According to moral errortheory, moral discourse is error-ridden. Establishing errortheory 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 and the statement that there is a moral reality. The non-standard strategy is to argue for a presupposition relation instead. Error theorists have so far failed to consider a third strategy, which uses a general entailment relation that doesn’t require intricate relations between concepts. The paper argues that both entailment claims struggle to meet a new explanatory challenge and that since the presupposition option doesn’t we have prima facie reason to prefer it over the entailment options. The paper then argues that suitably amending the entailment claims enables them to meet this challenge. With all three options back on the table the paper closes by arguing that error theorists should consider developing the currently unrecognised, non-conceptual entailment claim. (shrink)
In this paper I defend what I call the argument from epistemic reasons against the moral errortheory. I argue that the moral errortheory entails that there are no epistemic reasons for belief and that this is bad news for the moral errortheory since, if there are no epistemic reasons for belief, no one knows anything. If no one knows anything, then no one knows that there is thought when they are thinking, (...) and no one knows that they do not know everything. And it could not be the case that we do not know that there is thought when we believe that there is thought and that we do not know that we do not know everything. I address several objections to the claim that the moral errortheory entails that there are no epistemic reasons for belief. It might seem that arguing against the errortheory on the grounds that it entails that no one knows anything is just providing a Moorean argument against the moral errortheory. I show that even if my argument against the errortheory is indeed a Moorean one, it avoids Streumer's, McPherson's and Olson's objections to previous Moorean arguments against the errortheory and is a more powerful argument against the errortheory than Moore's argument against external world skepticism is against external world skepticism. (shrink)
This paper surveys contemporary accounts of errortheory 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 errortheory or (...) fictionalism though there are different ways of accepting some form of the view that nothing is really write or wrong. A range of different ways of going in the light of such a realization is also proposed. The resulting taxonomy of positions is quite complicated and sometimes surprising. One surprise will be that some positions plausibly classified as error theories or forms of fictionalism do not quite seem to be forms of nihilism. (shrink)
Philosophers should consider a hybrid meta-ethical theory that includes elements of both moral expressivism and moral errortheory. Proponents of such an expressivist-errortheory hold that all moral utterances are either expressions of attitudes or expressions of false beliefs. Such a hybrid theory has two advantages over pure expressivism, because hybrid theorists can offer a more plausible account of the moral utterances that seem to be used to express beliefs, and hybrid theorists can provide (...) a simpler solution to the Frege-Geach problem. The hybrid theory has three advantages over pure errortheory, because hybrid theorists can offer a more plausible account of the moral utterances that seem to be used to express attitudes, hybrid theorists can more easily explain moral motivation, and hybrid theorists can avoid the implausible claim that all moral discourse is radically mistaken. Accordingly, such a hybrid theory should be more attractive than pure expressivism or pure errortheory to philosophers who are skeptical about moral facts and truth. (shrink)
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, errortheory (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 against one's self-interest while insisting on the categorical, inescapable, or overriding status of moral considerations: they argue that morality requires magic, then (rightly) claim that there is no such thing as magic. An alternate eudaimonist conception of morality is introduced which itself has an older provenance than the social point of view, dating to the ancient Greeks. Eudaimonism answers to the normative requirements of morality, yet does not require magic. Thus, the initial motivation for errortheory is removed. (shrink)
Michael Ruses Darwinian metaethics has come under just criticism from Peter Woolcock (1993). But with modification it remains defensible. Ruse (1986) holds that people ordinarily have a false belief that there are objective moral obligations. He argues that the evolutionary story should be taken as an errortheory, i.e., as a theory which explains the belief that there are obligations as arising from non-rational causes, rather than from inference or evidential reasons. Woolcock quite rightly objects that this (...) position entails moral nihilism. However, I argue here that people generally have justified true beliefs about which acts promote their most coherent set of moral values, and hence, by definition, about which acts are right. What the evolutionary story explains is the existence of these values, but it is not an errortheory for moral beliefs. Ordinary beliefs correspond to real moral properties, though these are not objective or absolute properties independent of anyones subjective states. On its best footing, therefore, a Darwinian metaethics of the type Ruse offers is not an errortheory and does not entail moral nihilism. (shrink)
In 1910–11 Axel Hägerström introduced an emotive theory of ethics asserting moral propositions and valuations in general to be neither true nor false. However, it is less well known that he modified his theory in the following year, now making a distinction between what he called primary and secondary valuations. From 1912 onwards, he restricted his emotive theory to primary valuations only, and applied an errortheory to secondary ones. According to Hägerström, secondary valuations state (...) that objects have special value properties, that we believe we become acquainted with in primary valuations. But, in fact, we do not have any such acquaintance. There are no, and cannot be any such, properties in objects. What we take to be a property is a projection of a feeling. Therefore, all secondary valuations are false. In 1917 he developed his theory further and distinguished between different types of secondary valuations with different structures. Yet he argued that they all are false. Hägerström's discussion is interesting because, among other reasons, it is historically a very early version of errortheory in ethics. In a way it can also be said to be a precursor to later versions, e.g., John Mackie's (1946 and 1977). There are obvious resemblances between their accounts. Mackie's discussion is, of course, independent of Hägerström's. (shrink)
The paper distinguishes three strategies by means of which empirical discoveries about the nature of morality can be used to undermine moral judgements. On the first strategy, moral judgements are shown to be unjustified in virtue of being shown to rest on ignorance or false belief. On the second strategy, moral judgements are shown to be false by being shown to entail claims inconsistent with the relevant empirical discoveries. On the third strategy, moral judgements are shown to be false in (...) virtue of being shown to be unjustified; truth having been defined epistemologically in terms of justification. By interpreting three recent error theoretical arguments in light of these strategies, the paper evaluates the epistemological and metaphysical relevance of empirical discoveries about morality as a naturally evolved phenomenon. (shrink)
This paper evaluates an argument for the meta-philosophical conclusion that in order to produce a viable objection to a particular errortheory, the objection must not be applicable to any errortheory. The reason given for this conclusion is that error theories about some discourses are uncontroversial. But the examples given of uncontroversial error theories are not good ones, nor do there appear to be other examples available.
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 errortheory 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. (shrink)
Moral errortheory 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 errortheory (...) would still be mistaken, because the assumption does not contaminate the meaning or truth-conditions of moral claims. These are determined by the essential application conditions for moral concepts, which are relational rather than absolute. An analogy is drawn between moral judgements and motion judgements. (shrink)
Mackie's argument for the ErrorTheory is described. Four ways of responding to Mackie's argument—the Instrumental Approach, the Universalization Approach, the Reasons Approach, and the Constitutivist Approach—are outlined and evaluated. It emerges that though the Constitutivist Approach offers the most promising response to Mackie's argument, it is difficult to say whether that response is adequate or not.
According to the errortheory, normative judgements are beliefs that ascribe normative properties to objects, even though such properties do not exist. In this paper, I argue that we cannot fully believe the errortheory, and that this means that there is no reason for us to fully believe this theory. It may be thought that this is a problem for the errortheory, but I argue that it is not. Instead, I argue, (...) our inability to fully believe the errortheory undermines many objections that have been made to this theory. (shrink)
The paper explores the consequences of adopting a moral errortheory 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 latter model shows greater promise for an error theorist whose commitment to moral thought is initially serious. (shrink)
In his paper ?The Error in the ErrorTheory?[this journal, 2008], Stephen Finlay attempts to show that the moral error theorist has not only failed to prove his case, but that the errortheory is in fact false. This paper rebuts Finlay's arguments, criticizes his positive theory, and clarifies the error-theoretic position.
To hold an errortheory 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 with the noncognitivist), but that the world doesn’t contain the properties (e.g., moral goodness, evil, moral obligation) needed to render moral judgments true. In other words, moral discourse aims at the truth but systematically fails to secure it. If there is no such property as moral wrongness, for example, then no judgment of the form “X is morally wrong” will be true (where “X” denotes an actual action or state of affairs). Advocates of this position include Hinckfuss 1987; Joyce 2001; Mackie 1977 (see MACKIE, J. L.). Various forms of moral skepticism—some of which are arguably instances of the error theoretic stance—have been familiar to philosophers since ancient times. (See SKEPTICISM, MORAL.) Error theoretic views can be controversial—as in the case of religion and morality—or widely agreed upon—as in the case of ghosts and phlogiston. It is important to note that error theorists maintain that the judgments in question are erroneous not merely because of the absence of any objective moral facts sufficient to render them true, but also because of the absence of any non-objective moral facts sufficient to render them true. There is, for example, a kind of moral realist who maintains that moral properties are objective features of the universe (see REALISM, MORAL). There is also a family of metaethical views according to which moral properties are in some manner constituted by us—by our beliefs, attitudes, practices, etc.. (shrink)
Davidson’s errortheory about metaphorical meaning has rightly commanded a lot of critical attention over the last twenty five or so years. Each component of that theory – the case for antirealism about metaphorical meanings, the diagnosis of the mistakes that led theorists to falsely ascribe such semantic properties to words and sentences, the suggested functional replacement of such talk in terms of the effects that metaphorical utterances bring about – has been examined, reformulated and criticised. The (...) evaluation of the theory has been far from uniformly negative. It is widely recognized, even by realists about metaphorical meaning, that the ‘conventional wisdom’ about ‘discerning two senses of the predicate term’ that Beardsley had adverted to three years earlier, was shown to be misguided by the considerations that Davidson’s paper brought to bear. Contemporary recognition of the importance of elucidating the dependence of metaphorical language upon its literal base, and upon its context of utterance, can also be seen to have resulted from sustained critical engagement with Davidson’s article. (shrink)
We discuss recent work in experimental philosophy on free will and moral responsibility and then present a new study. Our results suggest an errortheory for incompatibilist intuitions. Most laypersons who take determinism to preclude free will and moral responsibility apparently do so because they mistakenly interpret determinism to involve fatalism or “bypassing” of agents’ relevant mental states. People who do not misunderstand determinism in this way tend to see it as compatible with free will and responsibility. We (...) discuss why these results pose a challenge to incompatibilists. (shrink)
Byrne & Hilbert (B&H) combine physicalism about color with intentionalism about color experience. I argue that this combination leads to an “errortheory” about color experience, that is, the doctrine that color experience is systematically illusory. But this conflicts with another aspect of B&H's position, namely, the denial of errortheory.
The target article proposes an errortheory for religious belief. In contrast, moral beliefs are typically not counterintuitive, and some moral cognition and motivation is functional. Error theories for moral belief try to reduce morality to nonmoral psychological capacities because objective moral beliefs seem too fragile in a competitive environment. An errortheory for religious belief makes this unnecessary.
Moral errortheory 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 errortheory compatible with atheism? This paper defends the thesis that it is compatible against criticisms by Nicholas Sturgeon.
Michael Ruse‘s Darwinian metaethics has come under just criticism from Peter Woolcock (1993). But with modification it remains defensible. Ruse (1986) holds that people ordinarily have a false belief that there are objective moral obligations. He argues that the evolutionary story should be taken as an errortheory, i.e., as a theory which explains the belief that there are obligations as arising from non-rational causes, rather than from inference or evidential reasons. Woolcock quite rightly objects that this (...) position entails moral nihilism. However, I argue here that people generally have justified true beliefs about which acts promote their most coherent set of moral values, and hence, by definition, about which acts are right. What the evolutionary story explains is the existence of these values, but it is not an errortheory for moral beliefs. Ordinary beliefs correspond to real moral properties, though these are not objective or absolute properties independent of anyone‘s subjective states. On its best footing, therefore, a Darwinian metaethics of the type Ruse offers is not an errortheory and does not entail moral nihilism. (shrink)
In this paper, I distinguish between two error theories of morality: one couched in terms of truth (ET1); the other in terms of justification (ET2). 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.
This paper explores the prospects of different forms of moral errortheory. It is argued that only a suitably local errortheory would make good sense of the fact that it is possible to give and receive genuinely good moral advice.
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 errortheory – the idea thatmorality is an illusion foisted upon us by evolution. (...) Thenaturalistic fallacy is a red herring in this debate,since there is really nothing that counts as a fallacy at all. If morality is an illusion, it appears to followthat we should, upon discovering this, abolish moraldiscourse on pain of irrationality. I argue that thisconclusion is too hasty, and that we may be able usefullyto employ a moral discourse, warts and all, withoutbelieving in it. (shrink)
Scientific ideas neither arise nor develop in a vacuum. They are always nutured against a background of prior, partially conflicting ideas. Systemic hypothesistesting is the problem of testing scientific hypotheses relative to various systems of background knowledge. This paper shows how the problem of systemic hypothesis-testing (Sys HT) can be systematically expressed as a constrained maximimization problem. It is also shown how the error of the third kind (E III) is fundamental to the theory of Sys HT.The (...) class='Hi'>error of the third kind is defined as the probability of having solved the ‘wrong’ problem when one should have solved the ‘right’ problem. This paper shows howE III can be given both a systematic as well as a systemic treatment. Sys HT gives rise to a whole host of new decision problems, puzzles, and paradoxes. (shrink)
Moral anti-realism comes in two forms – noncognitivism and the errortheory. 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 explore a dispute among moral error theorists about how to deal with false moral judgments. The advice of the moral abolitionist is to stop making moral judgments, but the contrary advice of the moral fictionalist is to retain moral language and moral thinking. After clarifying the choice that arises for the moral error theorist, I argue that moral abolitionism has much to recommend it. I discuss Mackie’s defense of moral fictionalism as well as a recent version of the same position offered by Daniel Nolan, Greg Restall, and Caroline West. Then I second some remarks Ian Hinckfuss made in his defense of moral abolitionism and his criticism of “the moral society.” One of the worst things about moral fictionalism is that it undermines our epistemology by promoting a culture of deception. To deal with this problem Richard Joyce offers a “non-assertive” version of moral fictionalism as perhaps the last option for an error theorist who hopes to avoid moral abolitionism. I discuss some of the problems facing that form of moral fictionalism, offer some further reasons for adopting moral abolitionism in our personal lives, and conclude with reasons for thinking that abolishing morality may be an essential step in achieving the goals well-meaning moralists and moral fictionalists have always cherished. (shrink)
So-called evolutionary error theorists, such as Michael Ruse and Richard Joyce, have argued that naturalistic accounts of the moral sentiments lead us to adopt an errortheory approach to morality. Roughly, the argument is that an appreciation of the etiology of those sentiments undermines any reason to think that they track moral truth and, furthermore, undermines any reason to think that moral truth actually exists. I argue that this approach offers us a false dichotomy between error (...)theory and some form of moral realism. While accepting the presuppositions of the evolutionary error theorist, I argue that contract-based approaches to morality can be sensitive to those presuppositions while still vindicating morality. Invoking Stephen Darwall’s distinction between contractualism and contractarianism, I go on to offer an evolutionary-based contractarianism. (shrink)
According to John Mackie, moral talk is representational (the realists go that bit right) but its metaphysical presuppositions are wildly implausible (the non-cognitivists got that bit right). This is the basis of Mackie’s now famous errortheory: that moral judgments are cognitively meaningful but systematically false. Of course, Mackie went on to recommend various substantive moral judgments, and, in the light of his errortheory, that has seemed odd to a lot of folk. Richard Joyce has (...) argued that Mackie’s approach can be vindicated by a fictionalist account of moral discourse. And Mark Kalderon has argued that moral fictionalism is attractive quite independently of Mackie’s error-theory. Kalderon argues that the Frege–Geach problem shows that we need moral propositions, but that a fictionalist can and should embrace propositional content together with a non-cognitivist account of acceptance of a moral proposition. Indeed, it is clear that any fictionalist is going to have to postulate more than one kind of acceptance attitude. We argue that this double-approach to acceptance generates a new problem – a descendent of Frege–Geach – which we call the acceptance–transfer problem. Although we develop the problem in the context of Kalderon’s version of non-cognitivist fictionalism, we show that it is not the non-cognitivist aspect of Kalderon’s account that generates the problem. A closely related problem surfaces for the more typical variants of fictionalism according to which accepting a moral proposition is believing some closely related non-moral proposition. Fictionalists of both stripes thus have an attitude problem. (shrink)
Nihilism, Nietzsche and the Doppelganger Problem Was Nietzsche a nihilist? Yes, because, like J. L. Mackie, he was an error-theorist about morality, including the elitist morality to which he himself subscribed. But he was variously a diagnostician, an opponent and a survivor of certain other kinds of nihilism. Schacht argues that Nietzsche cannot have been an error theorist, since meta-ethical nihilism is inconsistent with the moral commitment that Nietzsche displayed. Schacht’s exegetical argument parallels the substantive argument (advocated in (...) recent years by Wright and Blackburn) that Mackie’s errortheory can’t be true because if it were, we would have to give up morality or give up moralizing. I answer this argument with a little bit of help from Nietzsche. I then pose a problem, the Doppelganger Problem, for the meta-ethical nihilism that I attribute to Mackie and Nietzsche. (If A is a moral proposition then not-A is a moral proposition: hence not all moral propositions can be false.) I solve the problem by reformulating the errortheory and also deal with a variant of the problem, the Reinforced Doppelganger, glancing at a famous paper of Ronald Dworkin’s. Thus, whatever its demerits, the errortheory, is not self-refuting, nor does it require us to give up morality. (shrink)
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 (...) only plausible claims that most moral skeptics and error theorists can and do accept. The final section diagnoses why my arguments work. Here, I offer an explanation for the supervenience of the moral on the non-moral that may help those worried that the strategy is a sophisticated trick. I conclude by considering two objections. In replying to these objections, I explain why the strategy may allow us to demonstrate more than “obvious” moral truths, and why it may also address a stronger version of errortheory, according to which, moral truths are not possible. (shrink)
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 errortheory, at any (...) world. So error theorists’ arguments warrant a stronger conclusion than has previously been noticed. This may appear to make them vulnerable to counterarguments that take the possibility of moral facts as a premise. However, I show that any such arguments would be question-begging. (shrink)
7.1 META-ETHICS AND AN ERRORTHEORY ABOUT MORAL CHARACTER It is customary in philosophical ethics to distinguish between meta-ethics and normative ethical theory. Meta-ethics is often characterized as the non-moral study of ...
I offer a critical analysis of a view that has become a dominant aspect of recent thought on the relationship between evolution and morality, and propose an alternative. An ingredient in Michael Ruse's 'errortheory' (Ruse 1995) is that belief in moral (prescriptive, universal, and nonsubjective) guidelines arose in humans because such belief results in the performance of adaptive cooperative behaviors. This statement relies on two particular connections: between ostensible and intentional types of altruism, and between intentional altruism (...) and morality. The latter connection is problematic because it makes morality redundant, its role having already been fulfilled by the psychological dispositions that constitute intentional altruism. Both behavioral ecology and moral psychology support this criticism, and neither human behavioral flexibility nor the self-regard / other-regard distinction can provide a defense of the errortheory. I conclude that morality did not evolve to curb rampant selfishness; instead, the evolutionarily recent 'universal law' aspect of morality may function to update behavioral strategies which were adaptive in the paleolithic environment of our ancestors (to which our psychological dispositions are best adapted), by means of norms more appropriate to our novel social environment. (shrink)
In “The possibility of morality,” Phil Brown considers whether moral errortheory is best understood as a necessary or contingent thesis. Among other things, Brown contends that the argument from relativity, offered by John Mackie—errortheory’s progenitor—supports a stronger modal reading of errortheory. His argument is as follows: Mackie’s is an abductive argument that errortheory is the best explanation for divergence in moral practices. Since errortheory will likewise (...) be the best explanation for similar divergences in possible worlds similar to our own, we may conclude that errortheory is true at all such worlds, just as it is in the actual world. I contend that Brown’s argument must fail, as abductive arguments cannot support the modal conclusions he suggests. I then consider why this is the case, concluding that Brown has stumbled upon new and interesting evidence that agglomerating one’s beliefs can be epistemically problematic—an issue associated most famously with Henry Kyburg’s lottery paradox. (shrink)
Communication is an important feature of the living world that mainstream biology fails to adequately deal with. Applying two main disciplines can be contemplated to fill in this gap: semiotics and information theory. Semiotics is a philosophical discipline mainly concerned with meaning; applying it to life already originated in biosemiotics. Information theory is a mathematical discipline coming from engineering which has literal communication as purpose. Biosemiotics and information theory are thus concerned with distinct and complementary possible meanings (...) of the word ‘communication’. Since literal communication needs to be secured so as to enable semantics being communicated, information theory is a necessary prerequisite to biosemiotics. Moreover, heredity is a purely literal communication process of capital importance fully relevant to literal communication, hence to information theory. A short introduction to discrete information theory is proposed, which is centred on the concept of redundancy and its use in order to make sequences resilient to errors. Information theory has been an extremely active and fruitful domain of researches and the motor of the tremendous progress of communication engineering in the last decades. Its possible connections with semantics and linguistics are briefly considered. Its applications to biology are suggested especially as regards error-correcting codes which are mandatory for securing the conservation of genomes. Biology needs information theory so biologists and communication engineers should closely collaborate. (shrink)