A Moral Skeptic of Sorts

Metaethics is the branch of moral philosophy that analyzes the nature of our moral language. Metaethicists are interested in finding out what exactly we mean when we say things like “Torturing innocent people is wrong” or “Giving to charity is good” or “You ought to respect your neighbor” or “Infanticide is morally prohibited.” What exactly are moral rightness and wrongness, goodness and badness, obligation and prohibition?


There are numerous moral theories out there. Moral subjectivists argue that moral statements are descriptions of one’s own preferences or mental states. So “Killing is wrong” basically means something like “I don’t like killing.” Noncognitivists argue that moral statements are not the kinds of statements that can be true or false, they are just expressions of emotion (“Boo, murder!”), or commands/prescriptions. Moral realists (sometimes called objectivists) argue that moral statements make objective claims about the world, and some of these statements are true. Error theorists on the other hand claim that while moral statements do make objective claims about the world, they’re all categorically mistaken.

I’ve spent a lot of time going through these different moral theories, trying to decide which is the right one. But over the past few months, I’ve become convinced that there probably isn’t one right theory. Our moral language is far too complex to be captured by just one theory – perhaps we ought to help ourselves to more than one. Perhaps we should accept a hybrid theory. My current position is that a watered-down version of error theory and a restricted form of moral realism are both true.

Why error theory?

As I said before, error theory makes the rather bold claim that all moral statements are false. Typically, error theorists argue that all moral claims usually presuppose the existence of certain properties. But none of these properties actually exist, so all moral statements are false. For the error theorist, talking about moral properties is like talking about witchcraft or phlogiston. The statement “Sarah Palin is a witch” is false because there aren’t any witches; the statement “Torturing innocent people is wrong” is false because there is no such thing as wrongness. There are a number of arguments that error theorists have traditionally offered to support their claims, and they can be usually traced to the influential JL Mackie.

I was a full-blown error theorist for a while, but now I only think it’s partly correct. So what does error theory get right? Well, interactions with a number of people and a certain amount of reading have convinced me that a lot of people do seem to believe in imaginary properties. For example, people frequently make distinctions between what is generally morally good to do (like giving to charity) and what one is morally obligated (in some strong sense) to do (for example, not to torture innocent people). A lot of moral talk also seems to presuppose the existence of properties such as moral duties, moral permissibility and moral prohibition. There have been numerous attempts to make sense of these concepts, and other attempts to show that we can make sense of our moral language without them, but I remain unconvinced. I don’t believe that there are such things as moral duties, obligations or prohibitions; I don’t believe in overriding categorical imperatives. And so I partially agree with error theorists.

But – and here’s the important bit – this doesn’t subsume all of our moral language or our moral beliefs. There’s still a lot left – and I don’t think the rest of our moral discourse is also categorically mistaken. So I subscribe partially to a form of moral realism, and it’s called ethical naturalism.

Ethical naturalism

Ethical naturalists claim that some of our moral statements are true. More specifically, moral facts reduce in some sense to natural facts. Neo-Aristotelian Ethical Naturalism (NAEN) claims that moral goodness arises from certain kinds of non-moral goodness. Neo-Aristotelians argue that “good” is an attributive adjective – we can only talk about whether something is a “good X” or a “good Y,” not just “good” in itself. So when we say “X is a good person” or “X is a good human being,” although we’re referring to moral goodness here, the basic form of our statement is no different from that of the statement “This is a good knife” or even “This plant has good roots,” where non-moral goodness is involved.

Neo-Aristotelians also endorse moral discourse that involves talk of virtues and vices. Vices are to be identified with natural defects. Consider an owl that can’t see in the dark, or a cheetah that can’t run fast. There’s something defective about these animals. Similarly, there is something defective about a human who displays vices such as cowardice or cruelty. Now, obviously, this touches on huge issues that relate to teleology, natural norms, and evolutionary biology, and I can’t offer a full defense of NAEN here. But hopefully this gives you an idea of what Neo-Aristotelians believe.

Do we lose something?

A lot of people think that there is something precious about objective moral facts, and we lose something important if we deny their existence. Error theory is seen as bleak and disturbing. Even a watered-down version of error theory that only denies the existence of categorical obligations and prohibitions is seen as extremely problematic. So what is the way forward if we embrace this version of error theory? Do we lose something?

Yes and no. We do lose something – we’re forced to abandon certain beliefs and ideas. But this isn’t a cause for concern, since we can get what we were looking for in those ideas elsewhere. So it makes sense to move on and start afresh when thinking about these things.

I think Elizabeth Anscombe was on to something when she said in her classic 1958 paper, Modern Moral Philosophy:

…Concepts of obligation, and duty — moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say — and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of “ought,” ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.

Yes. We should abandon what she calls a “quasi-legal” or “contractual” form of ought-ness and obligation, and think in Neo-Aristotelian terms.

A quick parallel: free will and compatibilism

I want to draw a quick parallel between the kind of moral realism I endorse and compatibilism with respect to free will.

If you ask someone who hasn’t thought about these things very much, they will probably tell you that they believe in something like libertarian free will. They think they would have been able to do otherwise than they actually did, even if everything about the physical universe, including their brain activity, had been exactly the same. This seems to me to be a naïve (and possibly incoherent) view – but more on that later. They will also probably claim that they have a very powerful subjective impression of having radical autonomy and libertarian free will.

But here’s the thing: if you push their intuitions around and get them to think about physical causality and examine the nature of their own conscious experience, it wouldn’t be hard to get them to realize the following:

  • They don’t have libertarian free will (not even the subjective impression – as Sam Harris points out well in his otherwise unimpressive book, Free Will).
  • It doesn’t matter that they don’t have libertarian free will. Compatibilism gives them what they want out of free will. It is, as Dan Dennett says, “worth wanting.” It’s also what they need for moral responsibility.

So we do lose something when we give up libertarian free will, but not anything important. Compatibilism, which is roughly the view that “free will” means the ability to rationally deliberate and act on your desires, conserves most of what we were looking for in libertarian free will.

My claim is that the same is true when we accept the form of error theory I described, and NAEN. At present, NAEN doesn’t perfectly capture what people have in mind when they use moral language, but it gives us the kind of moral objectivity and ought-ness we’re looking for, so there is no problem with abandoning beliefs in categorical imperatives, obligations, duties and the like. I will partially defend this claim and also touch on topics related to virtue ethics in a future post. Thanks for reading!

This entry was posted in ethics, free will, metaethics, skepticism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Moral Skeptic of Sorts

  1. Pingback: The Error Theorist’s Dilemma | The Skeptical Stingray

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