J.L. Mackie's Moral Error Theory

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Kaz1983
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J.L. Mackie's Moral Error Theory

Post by Kaz1983 » Wed Sep 04, 2019 2:40 am

OK I've watched a few videos on Vegan Footsoldier's channel about Moral Error Theory - I decided to look into it (see, before I was looking into trans-subjective morality etc) - anyways, back to Moral Error Theory:
  • No moral statements are true.
  • There are no moral features of the world.
  • Our sincere moral judgements try, and always fail, to describe moral features of things.
  • There is no moral knowledge.
Error theorist claim that our morality is built on fundamental error: the belief in categorical reasons. Now categorical reasons are reasons that applies to us, regardless of whether acting on them gets us what we want or not. For example...

Let's say that you work at a bank and have the opportunity to steal a lot of money - it's just sitting there. Do you be honest and not take the money or be dishonest and pocket the cash? Categorical reasons will tell you not to take the money, regardless of if it will benefit you BUT IF there are no categorical reasons, whether or not you benefit from stealing the cash matters.

Or, say a child steals chocolate bar from the supermarket.. the parent will probably say something like... "Stealing is wrong" "you should not steal" ... the kid might say "why is stealing wrong?" The mum says "Because people don't like a dishonest person", "you will not be trusted" and "you will get into trouble with the police" etc etc... the mum says, the kid replies "you haven't told me why stealing is wrong, all you have told me is the consequences of stealing.."

It reminds me of this..

"How do you know whether we are moral because we desire to be good, full stop or do we only desire to be moral because it's seen as good by other people?"

Anyways Moral Error Theory denies the truth to all ethical claims. It's not an ethical system but a metaphysical system: a theory about what the world is truly like.. see here are two out of the four main arguments in support of moral error theory:
  • 1. The argument from disagreement
  • 2. The argument from atheism
1) In the western world, if we see an overweight lady wearing a bikini at the beach we say that is good BUT if you live in Saudi Arabia that is immoral behaviour. What is moral in one country, is immoral in another country.

There are widespread disagreements about human values, the best explanation of this widespread disagreement is the moral code we live by - there are no objective values for us to converge on.

2) It's the opinion of J.L. Mackie that objective morality can only exist if God exists and because God does not exist - objective morality cannot exist. For a moral system to be truly objective, moral law must stem from a source external to humanity.

More to come..

Oh just because I don't believe murder is immoral, that doesn't mean I can't believe that murder is unacceptable.

Frank Quasar
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Post by Frank Quasar » Wed Sep 04, 2019 7:16 am

This is how I understand the position from reading Mackie's book (as well as a couple of papers on the companions in guilt strategy):

Error theory, as espoused by the likes of Mackie, is the idea that morality entails the commitment to a specific type of profile; categorical normativity. Such a profile for moral propositions is presupposed in moral language in everyday life, we make statements that appear to showcase such a categorical profile that is independent of our beliefs, desires and attitudes. However, entities in possession of such a profile do not exist, and subsequently moral facts, entities in possession of such a profile, do not exist.

This would entail the idea that all of our moral propositions which espouse a positive claim in favour of something, which purports to represent a fact, are thus false since no such moral properties exist.

Premise two of the argument for moral error theory (entities in possession of such a profile do not exist) is supported by two arguments (as posited by J.L. Mackie) - the argument from queerness and the argument from relativity.

As you pointed out, (1) is the belief that Mackie held. He believed that such widespread disagreement indirectly supports ethical subjectivism, and such a meta-ethical theory best explains the vast difference in moral codes throughout the world as oppose to the idea that many are just flat out wrong. However, I personally do not find this argument to be convincing. Just because many people may disagree about X, and such disagreement indirectly supports the subjectivist position about X, it doesn't entail the idea that there are no right/wrong answer with respect to X. There's vast disagreement across an array of issues, but it doesn't mean that they are subjective because of it, nor that there are no right/wrong answers with respect to it. The premise does not entail the conclusion that Mackie seeks, so I do not have good reason to accept what he's attempting to argue (nor the second premise for Error Theory itself).

The argument from queerness just points out that if these categorical norms existed, then they'd be extremely different from the ordinary things in our universe, and that the means by which we come to know such norms is through a method that is not common with our ordinary ways of deriving knowledge. Thus, they are essentially weird, and Mackie thinks they do not exist because of this. If you presented an argument for such norms, Mackie would believe that the form or one of the premises is going to be flawed.

Again, like the above, I do not find this convincing either. Something being "weird" does not entail that such a thing does not exist.

Several people have objected to Mackie's arguments, and showcased why they are insufficient in their attempt to establish that there are no objective moral facts.

As of now I am not convinced of Moral Error Theory, but I'll continue to read further on the topic, and see what happens down the line. Someone like Olson is supposedly a good read, from what I remember.

A common strategy that moral realists employ against Moral Error Theory is the "Companions in Guilt" (CIG) argument (be it an entailment form or an analogy form), it's an interesting strategy, and some of the popular proponents of such a strategy is Richard Rowlands and Terence Cuneo. It has been objected to by Christoper Cowie, he released two papers where he attempted to undermine one of the central premises in the CIG strategy (the analogy based one). The objections pose dilemmas for the proponents, but his objections have received a fair bit of criticism, and spell out why Cowie is in error.

Frank Quasar
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Post by Frank Quasar » Wed Sep 04, 2019 8:11 am

I'll give you a brief synopsis in regards to Cowie's objections, if you're interested.

Kaz1983
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Post by Kaz1983 » Wed Sep 04, 2019 8:56 am

Frank Quasar wrote:
Wed Sep 04, 2019 8:11 am
I'll give you a brief synopsis in regards to Cowie's objections, if you're interested.
What your wrote makes sense. I've read similar objections to Moral Error Theory on the 1-4 main arguments.

Frank Quasar
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Post by Frank Quasar » Thu Sep 05, 2019 5:19 am

I'll try to reiterate Cowie's basic objections.

In his 2014 paper, Cowie argued that the CIG strategy runs into a dilemma - it either faces his objection from disparity, or the objection from dialectic redundancy. Before I get into the objections, let me give a brief overview of the strategy that Cowie was attempting to attack in his paper:

Moral error theorists critique categorical norms on the basis that such norms are in possession of a "queer" profile, and that such entities in possession of such a profile do not exist. However, the realist posits epistemic norms are companions in guilt in order to combat such criticism.

Epistemic norms, like moral norms, are categorical, also. If the arguments used to justify moral error theory are sufficient via attacking the profile in such a manner, then such arguments can also reek havoc against epistemic norms as they too possess such profiles (like moral norms). However, epistemic error theory is false, so the arguments used against such epistemic norms (which attack the profile of categoricity) cannot be sufficient to establish error theory about them, and likewise would apply to moral norms, too. In essence, the existence of such norms poses an issue for those who uphold the premise that entities in possession of such a profile (categoricity) do not exist (Ramon Das made this criticism against Christoper Cowie's 2014 objections in his response paper).

Throughout the paper you will often see Christopher Cowie make reference to this premise by calling it the "parity premise".

Objection from disparity - The objection from disparity is meant to operate as an objection that undermines P1 of the companions in guilt strategy (the parity premise) because it showcases that the (some) arguments used to justify the epistemic existence premise undermine P1 of CIG.

When one attempts to justify the existence of the epistemic existence premise in CIG, they do so by showcasing the inherent "self-defeating" nature of epistemic error theory, and thus, reveal why have good reason to reject such a position (Cowie believes that this does not mean that the theory is false). However, just because we have good reason to reject epistemic error theory (self-defeating), it does not therefore follow from this that we have good reason to reject moral error theory.

Likewise is the case with moral error theory. Moral error theory would establish that we have no moral reasons (our propositions would be in error), but it would not therefore follow from this notion that we do not have epistemic reasons.

Cowie points out that epistemic norms possess a special property whereby rejecting epistemic norms makes their denial self-defeating, however, moral norms do not possess such a property, and denying them is not self-defeating. This does not mean that such norms (epistemic norms) are not metaphysically unproblematic, Cowie argues, rather, they are in possession of such a property, and we are warranted in believing in their existence.

The objection from dialectic redundancy - When Cowie said "some" arguments used to justify the epistemic existence premise will undermine P1 of CIG, it was for a reason. Cowie thinks there might be other arguments that do not entail the unsavoury conclusion in the previous objection (first horn), such as the argument from merits/demerits, but such arguments will operate as direct arguments against moral error theory, and render CIG useless as there would be no point in the strategy if there exists a direct attack. CIG was meant to handle such a task.

^ This objection is relatively quick, and in his paper he lays it out nicely.

This is Cowie's 2014 objection against the CIG strategy. The paper that he wrote received a fair bit of criticism by the likes of Richard Rowland and Ramon Das, from what I recall. Cowie adapted his criticism to formulate his "master" argument in his 2016 paper (I was thinking about reiterating that as well, but this post alone is excessive, so never mind an additional essay), it's an interesting read because he poses yet another dilemma, but this dilemma poses a superior threat to the strategy.

You should read into it if you're interested in the debacle. I've been away from this discussion for a month or two (perhaps three even) because I'm trying to read into other areas before I go to university, and I'm reiterating what I remember, as well as double-checking from the notes that I had laying around. My grip on this topic has somewhat weakened, but I'm glad that I have those God damn notes to secure me.

Kaz1983
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Post by Kaz1983 » Tue Sep 10, 2019 5:02 am

Anybody believe that Error Theory is compatible with veganism?

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