Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 193–207 | Cite as

Moral Beliefs for the Error Theorist?

  • François Jaquet
  • Hichem Naar


The moral error theory holds that moral claims and beliefs, because they commit us to the existence of illusory entities, are systematically false or untrue. It is an open question what we should do with moral thought and discourse once we have become convinced by this view. Until recently, this question had received two main answers. The abolitionist proposed that we should get rid of moral thought altogether. The fictionalist, though he agreed we should eliminate moral beliefs, enjoined us to replace them with attitudes that resemble to some extent the attitudes we have towards pieces of fiction. But there is now a third theory on the market: conservationism, the view that we should keep holding moral beliefs, even though we know them to be false. (According to a fourth theory, ‘substitutionism’, we should modify the content of our moral claims in such a way that they become true.) Putting abolitionism (and substitutionism) aside, our aim is to assess the plausibility of conservationism as an alternative to the – relatively dominant – fictionalism that we find in the literature. Given the difficulty of finding a conservationist view that is both (i) plausible and (ii) not merely a terminological variant of fictionalism, we will argue that conservationism fails to constitute a plausible alternative to fictionalism, at least insofar as it purports to be an alternative view as to what we should do with our moral thoughts.


Prescriptive metaethics Error theory Fictionalism Belief Make-believe 



We would like to thank Richard Joyce, Richard Dub, Florian Cova, audiences in Geneva and Ovronnaz, Switzerland, and two anonymous reviewers for this journal for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. We also would like to thank the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the Center for Research on Ethics (CRE) for their generous support at various stages of the writing.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Swiss Center for Affective SciencesUniversity of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy and Center for Research on Ethics (CRE)University of MontrealMontrealCanada

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