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Moral statements for error theorists

Some questions I had been thinking about came up at the Wisconsin Metaethics Workshop, and I wondered if people had any thoughts about them. As a moral irrealist, and indeed someone tempted by the error theory, I am inclined to say that I don’t believe any moral statements to be true. Thus, I am inclined to believe things like:

1)  “‘Torturing children for fun is wrong’ is false.”

The LEM says that if 1 is false, then its denial must be true. Thus, the irrealist (or at least the error theorist) seems committed to:

2)  “It is not the case that torturing children for fun is wrong”

And I am inclined to believe it too.

That raises two questions:

A)  Are 1 and 2 moral statements?

B)  Does 2 imply that torturing children for fun is permitted or ok?

I want to say no to both. The answer to B is easier. 2 better not have that implication. For the error theorist does not believe that anything is (morally) ok. 2 is just the sort of moral statement she denies to be true.

One way to see this is, a la Harman (the Elder)’s comments at the WMI, is to note that certain statements may seem to make presuppositions, and yet the presuppositions are inappropriate all things considered. Suppose I say, “John has not stopped beating his wife.” The presupposition seemingly revealed in ordinary discourse is that John is still beating his wife. (“John has stopped beating his wife,” after all, appears to be true if the statement above is true.)

But the presupposition can be defeated explicitly, for example by my saying “John has not stopped beating his wife because he never started!” And it can also be defeated implicitly. (Or perhaps, in some contexts it doesn’t even arise.) In realms we do not think of as realms of fact the presupposition seems inappropriate. “No flavor of ice cream is really best” does not presuppose that all flavors are really equally good. (Of course there is a sense in which they are, namely they are all not at all “really good”. But there is a sense in which the very point of the statement is to deny that such predicates as ‘good’–if taken literally or in their ordinary usage–are correctly applied to things like ice cream flavors.

The same can be said (by the error theorist) of statements like 2, I think.

What about A? Are 1 and 2 moral statements?  Well, what is a moral statement? 1 and 2 do express propositions and do employ the moral vocabulary. As such it is natural to think of them as statements about morality, and thus, perhaps, as moral statements. “It is illegal to park there,” by analogy, does seem to be a statement about the law. Still, ‘legal statement’ may seem unclear or awkward. Or take, “Those flowers are red.” Perhaps it does not seem odd to think of that as a color statement. But how about a ‘flower statement’? That’s just not something we’d recognize. ‘Statement about flowers’ is better. By analogy, it seems like the error theorist might be able to live with 1 and 2 being statements about morality, if not moral statements.

Furthermore, if we treat 1 and 2 as moral statements then it looks as though the error theorist believes many many moral statements to be true—has many moral beliefs—but nevertheless doesn’t believe in morality! It seems unfair to saddle her with inconsistency or paradox.  (And we wouldn’t, I think, for “coolness irrealists,” e.g.) So I’m inclined to say that the error theorist does not believe any moral statements to be true.

Perhaps at this point it looks like going further would be to engage in a fruitless terminological quibble. Does this all seem right so far? (I have many more thoughts on this, including some big complications related to that bogey of bloggery, moral incoherentism. But I’m sure I have already violated several norms of bloggery by posting such a long entry. Luckily, I don’t think it’s wrong to do so. Still, I do not want to be kicked off.)

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