Thursday, 14 July 2011

Simon Blackburn's Review of Parfit

Simon Blackburn has made available a review he was commissioned to write of Parfit's On What Matters here. There appears to be some back-story with regard to the review since those who commissioned it (the Financial Times) decided on receipt of it not to publish. One can only speculate as to the reasons why this was.

Blackburn's review distinguishes between the first-order normative ethics presented by Parfit and the second-order meta-ethical rationalism defended in the work and concentrates quite a bit of his fire on the latter. The discussion attempted to date on this blog of Parfit's book has likewise concentrated so far on the latter. This has been necessary due to the opening part of Parfit's work being concerned with these meta-ethical questions. So, in my response here to Blackburn, I'll mention mainly the way he discusses Parfit's meta-ethics.

Blackburn follows Parfit in seeing the divide in meta-ethics as one between a form of objectivist rationalism on the one hand and non-cognitivist emotivist views (the "Humean" notion of motivation) on the other. Unlike Parfit, however, Blackburn adopts a favourable stance towards the Humean tradition. What is left out of the reply Blackburn makes to Parfit is any serious reference to the Kantian view, something that is particularly surprising given Parfit's tendency to conflate the Kantian and Humean positions under the heading of "subjective" theories of reasons for action. I have pointed out, in previous postings, that Parfit's replies to the Humean tradition are themselves problematic in various ways despite having some sympathy with Parfit's attempt to move beyond the Humean view of moral motivation.

Blackburn's review, however, in its defence of the Humean picture contrives to make Parfit's attack on it rather attractive. In describing the distinction Parfit makes between "objective" and "subjective" theories of reasons Blackburn fails to mention that the point of it for Parfit is to present a basis for taking intentional reference to only be possible on an "objective" view of reasons. So Blackburn denies that any philosopher has ever said we respond to "facts about objects" when we make decisions about what to do apparently without taking on board at all Parfit's argument here which is that "values" are such objects, a view that, like Blackburn, I have problems with but which should be at least correctly presented, something that it is not when Blackburn suggests that Parfit is simply attacking a straw man. It surely is a cardinal point of the "Humean" theory to deny that "values" are "intentional objects" in Parfit's sense (the sense that they could be part of an "objective list") and so simply saying that in summoning up passions in Hume's sense we are "responding to objects" is a cheap and very silly shot at Parfit.

Similarly, saying that any theory includes "subject-given" and "object-given" elements in its account is again not to respond to the question whether such "object-given" elements are involved in values so indicates a sustained failure to address Parfit's question. When Blackburn argues that Parfit's alternative "rationalist" view is "not much help" as the evaluative terms fit together in a coherent inter-locking way, this seems very odd. If Parfit does show they do indeed have this inter-locking status and that this can be combined with an "objective" understanding of evaluative terms then he presumably has accomplished something important. It may well be that he has failed to accomplish this but if he did achieve it then it surely would be "some help" to have done so.

The final paragraph of Blackburn's review seems oddly ad hominem in its swipe at All Souls, particularly coming, as it does, from a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. It is to be hoped that future reviews of On What Matters will not stoop to such odd attacks and will provide more by way of argument against the book as well as perhaps indicate more to appreciate the achievement it surely represents regardless of one's problems with its accounts.


Jimbo said...

Blackburn says: Philosophers do say funny things, but none that I can call to mind has ever denied that we respond to facts about objects, such as the bull in the field, when we decide what to do.

He's not saying anything about desires being intentional objects.He's talking about horned beefy objects being intentional objects.

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your comment Jimbo. I'm aware Blackburn refers to facts about objects and that he uses the example of the bull in the field. However, the example of the bull in the field is strictly irrelevant since it says nothing about Parfit's claims which turn on desires and reasons for actions. Hence, unless Blackburn addresses Parfit's case concerning the intentional objectivity of desires and reasons for actions he is not replying to Parfit at all. That's why I stated Blackburn's objection in the way I did and then said that it effectively failed to respond to Parfit.