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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. Vuko Andrić (2015). The Ramifications of Error Theories About the Deontic. Acta Analytica 30 (4):429-445.
    Error theories about practical deontic judgements claim that no substantive practical deontic judgement is true. Practical deontic judgements are practical in the sense that they concern actions, and they are deontic in the sense that they are about reasons, rightness, wrongness, and obligations. This paper assumes the truth of an error theory about practical deontic judgements in order to examine its ramifications. I defend three contentions. The first is that, if so-called fitting-attitude analyses of value fail, the truth of some (...)
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  4. D. -P. Baker (2001). Mackie's Moral Theory: Conceptual Room for a Taylor-Made Account of the Good Life? South African Journal of Philosophy 20 (2):145-158.
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  5. Paul Barry (2014). In Defence of Morality: A Response to a Moral Error Theory. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 22 (1):63-85.
    This paper responds to Richard Joyce’s argument for a moral error theory. Joyce claims that our moral discourse purports to speak of something objective in that it presupposes the existence of non-institutional, categorical reasons for action. Given this, he argues that a proper vindication of our moral discourse would be one carried out from a point of view that is objective inasmuch as it is external to the ‘institution of morality’. And since our moral discourse cannot be vindi- cated from (...)
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  6. 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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  7. Simon Blackburn (2005). Quasi-Realism No Fictionalism. In Mark Eli Kalderon (ed.), Fictionalism in Metaphysics. Oxford University Press 322--338.
  8. 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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  9. David O. Brink (1984). Moral Realism and the Sceptical Arguments From Disagreement and Queerness. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62 (2):111 – 125.
  10. 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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  11. John A. Burgess (1998). Error Theories and Values. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76 (4):534 – 552.
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  12. 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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  13. Keith Burgess-Jackson (1996). Mackie on Kant's Moral Argument. Sophia 35 (1):5-20.
  14. Michael Cholbi (2004). Review of Richard Joyce, The Myth of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). [REVIEW] Utilitas 16 (2):227-229.
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  15. 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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  16. 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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  17. Stephen R. L. Clark (1989). Mackie and the Moral Order. Philosophical Quarterly 39 (54):98.
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  18. Stephen R. L. Clark (1989). Review: Mackie and the Moral Order. [REVIEW] Philosophical Quarterly 39 (154):98 - 114.
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  19. 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; (...)
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  20. C. Cowie (2014). Why Companions in Guilt Arguments Won't Work. Philosophical Quarterly 64 (256):407-422.
    One recently popular strategy for avoiding the moral error theory is via a ‘companions in guilt’ argument. I focus on those recently popular arguments that take epistemic facts as a companion in guilt for moral facts. I claim that there is an internal tension between the two main premises of these arguments. It is a consequence of this that either the soundness or the dialectical force of the companions in guilt argument is undermined. I defend this claim via (i) analogy (...)
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  21. Christopher Cowie (2015). Good News for Moral Error Theorists: A Master Argument Against Companions in Guilt Strategies. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 94 (1):115-130.
    Moral error theories are often rejected by appeal to ‘companions in guilt’ arguments. The most popular form of companions in guilt argument takes epistemic reasons for belief as a ‘companion’ and proceeds by analogy. I show that this strategy fails. I claim that the companions in guilt theorist must understand epistemic reasons as evidential support relations if her argument is to be dialectically effective. I then present a dilemma. Either epistemic reasons are evidential support relations or they are not. If (...)
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  22. Sam Cowling (2006). Mark Kalderon, Ed., Fictionalism in Metaphysics Reviewed By. Philosophy in Review 26 (3):197-199.
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  23. Sam Cowling (2006). Mark Kalderon, Ed., Fictionalism in Metaphysics. [REVIEW] Philosophy in Review 26:197-199.
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  24. Terence Cuneo & Sean Christy (2011). The Myth of Moral Fictionalism. In Michael Brady (ed.), New Waves in Metaethics. Palgrave Macmillan
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  25. John E. Curley (1934). Review of "The Problem of Error". [REVIEW] Modern Schoolman 12:45.
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  26. 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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  27. 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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  28. Chris Daly (2007). Fictionalism in Metaphysics - Edited by Mark Eli Kalderon. Philosophical Books 48 (3):272-274.
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  29. 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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  30. Dan Demetriou & Graham Oddie (2007). Moral Fictionalism. [REVIEW] Mind 116 (462):439-446.
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  31. B. DeMori (1997). JL Mackie (1917-1981) and His Theory of Metaethics. Verifiche: Rivista Trimestrale di Scienze Umane 26 (1-2):17-61.
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  32. John Devlin (2003). An Argument for an Error Theory of Truth. Philosophical Perspectives 17 (1):51–82.
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  33. 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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  34. Jamie Dreier (2006). Moral Relativism and Moral Nihilism. In David Copp (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Oxford University Press
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  35. 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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  36. Daan Evers (forthcoming). Jonas Olson's Evidence for Moral Error Theory. Journal of Moral Philosophy.
    Jonas Olson defends a moral error theory in (2014). I will first argue that Olson is not justified in believing the error theory as opposed to moral nonnaturalism in his own opinion. I will then argue that Olson is not justified in believing the error theory as opposed to moral contextualism either (although the latter is not a matter of his own opinion).
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  37. Daan Evers (2014). Review of Moral Error Theory, by Jonas Olson. [REVIEW] Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
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  38. Daan Evers & Bart Streumer (2016). Are the Moral Fixed Points Conceptual Truths? Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy.
    Terence Cuneo and Russ Shafer-Landau have recently proposed a new version of moral non-naturalism, according to which there are non-natural moral concepts and truths but no non-natural moral facts. This view implies that moral error theorists are conceptually deficient. We argue that moral error theorists are not conceptually deficient, and that this undermines Cuneo and Shafer-Landau’s view.
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  39. Douglas Farland (2005). Mackie's Error Theory and Reasons. South African Journal of Philosophy 24 (1):1-13.
    The error theory has, for some time, served as a last resort for those who would like to take moral realism seriously but who cannot countenance the thought that moral properties might be non-natural. As soon as their attempts to ‘square' moral properties with natural properties appear to be in trouble, such philosophers resort to the line that the error theory is true. But the error theory trades mostly upon Mackie's influential argument from queerness. Here I attempt two main things. (...)
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  40. 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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  41. 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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  42. Stephen Finlay (2006). Review of Mark Eli Kalderon, Moral Fictionalism. [REVIEW] Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2006 (4).
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  43. A. Fisher (2015). Moral Error Theory: History, Critique and Defence by Jonas Olson. Analysis 75 (2):355-356.
    A review of Jonas Olson's "Moral Error Theory: History, critique and defence".
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  44. Andrew Fisher (2007). Moral Fictionalism – Mark Eli Kalderon. Philosophical Quarterly 57 (226):145–148.
    A review of Mark Kalderon's book 'Moral Fictionalism'.
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  45. Robert J. Fogelin (1982). Hume's Moral Theory by J. L. Mackie. [REVIEW] Journal of Philosophy 79 (4):210-213.
  46. Ben Fraser (2013). Moral Error Theories and Folk Metaethics. Philosophical Psychology 6 (6):1-18.
    In this paper, I distinguish between two error theories of morality: one couched in terms of truth ; the other in terms of justification. I then present two arguments: the Poisoned Presupposition Argument for ET1; and the Evolutionary Debunking Argument for ET2. I go on to show how assessing these arguments requires paying attention to empirical moral psychology, in particular, work on folk metaethics. After criticizing extant work, I suggest avenues for future research.
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  47. Stacie Friend (2008). Hermeneutic Moral Fictionalism as an Anti-Realist Strategy. Philosophical Books 49 (1):14-22.
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  48. 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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  49. Richard Garner (1993). Are Convenient Fictions Harmful to Your Health? Philosophy East and West 43 (1):87-106.
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  50. Richard T. Garner (1990). On the Genuine Queerness of Moral Properties and Facts. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 68 (2):137 – 146.
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