Monday, November 28, 2005

Truth in Ethics

More "popular philosophy": this time philosophy of language, with applications to ethics.

In True to Life, Michael Lynch sets out to defend "four truisms about truth": truth is objective, a "cognitive good", a worthy goal of inquiry, and something valuable in itself. On the back cover, Nussbaum says that the book "performs a major public service".

The argument of the book is intricate, though it is presented with an enviably light touch. It begins with the platitude that a belief is correct if and only if its object is a true proposition; deduces that, if p is true, it is good to believe p, other things being equal; interprets this as final or non-instrumental value; and concludes that truth is itself a normative property, and, given Moore's "open question argument", an irreducible one: "If truth matters, reductive naturalism is false."

In a different context, it would be interesting to engage with these steps, each of which is controversial. Here, my focus is rhetorical. Who is Lynch writing for, and what are his chances of convincing them?

I think he cannot be writing for the post-modernist "enemies of truth" alleged to inhabit our English Departments. They will rightly feel that they are not taken seriously here. There is no mention of Derrida, and only a page or two on Foucault. In any case, the whole operation will seem to them naïvely unhistorical. To engage with them, one has to sink, or rise, to their level – as in Literature Against Itself.

Perhaps the aim of the book is prophylactic: it is meant to forestall the attractions of subjectivism and the cynical equation of truth with power. But if this is his persuasive task, Lynch has adopted an unfortunate strategy. Arguing that one cannot accept the value of truth without Moorean non-naturalism is bad salesmanship, even if is sound. It is not just the post-modern crowd who cannot stomach Principia Ethica: most philosophers find its commitments incredible.

The effect of True to Life, if it carries conviction, will thus be to enmire the truisms about truth in a swamp of metaphysics, to retrench the suspicion that those who believe in the possibility and the value of objective truth inhabit a Platonic jungle. As I said, that might be so – I haven't tried to engage with Lynch's arguments – but it would be terrible news. This truth might be one of those we do better not to believe.


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