Truth, Justification, and the Quasi-realist Way

In an earlier post (The Meaning and Use of ‘is True’) I argued that when discussing minimalism about truth we need to distinguish between redundancy theories (claims about the meaning is ‘is true’) and deflationism (claims about the nature of the property that the predicate is supposed to pick out). Once we see that redundancy theories conflate meaning and use we need an independant reason to accept deflationsim about truth. In this post I will argue against deflationism by arguing that it cannot account for our common sense feelings about justification in moral judgements by looking at the way that Simon Blackburn has appealed to minimalism in formulating his quasi-realist form of expressivism.

The basic problem for the deflationsist is that whatever account of moral contradiction they give will also be the correct account of contradiction in matters of taste. So ‘broccoli is disgusting’ will be true if and only if broccoli is disgusting and someone who said that it was not would really be contradicting me. From within the ‘taste framework’ broccoli is disgusting and I can just see that the Broccoli-ban and their feelings about the taste of broccoli are just objectively wrong. Of course all that any of this means is that I accept or agree with the sentiment that I expressed when I said that broccoli was disgusting. The story we tell here exactly parallels the story that is told in the case of moral judgments about cruelty, the Taliban, or whatever.

But clearly there could not be more of a difference between these two kinds of judgments. In particular, it seems obvious that this story about broccoli is just wrong. Common sense tells us that our feelings about broccoli may depend on two things. One, we may think that broccoli has a certain specific kind of taste and some people like that taste and others dislike it, which one it is may depend on what the person can taste, or it may depend on how they were raised, or just simply that they are disposed to like it or not and all of these vary from person to person. So there is nothing wrong with a person who thinks that broccoli tastes good, they simply have different tastes than ours and which you have doesn’t really matter. On the other hand we might say that broccoli has no determinate taste, it all depends on the person who does the tasting and the way that their taste buds are constituted.  Taste is a secondary property whose reality is totally mind dependant. So whether it is disgusting or not is relative to a person’s make up. Either of these common sense explanations of what is going on in the broccoli case differs dramatically from the common sense view of moral discourse. Only a madman would claim that our feelings about Saddam Hussein, the slaughter of children, truth telling, or promise keeping depended on us in either of the two ways mentioned above. Even Blackburn is not that reckless! He explicitly denies that anything like this is the right way to characterize moral disagreement. But the problem is that there is no way to distinguish these kinds of claims from the theoretical stand point of quasi-realism.

Since the theory is unable to distinguish these obviously distinguishable kinds of judgments, there must be something seriously wrong with deflationism about truth as it relates to a theory of justification. In fact, it seems obvious what is wrong with it. It very obviously and flagrantly turns moral matters into matters of personal taste. It does this by invoking redundancy and claiming that all there is to truth is its function in natural language of voicing agreement. To say that something is true is simply to repeat what we have said. If we happen to have said something about rape or the taste of broccoli makes no difference. Once we take the deflationary account of truth seriously we are no longer able to take moral discourse seriously.

Blackburn cannot respond that we can distinguish talk about broccoli and talk about genocide by the level of emotional commitment that we have to claims in one area as opposed to claims in the other because it is not inconsistent, on his view, that there be people who take broccoli as seriously as we take suffering. Thus the Broccoli-ban are every bit as serious about people who disagree with their feelings about the taste of broccoli, even to the point of putting dissenters to death. It may be the case that Simon Blackburn does not take talk about broccoli that seriously, but so what? If this is to be anything more than a mere autobiographical report what we need is a way to say that someone who did take talk about broccoli as serious as the Broccoli-ban is mistaken and further that their being mistaken is not simply an opinion of mine. Something, in short, that allows us to distinguish our talk about what depends solely on us and what does not. The deflationary theory of truth fares very badly here. It will only seem plausible if one thinks that that is all there is to truth, but this belief is not forced on us.

Not only does quasi-realism have no way to distinguish between the Taliban and the Broccoli-ban that is not mere autobiography we can see that the very same problem arises for other moral claims. Suppose someone from the Taliban were to respond to Blackburn that their views on women were the correct ones to have and that
Blackburn was wrong when he says that they (the Taliban) are objectively wrong. Let us suppose that they laugh at the idea that women are equal to men in any serious way. Then, according to the analysis that is on offer we are to conclude that what they have said is true just in case they really hold the attitudes that they say they do.
Blackburn then points out that they are ‘blind to the nature of women and the possibilities open to them’ and so on, but the important question of WHY it is that the Taliban have to agree with him on this point is left begging to be addressed. Of course by this I do not merely mean that the Taliban may irrationally refuse to admit that the evidence against them is compelling but rather the stronger claim that in some deep sense there is no way to really say which is right here. Each is saying something true when they express their moral sentiments about women. This is, of course, nothing more than relativism.

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