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
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
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
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
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
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
(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
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.