Self, Meaning, and the World

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To have one’s cake and to eat it is good, if you can manage it. Hume and his contemporary ideological descendants, such as Simon Blackburn, maintain that there is something right about the Protagorean dictum that man is the measure of all things (Blackburn, 1993). What is right with the dictum is that the domain of the moral is not an abstract domain divorced from human interests, values, and concerns. It is also right, they maintain, that the moral is not especially about the commands of God or human-independent, irreducibly moral properties that we, somehow, manage to discern. Thus, they also take it to be correct that all moral judgements are analogous to judgements of taste and preference. What is wrong is the interpretation of the dictum that makes individual people the respective measurers of moral qualities. Correcting this last component is supposed to permit Humeans to avoid the following consequences of Protagoreanism: (1) being right in one’s own eyes and being right come to the same thing, (2) there is no prospect of being wrong about such matters, and (3) there is no prospect for genuine disagreement where one party is correct and the other incorrect.

The default positions for most is that in matters of morals, thinking it so and it’s being so are not equivalent. One can be wrong and others can be right and vice versa. The projectivist seeks to reclaim this portion of our thinking about the moral by preserving the Protagorean dictum, but by interpreting Protagoras’s ‘man’ to mean the human race, or at least something more like that. Doing so promises to make it possible for one both to judge that an action is just and yet to be mistaken in that judgement.

In early portions of the 20th Century, many philosophical problems were framed in terms of meaning. The meaning of ‘just’ would have been the subject of philosophical scrutiny. Were the projectivist committed to this construal of the problem, the projectivist programme would fail almost immediately. To say that an action, A, is just does not mean that the human race finds it to be just or that members of the race do, or that the educated members do, or that the wise members do, or anything of the sort. That is just not what ‘just’ means. Philosophical issues do not need to be framed in terms of meaning, however. The “linguistic turn” as it was known, was not quite all that its proponents had thought. What we should be more concerned with is what it is to be just. We may permit a mismatch between the meaning of a term and what it is to be the kind of thing to which the term applies, a just law, a just ruler, or a just judgement.

For a simple, well-known example from science, transport yourself to a time prior to any usefully detailed atomic chemistry. Perhaps, consult the Oxford English Dictionary for the meaning of ‘water’ in, say, 1500. Many things might be in that dictionary entry. Water is a colorless, odorless, transparent liquid found in oceans, seas, lakes, ponds, rivers, springs, and wells. It is necessary for human survival, covers 70% of Earth’s surface, is a solvent for salt, for sugar, and much, much more. What that dictionary entry for ‘water’ will not contain, however, is that water is of H2O. With our current knowledge of chemical constitution, we might well think that it is and always was true that water is composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. We might also think that Earth’s orbit might have been sufficiently different that it never became a watery planet and, thus, so many of the components of the dictionary entry for ‘water’ would not have applied to water. We might also think that we can now see that having the chemical composition that it does is of the essence of water. There might have been no water in the basin of Lake Superior, but water could not have failed to be H2O. So, what composes part of the meaning of a term may be inessential to what the term labels and what is essential to the labelled may be omitted from the meaning of the label.

Projectivists, thus, rightly take advantage of this difference between meaning and facts of being. ‘Just’ may not mean the things to which we have the right sorts of attitudes of approval, for instance. Nevertheless, to be just is, according to projectivists, to be the things that we respond to in certain ways. In so responding to them, we project something of ourselves onto the world and in so projecting we take the justness of an action to be worldly in a way that it is not. We take it to be a characteristic of an action or an institution when, in fact, what is distinctive about why we judge something to be just or unjust are our responses to it and not the way that it is in itself. There is nothing intrinsically just or unjust about it; it is our responding to it as we do—it is our measuring it as we do—that makes it so.

One advantage of the projectivist project is that it seems to permit a solution to the problem of moral knowledge that other views do not promise. If moral qualities are inherent in some things, then how exactly do they relate to other qualities and how do we come to know about those moral qualities? They do not seem to be observable, as do some others. We can see that snow is white or that grass is green. We can observe the orbits of the planets and the breaking of ocean waves. We do not observe that one institution is more just than another or that someone is more virtuous than another. We do judge them to be so, but we do not observe them to be so. Moral properties seem to be “queer” in a way that the properties that the natural sciences traffic in are not. If the basis of or moral judgements ultimately derives from our responses to or attitudes about things, then at least the basis for the judgement is both rooted in scientifically respectable qualities of agents and is internal to us. The problems of both moral knowledge and moral motivation are thereby dimished.[2]

By shifting the meaning of ‘man’ in the Protagorean slogan, do projectivists obtain all that they want? My characterisation of the Humean shift in the Protagorean programme was imprecise. I said only that the shift was in moving the meaning of ‘man’ from each individual to the human race. ‘The human race’, though, hides a tacit quantifier. If we take ‘the human race’ to mean each and every human, then one virtue is secured, but another lost. If moral relativism is to be avoided while morals are a matter of human measuring, then there is no relativism if we all judge the same way on a particular matter. There is no “true for me” that differs from the “true for you”, since if we all judge alike on that matter, what is “true for me” is the same as what is “true for you”. If this obtains for the domain of the morals, then there is no moral relativism. If it is merely possible that judgements differ, then one is not thereby committed to moral relativism. Morals are not relative, even if they could be. Were the projectivist to uncover features of humans that are both so deep that they are essential to being human and inextricably linked with our attitudes, judgements, and projections, then relativism is not only false, but necessarily false because no one could be human and fail to possess the relevant attitudes, to make the relevant judgements, and to make the relevant projections.[3]

This specific way of avoiding relativism is at the perfectly obvious cost of moral disagreement, though. There is none, if there is uniformity of attitudes and judgement. The sophisticated Humean must contemplate a different interpretation of ‘man’ in the Protagorean dictum, if the ordinary facts of moral disagreement are to be accommodated. Suppose, instead, that one judges a given way and everyone else judges a different way. We do sometimes try to talk someone out of their being out of step with others by saying, even if somewhat imprecisely, something like “everyone disagrees with you!” Strictly speaking, not everyone disagrees with that person, since they do not disagree with their own position and they partially constitute the human race. We mean, of course, that the rest of the human race disagrees with them. So, disagreement is possible regarding the moral when it is possible that one’s attitudes and resulting moral judgements are not in accord with the remaining consensus. Those who reject relativism in favour of objectivity in a given domain do so because, among other things, they wish to make sense of what they take to be the phenomenon of genuine and not merely apparent disagreement. Eliminating relativism without securing the possibility of genuine disagreement would, even in the eyes of most Humeans, fail to account for sufficient objectivity to be satisfactory.

On the current proposal, though, one can make a mistake by having attitudes that are out of step with the rest. This is the kind of objectivity available regarding the use of language. To get the grammar of a sentence or the meaning of a word wrong is to be out of step with the practice of other users of the language.[4] To make a moral mistake, according to this version of projectivism, is to have attitudes toward something that is out of step with the relevant attitudes of everyone else. Moral objectivity without irreducibly moral facts that are radically independent of human attitudes and motivations is the projectivist’s goal and this is another step towards it.