About this topic

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 2004 , Joyce 2005 , and Eli 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.
Related categories

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  1. Moral Fictionalism by Kalderon, Mark. [REVIEW]Zed Adams - 2006 - Ethics 117 (1).
  2. Values in Mackie's Error Theory of Ethics.Timo Airaksinen - 1983 - Inquiry 26 (4):467 – 475.
  3. A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory – Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (Eds).Fritz Allhoff - 2011 - Philosophical Quarterly 61 (243):429-431.
  4. The Ramifications of Error Theories About the Deontic.Vuko Andrić - 2015 - 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 (...)
  5. Mackie's Moral Theory: Conceptual Room for a Taylor-Made Account of the Good Life?D. -P. Baker - 2001 - South African Journal of Philosophy 20 (2):145-158.
  6. In Defence of Morality: A Response to a Moral Error Theory.Paul Barry - 2014 - 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 (...)
  7. Moral Error Theory: History, Critique, Defence Jonas Olson Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014; VIII + 214 Pp.; $49.46. [REVIEW]Félix Aubé Beaudoin - 2015 - Dialogue 54 (3):594-596.
  8. Might All Normativity Be Queer?Matthew S. Bedke - 2010 - 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.
  9. Why We Can Still Believe the Error Theory.Bergamaschi Ganapini Marianna - 2016 - International Journal of Philosophical Studies 24 (4):523-536.
    The error theory is a metaethical theory that maintains that normative judgments are beliefs that ascribe normative properties, and that these properties do not exist. In a recent paper, Bart Streumer argues that it is impossible to fully believe the error theory. Surprisingly, he claims that this is not a problem for the error theorist: even if we can’t fully believe the error theory, the good news is that we can still come close to believing the error theory. In this (...)
  10. Quasi-Realism No Fictionalism.Simon Blackburn - 2005 - In Mark Eli Kalderon (ed.), Fictionalism in Metaphysics. Oxford University Press. pp. 322--338.
  11. Error Theory and the Concept of Morality.Paul Bloomfield - 2013 - 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 (...)
  12. Moral Realism and the Sceptical Arguments From Disagreement and Queerness.David O. Brink - 1984 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62 (2):111 – 125.
  13. The Possibility of Morality.Philip Brown - 2013 - 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’ (...)
  14. Error Theories and Values.John A. Burgess - 1998 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76 (4):534 – 552.
  15. Against Ethics.John P. Burgess - 2007 - 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.
  16. Mackie on Kant's Moral Argument.Keith Burgess-Jackson - 1996 - Sophia 35 (1):5-20.
  17. Review of Richard Joyce, The Myth of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). [REVIEW]Michael Cholbi - 2004 - Utilitas 16 (2):227-229.
  18. A Dilemma for Moral Fictionalism.Matthew Chrisman - 2008 - Philosophical Books 49 (1):4-13.
    This article is a critical study of Mark Kalderon's excellent book *Moral Fictionalism*.
  19. On The Validity of a Simple Argument for Moral Error Theory.Kasper Højbjerg Christensen - 2016 - International Journal of Philosophical Studies 24 (4):508-517.
    In The Myth of Morality Richard Joyce presents a simple and very influential argument for the truth of moral error theory. In this paper I point out that the argument does not have the form Joyce attributes to it, the argument is not valid in an extensional propositional logic and on the most natural way of explicating the meanings of the involved terms, it remains invalid. I conclude that more explanation is needed if we are to accept this particular argument (...)
  20. Mackie's Motivational Argument Philip Clark.Philip Clark - unknown
    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 (...)
  21. Mackie and the Moral Order.Stephen R. L. Clark - 1989 - Philosophical Quarterly 39 (54):98.
  22. Review: Mackie and the Moral Order. [REVIEW]Stephen R. L. Clark - 1989 - Philosophical Quarterly 39 (154):98 - 114.
  23. The Tale of a Moderate Normative Skeptic.Brendan Cline - forthcoming - Philosophical Studies:1-21.
    While Richard Joyce’s moral skepticism might seem to be an extreme metaethical view, it is actually far more moderate than it might first appear. By articulating four challenges facing his approach to moral skepticism, I argue that Joyce’s moderation is, in fact, a theoretical liability. First, the fact that Joyce is not skeptical about normativity in general makes it possible to develop close approximations to morality, lending support to moderate moral revisionism over moral error theory. Second, Joyce relies on strong, (...)
  24. Moral Fictionalism and Moral Reasons.Patrick Clipsham - unknown
    One major problem with moral discourse is that we tend treat moral utterances as if they represent propositions. But complex metaphysical problems arise when we try to describe the nature of the moral facts that correspond to these propositions. If moral facts do not exist, how can moralizers justify engagement in moral practice? One possibility is abolitionism; abandoning morality and growing out of our old habits. Another option that has been suggested is that morality be preserved as a useful fiction. (...)
  25. How to Prove That Some Acts Are Wrong (Without Using Substantive Moral Premises).Christian Coons - 2011 - 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 (...)
  26. V—Moral Nihilism.Neil Cooper - 1974 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 74 (1):75-90.
  27. Why Companions in Guilt Arguments Won't Work.C. Cowie - 2014 - 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 (...)
  28. Good News for Moral Error Theorists: A Master Argument Against Companions in Guilt Strategies.Christopher Cowie - 2016 - 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 (...)
  29. Mark Kalderon, Ed., Fictionalism in Metaphysics Reviewed By.Sam Cowling - 2006 - Philosophy in Review 26 (3):197-199.
  30. Mark Kalderon, Ed., Fictionalism in Metaphysics. [REVIEW]Sam Cowling - 2006 - Philosophy in Review 26:197-199.
  31. Destabilizing the Error Theory.Terence Cuneo - 2016 - In Pedro Schmechtig & Martin Grajner (eds.), Epistemic Reasons, Norms and Goals. De Gruyter. pp. 71-94.
  32. The Myth of Moral Fictionalism.Terence Cuneo & Sean Christy - 2011 - In Michael Brady (ed.), New Waves in Metaethics. Palgrave-Macmillan.
  33. Review of "The Problem of Error". [REVIEW]John E. Curley - 1934 - Modern Schoolman 12:45.
  34. Projection and Pretence in Ethics.Edmund Dain - 2012 - 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, (...)
  35. Review of Mark Kalderon, Moral Fictionalism. [REVIEW]Edmund Dain - 2007 - International Journal of Philosophical Studies 15 (1):146-9.
  36. Moral Error Theory and the Problem of Evil.Chris Daly - 2009 - 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.
  37. Fictionalism in Metaphysics - Edited by Mark Eli Kalderon.Chris Daly - 2007 - Philosophical Books 48 (3):272-274.
  38. In Defence of Error Theory.Chris Daly & David Liggins - 2010 - 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.
  39. Bad News for Moral Error Theorists: There Is No Master Argument Against Companions in Guilt Strategies.Ramon Das - 2016 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 95 (1):58-69.
    A ‘companions in guilt’ strategy against moral error theory aims to show that the latter proves too much: if sound, it supports an implausible error-theoretic conclusion in other areas such as epistemic or practical reasoning. Christopher Cowie [2016 Cowie, C. 2016. Good News for Moral Error Theorists: A Master Argument Against Companions in Guilt Strategies, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 94/1: 115–30.[Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®] [Google Scholar]] has recently produced what he claims is a ‘master argument’ against (...)
  40. Moral Fictionalism. [REVIEW]Dan Demetriou & Graham Oddie - 2007 - Mind 116 (462):439-446.
  41. JL Mackie (1917-1981) and His Theory of Metaethics.B. DeMori - 1997 - Verifiche: Rivista Trimestrale di Scienze Umane 26 (1-2):17-61.
  42. An Argument for an Error Theory of Truth.John Devlin - 2003 - Philosophical Perspectives 17 (1):51–82.
  43. Mackie's Realism.Jamie Dreier - 2010 - 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 (...)
  44. Moral Relativism and Moral Nihilism.Jamie Dreier - 2006 - In David Copp (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Oxford University Press.
  45. The Frege–Geach Problem and Kalderon's Moral Fictionalism.Matti Eklund - 2009 - 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.
  46. Jonas Olson's Evidence for Moral Error Theory.Daan Evers - 2016 - Journal of Moral Philosophy 13 (4):403-418.
    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).
  47. Review of Moral Error Theory, by Jonas Olson. [REVIEW]Daan Evers - 2014 - Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
  48. Are the Moral Fixed Points Conceptual Truths?Daan Evers & Bart Streumer - 2016 - Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy:1-9.
    Terence Cuneo and Russ Shafer-Landau have recently proposed a new version of moral nonnaturalism, according to which there are nonnatural moral concepts and truths but no nonnatural moral facts. This view entails that moral error theorists are conceptually deficient. We explain why moral error theorists are not conceptually deficient. We then argue that this explanation reveals what is wrong with Cuneo and Shafer-Landau’s view.
  49. Mackie's Error Theory and Reasons.Douglas Farland - 2005 - 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. (...)
  50. Errors Upon Errors: A Reply to Joyce.Stephen Finlay - 2011 - 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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