Intro to Ethics: The Error in Error Theory

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 16, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics

intro_to_ethics

Welcome to my course on ethics. We have been working our way through a brief history of ethical thought. However, I have given up any hope of providing a structured and systematic introduction to ethical theory. Instead, this series will present a flurry of ethical concepts and ideas, which will only later be organized somewhat sanely on the index page.

Last time, I discussed the ethics of John Locke (1632-1704). Today I make a wild leap into contemporary meta-ethics and discuss an award-winning article by Stephen Finlay, The Error in the Error Theory (2008).

Vague and disputed terms

Does God exist? Does morality exist? For both questions, the meaning of the central term is vague and disputed. Before we can answer either question, we must ask “What do you mean by God?” or “What do you mean by morality?”
Philosophers of religion are quite happy to concede that many concepts of God exist, and that only some (if any) have a referent in the real world. Whether I am a theist or an atheist depends on which type of God we are talking about. Even Christians were once called “atheists” because the concept of God being considered in that context was pagan, and Christians did not believe in pagan gods.
The more broadly God is defined, the more theists there are with respect to that concept of God. If by “God” we mean “the omnipotent, omniscient, all-good Creator of the universe, who revealed himself definitively in Jesus Christ and inspired the writing of the New Testament,” then there are perhaps 1.5 billion theists living today with respect to that definition of God. But if by “God” we merely mean “the omnipotent, omniscient, all-good Creator of the universe,” then we can add most Muslims and Jews to our count of theists, and the number reaches perhaps 3 billion people.
Many believers, like Rabbi Kushner, find it unlikely that God could be omnipotent and all-good and would choose to allow the extent of suffering we see in the world. But if we reduce our concept of “God” to mean “the powerful, good Creator of the universe” then perhaps we can add Rabbi Kushner and others to our count of theists. And if we reduce our concept of “God” further still to mean “the ground of all being,” our number of answering “theists” should rise yet again.
Finally, if by “God” we mean “a higher power,” then even the ardent naturalist, who considers the laws of physics a “higher power,” could call himself a theist given this minimal definition of God.
Unlike philosophers of religion, ethicists tend to insist there must be one true definition for the central term of their debate, and that the whole debate hangs on whether morality exists given that one true definition.
But of course we are under no such obligation. Many concepts of morality exist. Nobody holds the copyright on moral terms. The question is, does morality exist according to the definition under consideration?
For simplicity’s sake, let’s consider a particular moral term: “morally good.” Does the property of being morally good exist in the real world?
One concept of morality is that something is morally good just in case it is commanded by God. Relative to this concept of morality, most theists are moral realists and atheists are moral anti-realists. Another concept of morality is that something is morally good just in case it is generally approved by one’s culture. Given this concept of morality, nearly everyone is a moral realist, since it is trivially true that a culture exhibits general approval or disapproval on many questions of action.
But at this point, the man who calls himself a moral anti-realist will protest, “Well, yes, according to that concept of morality I am a moral realist, but that is misleading because your concept is hardly what most people mean by ‘morality.’ You might as well define ‘theism’ as ‘belief in a power stronger than oneself,’ in which case everyone is a theist (except God). This is nonsense. By ‘morality,’ people usually mean X, Y, and Z, and I don’t believe in X, Y, and Z, and so it is more accurate to call me a moral anti-realist.”
This appeal to “what people usually mean” by moral terms is common in meta-ethics. Anti-realists will argue that “Morality is centrally committed to X, because that is what people usually assume when they use moral terms, but in fact X is false, and therefore morality is a fiction.”
The moral realist usually agrees that morality is centrally committed to X because that is what people usually assume when they use moral terms, but then the moral realist will argue that X is, in fact, true.
Another strategy open to the moral realist is to say that the evidence doesn’t support the contention that most people assume X when using moral terms, and so morality isn’t centrally committed to X.
Still another strategy is to say that even if most people assume X when using moral terms, morality still isn’t centrally committed to X.
This last strategy may seem outrageous, but let’s consider an example from science.

Does God exist? Does morality exist? For both questions, the meaning of the central term is vague and disputed. Before we can answer either question, we must ask “What do you mean by God?” or “What do you mean by morality?”

Philosophers of religion are quite happy to concede that many concepts of God exist, and that only some (if any) have a referent in the real world. Whether I am a theist or an atheist depends on which type of God we are talking about. Even Christians were once called “atheists” because the concept of God being considered in that context was pagan, and Christians did not believe in pagan gods.

The more broadly God is defined, the more theists there are with respect to that concept of God. If by “God” we mean “the omnipotent, omniscient, all-good Creator of the universe, who revealed himself definitively in Jesus Christ and inspired the writing of the New Testament,” then there are perhaps 2 billion theists living today with respect to that definition of God. But if by “God” we merely mean “the omnipotent, omniscient, all-good Creator of the universe,” then we can add most Muslims and Jews to our count of theists, and the number reaches perhaps 3.5 billion people.

Many believers, like Rabbi Kushner, find it unlikely that an omnipotent and all-good God would choose to allow all the suffering we see in the world. But if we reduce our concept of “God” to mean “the powerful and good Creator of the universe” then perhaps we can add Rabbi Kushner and others to our count of theists. And if we reduce our concept of “God” further still to mean “the ground of all being,” our number of answering “theists” should rise yet again.

Finally, if by “God” we mean “a higher power,” then even the ardent naturalist, who considers the laws of physics a “higher power,” could call himself a theist given this minimal definition of God.

Disputed moral terms

Unlike philosophers of religion, ethicists tend to insist there must be one true definition for the central term of their debate, and that the whole debate hangs on whether morality exists given that one true definition.

But of course we are under no such obligation. Many concepts of morality exist. Nobody holds a trademark on moral terms. The question is, does morality exist according to the definition under consideration?

For simplicity’s sake, let’s consider a particular moral term: “morally good.” Does the property of being morally good exist in the real world?

One concept of morality is that something is morally good just in case it is commanded by God. Relative to this concept of morality, most theists are moral realists and all atheists are moral anti-realists. Another concept of morality is that something is morally good just in case it is generally approved by one’s culture. Given this concept of morality, nearly everyone is a moral realist, since it is trivially true that each culture exhibits general approval or disapproval on many questions of action.

But at this point, the man who calls himself a moral anti-realist will protest, “Well, yes, according to that concept of morality I am a moral realist, but that is misleading because your concept is hardly what most people mean by ‘morality.’ You might as well define ‘theism’ as ‘belief in a power stronger than oneself,’ in which case everyone is a theist (except God, of course). This is nonsense. By ‘morality,’ people usually mean X, Y, and Z, and I think X, Y, and Z are false, so it is more accurate to call me a moral anti-realist.”

This appeal to “what people usually mean” by moral terms is common in meta-ethics. Anti-realists argue that “Morality is centrally committed to X, because that is what people usually assume when they use moral terms, but in fact X is false, and therefore morality is a fiction.”

The moral realist usually agrees that morality is centrally committed to X because that is what people usually assume when they use moral terms, but then the moral realist will argue that X is, in fact, true.

Another strategy open to the moral realist is to say that the evidence doesn’t support the contention that most people assume X when using moral terms, and so morality isn’t centrally committed to X after all.

Still another strategy is to say that even if most people assume X when using moral terms, morality still isn’t centrally committed to X.

Finlay deploys these last two strategies against the moral anti-realist.

Error theory

In this case, the anti-realist in question is Richard Joyce, the leading proponent of “error theory.” According to error theory, moral discourse is centrally committed to X, but in fact X is false, so moral discourse suffers from systematic error. In other words, the error theorist maintains two propositions:

(1) Presupposition: moral judgments involve a particular kind of presupposition which is essential to their status as moral;

(2) Error: this presupposition is irreconcilable with the way things are.

According to Joyce, the essential presupposition of moral discourse is “an absolutism about the normative authority of moral value.” As stated above, moral realists usually attack Error. But Finlay accepts Error. He agrees with Joyce that this absolutism is not true of the world. Instead, Finlay attacks Presupposition, arguing that (a) moral discourse may not assume the absolute authority of moral value after all, and that (b) even if all moral discourse falsely assumed the absolute authority of moral value, this would not contaminate the truth of moral discourse.

Absolutism

Now, what is this absolutism that Joyce says is a central presumption of moral discourse? Moral absolutism claims that moral requirements do not depend on the agent’s own desires or opinions. But that is not enough to capture absolutism. For consider the rules of chess, or of etiquette. These requirements do not depend on any one person’s desires or opinions, yet we would not call them moral. Perhaps we can call them institutional requirements. Certain things are required within the institutions of chess or a certain culture’s etiquette. But according to absolutism, moral requirements are absolute. They do not depend on an agent’s desires, nor do they depend on certain institutions.

Why are moral requirements absolute? Because the assumption of absolute morality is essential to moral discourse. If we talk about a “morality” that does not assume absolutism, then we are not really talking about “morality” at all, says the error theorist. We might as well talk about God without assuming that he is supernatural. In that case, can we really say we are talking about “God” at all? Probably not, since God discourse near-universally assumes that God is supernatural. In the same way, moral discourse near-universally assumes that morality is absolute, and if we talk about non-absolute requirements then we are not talking about “moral” requirements at all.

But is absolutism a near-universal assumption of moral discourse? How would we tell? The argument takes the form of an argument to the best explanation. The error theorist contends that most moral discourse we observe is best explained by the fact that the speakers of moral judgments assume that morality is absolute. For example, if moral judgments usually took the form of “It doesn’t matter what your desires are, or what the requirements of the relevant institutions are, killing is still morally wrong!” then it would seem that part of the best explanation for this moral judgment is an assumption of moral absolutism.

Of course, the evidence isn’t that clear. Few people are so explicit when they speak moral judgments.

Finlay teases apart 7 different kinds of evidence that Joyce uses to argue that moral judgments usually assume moral absolutism. Finlay considers each kind of evidence and tries to show that they can support a non-absolutist interpretation just as well as an absolutist one.

Evidences for absolutism

I will treat just two of these evidences.

First, reflective evidence consists in the theories that people offer to back up their own moral judgments. Joyce claims that most people hold to absolutist theories and disdain relativistic ones. But there is a problem here. Joyce notes that at one time almost everyone would have held absolutist views about motion, and disdained relativistic ones. But now that we know all motion is relative, surely this doesn’t mean that motion-talk was centrally committed to an assumption of motion absolutism, and therefore “real” motion doesn’t exist. The difference, says Joyce, is that whereas “in so far as we endorsed absolute motion, it was because we had never thought very closely about relative motion… [but] we have always been familiar with the notion of value-relativity, and there has been an overwhelming tendency to deny the thesis for the realm of moral value.”1

Finlay notes three problems with this supposed evidence that moral discourse usually assumes absolutism:

First, even a universally accepted theory about [what] we’re referring to can be false. We can easily imagine that [at one time] every ordinary user of the concept of water was disposed to deny that he or she was referring to a compound… introspection is known to be untrustworthy. Second, Joyce overstates the consensus in favor of absolutism. The reflections of many intelligent people throughout history favor some form of relativism, which is rampant today… Third, there are reasons for distrusting the sincerity of people’s avowals on the matter. Part of the point of engaging in moral discourse… is to influence the attitudes and behavior of others… There is a real possibility, therefore, that… a person may be motivated to espouse absolutism… without believing it… in order to protect or advance the persuasive force of her moral claims.

Second, appraisal evidence concerns what is treated as irrelevant when making moral appraisals. In judging Hitler or Charles Manson as evil we do not consider whether they were thwarting their own desires or violating their own standards. According to Joyce, this “shows pretty clearly that it is not a relativistic judgment with which we condemn them.”2

But, says Finlay, isn’t this appraisal evidence just as well explained by relativism? While this appraisal evidence does show that moral appraisals do not consider the ends, desires or standards of the persons being judged, it is “perfectly compatible with those appraisals being intended as relative to the ends, desires, or standards of the persons judging. After all, our desires and standards are very important to us. We care more about our desires and standards for, say, the welfare of children than we do about the pleasure of those who abuse them, and so we lay down moral judgments without considering the desires of the persons being judged. Thus, appraisal evidence is just as compatible with relativism as with absolutism.

Absolutism and meaning

Finlay considers 5 other types of evidence about the nature of moral discourse, but you’ll have to read his awesome paper to learn about them. For now I want to turn to his second contention, that even if all moral discourse made a false presumption about absolutism, this would still not mean that moral judgments are necessarily absolutist. Thus, moral judgments could still be true.

A few examples will help here. In the past, people always spoke of motion as absolute. Yet, as we have now discovered, motion is always relative to a frame of reference. But people of the past were only aware of motion relative to the surface of the Earth, so it should be no surprise they thought motion was absolute.

Or consider naming. In the past, when cultures interacted less thoroughly, the common person could be forgiven for mistaking a triadic relation (a is called ‘b’ in language L) for a dyadic relation (a is called ‘b’). The relativism of motion and of naming was hidden from people because of their lack of exposure to more general facts.

The analogy to morality should be obvious. When a certain moral code is ubiquitous in a culture, people are likely to fail to notice that it is relative to their culture. And so they assume that morality, like motion and naming, is absolute. We had to discover that motion and naming are relative, and perhaps the same is true of morality.

But if the analogy is sound, it seems the error theorist must also say that ordinary motion judgments, in absence of the knowledge that motion is relative, are systematically false.

But this is preposterous. Suppose an ancient mariner surveys the ocean, and sees that two ships have changed position relative to each other. The first happens to be anchored, the second is adrift. If the mariner asserts that hte first has stayed still while the second has moved, has he said… something false or incoherent? Surely not, even if he would espouse an absolutist theory of his judgment when questioned.

But there is a difference, Joyce says, between things like witch discourse and phlogiston discourse on one hand, and water discourse and motion discourse on the other. All four discourses were, for a long time, plagued by false assumptions: that (1) some women have magical powers, that (2) all flammable materials contain a substance that is released during combustion, that (3) the wet stuff in the seas is an element, and that (4) there is such a thing as absolute location.  Nevertheless it seems right to say that witch and phlogiston discourse were systematically false, but water and motion discourse were not. Is moral discourse more like witch discourse, or more like motion discourse?

The determinative factor, Joyce suggests, is the ‘point’ of the discourse: the intentions with which we use the term and without which we would have no use for it. The ‘whole point’ of witch discourse ‘was to refer to women with supernatural powers’; the whole point of phlogiston discourse was to refer to the substance contained in all flammable materials and released during combustion… On the other hand, the point of water discourse is ‘to refer to a stuff we believed to be united by a common microphysical constitution;, and the point of motion discourse was ‘to refer to the change in position of objects in space over time’.

So false assumptions about water and motion didn’t stop us from saying true things about water and motion, but false assumptions about witches and phlogiston did cause us to say systematically false things about them.

The problem with morality, Joyce argues, is that “the whole point of moral discourse is to refer to value with absolute authority.”

In contrast, Finlay proposes that it is the essential application conditions that matter: the criteria that determine whether or not a term is applied to a situation. The concept witch is applied only if it is supposed she is a woman with magical powers. The concept phlogiston is applied only to a substance that is supposed to be contained in flammable materials and released during combustion. But for witches and phlogiston, these essential application conditions are always false, which is why an error theory is appropriate for them.

In contrast, the concept of motion is applied when an object is supposed to have changed position relative to some frame of reference (even if the motion-speaker avows an absolutist view of motion). The concept of water is applied to a substance when it is supposed to have the same microphysical constitution as that stuff in the seas. And the concept of morally right is applied to an action only if it is supposed that it thwarts certain desires or violates certain standards. As Finlay writes:

…even [moral absolutists] employ essentially relational application conditions in forming their judgments of what has moral value: if they consider an action to satisfy certain moral standards or promote certain ends, then they judge it to be morally right…

…[People] continue to employ relational moral concepts and terms, sometimes succeeding in making true moral judgments, even while holding onto a mistaken understanding of their own practice – just as our ancient mariner employs relational motion concepts and terms, often succeeding in making true motion judgments, even while holding onto a mistaken understanding of his own [speech].

Conclusion

So that, then, is the error in error theory. First, the evidence does not particularly favor an assumption of absolutism over relativism as an essential feature of moral discourse. Second, even if the assumption of absolutism was universal, moral discourse could still succeed, for the essential application conditions of moral discourse show that the truth conditions of moral discourse are not identical to our internal theories about our own discourse.

That, at least, is Finlay’s argument. What do you think?

  1. The Myth of Morality, page 97. []
  2. Ibid, page 98. []

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

lukeprog September 17, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Lol, this is one of my favorite posts yet, but it’s got no comments at all! What, people don’t love contemporary meta-ethics as much as I do? :)

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Chuck September 17, 2009 at 6:49 pm

I left the faith this time last year. I might have become an error theorist had I not discovered desire utilitarianism first.

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lukeprog September 17, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Happy anniversary, Chuck!

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faithlessgod September 17, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Finlay’s paper is great. Thanks for this.

The issue with error theory and the error with error theory is that either way, moral statements remains cognitive, which defeats certain subjectivists around here such as Antiplastic but not possibly Yair, dunno. Then again Antiplastic might argue he is not a subjectivist given the cognitive basis to his expressivism! Never understood that and he is still a non-cogntivists wrt to the truth aptness of moral statements AFAIK. Still I think that non-cognitivism fails to be the argument to the best explanation, given these alternatives. Anyway what I am saying is is that it would be really interesting to hear from Yair and Antiplastic on this specific topic.

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Sabio Lantz October 12, 2009 at 4:43 am

This post is amazing though I am only half way through and will be continuing after I come home from work.

Luke is the most pristine, clear thinker I have read.
And it is his amazing, easily digested writing that is most startling rich. Nonetheless, it is so rich that it takes me time to sit, think and digest his thoughts. His writing is easy on the mind, but the his style deceives you to thinking you understand the issue unless you read carefully where you will see the layers of his systematic carefulness. Meanwhile the diversion of clicking links to go back and fill out the holes in my knowledge and questions I have hinder me from getting through his brilliance. Not only that, but my kids wake up by the time I am only part way through.

I can take books to a coffee shop and concentrate, but Luke ain’t in a book yet. I have to get a laptop someday — or maybe now is the time for a netbook.

My goal: Take more time to absorb one of the best systematic writers of our time (though he humbly credits many others with that title). I need to discipline myself to understand this guy. (OK, this sounds way too complimentary but I will eventually post the same on my site, so I am practicing.)
Oh yeah, Luke happens to be an atheist.
I am not sure if he is a sympathetic atheist, but it doesn’t matter — I have too much to learn from him.

Luke — thank you.
What the heck do you do for a living?
Are you getting ready to publish?

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lukeprog October 12, 2009 at 7:27 am

Sabio,

Thanks for the high praise. My style is similar to that of Alonzo Fyfe.

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Sabio Lantz October 12, 2009 at 7:36 am

@ Luke — you are welcome. Yes, I read Alonzo and I have read your intro to his philosophy of ethics. And I realize your gratitude to him I only have 3 atheists blogs listed in my side bar: Yours & Alonzo’s are two of them. Alonzo is much harder for me to read. Alonzo is also of the style that I like. But Alonzo is seems more abstract and a bit removed from the audience (perhaps this is his personality. He has lots of algebraic variables & constants in his presentations. You are more like us (or at least you pretend to be, smile). In your above post, you kept it essentially to “X” and didn’t leave it hang too long before giving a real example.

You are very patient with your readers. You don’t forget where we are coming from or where we have been. You are careful to help us from being to distracted and confused. And you deceptively make us feel intelligent in the whole process. You are good.

So, what do you do for a living?
Are you publishing something?
Thank you.

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lukeprog October 12, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Sabio,

I’m in IT. I suppose I’ll eventually publish some books on philosophy and religion.

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lukeprog November 8, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Sabio, what is the third atheist blog you read?

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TaiChi August 31, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Lukeprog,
Perhaps I’ll work these into a post at some stage, but I shan’t do that before I finish blogging on Joyce’s book. Anyway, a bunch of doubts about Finlay’s paper:

(1) Reflective, Linguistic evidence
- Finlay points out that the reflective evidence for motion would’ve favored absolute over relativistic motion, but that this doesn’t prevent us from interpreting past speakers as talking about relativistic motion. Then, Finlay points out that the absence of explicit relativization is not of much consequence.
> Reply: I agree that reflective evidence is of little value. I also agree that the bare fact of unqualified use of moral imperatives isn’t compelling. I do think it is prima facie evidence, in the following way: relativization of imperatives appears to be non-trivial.

(3) Appraisal evidence
- Finlay thinks that a relational interpretation of categorical force is available: that the categoricity of a moral appraisal is compatible with the moral standard invoked being relative to the appraiser.
> Reply: This misses the point. In Joyce’s view, the phenomenon to be explained is the categorical force of moral imperatives. The explanation of that force is that moral imperatives purport to supply a reason for action, the categorical nature of that force is explained by the reason being one which is applicable regardless of the agent’s desires or interests. So categorical force derives from categorical content.
What is Finlay’s story here? He concentrates not on categorical force, but on the continued use of that force to effectively bully one’s dialectical opponent into doing as one wishes. But that just takes for granted what needs to be explained. (This is a biggie, I think: presuming that moral imperatives intrinsically possess power to influence the actions of others, and giving no account of how this can be).

(4,5,6) Address, Expectation, Disputation evidence
- Finlay makes a good point that pragmatics rather than semantics can account for the apparently absolutist uses of moral language.
> Reply: I think it is difficult to determine which of these options is correct concerning present-day moral discussion. However, appraisal of the behavior of non-participants to a discussion offers an indication: pragmatic presuppositions should disappear, or their cancellation should be accepted by discussants, as the agents in question are not around to persuade. So, take a discussion among Westerners over the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda – here, unqualified moral imperatives might be absent, or at least participants to the discussion should accept a qualifier of such imperatives as expressing their views more accurately. But they don’t. With nobody to persuade, they continue to use moral imperatives without qualification, and resist the introduction of relativized moral imperatives as a changing of the subject. In fact, historical actions are often cited as paradigmatically demonstrating absolute moral values: I cited in Hitler in this regard to you earlier. Would this be the case if, in the context of historical discussion, a pragmatic presupposition were more readily cancelled, owing to the absence of an actor requiring influence?
I guess even these can be waved away by saying that people are generally unaware that absolutism is a pragmatic presupposition. But this added complexity just makes Finlay’s story implausible, in my view – it starts to look as if the difference between absolutism and relativism cannot be tested at all, and in that case, we should go with the less convoluted hypothesis: absolutism.

(7) Reactive attitude evidence
- Finlay argues “We don‘t blame or condemn people because they fail to respond to authoritative prudential or instrumental considerations, for example. So nonresponsiveness to authority is not sufficient to explain reactive attitudes. What else is needed? It is plausible to suppose that we blame people only when they act against ends or standards that are important to us.”
> Reply: Blaming and condemning people involve (or are themselves) speech acts. So yes, our speech acts are motivated by what is important to us, but again, it is an explanation of the correctness of blaming that needs explaining here. Finlay goes on to suggest that..
- “Blame is deserved just in case a wrong action stems from having a bad character.”
> .. yet this is obviously false. If it be allowed that the assignment of character to a subject is not a trivial matter, then acting outside one’s character is possible. An otherwise good person may slip, and if they do, their actions are just as blameworthy as those of a bad person. I suspect why Finlay makes such an obvious mistake is that he mixes up blameworthiness with desserts: Finlay may be right that a good person does not deserve to be blamed, given that a good person probably bears the appropriate amount of guilt already without piling it on. But this doesn’t in the least change the fact that they are blameworthy, and so Finlay’s explanation doesn’t persuade.

- “If the error theorist is right, then it would seem that we must also attribute an absolutist error to the very concepts employed in ordinary judgements of motion made prior to (and even today in the absence of) acceptance of the relational character of motion, and agree that these ordinary motion judgements are systematically false. This is just preposterous.”
> Reply: If it seems preposterous, then that is because a whole host of pre-Einstenian judgments about motion seem to be ambiguous over the choice of an absolute or relativistic concept. Not so with morality: moral imperatives are not ambiguous over the matter of supporting moral imperatives, which would assign a reason for action to agents. (One might claim that they are ambiguous as to the categoricity of the reason assigned, but this is not so if it can be shown, as I think Joyce does, that the only possible candidate for the reason assigned would be a categorical one).

“..if the content and truth conditions of moral discourse are functions of its point, Joyce may have to concede that moral claims can be true. Second, fictionalism itself seems undermined as a coherent option; if the whole point of fictionalist discourse is legitimate, then it would seem to follow from Joyce‘s criterion that the fictionalist‘s moral claims can be true. But in that case there would be no point in maintaining an attitude of mere make-believe towards moral claims!”
> Reply: Yes, there is a tension here. It can mostly be resolved by taking “the whole point” to be a rhetorically effective way of saying “the primary point”. But more can be said in defense of Joyce here: the useful aspects of a fictionalist moral discourse which Joyce identifies seem to be parasitic on the categoricity of moral imperatives. If so, then one cannnot simply take the fictionalist’s moral claims to be true, as the fictional categoricity of moral imperatives is the sine qua non of their Joycean usefulness.

- “The element to which we should appeal is the essential application conditions embodied in competent first order use of the concepts and terms: approximately, the criteria on which a concept or term is applied… An action is judged to be morally wrong if and only if it is supposed that it frustrates certain ends or violates certain standards.”
> Reply: One could equally offer the biconditional “An action is judged to be morally wrong if and only if it is supposed that the agent (in a certain sense) ought refrain from performing that action”. (Yes, I realize “in a certain sense” is a fudge, but so is Finlay’s “certain ends” and “certain standards”). The truth is, a biconditional can be offered up for any conceptual role which a term is thought to play, and so one can identify the essential application conditions with the right-hand-side of the biconditional. In that case, essential application conditions do not do the work Finlay requires – they do not serve to single out the core of a concept, from which Finlay can argue that moral concepts need not be absolute.

- “First, error theory now seems gratuitously uncharitable: it claims that ordinary judgements of moral wrongness and of motion track awareness of actual value relative to moral standards and actual relational motion, but are nonetheless systematically false because they take the real thing to be merely evidence of fantastical counterparts.”
> Reply: Charity is not merely a matter of arranging things so that what people say comes out true. It involves assigning meanings to their utterences which would make them rational in the wider context of their linguistic community. If it is common in a linguistic community to infer from the ascription of a moral property to the truth of a moral imperative, and if it is also common in that community to take imperatives as indicating reasons for action, then the charitable thing to do would be to take the term denoting that moral property as indicating the reason for action which can be inferred. So I’d reject Finlay’s claim that error-theory is uncharitible – I think moral relativism is much less charitable, in that it would render invalid much of moral reasoning (a worse fate than merely being wrong).

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lukeprog August 31, 2010 at 6:04 pm

TaiChi,

Thanks for your detailed comments. It has been a while since I’ve read Finlay’s paper, and I plan to revisit it when I read Joyce’s reply, aptly titled “The Error in ‘The Error in the Error Theory’”.

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TaiChi September 1, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Sure, no worries.

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