Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).
How can you say that if you're an errror theorist?
(Republished from Talking Philosophy (2012).)
Now and then, when I’m involved in discussion of some question of normative ethics or the like, I’ll get a response along the lines of, “How can you say that when you’re an error theorist?!”
Note that large assumptions are being made here. One is that I am, in fact, an error theorist as that is understood in contemporary metaethics. In fact, I tend to use formulations such as that I think moral error theory “has a point”, or that it’s the standard metaethical position that I think is “closest to the truth”, or that I am “attracted” to moral error theory, etc. What I try to avoid doing, though I don’t say I’ve always succeeded (since it’s often necessary to take conversational shortcuts), is to say, outright, “I am a moral error theorist.”
That’s partly because moral error theory has come to mean something quite specific that is not necessarily what J.L. Mackie advocated in the first place, and I don’t necessarily buy a theory quite that specific even though I agree with 90 per cent of what I read in Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. I actually prefer to call myself a moral sceptic (or “skeptic” if you prefer), which is a vaguer term that can cover a range of positions.
The difficulty here is that moral error theory has come to mean the claim that all of our first-order moral judgments (or perhaps just a very large sub-set of our standard kinds of first-order moral judgments) are truth-apt but false. The usual way, though by no means the only way, that this result is derived is to begin with the claim that there are no objectively binding behavioural standards or objectively prescriptive moral properties. This is then combined with a semantic claim that first-order moral judgments purport to refer to such standards or properties. For example, it might be that “Torturing babies is morally wrong” means something like “Torturing babies is prohibited by an objectively binding behavioural standard.” Since no such objectively binding behavioural standards exist, “Torturing babies is morally wrong” turns out to be false – in much the same way that “Samantha is a (real) witch” will always turn out to be false because there are no (real) witches in the requisite sense (i.e., no women with supernatural powers, involvement with the devil, etc.).
Even if we think that there are no objectively binding behavioural standards, in the relevant sense, or objectively prescriptive moral properties, in the relevant sense, it does not follow that moral error theory is true. It would only follow that moral error theory is true if we accepted a moral semantics in which first-order moral judgments purport to refer to such non-existent standards, properties, etc. Perhaps we should accept such a moral semantics, but it might get complicated. And of course there are notoriously analyses of moral language that do not require any such semantics – non-cognitivist analyses, moral naturalist analyses, relativist analyses of various kinds, and doubtless others.
It’s also likely, I think, that our moral language is not monolithic and is not simple even in particular cases. For example, some of our moral language, but not all of it, might best be analysed along non-cognitivist lines. Some of it might be best analysed along moral naturalist lines – for example, if I say, “Torturing babies is cruel” I might be saying something that is quite true, and yet this is a moral judgment. Perhaps it combines a factual statement about the painful consequences of torturing babies with an expression of repugnance at the practice and/or a prescription that others avoid it. Moral judgments, particularly “thick” ones, but perhaps not only those, might have mixed content of some kind.
The point that I want to suggest at this stage is that scepticism about objectively binding behavioural standards, objectively prescriptive moral properties, and the like, need not cash out in the belief that first-order moral judgments are simply false, or that all of them are.
This can actually get very messy, and I don’t claim to have got to the bottom of it all. For what it’s worth, I do tend to think that at least some of our first-order moral judgments are, strictly speaking, false, for the sorts of reasons typically advanced by moral error theorists. But that is a long way from accepting moral error theory of the the simplistic kind that is usually portrayed in undergraduate philosophy courses or even in philosophy text books.
But let’s assume for the sake of arguments that all first-order moral judgments actually are false. Perhaps so! Does it follow that we should give up making such judgments? Not obviously. Take the judgment that torturing babies is morally wrong. If this means that torturing babies is forbidden by an objectively binding behavioural standard, and assuming there are no such standards, then, strictly speaking, the sentence is false. But there may well be – I’m sure there are – true statements in the vicinity.
For example, it might still be true that: “Torturing babies is forbidden by standards that everyone in this conversation accepts.” And/or it might still be true that: “Torturing babies is forbidden by standards that it would be prudent for me to follow as a package, to promote my own long-term self-interest.” Or it might still be true that “Torturing babies is forbidden by standards that it would be prudent for everyone involved in this conversation and everyone else in their societies to follow as a package, in order to produce mutual advantage.” Or it might still be true that “Torturing babies is forbidden by standards that I try to follow and invite you to follow.” And so on.
I’m not suggesting that “Torturing babies is morally wrong” means any of the things in the previous paragraph, though we could probably find theorists who would defend one or other of these meanings. Nonetheless, there may be a causal story as to why we make the moral judgments that we do, involving the truth of some of these and related propositions, even though the statements that we make when we make moral judgments are, strictly speaking, false. We actually do, for example, have moral standards, these are largely shared, and they are not entirely arbitrary. They may not be objectively binding on us, but they may well have personal (for long-term self-interest) and social benefit.
Moral error theorists don’t have to deny any of this. In which case, it’s not obvious that moral error theorists should advocate abolishing language such as “Torturing babies is morally wrong.”
Even if I were a full-blown textbook moral error theorist, with no misgivings about the theory at all, I might think that there is utility in continuing to employ this kind of language, even in my own self-talk, thereby buying into a useful fiction that torturing babies is forbidden by an objectively binding standard (not merely a personally or socially beneficial one).
Or I might think that there is benefit in going on using such language while having in mind something more like “Torturing babies is wrong by a standard that I accept and invite you to accept, and which I think you probably have good reasons to accept given your own values.” If she is open, in appropriate contexts, that this is what she has in mind, a moral error theorist might think that the meaning of such sentences will ultimately be revised – people generally, or at least those she is likely to be talking to, will eventually come to use the language in this revisionary way. After all, she might think, the real point (in some sense) of first-order moral language is to make judgments based on standards that are personally and socially beneficial, and it is not strictly necessary for us to rationalise these standards as also being objectively binding.
All that said, some moral error theorists – moral abolitionists – actually do think it is more beneficial to give up on making moral judgments, once we see through them, as it were. There might also be a partial abolitionist position that suggests that we stop making some kinds of moral judgments but not others – the complexities of moral semantics and our social situations might support some nuanced approach along these lines.
In the upshot, scepticism about such things as objectively binding moral standards (a scepticism that I definitely share) goes only part of the way toward moral abolitionism: advocacy of the total abolition of moral judgments. In my own case, I am certainly aware of these issues when writing about how we should behave, what dispositions of character are virtuous or vicious, etc., and the language that I use is, indeed, moulded to an extent by my tentative views about the issues I’ve discussed in this post. I engage, I suppose, in a mix of revisionism and partial abolitionism.
The point is simply that even a moral sceptic – indeed, even a textbook moral error theorist – can have plenty of reasons not to abandon moral talk entirely. To assume otherwise is to skate over a host of complex and controversial issues.