On "The Logic of Moral Discourse"

Maarten Maartensz

3. The "Error Theory"

1. "The Great Mass of Moral Thought is Error"

We have arrived at the discussion of one of the other theories Mr. Edwards distinguished in Chapter 1. He introduces it thus:

"Frequently when a person says that something is beautiful or that a certain action is right, he is met with the answer, "You mean you like it" or "You mean that you are for it." Naive subjectivism may be said to be an explicit formulation of a metaethic implicit in certain statements commonly made. These are also statements made in reply to the claims that something is beautiful or good or right. The remarks which one then sometime encounters are: "All you have a right to say that you like it" or "All that you are entitled to assert is that you approve of it".
The error theory has been given its fullest exposition in an article by the Australian philosopher John Mackie, published in 1946(..)" (p. 67)

In fact, I think we have disposed of such utter relativism that falsely insists that all there is to ethical predicates are merely subjective feelings in the former chapter. This is simply factually false: At the very least there also are shared human desires, beliefs, plans, proposals, and ideals about how to make a human society of some kind. These desires may be unwise or dangerous; the beliefs unfounded or improbable; the plans careless and uninformed; the proposals mistaken; and the ideals based on illusions - but they seem to always exist in case of any widely shared moral or ethical theory, which normally is part of some religious or political belief as well, while indeed sometimes there may be quite good arguments for some of these desires, beliefs, plans, proposals and ideals, and indeed intelligent people have been discussing such questions, plans, proposals and ideals for many centuries.

Now the error theory goes rather a bit further than naive subjectivism and relativism as we shall see: It claims most usage of ethical predicates is in error.

Before turning to Mr. Mackie's theory it makes sense to observe that (1) the great majority of persons cease to be relativists as soon as their own supposed moral rights, personal interests, or chances on life, property and happiness are concerned and that (2) it obviously is a neat if perhaps cynical rhetorical move to defend evident injustice one clearly profits from by hypocritical claims of moral relativism: "OK, I hold slaves for profit and frequently torture them - but your disagreements show merely that your feelings are different from mine, and de gustibus non disputandum, my friend." Or: "OK, I trade weapons and drugs for profit. So what? Everybody would do the same as me if he got the chance, for if I wouldn't do it surely another would do it, and my profits are enormous. We all want money, don't we? As for morals: We all have to pretend to get by in this world - and so do you. Me, I am a realist, and reckon in terms of my cash and my profit."

Now to the error theory. Mr. Edwards says:

"Mackie's main points are: (1) that when people make moral judgments, they are asserting that an act or a person has a certain quality of goodness or rightness, or whatever it is, i.e., they are making objective claims, but (2) that, since there is no such "independent" quality, all moral judgements are false, and (3) this universal error is due to peoples' projection in a certain way of their feelings of approval and disapproval onto the subject of their judgment. (p. 67-8)

So here we have a metaethical theory of, one would say, puberal radicalness: "all moral judgements are false" - and everybody making them, such as Socrates, Buddha, Aristotle, Confucius, Mencius, Jesus etc. and also non-religious moralists like Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes, Hume and Russell were all fundamentally wrong, mistaken, misguided and blind in ways Mr. Mackie is not.  

"The following are Mackie's own words:

We have only moral feelings but objectify these and think we are recognizing objective facts and qualities.
Moral terms do mean objective qualities, and everyone who uses them does so because he believes in objective facts.
But there are no objective moral facts: the feelings are all that exists.
The great mass of what is called moral thought is, not nonsense, but error, the imagining of objective fact and qualities of external things where there exists nothing but our feeling of desire and approval.
In using moral terms we are as it were objectifying our own feelings, thinking them into qualities independent of us." (p. 68)

One of the curious things about these claims is that they were written in 1946, not long after the end of World War II and, I supose, not long after publication of quite horrific photographic evidence of what took place with what results in the Nazi concentration camps.

Perhaps these do not constitute proof, but they do constitute evidence about what one specific way of thinking about human beings and social relations - national socialism - results in: Evident great misery, maltreatment and murder of millions of persons who had done nothing wrong, but who were supposed to belong to an inferior race, or happened to have religious or political ideas Hitler did not approve of.

So one thing such evidence also proves is that even if Mr. Mackie were right, then even so the thinking and feeling of men about morals does get translated into facts that effect the chances on health and happiness for others - and if these others are humans, then yet other humans are perfectly capable of knowing many things about what would please or displease them, help or hinder them, or satisfy their needs or make them ill or kill them.

Mr. Edwards also says

"Mackie is here attacking what has sometimes been called the "pathetic fallacy"" (p. 69)

to which we shall turn in the next section. Here I want to quote another version of the error theory:

"Richard Robinson who advocates the same type of error theory, with due acknowledgements to Mackie, calls it a form of the emotive theory. Ethical words, according to him, "name unanalyzable qualities belonging to certain acts or objects in complete independence of all human feelings or thoughts." But "in this descriptive use the ethical words involve an error, because nothing has such an unanalyzable independent attribute as they name."" (p. 70)

I read a book by Robinson called "An Atheist's Values", that dates from the nineteensixties, hence after the above was writtten, that suggests that by then Mr. Robinson had thought a little more. (This is a recommendable book about moral values. It is interesting and clearly written.)

In any case, the error theory seems to come about thus:

First, it is falsely supposed that ethical predicates must name simple unanalyzable qualities, in the same sort of way as terms like "red" or "hard" name their referents.
Next, it is correctly concluded that most (if not all) ethical predicates do not name simple unanalyzable qualities.
Third, it is falsely concluded that any use of an ethical predicate must involve a predicate that's used falsely or improperly - in brief: in error.

As Mr. Edwards pointed out, most (if not all) ethical predicates refer in a rather complex way to diverse factual features of diverse kinds while at the same time involving reference to human feelings, desires and beliefs.

And as I pointed out, these complex interrelations between statements of fact, statements of value and statements of reason (that would explain and motivate such moral judgments and might produce a logic of moral discourse, for example), is precisely what characterizes ethics and morals: Unlike physics and chemistry, there is essential reference to human desires, human ends, human plans and human nature, next to the factual features of the world we live in that may be studied by physics and chemistry, that usually are also to some extent relevant, for one cannot realize one's desires, ends or plans without having minimally adequate factual ideas to do so, including perhaps technology derived from science.

In brief, the error theory is in error, and if men make errors in moral judgments, as they undoubtedly do, it is not for the reason the error theory gives.

2. Is the "Pathetic Fallacy" Really a Fallacy?

A brief statement of the Pathetic Fallacy is that it amounts to the kind of confusion the error theorists and naive subjectivisms urge is at the bottom of moral judgments: People mistakenly believe - says the Pathetic Fallacy theory - that the objects they attribute moral or aesthetic qualities to really have these qualities, whereas in real fact these moral or aesthetic qualities are nothing but feelings of the persons making the judgments, and do not reside in the objects but in the persons.

As I explained in the previous section: One fundamental problem with this type of position is that moral judgments, however motivated, tend to have factual consequences for the chances on life, property, health and happiness of other people. That is: Even if the Pathetic Fallacy may seem to exist when judging esthetically or in mere judgments of taste, more is involved with moral judgments, for moral judgments directly concern what people may and may not do or feel or think, and the moral judgments of your neighbour may be the cause of your death, or conversely.

Mr. Edwards approaches the question about the Pathetic Fallacy as follows

"Our subsequent discussion will be simplified if we clearly distinguish at this stage between:
(1) statements which assert that a certain thing, x, has, in virtue of certain features, F1-Fx, the power to produce a certain emotion or state of mind in people of a certain kind, and
(2) statements which assert that x has certain features, e.g., the features F1-Fx referred to in (1).
Let us refer to statements of the first kind as "power-statements" and to those of the second kind as "feature-statements"" (p. 71-2)

"Next, let us introduce the term "pathetic statement" to refer to any sentence whose predicate is one or other of the words mentioned by Perry or Mackie; i.e. words like "hopeful," "amusing," "tiresome," "enticing," "foul," etc. Using this terminology, what I now wish to show is that, in any usual circumstances, pathetic statements are either feature-statements or else power-statements. I shall also show that they are often known to be true." (p. 72)

I think this is so, and will not give the reader most of Mr. Edwards arguments, since it seems to me quite obvious that evaluative, appraising, emotional etc. terms are known to refer to "a certain emotion or state of mind in people of a certain kind" by people of that kind at least, and by those who know about people that kind. Therefore such terms can in many contexts be used as are factual terms, at least to and by people who qualify in certain simple ways.

But I will cite some of Mr. Edwards' conclusions:

"If we define "polyguous expression" to mean "any term which has a large number of referents" then it is easy to see that terms like "boring," "amusing," "hopeful," and many others are polyguous. Moreover, they may be said to be polyguous "in two directions." Thus, firstly, the same person or people with the same general tastes and sensibilities do not refer to exactly the same features when saying of different things that they are boring. (..) But, secondly, people with different tastes and sensibilities will tend to refer to different features." (p. 74-5)

This is so and addresses a mistaken assumption of the error theorists and of naive subjectivists, namely that moral predicates are like simple ostensively definable terms like "red". Furthermore:

"Perry (..) says "They (the tertiary qualities) lose all semblance of that inherence in the object which becomes increasingly clear and unmistakable in the case of color."
The answer to this is: If you first assume that they are simple qualities like redness or hardness you won't indeed find them. But this is a false assumption, based on the superstition that to every adjective corresponds one property. The boringness is in the lecture but it is not a "one" - it is a "many". The boringness is constituted by several features and by different features on different occasions." (p. 75)

The italicized sentence concerns an example of Mr. Edwards I skipped. It may be added in precisification that what is meant (properly speaking) is that the features that make the lecture boring are features of the lecture, but that the feelings of boredom belong to whomever finds such features boring. Even so, the usual facts of the matter are: certain factual features; a certain audience with certain tastes; and thence the basis for knowing what an audience with such tastes feels about the presence of such features.

Furthermore, it makes sense to observe once more that it seems factually correct that all humans share quite a few needs, feelings, tastes, appreciations etc. (food, sleep, health, warmth, personal safety to name a few basic ones) - and that the main ethical or moral differences do not concern needs, feelings, tastes, appreciations as such, but whether they are the needs, feelings, tastes, appreciations of members of Our Group, of non-members Our Group, or of opponents of Our Group. (See social relativism.) 

Mr. Edwards sums up as follows:

"I conclude therefore that what is called the pathetic fallacy is not in general a fallacy and that the contrary view is due to the tacit false assumption that words like "amusing," "boring," "hopeful," and "foul" are used to refer to simple qualities." (p. 76)

3. Moral and MetaMoral Mistakes

Here Mr. Edwards introduces some distinctions and discusses various mistakes.

"I wish to distinguish between what, if anything, a person actually refers to by a certain statement, and the belief he holds concerning the referent of his statement." (p. 77)

In fact, Mr. Edwards says quite a lot more about this distinction, but it seems obvious to me what it is and how it could be important to all manner of theories people believe, including moral theories. An example Mr. Edwards considers is that of free will:

"Consider, for instance, statements about free actions. Normally, when we distinguish between an action which has been freely performed and one which has not been freely performed, what we mean is roughly (i) that the agent's will-power was intact - e.g. that he had not been drugged or hypnotized; (ii) that if he had chosen to do something else, something else would have happened or tended to happen (..) (iii) that (he) had a choice between alternatives more than one of which was not unreasonably painful. Now there are many actions which are freely performed in this sense."

This is so, and indeed it is also true that this threefold proposal of when an act is said to be free is not so much "normal" as: A rather sophisticated bit of analysis, that took some time to find, and that also occurs (in roughly the same form) in the American Criminal Code.

Even so, it is not so much an analysis of what freedom of the will consists in, but much rather of the kinds of situations in which freedom of the will can be exercised if it exists. Mr. Edwards addresses this side of the matter thus:

"Yet many people can without much difficulty be made to think that what they mean by "x is an action which has been freely performed" is "x is uncaused," or "no matter how far back the causal history of x is traced, there always can be found a choice on the agent's part." Of course, once people believe this, they conclude that no actions are really free. The mistake here is not the original statement that the action in question was free. The mistake is the view that the person comes to temporarily hold concerning what he means by "free"" (p. 79)

That may be so, but even so Mr. Edwards' own analysis, as I pointed out, is also no analysis of "free" other than of the circumstances in which it can be reasonably said one is "free" to exercise one's free will if it can be exercised. (Note 1).

Here is an example of another confusion.

"I have had numerous students who, as a result of taking courses in psychology or physiology or both, maintain with conviction that when ordinary people (including themselves in their non-theoretical moments) say that they have a pain in a certain tooth or in a toe or in a stomach, they are mistaken. For, so they go on, pains can only exist in the brain. This, by the way, is a statement found in several textbooks of psychology and physiology." (p. 79-80)

I don't doubt it, though it's not a tribute to - presumably American - academic intelligence, since obviously the brain exists at least in part to inform about the state of one's body and environment. But indeed, this fallacy does seem rather close to the Pathetic Fallacy line of reasoning.

"Returning now to Mackie, I wish to point out that he totally fails to distinguish between two very different theories both of which are implicit in different of his remarks. One the one hand he seems to maintain

(I) the view that all moral judgments are false

On the other hand he seems to maintain

(II) that what is false is not the moral judgment, but the meta-moral view which invariably accompanies it and according to which the moral judgment has an objective referent." (p. 80)

Mr. Edwards claims that his analysis in Chapter VII will show both views to be false. I think we have already good reasons to believe so.

Finally, Mr. Edwards concludes this chapter on a note I partially disagree with.

"(..)  it is not fantastic to say that when ordinary people have attempted to answer metamoral questions, they have so far always been mistaken. Metamoral questions may be very intricate and a person not trained in logic - and even one who is trained in logic - may easily fail to make a certain distinction and as a result totally misinterpret the nature of moral judgments. This is actually what happened, if my remarks in Chapter II were correct, in the case of people who say, "What you mean when you say 'x is good' is that you approve of it." (p. 81)

Actually, this does seem to me more fantastic than not, for the simple reason that if this were true there would be no human societies with cooperating humans who do agree on quite a number of factual beliefs and moral desires. It may very well be that part of the beliefs are mistaken, and it may be that some of the moral desires are not practicable or have quite other foundations (say: genetical and evolutionary rather than divine) than those who hold them believe. But to the extent these beliefs and desires helped create and maintain a society in which people could and did live and cooperate, they also seem to have had some things about the factual situation and about some possible human ends in the situation at least practically right: They worked in practice, whatever one feels about the practice or its justifications or ends, and they resulted from human agreements on moral desires and on relevant facts for practising those desires.

3. The "Error Theory"

Note 1: Actually, I do believe in the freedom of the will, but it is far from easy to give a valid argument for it with evidently true premisses. Instead, here is an example to test your own intuitions: Consider playing a pin-ball machine. What you want to do, if you play it, is to keep the ball in the game, and to do so you have to make rapid decisions, while you know that if you cease making them the ball will escape from the game. This seems to me a clear example where one can feel and see one's own free will acting, including cases where one acts and fails. Back.