On Error Theory

“Common sense provides no precise solution of Right or Wrong. “All moral philosophy is false and vain”, for man is unlimited. In the realm of Ethics, most modern wiselings are fanatical and unreasonable bigots. They really believe that Ethical Principles are as a house built on a rock, whereas “the House” is an unfounded hypothesis, and “the Rock” nonexistent.
Good and Evil liveth only in men’s minds. They are not Realties, but shadows, credos, ghosts, and only the maddest of the mad worship their own Shade.” – Might is Right – Ragnar Redbeard


Moral Error Theory is a cognitivist position in irrealist meta ethics which contends that:

1. All moral claims are false.

2. That we have reason to believe all moral claims are false.

3. No moral features exist; Existence is neither intrinsically good or evil.

4. Moral value judgments attempt, but fail, to refer to moral features in the world (because there are none).

In other words, on this view moral terms and sentences attempt to state facts but always fail as they are merely communicating falsities (mistaken belief).

Perhaps the most well known moral error theorist is J. L. Mackie, who defended this meta-ethical view in his book ‘Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong’.

Mackie clearly distinguished himself from non cognitivists and logical positivists when he wrote:

‘Although logical positivism with its verifiability theory of descriptive meaning gave an impetus to non-cognitive accounts of ethics, it is not only logical positivists but also empiricists of a much more liberal sort who should find objective values hard to accommodate. Indeed, I would not only reject the verifiability principle but also deny the conclusion commonly drawn from it, that moral judgements lack descriptive meaning. The assertion that there are objective values or intrinsically prescriptive entities or features of some kind, which ordinary moral judgements presuppose, is, I hold, not meaningless but false.’

Mackie put forth 2 main arguments in support of error theory.


On page 37 of his book (mentioned above) he states that “If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. These points were recognized by Moore when he spoke of non-natural qualities, and by the intuitionists in their talk about a ‘faculty of moral intuition’. Intuitionism has long been out of favour, and it is indeed easy to point out its implausibilities.” And thus he claims there is sufficient reason to doubt the existence of ‘objective values’.

To put it another way: the ‘objective moral values’ view (moral realism) would have us believe that moral prescription somehow motivates (magically?) and provides reasons for action independent of our subjective, desires, and aversions. However such a claim seems totally detached from reality and our experience of it, and thus can be reasonably rejected.


The Argument from Relativity (or the Argument from Disagreement) makes an empirical observation. It points to the fact of wide spread disagreement concerning what is purportedly ‘morally acceptable’. In his book Mackie argues that this phenomena (moral disagreement) is more reasonably explained by moral irrealism rather than moral realism. That is, given the fact of widespread moral disagreement it seems more plausible that morality is a human convention and far less likely that there exists some meta physical realm of ‘objective values’ to which (apparently) some cultures have flawed epistemic access.

Concerning this Mackie wrote: ‘Disagreement about moral codes seems to reflect people’s adherence to and participation in different ways of life. The causal connection seems to be mainly that way round: it is that people approve of monogamy because they participate in a monogamous way of life rather than that they participate in a monogamous way of life because they approve of monogamy.
Of course, the standards may be an idealization of the way of life from which they arise: the monogamy in which people participate may be less complete, less rigid, than that of which it leads them to approve. This is not to say that moral judgements are purely conventional. Of course there have been and are moral heretics and moral reformers, people who have turned against the established rules and practices of their own communities for moral reasons, and often for moral reasons that we would endorse. But this can usually be understood as the extension, in ways which, though new and unconventional, seemed to them to be required for consistency, of rules to which they already adhered as arising out of an existing way of life. In short, the argument from relativity has some force simply because the actual variations in the moral codes are more readily explained by the hypothesis that they reflect ways of life than by the hypothesis that they express perceptions, most of them seriously inadequate and badly distorted, of objective values.’


My own personal view (at the moment) is that morality at least begins as non cognitive attitudes and then elaborate beliefs and attempted justifications are constructed around them.
As a Projectionist in morals, I hold that our moral opinions and behaviors are better accounted for as reactions to a reality that consists not of value, moral obligation, or rights. This is in stark contrast to the moral realist who contends that our moral opinions and behaviors are explained by our recognition, or intuition concerning some kind of moral reality.
The human tendency is to project one’s negative and positive attitudes onto reality and then mistakenly believe them to be something one locates in-the-world, as something independent of human reactivity and opinion.
For example, one could have a meta physical belief which postulates the existence of some sort of platonic ‘realm of values’, a belief in some kind of moral non naturalism or naturalism. In meta ethics this view is known as “Projectivism”.
While I think it is clear that moral terms are used to express degrees in attitudes, it is equally clear that (especially among the theologically minded) moral language is also employed in reference to some mistaken belief concerning ‘objective moral values’ etc. With that said, I’m not sure that many average folk think very deeply about what they mean when they say ‘X is evil!’. They don’t necessarily have any particular cognitive moral belief but are merely expressing approval or a strong disgust, or even perhaps merely “virtue signaling”.
Think of young children for example; they use moral language but haven’t had enough time and experience to accumulate nor cognitive capacity to formulate convoluted belief structures.

I believe the issue of moral language is more nuanced and complex than a strict error theorist or non cognitivist would admit. In everyday life, people use language in a myriad ways. Sometimes moral language is used emotively, sometimes to express mistaken belief, and other times both at the same time. One thing I have yet to see, however, is an instance where normative language communicates normative fact.

Morality, politics, and religion are about power, not truth. Knowing this, doesn’t mean it is always strategic to wear nihilism or atheism on our sleeves. Often, an enlightened individual must hide his power level in order to navigate human relations.

Clearly, even falsities have their uses and evolutionary purposes, and without at least a pretense of moral norms, group cohesion, and cooperation may not be possible. Some “white lies” are necessary for the health of society and not everyone is capable of seeing or handling the fact that morality is flim flam or that divinity is a sham.

“The “common people” have always had to be befooled with some written or wooden or golden Idol – some constitution, declaration or gospel. Consequently, the majority of them have ever been mental thralls, living and dying in an atmosphere of strong illusion. They are befooled and hypnotized even to this hour, and a large proportion of them must remain so, until time is no more. Indeed the masses of mankind are but the sediment from which all the more valuable elements have been long ago distilled. They are totally incapable of real freedom, and if it were granted to them, they would straightaway vote themselves a master, or a thousand masters within twenty-four hours.” – Might is Right – Ragnar Redbeard

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