Sub-session 3 The ‘Now What Question’ for Moral Error Theory
Moral error theorists believe that ordinary moral judgments are systematically untrue. Some moral error theorists use evolutionary debunking arguments in defense of their view. If we assume that error theory is true, then we can ask what we should do with our practice of uttering systematically untrue moral judgments. This is the ‘now what question’ for moral error theory. The aim of this sub-session is to assess the plausibility of the various possible answers to this question.
What can Debunking do for Us (Nihilists and Sceptics)
In this paper, I examine the metaethical relevance of genealogical debunking arguments about moral judgement, in particular their role in a case for moral nihilism or scepticism. Richard Joyce (2016) argues that a successful genealogical debunking argument puts the burden of proof on the moral realist, to explain how moral beliefs can be justified. I argue that the realist can shoulder this burden. Still, a successful genealogical debunking argument has dialectical force in that it provides a plausible response to an important argument against moral nihilism and scepticism. This response can be said to lead to a familiar impasse between moral nihilists and sceptics on the one hand and moral realists on the other. I conclude with some reflections on the epistemological implications of this apparent impasse.
Don’t Stop Believing: On the Utility of Accuracy for Moral Error Theorists
Edward Elliott and Jessica Isserow
According to the standard view of action, agents are generally rational beings, who choose so as to maximise their desire satisfaction given the way they take the world to be. Beliefs are a map by which we steer, while we search for that which matters most to us. In the limit case, the standard view predicts that when an agent α has complete knowledge of the way the world is, she will choose whichever action available to her will result in the best possible outcome given her actual circumstances. Given this, it’s natural to think that there is straightforward value to improving the accuracy of one’s picture of the world. And this may be true in most circumstances; it’s often better to have an accurate map than an inaccurate map. But it’s easy to see that it cannot be true in general. The world may be set up so as to punish improvements in overall doxastic accuracy. Consider the evil demon who hates know-it-alls: the more that α learns about the world, the more the demon limits her options to only those with the worst outcomes. In the limit, α knows what choices will maximise her desire satisfaction, but—by virtue of her epistemic gains—her situation is far worse than it might have been otherwise. In this paper, we will consider cases in the moral domain which are arguably similar to that of the evil demon. Specifically, we will consider the moral error theory, which we have defended in separate works. In the kinds of cases we are interested in, coming to believe the moral error theory forecloses the most valuable outcomes. From one perspective, and to whatever extent we have a choice in the matter, we may do better to ignore the one, general moral truth: there are no moral truths.
Moral Error Theory and Substitutionism
I have two aims: (I) to defend pragmatic presupposition moral error theory and (II) to defend the pragmatic presupposition substitutionist answer to the now what question. (I). Pragmatic presupposition moral error theorists analyse the context of the conversation in which a moral judgment is uttered and ask which claims, if any, the participants in this context have to assume to be true in order for their contributions to the conversation to be felicitous. I argue that moral judgments in ordinary moral conversations pragmatically presuppose categorical moral reasons. (II). With this interpretation of moral error theory on board, and assuming that there are no categorical moral reasons, I defend the pragmatic presupposition substitutionist answer to the now what question: what should we do with moral discourse after error theory? This answer recommends that we keep what moral judgments sound like the same, but that we change the context in which we conduct our moral discussions, such that we get judgments that pragmatically presuppose hypothetical reasons, which exist. The recommendation is prudential. If you follow the advice, then you have a better chance to get what you want, which I assume is the satisfaction of what I call the fundamental desire; viz., to live in a world with mutually beneficial cooperation. I argue that there are four reasons for this, including that thinking thoughts that contain moral terms provides a bulwark against lapses in motivation because thinking such thoughts engages our evolutionarily advantageous propensity to act on our moral judgments.