In a recent response to a question, Michael Lacewing writes: "Blackburn’s quasi-realism argues that ethical language is rather more complex than either emotivist theory claims [Ayer's and Stevenson's]. First, ethical language does express propositions, such as ‘what she did was courageous’ or ‘his remark was unkind’ as well as ‘murder is wrong’. The predicates ‘was courageous’, ‘was unkind’, ‘is wrong’, attribute a property to something (what she did, his remark, murder). However, second, these predicates aren’t genuine descriptions of what she did, etc. but ‘projections’ of our evaluations. In using ethical language, we don’t speak of and think in terms our personal evaluations, but in terms of the properties of things in the world. We treat our evaluative commitments (to courage, to kindness etc.) as though they were judgments about how the world is. This is enormously useful, because it is much easier to coordinate our attitudes with other people if we think in terms of an intersubjective world of moral properties. Third, this isn’t simply a mistake or illusion. Quasi-realism argues that we can meaningfully talk of moral judgments being true or false." My questions: does the desire to separate our evaluations from descriptions attributing (evaluate) predicates to people and actions in the world really make sense, especially if it seems that distinguishing them, as most people don't, would not be "useful."? Does the notion of subjective projections onto I guess the flat screen of reality make sense - at least without assuming some metaphysical fact/value dichotomy? What is wrong with thinking that 'what she did was courageous' is both a fact about what she did and an expression of admiration for that fact? Thanks for your time.

Your questions show that you really understand the debate here well, because they probe very deep into the motivation for quasi-realism. So to attempt a rather tentative answer, one that may help with all three questions.

Blackburn starts from the claim that ‘Ethics is about how we live in the world… The practical role of ethics is what defines it. This is what ethics is for. If there is such a thing as ethical knowledge, it is matter of knowing how to act… more than knowing that anything is the case.’ (Ruling Passions, p. 1) This is intended as conceptual analysis. If this is right, then ethics is shown in our responses to the world. These responses arise as a result of how we represent the world. We recognise something distinctive about the situation we are in, and we respond with some attitude or emotion or behaviour. Our ‘ethical sensibility’ connects the input and the output.

Very often, we describe the situation in value-laden terms. So it may seem that the input includes values. But Blackburn argues that when we reflect further, we can understand the input in value-neutral terms. Indeed, we must do this in order to reflect on whether the value is one that we accept and endorse. Thus, so far, rather than assuming a distinction between fact and value, we may defend such a distinction by appealing to what ethics is and by appealing to the possibility of critical reflection in ethics.

Many philosophers, including Blackburn, have argued that this understanding of the world is appealing because it makes fewer assumptions about the nature of the world and our access to it. We can be sure (or more sure!) of the existence of natural properties; whether values exist as part of the ‘world’ is contentious. Occam’s razor is the principle that we should not postulate the existence of entities unless they are needed to explain our experience. Unless there is something that the existence of values can explain that quasi-realism, and the distinction between facts and values, cannot, we should not accept that values exist (independent of our evaluations). Second, if values did exist, we would need to know how they come to be part of the ‘input’. We have well-established empirical theories about what we detect features of the situations we are in; but if values formed part of those features, is there a plausible story we could tell about how we come to discover them? Furthermore, because ethics is practical, we have some difficulty in saying how practical matters – knowing what to do – can be settled by factual ones – knowing what is the case: “we have no conception of a ‘truth condition’ or fact of which mere apprehension by itself determines practical issues” (Ruling Passions, 70).

(Quasi-realism claims that this type of discussion about ethics is not itself an ethical discussion. It is an investigation into human psychology and practice. It should fall, therefore, under theories of human nature. Blackburn is happy to defend ‘naturalism’ in this context, where that commits us to the existence of nothing more than what the natural sciences reveal.)

What is wrong, therefore, with saying that ‘what she did was courageous’ both states a fact and expresses admiration for her action is that it introduces an unnecessarily complicated loop into the theory. Quasi-realism claims that some (natural) features of her act are recognised by and responded to by people with specific emotional dispositions who then express their attitude. This is (supposedly!) a fully sufficient account of what happens. There is no need to say that some natural features of her act are the basis for her act having the value of being courageous, which value is then perceived by people (or virtuous people), who then describe the act in terms of the value it has while also expressing their admiration of it.

In all this, Blackburn is trying to show that to be cognitivist, you need to do more work to motivate your theory, to show what quasi-realism can’t explain or how it fails to understand ethical practices.

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