Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Chapter 7 of Joyce's book is called "Fictionalism." It begins like this:
Let us suppose that the main conclusion of the previous chapters is correct: moral discourse consists largely of untrue assertions. Those arguments have primarily targeted deontological notions like obligation and prohibition. (p. 175)
Such notions, Joyce believes, are connected to all normal moral discourse, so that we cannot just get rid of them and carry on with moral discourse as we know it. (This reminds me of the introduction to Tal Brewer's The Retrieval of Ethics, specifically the part where he says that the radical critique of modern moral philosophy presented by Anscombe and MacIntyre has been normalized so that virtue ethics is quite consistent with standard philosophical ideas of how to talk about morality.) "Moral discourse," Joyce writes on p. 177, "is a house of cards, and the card at center bottom has "categorical imperative" written on it." If we use Anscombe's preferred concepts, such as 'unjust,' 'unchaste,' etc., then this doesn't really help, Joyce says, because these concepts include or presuppose the idea that we ought not to be unjust or unchaste or whatever. And these 'oughts' are categorical (says Joyce). He mentions Anscombe's proposal that we jettison the language of categorical imperatives, but does not consider that to be the only option. So he explores fictionalism as another alternative.

What non-moral reason might there be to continue to engage in moral discourse even after we have seen through it? It must be useful. (This is starting to look like a utilitarian defense of talking and thinking like a Kantian. Didn't Hare try something vaguely similar?) The previous discussion of evolution suggests that moral discourse (as Joyce understands it) is useful, and so we might expect him to conclude, as he does, that we should keep using this kind of language.

We should, that is, use it, but not believe it. Indeed, for the most part we should live just as if we do believe it, perhaps even saying (and believing) at times that we believe it, but in reflective moments acknowledging that we know it isn't really right:
what a person believes cannot be simply read off her actions, speech and thought -- rather, the matter is determined by what she will say in a particular kind of context, of which "when doing philosophy" is offered as a familiar setting well towards one end of the continuum. (p. 192)
Which starts to make moral fictionalism seem a little irrelevant. It's something to be ignored more or less all the time except when one is doing philosophy.

It is also important to note that Joyce's fictionalism involves thoughts, just not beliefs (where beliefs are understood as what you defend in a philosophy seminar, not something that informs one's normal behavior). If I engage in the fiction that I am a bear then I will say "I'm a bear" and make what I imagine to be bear noises, rather than "I'm pretending to be a bear. Imagine that I am making bear noises." I might well even think to myself (i.e., roughly, say to myself) that I'm a bear. If I really get into the role perhaps I will believe that I'm a bear. But I won't believe this upon reflection. Similarly, a moral fictionalist will think that slavery is wrong, say that slavery is wrong, act as if slavery is wrong, and possibly sometimes even believe that slavery is wrong. But she will not really believe it.

"Real belief" looks pretty unimportant, but I suppose it matters to philosophers. And one thing that matters in all this is that fictions have to be joint efforts if they are not to be lies. We aren't playing cops and robbers if I'm the only one who knows I'm not a real cop when I tell you you're under arrest. So "there can be no honest 'lone fictionalist'..." (p. 204). So I guess we need to get a group of people to pretend to take morality seriously without doing so immorally. Or something.    


  1. I agree with what you say about "real belief." But the fictionalist angle is one (like Blackburn's quasi-realism) that I have always found unsatisfactory. Maybe I'm just projecting implications onto it that it doesn't really have (e.g. that if slavery isn't "really" wrong, then we should stop believing that it is). But I don't know why one couldn't just say that moral claims aim at and sometimes hit a different kind of truth than "empirical" claims. So that if we say "moral fact" (or truth) we don't mean "fact" as we would in an empirical context. If we say it's a fact that slavery is wrong, then, we mean that there are no good reasons (for anyone who can grasp reasons and who cares about anything, perhaps) to endorse or practice it--or perhaps that there are more than enough good reasons not to do it. Were I to say, "I'm certain that slavery is wrong," I can take myself to mean that its being a bad thing to do is grossly overdetermined by such a set of mutually reinforcing considerations. These reasons are not fictions.

    Of course, if the fiction is the notion of a categorical reason--categorical for all rational beings--then we have to think about what it means to be a rational being. I get that Joyce thinks that being rational doesn't entail having any particular cares. But maybe there's a mistake in this (and so a similar mistake in Kant): either that the relevant class of beings for whom there are categorical reasons is NOT the class of rational beings, or that there's something amiss in this notion of rationality excluding any particular cares. Maybe what we should be less concerned with is the class of all, as it were, "merely rational" beings. Maybe the relevant class is something like rational beings that have some particular concern about their own lives, their continuation, their lives with others, and so forth. (Or we could ask whether it makes sense to dub a being rational that lacks such concerns...)

  2. "Fictionalism" seems to cover a wide array of views, including some that I quite like (ethics belongs in the same realm as literature) and some that seem completely worthless. This makes it hard to say what fictionalism says about slavery, for instance. It might say various things. I guess it will say that slavery isn't really wrong (or that it is not true to say "Slavery is wrong"), but it won't say slavery is all right either. So it doesn't give us any way to behave in relation to slavery, other than the option of employing some kind of fiction about it. Which seems sort of crazy. Slavery obviously causes misery and treats people with disrespect. Why insist on adding that we ought not to behave in such ways? Why insist that these are not reasons to oppose slavery? Joyce might say, "Ah, but what reason does a sadistic sociopath have to oppose slavery?" and I think my answer is that I don't care. We have good reason not to base our beliefs on what such a person would think or do. What about an alien race that feeds on human brains? Again, I don't care. (I mean, I don't care whether they can be said to have a reason not to eat my brain. I do care whether such beings exist.)

    Which brings us to rational beings as such. It might be relevant that no such thing exists. I'm not sure that even a computer could calculate means to ends without having some priorities programmed into it. Certainly all living beings have goals or concerns of some kind. Why couldn't one of ours be to be human? In fact, I think most people do value their humanity. Maybe all moral 'musts' are hypothetical, being of the form "If you want to be a good father then you must ..." or "If you want to be a decent human being then you must ..." or "If you want to be a good daughter then you must ..." and so on. Or maybe that's not true. But the idea that all morality rests on categorical imperatives seems false to me. So does the insistence on using only a narrow, Humean conception of what it means to be rational. And it's just this kind of insistence (even when he adds that he isn't insisting very insistently, that he takes himself merely to have shown that his position is plausible) that gets Joyce into what often appears to be a very unfortunate position.