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Moral Beliefs for the Error Theorist?


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.

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  1. Other errors one may attribute to moral discourse include, inter alia, the commitment to the existence of God, to the existence of free will, or to the possibility of a convergence in desires between fully rational agents (Smith 1994).

  2. The typical error theorist has no problem with reasons as such. What he finds objectionable are categorical reasons. As a consequence, the error theorist will be happy to recognize that we have hypothetical reasons to value the most effective means to our ends, whatever they are.

  3. The distinction is often construed as one between two proposals about how we should use moral discourse. As Jonas Olson’s critique of Richard Joyce’s proposal, which will be the focus of this paper, is principally at the psychological level, we prefer to construe the distinction as primarily a psychological one.

  4. These are not intended to be definitions but a characterization of one crucial difference between belief and make-belief (Joyce, personal communication, May 2014). For the sake of simplicity, we will nonetheless call these ‘theories’.

  5. Since fictionalism, as we construe it here, is a view about what we should do once we have accepted the error theory, there is no need to mention that we should have dissented from the proposition Killing is wrong in the past.

  6. Metaethics is here not construed as a discipline only philosophers are concerned about. Thinking that there might not be objective moral truths is doing metaethics, a similar way thinking that there might or might not be a God is engaging in metaphysics (or philosophy of religion). It is clear to us that the folks do philosophy every once in a while.

  7. Another contender is substitutionism, recently defended by Lutz (2014), according to which, roughly, we should modify the content of our moral claims in such a way that they end up being true. Interestingly, Mackie himself may have envisaged just this possibility in his 1976 book, Problems from Locke: “A similar conceptual reform [to the one about personal identity I am proposing], rather than mere analysis of our present concepts, is, I believe, needed for ethics. I hope to discuss this topic in another book” (Mackie 1976, p. 196n27). Thanks to an anonymous referee for drawing our attention to this passage.

  8. See also Brown 2011, for a similar defence.

  9. In a recent article (Suikkanen 2013), Jussi Suikkanen argues, among other things, that both fictionalism and conservationism are problematic given that the conceptions of belief on which they rely are inconsistent with the most appealing theories of belief that we find in the literature. While we think that Suikkanen’s point is ultimately successful – that the prescriptive views in the debate make implausible assumptions about the nature of belief – our purpose in this paper is much narrower in scope: it is to assess the possibility of defending a genuine conservationist alternative to a relatively influential fictionalist position. This project, we take it, can be pursued even if we think that both fictionalism and conservationism are ultimately inadequate.

  10. Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this interpretation to us.

  11. We take it that, on a plausible interpretation of Joyce’s theory of belief, a context at which one reminds oneself one’s theoretical commitment on some matter counts as a critical context. It is not because the make-believer does not engage in some serious metaethics when reminding herself of the truth of the error theory that she thereby fails to be in a critical context.

  12. Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting the following way of construing Olson’s account of belief.

  13. See in particular, his remarks on ‘compartmentalization’ (2011, p. 199).

  14. Because she wishes to accommodate the ordinary notion of make-belief, or simply because she takes it that the fictionalist would adopt this constraint in drawing a distinction between belief* and make-belief*.

  15. Other paradigmatic examples include children’s games of make-believe, videogames, and role-playing games. For a discussion of make-believe in its paradigmatic forms, see Walton (1990). For a discussion of the emotional and motivational aspects of our engagement in such activities, see Cova & Naar (manuscript).


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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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Correspondence to François Jaquet.

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Jaquet, F., Naar, H. Moral Beliefs for the Error Theorist?. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 19, 193–207 (2016).

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  • Prescriptive metaethics
  • Error theory
  • Fictionalism
  • Belief
  • Make-believe