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Utilitarianism for the Error Theorist


The moral error theory has become increasingly popular in recent decades. So much so indeed that a new issue emerged, the so-called “now-what problem”: if all our moral beliefs are false, then what should we do with them? So far, philosophers who are interested in this problem have focused their attention on the mode of the attitudes we should have with respect to moral propositions. Some have argued that we should keep holding proper moral beliefs; others that we should replace our moral beliefs with fictional attitudes, beliefs in natural facts, or conative attitudes. But all these philosophers have set aside an important question about the content of these attitudes: which moral propositions, and more generally which moral theory, should we accept? The present paper addresses this neglected issue, arguing that moral error theorists should adopt a utilitarian moral fiction. In other words, they should accept the set of moral principles whose general acceptance would maximize overall well-being.

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  1. Some philosophers take this combination of attitudes to be a form of belief rather than make-belief (Olson 2014). I will not take a stand on this issue. If these philosophers are correct, then the view I will assume is actually a form of conservationism rather than fictionalism.

  2. There are two significant differences between the utilitarian’s understanding of (UP) and mine. First, on the utilitarian reading, (UP) ascribes a duty to make-believe simple moral principles to all moral agents. By contrast, in my understanding, (UP) ascribes such a duty only to moral error theorists in the process of choosing a moral fiction. Second, on the utilitarian reading, (UP) ascribes us a moral duty to make-believe simple moral principles. We have such a duty because we have a more general moral duty to act so as to maximize overall well-being, with which we will comply only if we make-believe simple moral principles. In my understanding of (UP), by contrast, the “should” is prudential.

  3. Our fiction might well differ from utilitarianism in a crucial respect, though. While the utilitarian decision procedure is meant to maximize well-being tout court, our fiction would maximize the well-being of moral agents only. After all, the contractors would be moral agents—from the prudential perspective, there is no point in making a contract with someone who is incapable of moral thought. And, being omniscient, they would know that they are moral agents. This is not to say that our fiction would give us no duties to new-borns, the mentally disabled, and non-human animals. But it would give us such duties only because this would maximize the well-being of moral agents, most of whom care somewhat about the fate of all sentient beings. In Kantian terminology, these duties would be “indirect”—they would be derived from the interests of moral agents. Interestingly, however, all our duties would be indirect—ultimately, all your duties would be derived from your own interests. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pointing out this issue.

  4. As an anonymous referee pointed out to me, the contractors would be indifferent between two fictions that would produce at least as much well-being as any alternative fiction. I agree. However, since it is very unlikely that two fictions would maximize well-being, I will keep talking of “the moral fiction” assuming that this is a tolerable simplification.

  5. Rawls’s contractors are not so much interested in well-being as they are in “primary goods” (1971: 62). I will ignore this difference, which is inconsequential for my purposes.

  6. Rawls concedes this point (1971: 166).


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A number of friends and colleagues read and commented on previous drafts of this paper. In particular, I would like to express my gratitude to Matidle Aliffi, Vuko Andric, Florian Cova, Julien Deonna, Jean-François Labonté, Hichem Naar, Jonas Olson, Jussi Suikkanen, Silvan Wittwer, and two anonymous referees for this journal, as well as audiences at the Thumos seminar (Geneva), at the philosophy post-graduate seminar (Birmingham) and at the workshop 5èmes journées de métaéthiques (Lausanne). I would also like to thank the Swiss National Science Foundation, which supported this work as part of the project “Normative Issues in Metaethics”.

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Correspondence to François Jaquet.

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Jaquet, F. Utilitarianism for the Error Theorist. J Ethics 25, 39–55 (2021).

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  • Moral error theory
  • Now-what problem
  • Fictionalism
  • Utilitarianism