Taking the 'error' out of Ruse's error theory

Biology and Philosophy 12 (3) (1997)

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 error theory, 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 error theory 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 error theory and does not entail moral nihilism.
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