Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

I Might Be Fundamentally Mistaken

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

I Might Be Fundamentally Mistaken

Article excerpt

QUASI-REALISM ASPIRES TO PRESERVE the intelligibility of the realist-sounding moral judgments of ordinary people. These judgments include ones of the form, "I believe that p, but I might be mistaken," where "p" is moral. The orthodox quasi-realist strategy (developed by Simon Blackburn) is to understand these in terms of the agent's worrying that some improving change would lead them to abandon their belief. (1) However, it is unclear whether this strategy generalizes to cases in which the agent takes their error to be fundamental in a sense articulated by Andy Egan. (2) Egan suggests that Blackburn's approach is the only game in town for the quasi-realist, and that its inability to handle worries about fundamental moral error therefore refutes quasi-realism tout court., and not just Blackburn's version.

Egan's challenge has generated considerable discussion, including an interesting reply by Blackburn, and further discussion by such influential theorists as Derek Parfit and Thomas Scanlon, both of whom endorse versions of Egan's objection as especially telling against expressivism. (3) However, in my view we have not yet gotten to the heart of the matter. As Sebastian Kohler argues, the challenge can be reinstated in the face of Blackburn's reply. (4) What is still needed is a fully general, quasi-realist-friendly theory of the nature of first-person judgments of fallibility, such that these judgments are demonstrably consistent with judging that the belief is stable--where Egan defines "stable" in terms of the belief's being such that no improving change would lead the agent to abandon the belief. In this article, I develop and defend such a theory, and argue that Egan's challenge equivocates at a key point between a "could" and a "would."

1. Fundamental Moral Error: The Initial Challenge

Egan's challenge begins with the idea that remarks of the form, "I believe that p, but I might be mistaken about that" are intelligible. This might not seem obvious, since there is something odd, at least, about voicing your belief that p and indicating doubts about p in the same breath. It can seem as if the speaker is taking back with one hand what he offers with the other. Egan has a useful discussion of this in a footnote (n. 5), in which he distinguishes statements of the form "p, but I might be mistaken" from statements of the form, "I believe that p, but I might be mistaken about that." While the former can seem odd, the latter seem perfectly acceptable and commonplace. He gives the nice example of a passenger checking for oncoming cars telling the driver, "I do not think any cars are coming, but I might be mistaken." Such examples are easily generated. The uncertainty signaled by simply saying one believes that p, rather than flat-out asserting that p, seems to make such remarks entirely unproblematic. The question, therefore, is not whether there is any data to accommodate here, but whether the realist has any advantage over the quasi-realist in accommodating it. (5) To see why this might be an issue we should first take a step back and get clear on how realism and quasirealism differ.

The moral realist characteristically begins with moral metaphysics, offering an account of moral states of affairs and explaining moral judgment in terms of representing these. The quasi-realist begins instead with moral psychology, focusing on their practical/desire-like functional role, and "earns the right" to the realist-sounding things ordinary people say. By appealing to a deflationist theory of truth, the quasi-realist accommodates moral truth. With truth, we have "taking true," which is to say believing. By construing judgments of mind-independence as first order judgments about when something would be wrong, mind-independence is accommodated, and so on. (6)

It is therefore unsurprising that quasi-realists aspire to make sense of fallibility. Blackburn proposes that we understand what someone is up to when they worry about their own fallibility in terms of worrying that they might not live up to their own standards of judgment:

   How can I make sense of my own fears of fallibility? … 
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