In defense of moral error theory

In Michael Brady (ed.), New Waves in Metaethics. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan (2010)
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Abstract

My aim in this essay is largely defensive. I aim to discuss some problems for moral error theory and to offer plausible solutions. A full positive defense of moral error theory would require substantial investigations of rival metaethical views, but that is beyond the scope of this essay. I will, however, try to motivate moral error theory and to clarify its commitments. Moral error theorists typically accept two claims – one conceptual and one ontological – about moral facts. The conceptual claim is that moral facts are or entail facts about categorical reasons (and correspondingly that moral claims are or entail claims about categorical reasons); the ontological claim is that there are no categorical reasons – and consequently no moral facts – in reality. I accept this version of moral error theory and I try to unpack what it amounts to in Section 2.1 In the course of doing so I consider two preliminary objections: that moral error theory is (probably) false because its implications are intuitively unacceptable (what I call the Moorean objection) and that the general motivation for moral error theory is self-undermining in that it rests on a hidden appeal to norms. The above characterization seems to entail the standard formulation of moral error theory, according to which first-order moral claims are uniformly false. Critics have argued that the standard formulation is incoherent since – by the law of excluded middle – the negation of a false claim is true. Hence if ‘Torture is wrong’ is false, ‘Torture is not wrong’ is true. Contrary to what moral error theorists contend, then, moral error theory seems to carry first-order moral implications that by the theory’s own lights are uniformly false. In Section 3 I suggest a formulation that is consistent with the standard formulation of moral error theory, free of first-order moral implications, and subject to no logical difficulties. In Section 4 I consider and rebut Stephen Finlay’s recent attack on moral error theory. According to Finlay the conceptual claim is false because all moral claims – and indeed all normative claims – are, or should be understood as, relativized to some moral standard or system of ends. Moral error theorists thus attribute to ordinary speakers an error that simply isn’t there. I argue that Finlay’s view has some very implausible implications and that it does not avoid commitment to various forms of error theory. This becomes especially clear when we focus on fundamental moral claims. In Section 5 I consider the worry that error theorists’ rejection of categorical reasons proves too much; in particular, the worry that error theorists’ qualms about categorical reasons apply equally to claims about hypothetical reasons, that is, claims to the effect that there is reason to take the means to one’s ends. In my view error theorists such as Mackie and Joyce have failed to pay due consideration to this problem. What the challenge establishes, I submit, is that error theorists cannot just take for granted that hypothetical reasons are metaphysically unproblematic; they must offer an account of hypothetical reasons that shows that they are. I argue that the only plausible account available to error theorists is one according to which claims about hypothetical reasons reduce to non-normative claims about relations between means and ends.

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Jonas Olson
Stockholm University

Citations of this work

Moral Error Theory: History, Critique, Defence.Jonas Olson - 2014 - Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Defining Normativity.Stephen Finlay - 2019 - In Toh Kevin, Plunkett David & Shapiro Scott (eds.), Dimensions of Normativity: New Essays on Metaethics and Jurisprudence. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 62-104.
Can We Believe the Error Theory?Bart Streumer - 2013 - Journal of Philosophy 110 (4):194-212.
Disagreement Lost and Found.Stephen Finlay - 2017 - In Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Oxford Studies in Metaethics 12. Oxford University Press. pp. 187-205.

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