Exploring Moral Error Theory - An Introduction

Reference Material:
The Myth of Morality by Richard Joyce
Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong by J. L. Mackie

        Next stop on our whirlwind tour of naturalism and its implications (see Naturalism), a simple and uncontroversial subject – morality. In a naturalistic world, governed by laws of nature, where does the moral fit in? To expand a bit – descriptive claims (what exists, what happens) are right at home in, and indeed constitutive of, a naturalistic worldview. But normative claims, the core of morality, seem somehow out of place. If the world is composed of physical entities operating according to the laws of nature, what does it mean to say “you should x”, “they really ought not y”, or “it’s better that z”? I want to explore one possible approach to this apparent conundrum – moral error theory. This position, partially by virtue of its name, can be easily misunderstood or misconstrued as something that it’s not. So before delving into the specifics of the theory and the arguments in favor of it, I want to place it in context by offering a brief (and very incomplete) taxonomy of metaethical positions. The goal is to provide some kind of conceptual foundation from which to better understand moral error theory. Here goes…
        First, moral error theory is a species of moral naturalism. One way to understand this is to consider what moral non-naturalism might entail. Broadly speaking, non-naturalism claims that moral facts lie, in some sense to be specified, outside the realm of natural facts. From a naturalistic perspective, this obviously raises some eyebrows. Assuming a central tenet of naturalism, the so-called causal closure of the physical (roughly, every physical effect has a physical cause), moral non-naturalism seems to imply that moral facts, lying outside the natural realm, cannot be physical causes and therefore can have no physical effects. What is more, because we come to know the world through the physical processes of our senses, moral facts, having no causal impetus in the physical world, seem to be unable to affect our knowledge. How, then, would we come to know such facts? Moral naturalism accepts these difficulties as ultimately insurmountable, and therefore tries to place moral facts (if such things exist) within the natural realm.
        Second, moral error theory is a brand of cognitivism. In moral philosophy, cognitivism is basically the thesis that moral claims are truth claims, and that the mental state associated with such truth claims is belief. This is in contrast to non-cognitivism, which holds that moral utterances are not in fact claims to truth, but rather something else, perhaps expressions of an attitude or an emotion, or veiled commands. I won’t defend cognitivism in detail here, but I would offer briefly an argument in support of it that I find very intuitive. Joyce observes that a central feature distinguishing cognitivism from noncognitivism is the idea that moral claims are made as assertions. He then describes a line of thinking originally due to Peter Glassen. Let’s observe how people out in the world actually use moral language. If this usage shares many features with other kinds of assertions, that is a strong indication that moral statements are in fact assertoric. And there are many such shared features – moral claims are: expressed in the indicative, considered true or false, considered objective or impersonal, debated as factual claims are, and appear as premises in valid arguments, to name a few (13).
        So moral error theory lives in this metaethical space where moral claims are considered assertions of particular truths (cognitivism) within the natural world (naturalism). In this context, the error theoretic position is, roughly speaking, that such claims make some sort of systematic error. This error will be characterized in more detail later. As an introduction to the idea, however, there is an analogy I found quite illuminating. It comes from the history of chemistry. Circa 1700, chemists explained combustion by reference to a substance known as phlogiston, thought to be released when combustible materials burned. They might have made claims such as “this substance is rich in phlogiston – handle with care” or “look, you can observe the phlogiston leaving right there”, etc. Lavoisier’s investigations of combustion, however, showed the process to actually be the oxidizing of the combustible material. There simply was no such thing as phlogiston.
        What should we then make of all the claims about phlogiston made by Lavoisier’s predecessors and contemporaries? Were they simply false? Not really. Claims about nonexistent entities behave strangely. To use an example borrowed from P. F. Strawson – is it true or false that “the present king of France is drunk”? Well, it’s certainly not true, because France doesn’t have a king. But nor is it false, because it’s negation, “the present king of France is sober”, is also not true. It’s untrue because “the present king of France” fails to refer to anything that actually exists. Likewise with “phlogiston is released during combustion”. Untrue statements such as these abounded throughout the discourse surrounding phlogiston. Rather than labelling these statements false, it would be more accurate to say that the phlogiston discourse was and is fundamentally flawed. The discourse is flawed because it’s central concept, phlogiston, fails to refer to anything in reality.
        It’s worth briefly expanding on this idea of the centrality of a concept within a discourse. If 18th century chemists, upon reviewing Lavoisier’s work, said “ah yes, this oxygen – that’s actually what we meant by phlogiston all along!”, we would not accept that. That’s because oxygen is consumed during combustion, and the whole point of the phlogiston concept is to talk about a substance that is released during combustion. In Joyce’s language, that phlogiston is released during combustion is a non-negotiable part of phlogiston discourse (4). When it was discovered there was no such substance released, phlogiston discourse was shown to be flawed.
        Moral error theory claims that moral discourse is flawed in a similar way. The argument, to be presented in the next post, is largely Joyce’s, supplemented by Mackie’s more foundational work. It follows a two-step procedure that parallels the phlogiston analogy (5). First, identify certain concepts that are a central, non-negotiable part of moral discourse (phlogiston is released during combustion). Second, show these concepts to be empty, confused, or otherwise flawed (there exists no such released substance).
        Now that we have an initial idea of what a moral error theory might look like, I’ll close with a short discussion of what is really being claimed, and what isn’t. A very important distinction is between first and second order moral statements. Mackie explains this very well in his preface:

A moral or ethical statement may assert that some particular action is right or wrong; or that actions of certain kinds are so; it may offer a distinction between good and bad characters or dispositions; or it may propound some broad principle from which many more detailed judgements of these sorts might be inferred – for example, that we ought always to aim at the greatest happiness, or try to minimize the total suffering of all sentient beings, or devote ourselves wholly to the service of God, or that it is right and proper for everyone to look after himself. All such statements express first order ethical judgements of different degrees of generality. By contrast with all these, a second order statement would say what is going on when someone makes a first order statement, in particular, whether such a statement expressed a discovery or a decision, or it may make some point about how we think and reason about moral matters, or put forward a view about the meanings of various ethical terms. (9)

Moral error theory is a second order moral claim. If misinterpreted as a first order claim, the position can easily be confused with certain first order moral stances. One is a kind of nihilistic rejection of morality that claims, for example, that all commonly held moral beliefs are useless, meaningless, and should be rightly ignored. Another is what is usually called moral relativism – typically the view that every society has its own morality, and people are justified, or perhaps obligated, to act according to moral principles as defined by the society in which they find themselves. Moral error theory makes neither of these first order claims.
        That’s it for an introduction to moral error theory. Up next – the actual argument.