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Error Theory

1. Explaining the basic idea of an error theory about moral judgments

(a) Some examples: phlogiston, witches, and atheists about religious talk. (b) Non-cognitivism not plausible in these cases: No one holds that the scientists of the 18th century, when they made claims about phlogiston, were merely expressing their emotions or desires. They were making claims about ‘phlogiston’, it is just that there was nothing that ‘phlogiston’ actually referred to. © Clarifying the sense in which the claims in question are intended to be false: Even now we can make true claims about phlogiston and witches, e.g. ‘Phlogiston does not exist’, but it is not this sort of claim that we are concerned with and which we are error theorists about; rather it is claims that presuppose or assert the existence of phlogiston or witches; e.g. ‘that substance has just released some phlogiston’.

The error theorist about moral judgments claims that moral judgments are analogous to claims about phlogiston and witches.

2. Mackie’s arguments for an error theory

Mackie thinks that it is built into our ordinary patterns of thought and the way that language is used that moral judgments include a claim to objectivity, to what he calls ‘objective, intrinsic, prescriptivity’ (35). But he thinks that our language and patterns of thought systematically mislead us. On his view, we must adopt an error theory about moral judgments:

a theory that although most people in making moral judgments implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false (35).

Mackie thinks that since such an error theory goes against common sense, it ‘needs very solid support’. He thinks that such support can be provided by two main types of argument.

(i) The argument from disagreement (Mackie calls this ‘the argument from relativity’) Descriptive/empirical premise: ‘the well known variation in moral codes from one society to another and from one period to another, and also the differences in moral beliefs between different groups and classes within a complex community’ (36).

This is taken to provide ‘indirect support’ for moral error theory:

Conclusion: ‘Radical differences between first order moral judgments make it difficult to treat those judgments as apprehensions of objective truths’ (36).

Ordinary moral thought, on M’s view, commits us to radical disagreement.

Possible replies: (1) Genuine moral disputes need not even in principle be resolvable, even on a moral realist view, since moral reality might be ‘messy’. Moral ties might occur and objective moral values might be incommensurable.

(2) On many occasions it could be that moral disagreements actually hinge on disagreement about non-moral matters.

(ii) The argument from queerness This argument has two parts, one metaphysical, one epistemological.

Metaphysical arg.: ‘If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.’ (38).

Epistemological arg.: ‘Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else’ (38).

Mackie claims that Plato’s Forms provide us with a picture of what objective values would have to be like. As Mackie sees it, the Form of the Good is such that knowledge of it would provide the agent with (i) a direction (showing him that he should pursue something) and (ii) an overriding motive (making him be motivated to pursue it). An objective good would be sought by anyone acquainted with it, on this view, not because of the ‘contingent fact that this person, or every person, is so constituted that he desires this end, but just because the end has to-be-pursuedness somehow built into it’ (40).

Possible replies: To the metaphysical arg.: Mackie insists that moral facts would be utterly different from anything else in the universe. But a number of realists would disagree. As I mentioned in the last lecture, many realists are naturalists, and thus think that moral facts are natural facts. (Furthermore, moral realists could be externalists about moral motivation and so not accept Mackie’s characterisation of moral facts as necessarily motivating.)

To the epistemological arg.: naturalistic moral realists will claim that the identification of the relevant natural facts (or the conditions under which natural facts constitute a moral fact) is achievable through a combination of (a) moral theory and (b) empirical naturalistic investigation.

Non-naturalist realists (like John McDowell – see his ‘Values and Secondary Qualities’ in the CP) clearly have more of an issue with Mackie’s metaphysical argument. But are there any ‘companions in guilt’ (Mackie: 39)?

3. Fictionalism about moral judgments

For those who accept an error theory of moral judgments, what then?

One option is to become a moral eliminativist; that is, to insist that all substantive moral discourse should be eliminated from our language. This is analogous to what an atheist might think about God-talk, and what we think about phlogiston-talk and witch-talk. But this has not been the approach that error theorists have generally adopted.

The other option is to insist that it is legitimate for moral discourse to continue even though it purports to be about a reality that does not exist. The discourse is allowed in so far as it serves an important function. This is moral fictionalism: moral talk, on this view, is an important fiction that we employ for various instrumental reasons; e.g. maintaining social cooperation.

(Of course, realists will argue that we are right to be affected by moral statements because they do latch on to something real.)

Further Reading:

Mackie and Joyce. Joyce in his The Myth of Morality, CUP, 2001. See that for more discussion. See also his article ‘Moral Anti-Realism’ in the (online) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. - Kalderon, M. Moral Fictionalism, Clarendon Press, 2005, provides an account of moral fictionalism that is closer to non-cognitivism.

Realism and Normativity


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