Introductory summary by Ted Honderich of Simon Blackburn’s Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture



            Back in the 1950's, there was still the old idea about moral judgements and reasons for them, and talk of right and wrong and moral language generally, that they are a matter of truths -- if somehow intuited truths rather than ones got in plain ways, say by just the meanings of words or the evidence of your eyes. There were also the ideas, with less past, that moral judgements and so on are only a matter of the expressings of emotion or desire, related to Boo! and Hurrah! and Shut the door!, which ideas were subsequently included in what is called expressivism.  In the course of time the first idea of morality as truths, intuited or otherwise, acquired from elsewhere in philosophy the name of being realism. And so the opposed expressivism became anti-realism.


            To this bundle were then added marriages or anyway cohabitations, one of being the formidable work of Professor Simon Blackburn. It was carried forward in the course of his learning in Cambridge and then his teaching in Oxford, the University of North Carolina, and Cambridge. He is also the maker of the best short philosophical dictionary, and has been the editor of the leading philosophical journal Mind, and is a humanist.


            The lecture is original work, if maybe prompted by what it mentions, David Hume's opinion in the 18th Century that our moral carry-on, what he called our sense as distinct from our reason, is or has 'a productive faculty'. This faculty, in 'gilding and staining all natural objects with...colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises in a manner a new creation'. At least part of this seems to be that in thinking about our feelings we are committed to accepting the existence of some sort of fact out in the world, a causal disposition to our feelings, something of which there are truths.


            Blackburn's quasi-realism, like so much else in new philosophy, is such that there is disagreement as to what it does come to or has to come to, not to mention claims that it is inconsistent. It also has adversaries of each of its factual or realist side and its expressive side. In his Royal Institute lecture, he concerns himself with the latter adversaries.


            They are philosophers resistant to the role assigned to emotion, desire and the like -- say attitudes in general. These adversaries depend instead on the role of what they take to be facts in morality expressed by reasons. With morality, for Blackburn, this supposed majesty of reason is denied. Things are a lot more complicated. Slavery is wrong is at least more a matter of what are called movements of the mind rather than facts, despite the facts in the world to which the attitudes are related.


            There are more particular propositions. We are reassured that the given account of reasons has the upshot, denied by some adversaries, that dogs have reasons. There is examination of the relevance of the superior view that an attitude taken as a disposition to do something is not in itself a reason for the thing. There is consideration of the objection that what seems to be the identification of reasons with attitudes faces the fact that we can always open the question of whether an attitude is defensible or the like. There is close examination of the idea that the rationality of means-end reasoning, choosing an effective and not self-defeating means to an end, is separate from the play of attitudes. There is acute examination of a supposed paradox about murdering someone gently.


            I myself have been forcefully reminded by the lecture that of course both attitudes and factual beliefs enter into my carry-on about right and wrong, my actual judgements. Still, are there things that can be called moral truths, anyway one, this being the principle of humanity? It incorporates or rests on fundamental human desires, great goods, our shared human nature. Against this brave tendency about a moral truth, it is clear that quasi-realism is a challenge.


            This kind of fecund uncertainty is a common-enough experience in good lecture halls. Most lectures worth sitting through add questions to your life, questions about the lecture. In this case, as others, get the lecturer's books -- in this case Essays in Quasi-Realism, 1993, and Ruling Passions, 1998, and Being Good, 2003.