Sunday, December 11, 2016

On Moral Error Theory


Moral Error Theory is a cognitivist position in irrealist meta ethics which contends that:

1. All moral claims are false.

2. That we have reason to believe all moral claims ere false.

3. No moral features exist; Existence is neither intrinsically good or evil.

4. Moral value judgments attempt, but fail, to refer to moral features in the world (because there are none).

In other words, on this view moral terms and sentences attempt to state facts but always fail as they are merely communicating falsities (mistaken belief).

Perhaps the most well known moral error theorist is J. L. Mackie, who defended this meta-ethical view in his book 'Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong'.

Mackie clearly distinguished himself from non cognitivists and logical positivists when he wrote: 'Although logical positivism with its verifiability theory of descriptive meaning gave an impetus to non-cognitive accounts of ethics, it is not only logical positivists but also empiricists of a much more liberal sort who should find objective values hard to accommodate. Indeed, I would not only reject the verifiability principle but also deny the conclusion commonly drawn from it, that moral judgements lack descriptive meaning. The assertion that there are objective values or intrinsically prescriptive entities or features of some kind, which ordinary moral judgements presuppose, is, I hold, not meaningless but false.'

Mackie put forth 2 main arguments in support of error theory.


On page 37 of his book (mentioned above) he states that "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. 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. These points were recognized by Moore when he spoke of non-natural qualities, and by the intuitionists in their talk about a ‘faculty of moral intuition’. Intuitionism has long been out of favour, and it is indeed easy to point out its implausibilities." And thus he claims there is sufficient reason to doubt the existence of 'objective values'.

To put it another way: the 'objective moral values' view (moral realism) would have us believe that moral prescription somehow motivates (magically?) and provides reasons for action independent of our subjective, desires, and aversions. However such a claim seems totally detached from reality and our experience of it, and thus can be reasonably rejected.


The Argument from Relativity (or the Argument from Disagreement) makes an empirical observation. It points to the fact of wide spread disagreement concerning what is purportedly 'morally acceptable'. In his book Mackie argues that this phenomena (moral disagreement) is more reasonably explained by moral irrealism rather than moral realism. That is, given the fact of widespread moral disagreement it seems more plausible that morality is a human convention and far less likely that there exists some meta physical realm of 'objective values' to which (apparently) some cultures have flawed epistemic access.

Concerning this Mackie wrote: 'Disagreement about moral codes seems to reflect people’s adherence to and participation in different ways of life. The causal connection seems to be mainly that way round: it is that people approve of monogamy because they participate in a monogamous way of life rather than that they participate in a monogamous way of life because they approve of monogamy.
Of course, the standards may be an idealization of the way of life from which they arise: the monogamy in which people participate may be less complete, less rigid, than that of which it leads them to approve. This is not to say that moral judgements are purely conventional. Of course there have been and are moral heretics and moral reformers, people who have turned against the established rules and practices of their own communities for moral reasons, and often for moral reasons that we would endorse. But this can usually be understood as the extension, in ways which, though new and unconventional, seemed to them to be required for consistency, of rules to which they already adhered as arising out of an existing way of life. In short, the argument from relativity has some force simply because the actual variations in the moral codes are more readily explained by the hypothesis that they reflect ways of life than by the hypothesis that they express perceptions, most of them seriously inadequate and badly distorted, of objective values.' 

No comments:

Post a Comment