I mentioned in my previous post that I was once a full-blown error theorist. I remember going through JL Mackie’s arguments in his book Ethics: Inventing Right And Wrong and thinking “Yes… Yes, that’s exactly right!”
I’ve moved on from there, especially since reading Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness (to which I had pretty much the exact same reaction). I’m a moral realist of sorts now. But I still have a soft corner for error theory, so I want to briefly examine it and some of its implications in this post.
To recap, moral error theory claims that our first-order moral statements are objective claims about the world. These claims presuppose the existence of certain moral properties, but none of these properties actually exist, so most of our first-order moral statements are false. The error theorist claims that moral talk is like talk about witchcraft, phlogiston or unicorns: systematically mistaken.
More specifically, I was attracted to a projectivist form of error theory, which can arguably be traced back to David Hume. Hume wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature that…
…taste has a productive faculty, and gliding and staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises in a manner a new creation.
What exactly is Hume saying here? Here’s how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains it:
Consider a straightforward, observation-based moral judgment: Jane sees two youths hurting a cat and thinks “That is impermissible.” The causal story begins with a real event in the world: two youth performing actions, a suffering cat, etc. Then there is Jane’s sensory perception of this event (she sees the youths, hears the cat’s howls, etc.). Jane may form certain inferential beliefs concerning, say, the youths’ intentions, the cats’ pain, etc. All this prompts in Jane an emotion: She disapproves (say). She then “projects” this emotion onto her experience of the world, which results in her judging the action to be impermissible.
This is one way the error theorist can explain why moral propositions and moral disagreement have all the features of propositions and disagreements about factual matters. We mistakenly assume that there are certain moral properties such as impermissibility and permissibility that exist in the real world, whereas they’re actually only projections of our own emotions. This is why our moral discourse resembles witchcraft-related discourse: it is entirely about non-existent entities.
Eliminativism or fictionalism?
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s move on to the really hard question: what exactly is the error theorist supposed to do at this point? Moral deliberation, moral language and moral debate are an integral part of our everyday life. We can’t help but think in terms of rightness and wrongness, permissibility and impermissibility. Whether we’re contemplating the nature of an action ourselves or trying to persuade someone else to change his/her mind, we inevitably end up making moral judgements. Even when I was a staunch error theorist, I couldn’t help but think “That’s just wrong!” when reading about things like FGM. Ethicist Daniel Fincke has a nice post here about the difficulty with moral skepticism that I recommend looking up.
So the error theorist faces a dilemma here. If he wants to be rationally consistent, he will have to stop using words like “right,” “wrong,” “immoral,” “permissible” and “obligatory.” To keep using them or thinking in those terms is like having long debates on whether someone is a witch or not when you don’t believe in witches in the first place. The position I have just described is called moral eliminativism. Moral eliminativism is the view that in order to be rationally consistent, we must eliminate moral talk altogether – we must give up on moral discourse.
An alternate view is called moral fictionalism. Moral fictionalists argue that it might be more rational and practical to keep using moral language even when we know our statements are false. So moral claims become useful fictions of a sort. I don’t know how convincing people are going to find this, but it’s certainly got something going for it.
Richard Joyce asks us in a short but well-written article on moral fictionalism to put ourselves in the position of an error theorist, David. Says Joyce:
David doesn’t believe that punching babies is morally wrong, but we can imagine various situations in which he’ll have good reason to utter the sentence “Punching babies is morally wrong.” Imagine that David is surrounded by a population who do believe in moral wrongness and believe that baby-punching has it. We should remind ourselves that David is no fan of baby-punching. In fact, the thought of it sickens him. He believes that baby-punching ought to be prevented and perpetrators severely dealt with. He thinks all this on non-moral grounds. So when a moral believer asks him his opinion of baby-punching, David could embark on a long and likely-to-be-horribly-misunderstood explanation of his non-moral grounds for opposing the action. But would we really accuse him of any great transgression if he simply says “Baby-punching?! Oh, that’s just morally wrong!”
By “great transgression,” Joyce doesn’t mean moral transgression, of course. He’s just pointing out that there may not be anything necessarily irrational about David’s behavior. Joyce spends some time describing how fictions and narratives play a very important role in human lives, and how we often find stories powerfully moving. The error theorist, he concludes:
takes advantage of these quirky aspects of his psychology. He cultivates a habit of bringing moral concepts to bear on practical problems; he allows moral emotions like disgust, anger, and guilt to wash through him; he is acutely familiar with classifying his social environment in moral terms. All going according to plan, this moral fiction doesn’t encourage him to do anything that he wouldn’t upon reflection choose to do anyhow on non-moral grounds.
I hope you’re beginning to feel the pull of both these positions. On a straightforward analysis, moral eliminativism seems the most rational option. But it’s just too bloody hard. Moral fictionalism might be the only way for creatures like us to adapt to a situation in which we’ve recognized that our moral discourse is systematically mistaken. So should the error theorist be a fictionalist?
A third way?
I’m going to try and propose something that’s halfway between fictionalism and eliminativism here. Echoing the sentiments of my previous post, I recommend that the error theorist stop using words like “immoral” or “impermissible.” So he cleans up most of his moral vocabulary. However, I suggest that he keep using terminology that involves virtues and vices.
What we commonly think of as virtues (compassion, generosity, temperance, prudence) and vices (cruelty, callousness, greed) are called “morally thick” concepts. This is because although they can be defined in a straightforwardly factual manner, it’s not entirely clear that they are purely descriptive terms. For example, “compassion” can be described descriptively as “a concern for the suffering of others,” but it seems to have (like all the other virtue and vice words) an evaluative component as well. These are morally loaded terms. If you think about the way they’re used, you’ll see that they sort of have a normative element built into them. When someone says “That’s a cruel thing to do,” we almost instinctively conclude “I shouldn’t do that.” Similarly, we usually hear “That’s very compassionate” as “That is the right thing to do” or at least “That’s a very good thing to do.”
I also want to point out how virtue and vice terms can be used to describe both people and actions in interesting ways. Consider a man living in an ancient tribal society plagued by droughts. He believes that the best way to rid his village of its troubles and bring the rains is to sacrifice his daughter to the gods. Now, this man may be an extremely compassionate person. But he believes that sacrificing his daughter will send her to a better place. He believes it will eventually bring prosperity and joy to his village. It’s not immediately obvious that we should label him a cruel person even if he does sacrifice his daughter. There is a clear, morally relevant difference between him and a psychopath who kills a child for the satisfaction of watching her suffer. But we also have a very strong intuition that human sacrifice is a terrible thing. It’s a cruel thing. So here we can say that the father’s act of sacrificing is cruel without being committed to the view that the father himself is cruel. Killing an innocent child has all the characteristics of an act that a cruel person would engage in.
I think that most of the time, when we engage in moral debate, we are trying to persuade our opponent to change his or her beliefs. But how is an error theorist supposed to do this? Being a complete eliminativist about moral discourse and merely reporting his preferences won’t help. And you might think there’s something dodgy about being a fictionalist. This is where speaking in terms of virtues and vices might be useful. By adopting this mode of discourse, the error theorist can engage in robust moral/factual debate without being a complete eliminativist or fictionalist. He can try and reason about whether a certain act is compassionate or cruel. He can argue about whether XYZ is the kind of behavior we would expect from a courageous person or a cowardly one. So if, for example, he’s debating the ethics of meat-eating and convinces his opponent that eating meat is not the compassionate thing to do, he’s almost certain to make his opponent revise his moral beliefs.
This error theorist is a partial eliminativist because he has given up on a lot of moral discourse. He’s a partial fictionalist because as I said earlier, the words he’s using are probably not purely descriptive in the minds of most people who use them (including himself). But this seems to me to be the best he can do. What can I say, error theory is disturbing that way.
I actually think the kind of moral discourse I’ve outlined may be a good thing generally, regardless of the metaethical positions of those involved. Issues of subjectivity and objectivity, error and success theories, all become beside the point. Do you value compassion? Then the rational choice for you would be to behave in such and such way. Do you want to be courageous? Then it is in your interest to take my argument that XYZ is a cowardly thing to do seriously.
So where does all of this leave us? I’m not too sure. I’ll leave that for the error theorists among you to discuss. As I said earlier, I’m not an error theorist anymore – I’m a moral realist of sorts. But mostly I just think our moral language is far too messy to parcel neatly into different categories like this. In closing, I recommend reading this very thoughtful piece by Russell Blackford on error theory and the complexity of moral language. He seems to lean towards fictionalism.