Sunday, 7 August 2011

Simon Blackburn's Review of Parfit (II)

I discussed last month Simon Blackburn's review of Parfit in the form that Blackburn released it on his web-site, accompanied as it was by a statement that the Financial Times had apparently decided not to publish it after initially commissioning it. However, the review has now appeared in the Financial Times and can be accessed here (paywall). For those able to access it and compare it with Blackburn's original it is worth the effort of seeing what has happened to it in the meantime. As in the original so in the published form Blackburn disagrees with Parfit's rationalism and supports a form of the Humean sentimentalist theory. The 'support' offered for the latter is now buttressed with wider references to other authorities who agree with Blackburn but, of more concern, is the ease with which Blackburn associates rationalism with 'absolutism' and then having done this condemns it further as part of a 'colonial' or 'imperial' view. Following this habit of guilt by association Blackburn aligns Parfit with Tony Blair in a particularly gross example of distorting the relationship between philosophy and politics. This is surely unworthy of Blackburn and is hardly an apt way to introduce philosophical disputes to a general public. 

Blackburn's defence of the Humean view does now have the grace to include a consideration of Parfit's objectivist understanding of intentionality and provide a case against it so is in this respect an improvement on the version published previously on his web-site. Consideration of thought-experiments, something hardly unique to Parfit is still presented as a weird eccentricity, again something odd in a presentation of a philosophical work for a wide public. The peculiar attack on All Souls that marred the earlier version is at least mercifully missing but this 'review' is still not one that can be said to have seriously shown any respect or serious philosophical regard for a work that some at least have taken to be worth extended engagement and is really a poor form of public engagement for an intellectual of Blackburn's standing.


Anonymous said...

I wont write much, just in case it does not post.

Good work on on the blog, useful information and links to Parfit reviews.

I am a third year undergrad doing my final essay on Parfit's rationalism V constructive naturalism. I think it is here on the meta- ethics section that his theory really starts to go to the wall. I think Kitcher really nails down some of the key criticisms. I would like to see why you think it is a problem that naturalists deny the necessary nature of moral properties.

However I think Mackie with the Queerness argument really hammers Parfit ( thirty years ago!) Parfit's attempt to respond in the chapter The causal objection just restates the problem rather than seriously addresses it.

End of line. ( I will retun, maybe we can communicate later.)

Gary Banham said...

Hi and thanks for your comment, which posted fine. Glad to hear that the blog is being used by undergraduate students.

You're right that the meta-ethics that arises in the context of Parfit's response to naturalism has not been specifically addressed on this blog as yet but see my reply to Kitcher's review of Parfit, also available on this blog.

Why is it a problem that naturalists deny the necessary nature of moral properties? Well, because if moral properties are not necessary but contingently grounded on certain natural properties one of two things follow: a) that these properties can actually be deduced from non-moral properties (naturalistic fallacy) or b) these properties are contingent in their nature and thus conceivably revocable. If the first, you cross the is-ought barrier, if the second it follows that should the conditions change, the nature of what could be morally required would change and thus that there is nothing stable about moral properties. Neither of these consequences sit well with me.

I'll get to the argument between Parfit and Mackie perhaps later. Working through *On What Matters* is slow-going!

Anonymous said...

Cheers for that.

I would respond by answering the problem of is ought. The is ought problem as stated by Hume, only applies to necessary demonstration, as if a moral judgement were like a mathematical demonstration. Naturalists would respond that moral judgements are contigent a Posterori, in the same way Scientifc judgements are. In short, rather than a necessary inference, the inference is abductive. Ie doing so and so will likely result in greater well being etc etc.

Again, if moral judgements or values are contigent, then like with Scientifc theories then can change if new evidence or data forces them to change.

I would ask, why does the possibility of moral revolutions or wholesale revision or just piecemeal change in ethical theories worry yourself and rationalists?

Gary Banham said...

Thanks again for your comment. To be honest this widens the rift between us. Kant doesn't take the ultimate basis of natural laws to be contingent either though their specific formulation in terms of particulars is certainly contingently revisable (this is the relation between the argument concerning laws in CPR with that in CJ).

If the claim is one that touches on specific formulations that is less problematic than if it concerns the general claim that moral laws make as such. If the general claim is not one of universal necessity then the spectre of relativism beckons to the effect that any given practice might after all be alright, such as murder, slaughter of female children, etc There needs to be a way of stating necessary constraints on the possible forms of particular statements as otherwise this form of relativism is one that you are led to.

it support in blackburn said...

I like your post , good keep it up !

Gary Banham said...

Thanks very much!