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."
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? Well, there are a number of things that I admire: for instance, information, sensitivity, maturity, imagination, coherence. I know that other people show defects in these respects, and that these defects can lead to bad opinions. But can I exempt myself from the same possibility? Of course not (that would be unpardonably smug). So I can think that perhaps some of my opinions are due to defects of information, sensitivity, maturity, imagination, and coherence. (7) The thought is that worrying about whether you are mistaken is worrying about whether your judgments might be improved, where what counts as improvement by your lights is fixed by what you admire.
Egan argues that Blackburn's strategy breaks down when we stipulate that the agent's belief is taken by the agent to be stable. Unfortunately, Egan is not entirely consistent in how he characterizes stability. Here is Egan's canonical definition:
Call a belief stable just in case no change that the believer would endorse as an improvement would lead them to abandon it. Call belief unstable just in case it's not stable. (8) Later, Egan operationally defines stability not in terms of whether a single change the believer endorses as an improvement would lead them to abandon it, but in terms of whether a course of "improving changes" would:
For my moral belief that P to be stable is for it to be such that it would survive any improving change (or course of improving changes). (9) We need to clarify just what counts as a "course of improving changes." Unfortunately, "course of improving changes" is multiply ambiguous and not defined by Egan. Each of the following has some plausibility:
* "ENDGAME STABILITY": No series of changes, each of which I would at the end of the series, given my epistemic standards then, regard as improvements, would lead me to abandon the relevant belief.
* "FROM-NOW STABILITY": No series of changes, each of which I would now regard as improvements, given my current epistemic standards, would lead me to abandon the relevant belief.
* "EACH-STAGE STABILITY": No series of changes, each of which I would at the time of the change regard as improvements, given my epistemic standards at that time, would lead me to abandon the relevant belief.
EACH-STAGE STABILITY is, in my view, the right reading. Crucially, if a moral belief is EACH-STAGE STABLE, there will be no rational way for the believer to abandon it. This is important for Egan's challenge, but does not follow from FROM-NOW STABILITY or ENDGAME STABILITY.
Recall that Blackburn's account holds that when one worries that one's belief might be mistaken, what one is worried about is that some series of improving changes might lead you to abandon it. By hypothesis, if a moral belief is (each-stage) stable then no series of improving changes would lead you to abandon it. So judging a belief is stable while worrying that it might be mistaken looks incoherent. Even worse, quasi-realists can make sense of the possibility that someone else might have a belief that is stable yet mistaken--crucially they need not endorse the other person's starting point. The quasi-realist therefore seems implausibly committed to others being open to a kind of error to which he has an a priori guarantee of immunity. Egan suggests that this attitude would make the expressivist come out as "unpardonably smug" (Blackburn's phrase) after all. This is not only implausible, but it is also of dubious coherence once we recognize that anyone else who accepts quasi-realism will then correctly infer that they too have the same special first-person a priori guarantee.
Blackburn's reply points out that Egan equivocates on "improving change," as between "change which is an improvement," and "change which the believer would regard as an improvement." Here is Blackburn:
It is not quite right that for a belief that p to be stable is "for it to be such that it would survive any improving change (or course of improving changes)." This gives a criterion of stability in terms of whatever is an improving change. Whereas, as we have seen, officially stability is a matter of surviving anything that the subject would regard as an improving change, either antecedently, or post hoc. Without this conflation, the result that a moral belief is mistaken only if it is not stable does not follow. (10) Blackburn's point is well taken; Egan does slip between these two, and this undermines his challenge as stated. One might argue that, given expressivism, there is no distinction in the first person between what is an improving change and what one regards as one. Simply to assume there is no such distinction looks to beg the question, though.
Blackburn's point is sound as far as it goes, but it does not fully meet what is insightful in Egan's challenge. (11) What we really need is a positive account of what it is to judge that one's moral judgment might be mistaken, such that there is no tension in simultaneously allowing that one might be mistaken about p while in the same breath asserting the judgment that p is stable. Quasi-realists allow at the outset that they must earn the right to such realist-sounding remarks, so complaints about their critics begging the question are misplaced. Egan should have simply pointed out that Blackburn does not really tell us precisely what it is to judge that one might be fundamentally mistaken, at least not in a systematic and precise way, and with adequate generality. If you comb Blackburn's text to determine precisely what state of mind is supposed to be expressed by "I might be mistaken" you will find no clear or fully worked-out answer. Blackburn gestures at the idea that one is worried about traits one admires leading one to change one's view, but there are many ways to spell this out, and on many of them a version of Egan's challenge remains compelling, or...