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Meta-Ethics and Moral Error Theory

By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge


Metaethics is the branch of philosophy which asks higher order questions about ethical phenomena. For example, someone working in metaethics would not be concerned with questions like ‘is x action good or bad?’ so much as questions like ‘what is it that makes something good’ or ‘what are we doing when we use moral language?’. Metaethics is a broad field and there are many ways of carving up the space, but I will focus on just two here.

Firstly, there is controversy about whether moral language is cognitive or non-cognitive. Cognitive statements are those which can meaningfully be true or false, whereas non-cognitivism is the opposite of this. For example, the statements ‘Michael Jordan is 6ft 5’ and ‘Michael Jordan is 5ft 2’ are both cognitive even though only the former is true. By contrast, some non-cognitive statements include exclamations like ‘Hooray!’ and imperatives like ‘shut that door now!’. These are perfectly meaningful statements even though it’s not meaningful to call them true or false. Secondly, there is disagreement between realism and anti-realism about moral truths. Broadly, realists think that there are objective moral facts that don’t depend on how anybody feels about them. For example, a realist might argue that slavery would still be wrong even if everyone felt differently. Anti-realism then is the denial of realism. These two distinctions are loosely connected since many cognitivists are also realists. However, one can also be a cognitive anti-realist by adopting moral error theory, the position that I will focus on for the rest of this article.

Error theory first holds that when we use moral language such as ‘charity is good’ we are trying to ascribe a property to an object in the same way that we might in other similar looking statements like ‘Michael Jordan is 6ft 5’. In other words, moral language is cognitive. The error theorist then denies that any such moral properties exist since there are no objective moral facts – there is nothing that exists in the world that could make our moral statements true. As a result, all our moral statements are systematically in error. For example, the statement ‘giving to charity is good’ is false because it tries to ascribe a property to charity which doesn’t exist. Notably, the inverse statement ‘giving to charity is bad’ is also equally false.

Obviously, this is a really radical conclusion – most of us believe that we have extensive moral knowledge which we can express through moral language. So why be an error theorist? On the face of it, cognitivism seems pretty plausible whereas the denial of moral facts seems much more controversial so I will focus on defending that step. Here is one way that JL Mackie defended this premise – the argument from queerness. Firstly, consider that if moral facts existed, they would have to be completely unlike any other facts that exist in the world. For example, it seems like moral facts are meant to be necessarily motivating. Simply by apprehending a moral fact we should be motivated to abide by it i.e. once we know that it is wrong to murder we should then be motivated not to murder.

This is completely unlike any other kind of fact, which seem to motivate only when accompanied by desire. For example, when I learn that a new Vietnamese restaurant has opened around the corner, I will only be motivated to go there if I have the appropriate desires e.g. I enjoy Vietnamese food and I’m hungry. There is also a worry about knowledge here. We typically gain knowledge through empirical observation of the world, rational deduction or some combination of the two. It seems implausible that either of these capture how we could possibly gain moral knowledge. As such, Mackie argues that realists are forced to believe in ‘some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else’.

Even if you don’t accept that Mackie’s arguments give a knock down refutation of moral realism, it seems like he has raised some strong doubts that the realist must reply to if their position is to hang onto its intuitive appeal.

Further reading:

· J.L. Mackie – Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong

· Richard Joyce – The Myth of Morality

· Stephen Finlay – The Error in the Error Theory


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