Moral error theory, explanatory dispensability and the limits of guilt

  • Silvan WittwerEmail author


Recently, companions in guilt strategies have garnered significant philosophical attention as a response to arguments for moral error theory, the view that there are no moral facts and that our moral beliefs are thus systematically mistaken. According to Cuneo (The normative web: an argument for moral realism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007), Das (Philos Q 66:152–160, 2016; Australas J Philos 95(1):58–69, 2017), Rowland (J Ethics Soc Philos 7(1):1–24, 2012; Philos Q 66:161–171, 2016) and others, epistemic facts would be just as metaphysically problematic (or ‘guilty’) as moral facts. But since epistemic error theory is implausible, arguments for moral error theory prove too much and should be rejected. My aim is to argue that the success of this strategy is limited. In particular, the companions in guilt response fails against error-theoretic arguments motivated by concerns about explanatory dispensability, as recently developed by Joyce (The evolution of morality, MIT press, Bradford, 2005) and Olson (Moral error theory: history, critique, defence, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014: Ch. 7). To succeed, the response would require a prima facie plausible argument to the effect that epistemic facts are metaphysically dubious because they, too, are explanatorily dispensable. But, as I show, any such argument proves self-effacing: its premise commits us to believing in epistemic facts, while its conclusion forces us to deny their existence. Consequently, companions in guilt strategies don’t offer a panacea against arguments for moral error theory.


Moral error theory Companions in guilt Epistemic reasons Explanatory dispensability Evolutionary debunking 



I am grateful to Chris Blake-Turner, James Brown, Matthew Chrisman, Chris Cowie, Guy Fletcher, Giada Fratantonio, Francois Jaquet, Felix Pinkert, Geoff Sayre-McCord, Kieran Setiya, Mattias Skipper and Mike Ridge for helpful feedback on previous drafts of this paper. This paper was written while holding a Doc.Mobility Fellowship of the Swiss National Science Foundation and a thesis completion award of the Janggen-Poehn Foundation.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Harvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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