Outline and assess the error theory of moral judgment.

Error theory states that moral judgements lay claim to an objective morality, of which there is none, which means all moral judgements are systematically false.

In this essay it shall be shown that error theory is a sound and useful theory and that other theories that seem to contradict error theory can be sound also and that they are simply analogous to different mental software, or points of view.

The claim of objective morality shall be shown to be exactly the same as the claim of an objective reality and that moral judgements are simply judgements.

I shall delve into quantum mechanics to investigate the paradoxical claim of error theory, which makes a claim about the world saying no one can make true claims about the world.

Error theory example– phlogiston:

Phlogiston is a defunct scientific theory from 17th century that says that (Joyce 2001 23-34) (as cited by Course Pack 2010): 1. phlogiston is released during combustion, 2. phlogiston is stored in bodies 3. soot is made up of phlogiston.

The concept of oxygen was introduced and combustion was understood and the ‘discoverer’ of phlogiston could make no claim that oxygen was the same as his phlogiston. Calling something phlogiston was (and still is) a false assertion.

According Mackie’s error theory making a moral statement is like calling something phlogiston (Mackie 1977) (as cited by Course Pack 2010). It is systematically false. With error theory moral statements such as, ‘recruiting child soldiers is wrong,’ is an assertive statement. It is not a disguised command or an emotive expression of approval or disapproval, it is simply an assertion about the world that is false.

Defining and reducing ‘moral judgement’

A moral judgement that remains un-stated is still a judgement. The word ‘judgement’ implies a slow, careful and conscious deliberation. This is immediately problematic. Time taken in decision making varies a great deal, from split second reflex responses (which can be unlearned) to much longer processes such as deciding what subject to study at University. The decision making process is continuous. For example I do not believe the same things I believed (or decided) when I was three years old regarding the nature of the Universe and I don’t expect to continue with the same configuration decades into the future either. Therefore a judgement is simply a decision, big or small, fast or slow, a data process.

A moral judgement cannot be separated from a judgement. If causality is accepted it becomes clear that every action performed has an affect on ourselves and others, in most cases through inaction. For example, going to the fridge to feed my own selfish stomach instead of catching the first flight to Pakistan to give food to diseased flood victims. Therefore a moral judgement remains identical to a judgement - simply a decision, big or small, fast or slow, a data process.

The soundness of errors

I argue that Error theory is one of a number of sound theories, or software(s) that can be deployed or run by the mind to support the persistent illusion of reality. Any apparent paradox arises only when a person is viewed as an unchanging whole, for which there is no reason.

To expand on this, a digital text document is an illusion on a computer screen created by the computer to enable us to believe there is a document scrolling up and down, spatially. The words do not ‘go up’ when we scroll down. They no longer exist in a form no longer recognizable to us. When someone makes an objective moral claim they are:

1. Claiming to have unhindered access to all their software (running a general search of the hard drive, opening every file in every software program without missing anything) at once.

2. Making the assumption that everyone else has the same software as they do (the same view point).

3. Making the assumption that more data could not refute their moral claim.

Many moral statements people make are said out of short-term habit and upon more in-depth questioning they would admit they were just talking casually. Sometimes however, it may be possible to ‘hear’ or re-perceive the deepest thoughts of the psyche, “clearly and distinctly” as Descartes (Cottingham 1996) put it and make a statement using all the data from all the mental databases. In this case point number 1 can be accepted. Points 2 and 3 however cannot be justified. This means error theory on moral judgement sound.

However, this does not mean error theory cannot co-exist with other sound theories that when compared seem incompatible, such as moral realism. For example there is no way for a Microsoft Word document to allow me to surf the Internet, but switching software is perfectly possible.

The absurd

I will now propose a seemingly irrelevant notion and prove that it is most relevant to all philosophical questions including error theory. Philosophy is the discussion of the most basic question, ‘why should we not commit suicide?’ and the talking around of or avoidance of this question. That is the only real philosophical question. Why are we running the software. Why should we not stop. As I explain this claim its relevance to error theory will emerge.

If someone was asked thousand times why they were doing something they would eventually, probably well within the double digit range reply with a frustrated, “I don’t know.” Perhaps for a while they wouldn’t answer or would use grunts to represent the exertion of defending the attacks. Eventually, either of these two outcomes would occur:

1. An admission from the bullied subject that they just believe things because they have to and they don’t know why. 2. Or, a typically forbidden search of the persons’ database would be allowed. They would ‘open up’ and their elaborate web of baseless reasoning would be explained in detail in the hope of the questioner having mercy and not asking ‘why’ again.

Hume’s pyrrhonism rejects all belief and reasoning (Popkin 1980 103-132). With this view no judgement can be looked upon as more probable or likely to be ‘right’ than another. Hume believes this is what all philosophy leads to. He argues that there could be true proofs, but there is no rational reason for someone to know that it is true. We have to judge our judgements, then judge our judgments of our judgements ad infinitum resulting in the probability of knowledge being 0. Someone can never know they are reasoning logically.

I hold that that this is correct. The reason death is feared is because it is unknown, but if all things are merely probable and therefore unknown then death should be feared no more than anything else and so it is not rational to fear death as we do because we have spent our entire lives in the clutches of the unknown. The unknown is actually, rather familiar.

If one accepts that obtaining the answer to this ultimate question of why should we not commit suicide is impossible, then a vitally important view emerges on the fundamental uselessness of our daily struggles . This is known as the absurd.

This proposition has been previously expressed inter alia in The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (2000, 3):

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”

The maker of a moral judgement is claiming to have found the answer to this question. They are assuming the continuation of life is ‘good’, or in some way better than the alternative. This is completely unjustifiable. Makie therefore is correct in his error theory in that moral judgements must be systematically false – even if he is only right because all judgements must be systematically false.


Before getting carried away the strongest objections to this theory must be examined.

The main objections are: 1. The question of ‘why should I not commit suicide’ is not the most basic philosophical question. 2. Moral judgements cannot be reduced down to minute processes, in which case this is all irrelevant to the error theory. 3. Knowledge is possible and our lives are not spent in the ‘clutches of the unknown’. 4. We have no data on what it is like to not to exist and so in remaining alive at least we can use probability. 5. How can I justify remaining alive if I agree with my own argument?

I shall attempt answer these point by point:

1. This objection can be answered by asking if it is not, then what is? Perhaps the objector would say, ‘what am I?’ Is the most basic question. They would possibly agree with Descartes in being a “thing that thinks” (Cottingham 1985) (as cited by Chalmers 2002, 11). To which I would reply; what is ‘thinking’ but the systematic avoidance of the actual most basic question? 2. This position can only be held by someone with a more limited awareness of the causal effects of their daily existence. 3. The claim that knowledge is possible is a basic disagreement with pyrrhonism and is unjustifiable and can be rejected as an example of someone using realist software to avoid addressing the most basic question.

To address points 4 and 5 the use of quantum mechanics is essential, in order to tackle the fundamental issue with error theory, of objectivity.

Quantum mechanics

Quantum mechanics is the study of the motion of sub-atomic particles, or ‘quanta’ of which all things that exist are made (http://en.wikipedia.org/). In the sub-atomic realm the laws of Newtonian physics and common sense rationality do not apply. A highly selective account of quantum mechanics here is required:

Unlike the motion of things that are on a scale we are used to such as cars and footballs, it is not possible to measure both the position and momentum of sub-atomic particles. The more you know about the position, the less you can know about the momentum. If you focus on the exact position, you can know nothing whatsoever about the momentum, and vice versa. This is not due to equipment limitations, but rather the nature of sub-atomic particles (Zukav 2001).

According to quantum mechanics it is not possible even in principle to predict the future accurately. We can focus on only one thing precisely. This is known as Heisnburgs uncertainty principle (Zukav 2001). We must choose to what extent we measure the position or momentum of a particle. We cannot observe something at the sub-atomic level without changing it.

Therefore there is no such thing as an independent observer who can make objective claims about realty.

As important as the above point is in backing up the thesis of this essay, it does not answer objections 4 and 5. This is where the march of the ugly paradoxes becomes deafening, to the point where we are forced to ignore them completely.

Proceeding onwards, it can be asked; did the particle exist before we measured it? Did we create them? According to Newtonian physics these questions are nonsense, they are ‘absurd,’ but Newtonian physics has limited usefulness. When something is deemed scientifically ‘true’ it is only really saying that it is ‘useful’ and works within a tested model. Newtonian physics is useful, but not ‘true’. It does not work with sub-atomic particles. Paradoxical quantum mechanics does.

The paradox

In order to be utterly thorough and answer objections 4 and 5 I have no choice but to acknowledge two paradoxes.

Objection 4 taps into a quantum mechanical or spiritual paradox. Particles in quantum mechanics are referred to as, “tendencies to exist or tendencies to happen” (Zukav 2001). They have no substance. This is the same as saying the Universe has no substance.

Nobel Prize winning physicist Neils Bohr (1958) (as cited by Zukav 2001, 95) said:

“Light has no properties independent of us. This is the same as saying it does not exist. Without us, or anything else to interact with, light does not exist. And without light, or anything else for us to interact with, we do not exist”

Therefore the objective/subjective distinction does not exist or make any sense at all in quantum mechanics. In a tragic irony that after millennia the scientists are reaching the same conclusion the Buddists and other Eastern religions reached. There is only a oneness, a oneness of consciousness.

Therefore objection 4 does not make sense because non-existence has never existed. I can reply to objection 5 and justify my remaining alive because I believe myself to be an epicentre of consciousness. There can be no absolute right or wrong transmitted through written or verbal symbols, only usefulness for consciousness – which we, and the Universe, are. Philosophy, science and mysticism collide.


Error theory on moral judgement is sound and useful. I have demonstrated this by zooming in on reality as far as possible and returning with an answer. To find out if something has a base to it one must go beneath it; not continue at the same level asking what other people think. Incompatible theories can be used by the same mind like computer software programs as long as they are useful in themselves. Error theory is currently one such theory for this mind.


Brock, S and Edwin, M. (2007) Realism and anti-realism, UK: Acumen

Camus, A. (2000, 3) The Myth of Sisyphus, London: Penguin Classics

Cottingham, J. (eds) (1996) Descartes meditations on first philosophy with selections from the objections and replies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Cottingham, J (trans) (1985) Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes, Cambridge University Press in Chalmers, D. (2002, 11) Philosophy of mind classical and contemporary readings, New York: Oxford University Press

Joyce, R. (2001 23-34) The myth of morality in Course Pack. (2010) Realism and Normativity, Bristol: The University of Bristol

Kalderon, M. (2005) Moral fictionalim, New York: Oxford University Press

Mackie, J. (1977) The subjectivity of values in Course Pack. (2010) Realism and Normativity, Bristol: The University of Bristol

Popkin, R. (1980 103-132) The high road to pyrrhonism, San Diego in Course Pack. (2009) Introduction to Philosophy A, Bristol: The University of Bristol

Quantum Mechanics. Wikipedia consulted 10.11.10 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mechanics>

Zukav, G. (2001) The dancing wu li masters, New York: Bantam Books

Realism and Normativity

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