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The Ramifications of Error Theories about the Deontic


Error theories about practical deontic judgements claim that no substantive practical deontic judgement is true. Practical deontic judgements are practical (rather than theoretical) in the sense that they concern actions (rather than beliefs), and they are deontic (rather than evaluative) in the sense that they are about reasons, rightness, wrongness, and obligations (rather than about goodness, badness, and so on). This paper assumes the truth of an error theory about practical deontic judgements in order to examine its ramifications. I defend three contentions. The first is that, if so-called fitting-attitude analyses of value fail, the truth of some substantive evaluative judgements would not be threatened by the fact that no substantive practical deontic judgment is true. Secondly, in light of the truth of these evaluative judgements, the best thing we could do is to continue to make practical deontic judgements despite the truth of an error theory about practical deontic judgements. My third contention is that, if some evaluative judgements are unaffected by an error theory about practical deontic judgements, then such an error theory will eventually lead us to some version of consequentialism.

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  1. See, for instance, Haji 2002, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012a, 2012b, 2012c.

  2. What do I mean by substantive practical deontic judgements? An example of a substantive judgement is the judgement that someone has a reason to do a certain thing. The judgement that no one ever has a reason to do anything is not substantive. (This judgement is compatible with, and implied by, the deontic error theory).

  3. E.g., if there is something curious about duties that do not result from or consist in relations to our interests, desires, etc., the same seems true of values that do not result from or consist in relations to our interests, desires, etc.

  4. For details, see Hoefer 2010.

  5. I think that the gist of this paper can be adapted so as to investigate error theories about moral duties. Prominent attacks on moral duties have been carried out by G. E. M. Anscombe (1958), Alasdair MacIntyre (1981), and Bernard Williams (1985). There are two important differences between these attacks and Haji’s challenge, though. Firstly, Haji’s challenge is not only a threat to morality but to all of practical reason. Secondly, Haji’s challenge covers not only duties but also reasons.

  6. Notice that when I talk about belief/believing in (the existence of) values or the deontic, I mean belief/believing that values exist or that the deontic exists. The latter expression, though, might not be perfectly precise either. It could be more accurate to talk about the instantiation of value properties or deontic properties than about the existence of values or the deontic. For convenience, however, I will use the former phrase.

  7. A Haji-style argument against theoretical reasons would require doxastic voluntarism to be true—a highly contested position.

  8. While I use “normative” as an umbrella term for deontic and evaluative, others use it synonymously with “deontic”. These people need to introduce a different umbrella term or replace “normative” with “deontic or evaluative”.

  9. The assumption is easy to come by if we are internalist foundationalists. It also does not require extensive argument if we start from coherentism. I concede, however, that things are more difficult on externalist foundationalism. Those who reject my first assumption should read this inquiry as aiming to show that (a) the deontic error theory does not provide reasons for thinking that values do not exist (on the assumption that fitting attitude analyses fail), and (b) if belief in values is justified, it is best to maintain deontic discourse despite the deontic error theory.

  10. Joyce 2001, 2009, section 4.

  11. Loc. cit.

  12. For an overview of what normative ethics is and does, see Timmons 2002, chapter 1.

  13. Haji 2010, 2012, chapter 4.

  14. Haji 2002, part 3.

  15. Haji 2010, p. 150.

  16. The objections I have in mind are the Wrong Kind of Reason Problem—see Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen 2004—worries concerning circularity, and the problem of spelling out what is meant by “favouring”; see Bykvist 2009. For an overview of the debate concerning the fitting-attitude analysis, see Jacobson 2011.

  17. Andrić, V. Why scalar consequentialists should be error theorists. Unpublished manuscript.

  18. But is it okay to call a view consequentialist if the notion of an act’s consequences is defined such that the act’s intrinsic value would be part of its consequences? Yes, it is. If you perform an act, one consequence will be that you have performed it. This is why consequentialism can take into account the intrinsic values of acts, as is generally recognized; see, among others, Broome 1991, pp. 3 f.; Kagan 1998, p. 28; Scheffler, 1982, pp. 1 f.; Shaw 1999, pp. 13 f.; Williams 1973, pp. 86–7. Notice, in this context, that even traditional utilitarians will want to take into account the pleasure or pain accompanying an act rather than following it when assessing the act. The upshot is that an act’s consequences should be construed by consequentialists to include not merely the act’s causal consequences but everything that would be the case were it to be performed. Consequentialists thus stretch the word “consequences” beyond its usual meaning, but this is not a problem.

  19. The evaluations of act and outcome would also seem to come apart on a theory of value that combines an evaluator-relative criterion for the evaluation of states of affairs with an evaluator-neutral criterion for the evaluation of acts. But since such a theory of value would be very counterintuitive and does not raise additional problems for my argument, we can ignore it.

  20. Moore 1903, pp. 78–80.

  21. As I argue for fictionalism or revisionism, I reject abolitionism with respect to deontic discourse. The consequences of normative error theories for the erroneous discourse are discussed in Lillehammer 2004, Nolan, Restall, and West 2005 Garner 2007, Eklund 2011, Köhler and Ridge (2013).


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I am grateful to audiences at Humboldt University Berlin, Konstanz University, Saarland University, Stockholm University, and Uppsala University, where this paper or related papers were discussed, and to an anonymous referee. My research on the subject has been funded by a project grant from the German Research Foundation (grant no. TA 820/1-1).

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Andrić, V. The Ramifications of Error Theories about the Deontic. Acta Anal 30, 429–445 (2015).

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  • Moral error theory
  • Deontic morality
  • Values
  • Consequentialism
  • Ishtiyaque Haji