Error Theory of Ethics

Error Theory of Ethics

1. Introduction

There is a modern argument from biologists that moral philosophy is strictly superfluous; that a general understanding of what is good or right can be derived from an elaborate consideration of the innate social instincts of man, together with the knowledge of general economic laws, which scientific study can impart. It is to be feared that this confident prediction will be justified, and that a true theory of ethics is bound to become a rarity. Yet the influence of such a philosophic theory upon the practical decision of everyday problems is out of all proportion to the conscious hold it has upon the mind of the age, and it is often strongest when it is least avowed. A man with a scientific theory of a different school depends for its actual influence upon the concrete premises which it imparts. Now the concrete premises of ethical theories are for the most part borrowed from a more general philosophic logic, and often from a metaphysic; and it is here therefore that both challenge and defense must primarily be made. As regards the metaphysical premises, the situation is constantly changing, and identity of metaphysical theory between two ages is more apparent than real; it is therefore undesirable to lay out a system of ethics which shall be bound to any one set of metaphysical opinions, and the detailed defense of any single ethical premise will have to wait its turn with the metaphysic of its day. But the presuppositions of philosophic logic have varied much less in history, and here consistency will demand a more definite stand. Ethics has been unduly dogmatic; still more it has been creed-ridden. A general skepticism about first principles is the condition in which it can do least harm and be of almost service. This philosophic theory of error, the generalization of that criticism of ethical beliefs which is at once the effect and the cause of transition in moral systems, is the subject of the following essay. A theory of error in general must be both ontological and psychological, a statement of what on each occasion error actually is, and a theory of how and why error is liable to exist. And the former part of such a theory must be critical as well as descriptive, for there are many false theories of error, and any theory, if it be old and serious, will itself be liable to error. But in moral and political matters ontological and psychological problems have no sharp division, for an inquiry into what a thing is, is the best way to find out why it is liable to be something else. And the theory of error in these departments will further merge at many points into a special practical criticism of particular beliefs.

2. Main Arguments of Error Theory

The main argument of Mackie’s is that moral phenomena, such as moral judgments and properties, are part of our general understanding of the world and assume that there exist objective values. The assumption of morality and its objectivity are often made by people in explanations and criticism of behaviour, yet these assume that there exist ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways to behave and that people can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about what they do. That is to say, if someone kills a person to take a higher paying job but feels guilty about it, a non-objectivist would say that he was irrational because he felt guilty about doing something which wasn’t really wrong. An error theorist would deny this and say that guilt is quite sensical and the act is wrong; the murderer would be doing something bad and would believe that he is doing something bad and therefore would think that he’d done something bad. Feeling guilt is simply a response to having done something which one believes to be wrong and would be a sign of irrationality if the action or the belief about the moral nature of the action was not wrong.

3. Criticisms of Error Theory

The third and last criticism is that error theory undermines the possibility of moral change. If it is the case that all moral propositions are uniformly false, there is nothing for us to try to get right, and hence no way of bringing it about that things are morally better than they are. As Barrow puts it, “If there are no facts in this area that call for correct description, nothing can count as making moral progress.” This poses a serious threat to error theory as if the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade or the civil rights movement are not examples of moral progress, it is difficult to think of what would be. An error theorist must provide an account of moral change consistent with the belief in the uniform falsity of moral judgments. This will be challenging.

The second criticism is that error theory entails that everyone is seriously deluded about morality. This makes morality look like an irrational practice and our access to moral knowledge and reality seem implausible. Error theory seems to push the error theorist into a kind of relativism. This is not particularly troubling as Crisp rightly notes that the charm of error theory may lie in the fact that it can be combined with different views about what morality is. However, the implicit relativism in suggesting that all cultures have been mistaken about something as fundamental to human practice as morality suggests an extreme form of relativism wherein one can be wrong about something despite it being culturally relative to their place and time. Error theory may be a victim of the same fate that befalls its attempted analysis of moral discourse, as it may make a mistake in describing the nature of morality.

The first criticism is that if moral judgments are beliefs which purport to describe moral reality, and error theory holds that they are all false, it seems odd that so many would be false every time. A useful analogy here would be to consider what would happen if we were to discover that every instance of the judgments such as “it’s raining” or “I am sad” were false. If we were to learn that the world is and always has been such that rain has never fallen and no one has ever felt sad, this would certainly be surprising. Similarly, if it were the case that it has always been the case that stealing is not wrong despite the fact that everyone believes that it is, this too would be surprising. The odds against the uniform falsity in every case of the moral judgment are stacked against the error theorist. Moreover, it seems unlikely that in making these judgments we are attempting to describe some sort of strange eerie moral world.

There are many potential criticisms of error theory, some more damaging than others. In this essay, I shall consider in turn three of the most damaging criticisms and then offer a response on behalf of the error theorist.

4. Implications of Error Theory

If, according to error theory, when we say ‘stealing is wrong’, we are mistaken because it is not the case that stealing possesses some objective feature of wrongness, then it follows that whenever there is a putative moral statement, we are always mistaken. This is the implication that Mackie fought that no doubt looks highly contradictory but nevertheless seems to follow logically. The most powerful evidence that Mackie used to back his implications is the way we always back up our moral judgment. We find that when we make a moral judgment, we feel as if we are discovering some objective feature of the world, and when we dispute a moral issue, we feel as if we are debating about who’s got the fact right, not creating the fact itself. For example, when we argue on the issue of whether euthanasia should be legalized, we are not arguing whether it is right to legalize euthanasia even if it brings great benefit to the community concerned. The more conservative view holds that we are debating an issue of fact – whether euthanasia possesses some objectively right feature. This strong appearance that morality is ‘discovering an objective fact’ is what Mackie finds to be the best supporting point against realists. He argues that since no moral judgment is in agreement with any objective fact, this appearance is actually and always a delusion. He said that when we say stealing is wrong, it is shorthand for saying that an action like stealing will always be condemned under the same condemnation. But this is as good as saying that there is an objective property to stealing that makes it condemned by the same terms and that the property is wrongness. If this feature that we are translating is really an objective one, then there can be no other issue as to whether the right translation has been made. And here lies the mistake, the translation could be successful but the feature still may not be an objective one.

5. Conclusion

It needs more than a pair of broken spectacles to see things as they really are. For some philosophical problems, perhaps, there is a point at which all intensive analysis must cease, leaving the issue in the twilight region between sense and nonsense. We might think that the nature of value is of this kind. And yet there is a pattern in the errors into which we are led by asking whether value is real. Keeping close to the analysis of moral and evaluative language, I have tried to show the nature of this error pattern and how it has arisen. There is warrant for seeking a way to dissipate these philosophical perplexities, and the best hope of doing this is to press forward with the analysis of moral and evaluative language. Now, there are many mistakes which are only put right by learning what should have been done instead. But there are others which will cease when we stop doing just what we are now doing and attempt some quite different task. Finding out the nature of an error often amounts to realizing that it is not an intellectual failure but a failure to give up on the pursuit of an impossible understanding. I take it that this is the greatest single lesson to be learnt from the error theory of ethics. And for those who are not yet ready to give up on the quest for real value, this is not a counsel of despair, but rather a preparation for every sort of theoretical and practical advance. At every turning point in vigilance or experiment there is a question to be asked: what are we seeking and hoping to find it? This question is never more important than when the search is for what should guide our lives and determine the best sort of world to inhabit.

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