Exploring Ontology

It's all about the deep questions.

Moral Error Theory: Introduction

So, in the “My Philosophical Beliefs” post, I stated in the “Ethics” section that the meta-ethical belief I held was that of error theory. In these next series of posts, I hope to outline first, what exactly is an error theory, secondly, why I believe it is the correct meta-ethical view, and thirdly what are the consequences for being an error theorist towards morality.

What is an error theory?

Although even this question is debated, error theroy basically says that an entire concept is “wrong”, or that it fails to refer to anything real in the world. One useful example lies in religion. An atheist is an error theorist towards the term “God” because it fails to refer to anything real in the world. As a result, an atheist believes that all of religious discourse is fundamentally flawed. Some people have said that holding an error theory towards a domain of discourse is to say that everything under that domain of discourse is false. For example, an atheist would say “God desires the happiness of human beings” to be false since there is no God (supposedly). This is not entirely correct, since there are sentences in religious discourse that atheists would think are true. For example, an atheist would say that “Homosexual interactions don’t anger God” is true. They would say homosexual interactions don’t affect God in any way whatsoever, since he is just not there. So, although not entirely accurate, it is a useful description.

The Structure of Arguments for Error Theory

Arguments for moral error theory usually have two steps. The first step says that a “non-negotiable” part of moral discourse involves some particular conceptual or empirical truth to hold. The second step argues against the truth of that conceptual or empirical fact.

So what exactly do I mean by “non-negotiable”? Again, an example would be useful. Suppose that scientists find out that the molecular composition of water is no longer two hydrogens and one oxygen, rather it has some more complicated chemical symbol abbreviated XYZ. Would we still call this XYZ water? If someone were to say that the chemical composition H20 was a “non-negotiable” part of the conceptual definition of water, then we should cease to call XYZ water. However, if it were just a “negotiable” part of the conceptual definition, we would still call it water. Basically, the “important” part of a concept is the non-negotiable part. If this non-negotiable part was changed, then the entire concept would have to be changed. However, if the details of a concept are changed, we could usually use the same term to denote that concept. This is what the moral error theorist tries to do with morality. They identify something at the heart of morality, which if wrong, would make all moral discourse hopelessly flawed.

The second step is usually the more interesting step, which actually argues for the falsity of the “non-negotiable” part of morality. If these two steps of the error theorist argument go through successfully, then the error theorist would have discredited all of morality.

Ambitious, huh? In the next post, I’ll try to nail down some of these non-negotiable parts.


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