moments. For instance, if you have to think about questions in applied ethics as part of your work on a hospital's ethics panel then, he says, you should think and act just as if you believed in morality the same way everyone else does. It's pretty much only when you do meta-ethics that you admit (to yourself and others) that you are a fictionalist.

    And, yes, I think he does oversimplify moral discourse. It isn't really discourse at all, as you have brought out. It's just (as he understands it) making judgments plus various other things that have making judgments at their heart or foundation. He deliberately chooses extreme examples and then takes these to be representative of what is always there at the heart (or bottom) of our moral thinking. I think he might be half right to do so (paradigms of good and evil are important), but not more than that.

  3. Jussi Suikannen posted a comment on Leiter about Blackburn's review of Parfit's big book that might have some bearing on this:

    "People come to do metaethics from very different backgrounds. Some, like Parfit, come from applied and normative ethics. They are often motivated by finding solid foundations for their moral views - fighting the sceptic and the nihilist. Others, like Blackburn, come to metaethics from philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and metaphysics perspective. They seek to understand normative talk and thought as part of language, thought, and the world more generally. Given how different motivations these sides have and how different literatures they are mainly immersed and brought up in, it's no wonder that communication and understanding each others' views seems to break down in places. I think this might explain some of the frustrations."

    On the other hand, it seems weird to say that we should only think about fictionalism in our most reflective moments. Why then? I can imagine fictionalism having some kind of normative impact--e.g. hey, I shouldn't be too hard on people who have a different plausible-sounding story than I do, or something like that. But maybe Joyce would say those insights would come at a purely normative level of reflection about epistemic difficulties or something like that. I'm not so sure that you can say fictionalism has no practical thrust, and if it doesn't, then what's it's "cash value"? (See, there's that pragmatist again...)

  4. Yes, the cash value seems to be close to zero. Although I think he might say something like this: it doesn't take much reflection to realize that ordinary moral claims are not true. A void threatens. But riding to the rescue comes moral fictionalism! As long as we all think it through and understand it well enough, we can go back to behaving and thinking and judging just as we did before, but now without this threat.

    There would be some sense to that idea, but I still don't buy it.

    As for the frustration and disagreement, I'm sure there is something to what Suikannen says. Joyce's approach might well be the kind associated with Blackburn in that quote more than the Parfit kind, which is probably closer to mine.