Projectivism: A short explanation


A minimalist understanding of projectivism sees it as a causal account of our moral experiences which results in moral properties appearing to be in the world. Blackburn pictures this nicely in Chapter 6 of ‘Spreading the Word’ where he describes genuine observed properties impinging on a persons existing habits, emotions, sentiments and attitudes  causing that person to ‘see’ moral properties as existing in the world.  Of course  we do not literally see moral properties in the same way that we see colours but we in projecting our attitudes onto the world the world seems a certain way to us i,e, as containing moral properties.    Projectivists commonly cite the following passage from David Hume as their inspiration:

Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and of taste are easily ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: the latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue. The one discovers objects as they really stand in nature, without addition or diminution: the other has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises in a manner a new creation.

David Hume, Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, M.A. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902). Chapter: APPENDIX I. concerning moral sentiment.

Hume’s talk of ‘gilding and staining’ has been interpreted to be referring to talk about projecting our attitudes and feelings onto the world as opposed to discovering already existing features in the world. In matters of taste we can easily imagine being at a party with dishes from many nationalities and commenting on the various food dishes that ‘this tastes delicious’ and that ‘this tastes disgusting’.  Such comments may be taken to be a projection of our own habits and cultivated tastes onto the food whereby we treat the food ‘as if’ it had these properties. The term ‘projection’ signifies that the food does not have these properties but it is our constitution that is, at least partly, if not in the main, responsible for how the food tastes.

However a word of caution is in order. Projection is not like projectile vomit. We do not literally see our own projections. Projection is metaphorical talk for our tendency to think about the world as having certain properties or qualities when in fact those properties or qualities do not exist in the world independently of ourselves but are in fact dependent on ourselves.  As such it would seem that talk of projection is committed to seeing our way of thinking about the world as being in some kind of error i,e, due to our projecting our inner states onto the world and as a consequence if our language reflects our projections then talk of projection looks like it is going to entail that we are in some kind of error about how we describe the world.

This point is well put by John McDowell in his paper ‘Projection and Truth in Ethics’

In the case of the supposedly absolute or intrinsic property of disgustingness, what projection leads to is error: one takes what one in fact spreads onto the external world to be something that one finds in the world on to which one spreads it, something that is there anyway-that is there independently of human sentient responses to things.

So the purpose of invoking the metaphor of projection is to explain certain apparent features of reality as reflections of our own subjective responses to a world that really contains no such features.  The Projectionist in morals holds that our moral thoughts and and behaviour are best explained by our reacting to a reality that contains nothing by the way of values, duties, rights and so forth.  By contrast a realist in morals holds that our moral thought and behaviour is explained by our perceiving, cognizing, or intuiting an independent moral reality.

As such projectionism is standardly taken to be at odds with a realist approach to moral matters. However it is compatible with a number of difference meta-ethical views about how best to explain the content of moral judgement i,e, what makes our moral judgements true or false.



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7 Responses to Projectivism: A short explanation

  1. Hi Julian,

    I don’t think both expressivists and error theorists would not accept the first claim: (1): We experience moral properties as a feature of the world’. I take (1) as a statement that there are such ‘moral experiences’. People who hold (1) seem to be ‘realists’, such as McDowell’s secondary property approach kind: namely that we can have moral experiences as we have colour experiences. This is a realist view. The proponent of such a view thinks that moral properties which are similar to colour properties can be ‘perceived’ by the people who have capabilities of perceiving such experiences (such as virtuous people) and moral properties represent in our perceptual experiences, and argues that moral properties are not just our projection as colour properties are not. I think expressivists and error theorists would not take such a view.

    Expressivists and error theorists hold a view that when we have any moral belief, first, we are makeing ‘judgements’, not just having passive moral perceptions. Then, given a thought that making judgements is necessary for having moral judgements, they start disagreeing. On the one hand, the error theorist holds a view that our moral judgements are ‘truth-apt’ (such as Joyce’s): we are intending to refer to some kind of objective moral properties when we make moral judgements (I suppose Joyce defends this thesis by using some examples you presented in the previous post). So, our moral judgements do have ‘truth conditions’. A moral judgement, ‘P is x’ (x is a moral property) is true iff P has really such a property x. What the error theorist concludes is as follows: since there are no such x kind properties in this world (since it is really weird if there are such x kind properties which motivate us to act in certain ways), all our moral judgements are systematically false. On the other hand, the expressivist holds a view that when we make moral judgement, what we are doing is not referring to such objective moral properties, rather we are expressing our non-cognitive attitudes. Since such a view, at first glance, seems to be just wrong from the phenomenological point of view, expressivists, such as Gibberd, Blackburn, Lenman, etc, give us more rich accounts such non-cognitive attitudes (e.g., Gibbard would suggest that when we make a moral judgement, ‘P is x’, we are accepting a moral norm that in a proper circumstance, we should think that this is a moral norm that P is x). An important aspect of expressivism is that moral judgements are not-truth apt. Moral judgements are not meat to refer to some external properties, rather expressions of our non-cognitive states. So, moral judgements do not have truth conditions. Given this expressivist account, I suppose, the expressivist (including Blackburn’s projectivist) would not accept (4). Moral judgements are not truth-apt, and it is a kind of categorical mistake to consider whether a moral judgement is true or not. What we should think are such issues: whether such moral judgements are plausible, rational, acceptable from moral points of view, etc. So, although we cannot ask truths of moral judgements, we can ask plausibility of moral judgements. I suppose expressivists would not want to say that we are in some kind of error when we make proper moral judgements. Rather, they would want to say that some of moral judgements are really plausible moral judgements, and when we make such judgements, we are in an epistemically nice state.


  2. Hi Ryo

    The use of the word “see” is as you will see, put in brackets. This is meant to indicate that it is not a literal seeing but instead to describe how things appear to us i.e., when we “see” (a better term might be “react”) eating insects as disgusting we are not literally seeing anything.

    My understanding is that the above view is that when we make these kinds of judgments we are projecting our sentiments onto the world but we do this because things ‘seem’ like they have the property of being disgusting.

    It is difficult to tell but it seems to me like you are treating the term “see” in a literal sense in your response.


  3. Hi Julian,

    By the way, my English was something wrong!: I meant that both expressivists and error theorists would not accept the first claim.

    I am puzzled why you say that projectivists need to accept the first claim, even you give me your answer why. My puzzle is due to your phrase, ‘we experience moral properties’. If what you mean is something I presented in the previous comment by using McDowell’s example, I don’t really think even Joyce would accept the first claim. Don’t you see the distinction between our ‘perceiving’ moral properties and our ‘judgements’ about something’s having moral properties? I am wondering why you use the phrase, ‘we experience’, rather than the phrase ‘we judge that moral properties are features of the world’.

    Also, expressivist minded projectivism and error theorist minded projectivism are really different theses due to their account about the nature of moral judgements, as I described in the previous comment. So I am not clear what you means by saying that anyone who accepts projectivism need to accept some other claims. Well, it depends which projectivism one holds, I suppose. And, since I don’t think any projectivists need to accept your first claim, I am feeling at lost what you would say about necessary commitments projectivists need to accept.


  4. Hi Ryo

    Okay the phrase ‘experience’ is ambiguous and perhaps not the best one to use. Thanks for commenting on it and making me more aware of that.

    First, I don’t know of anyone who thinks that we literally project our emotions onto the world in such a way that they are visible in the way that colours are.

    The term ‘Projection’ is a metaphor for the way that we think about the world as if it contained properties that were there independently of us i,e as if it were objective.

    Colours are different in that when I perceive the redness of my curtains I have a particular visual experience and this leads me to believe that the colours of my curtains had the same colour prior to my entering the room. I might later acquire additional beliefs like the belief that the way things seem are not as they are i.e., that the colour of my curtains are somehow dependent on me and others. Here is is the literal use of “see” that people talk about i.e., I literally see the colour red when I look at my curtains.

    However if we are projecting our affective states onto the world then I think we should expect that moral properties would also “seem” to us to have the property of being in the world independently of us i.e., when I say “I cannot imagine child abuse as ever being morally acceptable” it seems to me that this is true independently of my current attitude or other people’s attitudes. However there is not literal sense of “seeing” when we talk about moral properties. Hence they are not like colour properties. What they may have in common is that for many people the moral properties seem to be in the world independently of our own attitudes.

    Now your turn to explain what you mean by projectivism? :0)

  5. Ryo Chonabayashi says:

    Hi Julian,

    Thank you for your reply. Just for a clarification: the proponent of the secondary property approach would not say that we project our emotions onto the world. What they would say is that we perceive moral properties. For them, in order to have moral beliefs, we don’t need any projection.

    What I mean by projectivism is, as I said in the previous post, context-dependent. I might mean as a kind of expressivist thesis (Blackburn kind) and I might also mean as a kind of error theorist thesis (Joyce kind). I suppose you confine your use of the term to the latter kind.

  6. I took it that this thread was about projectivism (as described above) not about other meta-ethical theories such as the one that you mentioned concerning secondary properties, error theories, emotovists. Personally I would explain these concepts independently from explaining projectivism.

    I think confusion can arise by lumping all these together (I read through all this and thought to myself: “Damn, I am pretty confused now”).

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