Saturday, March 04, 2006

Courage: it couldn't come at a worse time (Bernard Williams and the good)

What are goods and values? Probably the most common visceral view right now runs something along the lines of RM Hare's arguments. One might think that values are voluntary projections onto the external world. The universe is neutral: we impose on the world prescriptive language which is so separate from reality, so unconnected, that we can reflect rationally and revise our views of evaluation. We can change our commitments, and a reflective life demands that we do. On this theory, we should train ourselves to imprint good things, and to avoid imprinting bad things.

Another possibility is that our imposition of values on the world is largely involuntary. This would make "the good" something like the color blue. Scientists, if you ask, will tell you a lot about the color blue. The less sophisticated of them will sum up by saying that blue is a "secondary property," which is merely an interaction between one real thing (the see-er) and another real thing (the seen), and has no reality of its own. We could in fact rewrite our description of the world, without using the idea of color, in a more fundamental language: we can offer non-prescriptive accounts of the world which are exactly equivalent to our normative views.

Are these our options? Either impositions which are voluntary (so we can retrain ourselves to impose nicer things) or impositions which are involuntary (so we have something more scientific and reduce-able)?

How would we describe "courage" under these options? This is Bernard Williams's famous question. If we drop the evaluative mood, can we still come up with a description which is functionally equivalent to "courage"? Here's the problem: if I show you ten examples of courage, and don't include any normative hints, can you go on to classify new examples correctly? If courage can be reduced to pure description or to a secondary property, you are likely to succeed. If not, then you will likely fail. (But what then?) This is what Williams is getting at in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.

I don't think one can be a "naturalist"--a believer that the good is something we impose on the world, so that only "naturally" material things exist--without a solid answer to this question. If you are a naturalist and cannot respond to this, you do not understand your position.


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