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Summary

Moral error theory is roughly the view that morality is a (perhaps biologically-useful) illusion. More precisely, error theory combines a cognitivist, representationalist view of moral judgments with an antirealist view of the moral domain. Error theorists typically reason as follows: moral judgments aim to represent the world as being a certain way, morally speaking, and are thus capable of being either true or false depending on whether the world has the moral features one takes it to have. However, the world is morally void in that there are no moral facts, properties, or values ‘out there in the world’ to be discovered. Thus, our moral judgments are typically false. When we judge, for example, that slavery is immoral, we are (perhaps unknowingly) projecting our feelings, wants and demands onto the world and mistakenly thinking that we’ve come into cognitive contact with objective moral facts.  While error theorists widely agree about the nature of morality and moral judgment, they disagree about what to do with moral discourse. Some error theorists contend that morality is a useful fiction that, with some qualifications, should be retained. Adherents of this approach are called moral fictionalists. It should be noted, however, that some fictionalists are not error theorists. Mark Kalderon, for example, rejects the view that moral judgments aim to represent the world as being a certain way, morally speaking. He contends, instead, that propositions (including moral ones) aim to describe the world, but that people use these descriptive propositions to express non-representational mental states.

Key works

The most prominent defense of error theory in the 20th century is arguably Mackie 1977Joyce 2001 provides a more detailed defense of error theory. Joyce 2006 defends error theory on both philosophical and scientific grounds. Other noteworthy defenses of error theory include Garner 2007 and Burgess 2007.  Core readings in moral fictionalism include  Nolan et al 2005 , Joyce 2005 , and Kalderon 2005.

Introductions Joyce 2013 is an introductory article on error theory.  Eklund 2010 is an introductory article on fictionalism as presented and defended in various areas of philosophy, including general metaphysics and the philosophy of mathematics.
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  1. Timo Airaksinen (1983). Values in Mackie's Error Theory of Ethics. Inquiry 26 (4):467 – 475.
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  2. Fritz Allhoff (2011). A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory – Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (Eds). Philosophical Quarterly 61 (243):429-431.
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  3. Paul Barry (2014). In Defence of Morality: A Response to a Moral Error Theory. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 22 (1):63-85.
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  4. Matthew S. Bedke (2010). Might All Normativity Be Queer? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 88 (1):41-58.
    Here I discuss the conceptual structure and core semantic commitments of reason-involving thought and discourse needed to underwrite the claim that ethical normativity is not uniquely queer. This deflates a primary source of ethical scepticism and it vindicates so-called partner in crime arguments. When it comes to queerness objections, all reason-implicating normative claims?including those concerning Humean reasons to pursue one's ends, and epistemic reasons to form true beliefs?stand or fall together.
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  5. Simon Blackburn (2005). Quasi-Realism No Fictionalism. In Mark Eli Kalderon (ed.), Fictionalism in Metaphysics. Oxford University Press. 322--338.
  6. Paul Bloomfield (2013). Error Theory and the Concept of Morality. Metaphilosophy 44 (4):451-469.
    Error theories about morality often take as their starting point the supposed queerness of morality, and those resisting these arguments often try to argue by analogy that morality is no more queer than other unproblematic subject matters. Here, error theory (as exemplified primarily by the work of Richard Joyce) is resisted first by arguing that it assumes a common, modern, and peculiarly social conception of morality. Then error theorists point out that the social nature of morality requires one to act (...)
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  7. David O. Brink (1984). Moral Realism and the Sceptical Arguments From Disagreement and Queerness. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62 (2):111 – 125.
  8. Philip Brown (2013). The Possibility of Morality. Philosophical Studies 163 (3):627-636.
    Despite much discussion over the existence of moral facts, metaethicists have largely ignored the related question of their possibility. This paper addresses the issue from the moral error theorist’s perspective, and shows how the arguments that error theorists have produced against the existence of moral facts at this world, if sound, also show that moral facts are impossible, at least at worlds non-morally identical to our own and, on some versions of the error theory, at any world. So error theorists’ (...)
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  9. John P. Burgess (2007). Against Ethics. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10 (5):427 - 439.
    This is the verbatim manuscript of a paper which has circulated underground for close to thirty years, reaching a metethical conclusion close to J. L. Mackie’s by a somewhat different route.
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  10. Matthew Chrisman (2008). A Dilemma for Moral Fictionalism. Philosophical Books 49 (1):4-13.
    This article is a critical study of Mark Kalderon's excellent book *Moral Fictionalism*.
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  11. Philip Clark, Mackie's Motivational Argument Philip Clark.
    Mackie doubted anything objective could have the motivational properties of a value. In thinking we are morally required to act in a certain way, he said, we attribute objective value to the action. Since nothing has objective value, these moral judgments are all false. As to whether Mackie proved his error theory, opinions vary. But there is broad agreement on one issue. A litany of examples, ranging from amoralism to depression to downright evil, has everyone convinced that Mackie vastly overstated (...)
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  12. Christian Coons (2011). How to Prove That Some Acts Are Wrong (Without Using Substantive Moral Premises). Philosophical Studies 155 (1):83–98.
    I first argue that there are many true claims of the form: x-ing would be morally required, if anything is. I then explain why the following conditional-type is true: If x-ing would be morally required, if anything is, then x-ing is actually morally required. These results allow us to construct valid proofs for the existence of some substantive moral facts—proofs that some particular acts really are morally required. Most importantly, none of my argumentation presupposes any substantive moral claim; I use (...)
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  13. Edmund Dain (2012). Projection and Pretence in Ethics. Philosophical Papers 41 (2):181 - 208.
    Abstract Suppose one is persuaded of the merits of noncognitivism in ethics but not those of expressivism: in such a case, a form of moral fictionalism, combining a descriptivist account of moral sentences with a noncognitivist account of the attitudes involved in their acceptance or rejection, might seem an attractive alternative. This paper argues against the use of moral fictionalism as a strategy for defending noncognitivism in ethics. It argues, first, that the view is implausible as it stands and, second, (...)
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  14. Chris Daly (2009). Moral Error Theory and the Problem of Evil. European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 1 (2):89 - 105.
    Moral error theory claims that no moral sentence is (nonvacuously) true. Atheism claims that the existence of evil in the world is incompatible with, or makes improbable, the existence of God. Is moral error theory compatible with atheism? This paper defends the thesis that it is compatible against criticisms by Nicholas Sturgeon.
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  15. Chris Daly & David Liggins (2010). In Defence of Error Theory. Philosophical Studies 149 (2):209-230.
    Many contemporary philosophers rate error theories poorly. We identify the arguments these philosophers invoke, and expose their deficiencies. We thereby show that the prospects for error theory have been systematically underestimated. By undermining general arguments against all error theories, we leave it open whether any more particular arguments against particular error theories are more successful. The merits of error theories need to be settled on a case-by-case basis: there is no good general argument against error theories.
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  16. Jamie Dreier (2010). Mackie's Realism. In Richard Joyce & Simon Kirchen (eds.), A World Without Values. Springer.
    The chapter argues that we should draw the line between realist and antirealist metaethics according to whether a theory locates the explanation for the special, puzzling features of moral terms and concepts out in the world, with the content of moral thoughts, or inside the head. This taxonomy places Mackie's error theory in the realist category, contrary to the usual scheme. The paper suggests that in looking for the “queerness” of objective value in the metaphysics of moral properties, Mackie makes (...)
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  17. Jamie Dreier (2006). Moral Relativism and Moral Nihilism. In David Copp (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Oxford University Press.
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  18. Matti Eklund (2009). The Frege–Geach Problem and Kalderon's Moral Fictionalism. Philosophical Quarterly 59 (237):705-712.
    Mark Eli Kalderon has argued for a fictionalist variant of non-cognitivism. On his view, what the Frege–Geach problem shows is that standard non-cognitivism proceeds uncritically from claims about use to claims about meaning; if non-cognitivism's claims were solely about use it would be on safe ground as far as the Frege–Geach problem is concerned. I argue that Kalderon's diagnosis is mistaken: the problem concerns the non-cognitivist's account of the use of moral sentences too.
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  19. Daan Evers (2014). Review of Moral Error Theory, by Jonas Olson. [REVIEW] Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
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  20. Stephen Finlay (2011). Errors Upon Errors: A Reply to Joyce. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 89 (3):535 - 547.
    In his response to my paper ?The Error in the Error Theory? criticizing his and J. L. Mackie's moral error theory, Richard Joyce finds my treatment of his position inaccurate and my interpretation of morality implausible. In this reply I clarify my objection, showing that it retains its force against their error theory, and I clarify my interpretation of morality, showing that Joyce's objections miss their mark.
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  21. Stephen Finlay (2008). The Error in the Error Theory. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86 (3):347-369.
    Moral error theory of the kind defended by J. L. Mackie and Richard Joyce is premised on two claims: (1) that moral judgements essentially presuppose that moral value has absolute authority, and (2) that this presupposition is false, because nothing has absolute authority. This paper accepts (2) but rejects (1). It is argued first that (1) is not the best explanation of the evidence from moral practice, and second that even if it were, the error theory would still be mistaken, (...)
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  22. Stephen Finlay (2006). Review of Mark Eli Kalderon, Moral Fictionalism. [REVIEW] Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2006 (4).
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  23. Stacie Friend (2008). Hermeneutic Moral Fictionalism as an Anti-Realist Strategy. Philosophical Books 49 (1):14-22.
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  24. Richard Garner (2007). Abolishing Morality. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10 (5):499 - 513.
    Moral anti-realism comes in two forms – noncognitivism and the error theory. The noncognitivist says that when we make moral judgments we aren’t even trying to state moral facts. The error theorist says that when we make moral judgments we are making statements about what is objectively good, bad, right, or wrong but, since there are no moral facts, our moral judgments are uniformly false. This development of moral anti-realism was first seriously defended by John Mackie. In this paper I (...)
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  25. Richard Garner (1993). Are Convenient Fictions Harmful to Your Health? Philosophy East and West 43 (1):87-106.
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  26. Mark Hanin (2013). Ethical Anti-Archimedeanism and Moral Error Theory. Journal of Value Inquiry 47 (4):359-374.
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  27. Terence Horgan & Mark Timmons (1992). Troubles on Moral Twin Earth: Moral Queerness Revived. Synthese 92 (2):221 - 260.
    J. L. Mackie argued that if there were objective moral properties or facts, then the supervenience relation linking the nonmoral to the moral would be metaphysically queer. Moral realists reply that objective supervenience relations are ubiquitous according to contemporary versions of metaphysical naturalism and, hence, that there is nothing especially queer about moral supervenience. In this paper we revive Mackie's challenge to moral realism. We argue: (i) that objective supervenience relations of any kind, moral or otherwise, should be explainable rather (...)
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  28. Stan Husi (2014). Against Moral Fictionalism. Journal of Moral Philosophy 11 (1):80-96.
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  29. Nadeem Hussain (2010). Error Theory and Fictionalism. In John Skorupski (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Ethics. Routledge.
    This paper surveys contemporary accounts of error theory and fictionalism. It introduces these categories to those new to metaethics by beginning with moral nihilism, the view that nothing really is right or wrong. One main motivation is that the scientific worldview seems to have no place for rightness or wrongness. Within contemporary metaethics there is a family of theories that makes similar claims. These are the theories that are usually classified as forms of error theory or fictionalism though there are (...)
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  30. Nadeem J. Z. Hussain (2004). The Return of Moral Fictionalism. Philosophical Perspectives 18 (1):149–188.
    Fictionalism has recently returned as a standard response to ontologically problematic domains. This article assesses moral fictionalism. It argues (i) that a correct understanding of the dialectical situation in contemporary metaethics shows that fictionalism is only an interesting new alternative if it can provide a new account of normative content: what is it that I am thinking or saying when I think or say that I ought to do something; and (ii) that fictionalism, qua fictionalism, does not provide us with (...)
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  31. R. Joyce (2000). Darwinian Ethics and Error. Biology and Philosophy 15 (5):713-732.
    Suppose that the human tendency to think of certain actions andomissions as morally required – a notion that surely lies at the heart of moral discourse – is a trait that has been naturallyselected for. Many have thought that from this premise we canjustify or vindicate moral concepts. I argue that this is mistaken, and defend Michael Ruse''s view that the moreplausible implication is an error theory – the idea thatmorality is an illusion foisted upon us by evolution. Thenaturalistic fallacy (...)
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  32. Richard Joyce, Patterns of Objectification.
    John Mackie’s moral error theory is so closely associated in people’s minds with his arguments from relativity and from queerness that one might overlook the fact that there may be numerous other, and possibly better, ways of establishing that metaethical position. Perhaps, indeed, there are even further resources for arguing for a moral error theory to be unearthed in Mackie’s own book. I have in mind Mackie’s thesis of moral objectification: that the “objective prescriptivity” with which our moral judgments are (...)
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  33. Richard Joyce, Error Theory.
    To hold an error theory about morality is to endorse a kind of radical moral skepticism—a skepticism analogous to atheism in the religious domain. The atheist thinks that religious utterances, such as “God loves you,” really are truth-evaluable assertions (as opposed to being veiled commands or expressions of hope, etc.), but that the world just doesn’t contain the items (e.g., God) necessary to render such assertions true. Similarly, the moral error theorist maintains that moral judgments are truth-evaluable assertions (thus contrasting (...)
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  34. Richard Joyce (2013). Error Theory. In Hugh LaFollette (ed.), International Encyclopedia of Ethics. John Wiley and Sons.
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  35. Richard Joyce (2013). Irrealism and the Genealogy of Morals. Ratio 26 (4):351-372.
    Facts about the evolutionary origins of morality may have some kind of undermining effect on morality, yet the arguments that advocate this view are varied not only in their strategies but in their conclusions. The most promising such argument is modest: it attempts to shift the burden of proof in the service of an epistemological conclusion. This paper principally focuses on two other debunking arguments. First, I outline the prospects of trying to establish an error theory on genealogical grounds. Second, (...)
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  36. Richard Joyce (2011). Moral Fictionalism. Philosophy Now 82:14-17.
    Were I not afraid of appearing too philosophical, I should remind my reader of that famous doctrine, supposed to be fully proved in modern times, “That tastes and colours, and all other sensible qualities, lie not in the bodies, but merely in the senses.” The case is the same with beauty and deformity, virtue and vice. This doctrine, however, takes off no more from the reality of the latter qualities, than from that of the former; nor need it give any (...)
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  37. Richard Joyce (2011). The Error In 'The Error In The Error Theory'. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 89 (3):519-534.
    In his paper ?The Error in the Error Theory?[this journal, 2008], Stephen Finlay attempts to show that the moral error theorist has not only failed to prove his case, but that the error theory is in fact false. This paper rebuts Finlay's arguments, criticizes his positive theory, and clarifies the error-theoretic position.
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  38. Richard Joyce (2005). Moral Fictionalism. In Mark Eli Kalderon (ed.), Fictionalism in Metaphysics. Oxford University Press. 14-17.
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  39. Richard Joyce (2001). The Myth of Morality. Cambridge University Press.
    In The Myth of Morality, Richard Joyce argues that moral discourse is hopelessly flawed. At the heart of ordinary moral judgments is a notion of moral inescapability, or practical authority, which, upon investigation, cannot be reasonably defended. Joyce argues that natural selection is to blame, in that it has provided us with a tendency to invest the world with values that it does not contain, and demands that it does not make. Should we therefore do away with morality, as we (...)
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  40. Richard Joyce & Simon Kirchin (2007). Introduction. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10 (5):421-425.
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  41. Guy Kahane (2013). Must Metaethical Realism Make a Semantic Claim? Journal of Moral Philosophy 10 (2):148-178.
    Mackie drew attention to the distinct semantic and metaphysical claims made by metaethical realists, arguing that although our evaluative discourse is cognitive and objective, there are no objective evaluative facts. This distinction, however, also opens up a reverse possibility: that our evaluative discourse is antirealist, yet objective values do exist. I suggest that this seemingly farfetched possibility merits serious attention; realism seems committed to its intelligibility, and, despite appearances, it isn‘t incoherent, ineffable, inherently implausible or impossible to defend. I argue (...)
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  42. Mark Eli Kalderon, Morality: Fact or Fiction?
    One cannot give too many or too frequent warnings against this laxity, or even mean cast of mind, which seeks its principle among empirical motives and laws; for, human reason in its weariness gladly rests on this pillow and in a dream of sweet illusions (which allow it to embrace a cloud instead of Juno) it substitutes for a morality a bastard patched up from limbs of quite diverse ancestry, which looks like whatever one wants to see in it but (...)
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  43. Wouter Floris Kalf (2013). Moral Error Theory, Entailment and Presupposition. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16 (5):923-937.
    According to moral error theory, moral discourse is error-ridden. Establishing error theory requires establishing two claims. These are that moral discourse carries a non-negotiable commitment to there being a moral reality and that there is no such reality. This paper concerns the first and so-called non-negotiable commitment claim. It starts by identifying the two existing argumentative strategies for settling that claim. The standard strategy is to argue for a relation of conceptual entailment between the moral statements that comprise moral discourse (...)
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  44. James Lenman (2013). Ethics Without Errors. Ratio 26 (4):391-409.
    I argue against the claim that we should adopt a moral error theory. The intelligibility of our moral practice need offer no questionable metaphysical hostages to fortune. The two most credible policy recommendations that might follow from moral error theory, abolitionism and prescriptive fictionalism, are not very credible.
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  45. James Lenman (2008). Against Moral Fictionalism. Philosophical Books 49 (1):23-32.
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  46. David Lewis (2005). Quasi-Realism is Fictionalism. In Mark Eli Kalderon (ed.), Fictionalism in Metaphysics. Oxford University Press. 314-321.
  47. Hallvard Lillehammer (2013). The Argument From Queerness. In Hugh LaFollette (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Ethics.
  48. Hallvard Lillehammer (2011). Constructivism and the Error Theory. In Christian Miller (ed.), The Continuum Companion to Ethics. Continuum.
    This paper presents a comparative evaluation of constructivist and error theoretic accounts of moral claims. It is argued that constructivism has distinct advantages over error theory.
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  49. Hallvard Lillehammer (2004). Review: The Myth of Morality. [REVIEW] Mind 113 (452):760-763.
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  50. Hallvard Lillehammer (2004). Moral Error Theory. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 104 (2):93–109.
    The paper explores the consequences of adopting a moral error theory targeted at the notion of reasonable convergence. I examine the prospects of two ways of combining acceptance of such a theory with continued acceptance of moral judgements in some form. On the first model, moral judgements are accepted as a pragmatically intelligible fiction. On the second model, moral judgements are made relative to a framework of assumptions with no claim to reasonable convergence on their behalf. I argue that the (...)
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