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«Bart Streumer b.streumer Journal of Philosophy 110 (2013): 194-212 Published version available here: ...»

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CAN WE BELIEVE THE ERROR THEORY?

Bart Streumer

b.streumer@rug.nl

Journal of Philosophy 110 (2013): 194-212

Published version available here:

https://www.pdcnet.org/jphil/content/jphil_2013_0110_0004_0194_0212

Abstract:

According to the error theory, normative judgements are beliefs that ascribe normative

properties, even though such properties do not exist. In this paper, I argue that we cannot believe the error theory, and that this means that there is no reason for us to believe this theory. It may be thought that this is a problem for the error theory, but I argue that it is not.

Instead, I argue, our inability to believe the error theory undermines many objections that have been made to this theory.

CAN WE BELIEVE THE ERROR THEORY?1

According to the error theory, normative judgements are beliefs that ascribe normative properties, even though such properties do not exist.2 This theory is normally only defended about moral judgements, but I have argued elsewhere that it seems to be true of all normative judgements.3 In this paper, I shall argue that we cannot believe the error theory, and that this For helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, I am grateful to audiences at the University of Reading, the University of Southampton, Lund University, Stockholm University, Tilburg University, the British Society for Ethical Theory conference at the University of Nottingham, the Annual Dutch Practical Philosophy Conference at the University of Groningen, and Mark Kalderon and Anthony Price’s Reasons for Action seminar at the University of London. For additional helpful comments, I am grateful to Matt Bedke, Jonathan Dancy, Jamie Dreier, Brian Feltham, Max de Gaynesford, Alex Gregory, Brad Hooker, David Hunter, David Liggins, Hallvard Lillehammer, Jonas Olson, Derek Parfit, Debbie Roberts, Jussi Suikkanen, Michael Smith, Philip Stratton-Lake, Jonathan Way, Daniel Whiting, and the editors of this journal.

I use the term ‘property’ to cover both properties and relations. If you think that some normative judgements do not ascribe properties, you can replace the term ‘normative judgement’ throughout this paper with ‘property-ascribing normative judgement’.

For defences of an error theory about moral judgements, see, for example, J. L. Mackie, Ethics:

Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), and Richard Joyce, The Myth of Morality (New York: Cambridge, 2001) and The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge: MIT, 2006).

Jonas Olson, “In Defence of Moral Error Theory,” in Michael Brady, ed., New Waves in Metaethics (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), defends an error theory about normative judgements that presuppose the existence of categorical reasons, which may include many non-moral normative judgements. I argue that normative judgements are beliefs that ascribe normative properties in “Do Normative Judgements Aim to Represent the World?” (available at http://www.reading.ac.uk/~lds05bs). I argue for two claims that together entail that normative properties do not exist in “Are there Irreducibly Normative Properties?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy LXXXVI (2008): 537-561 and “Are Normative Properties Descriptive Properties?”, Philosophical Studies CLIV (2011): 325-348. These arguments seem to show that the error theory is true of all normative properties and judgements about which the following claims are true: (1) these normative properties supervene on descriptive properties; (2) we do not think that which objects have these normative properties is determined by people’s use of normative predicates under descriptively specified conditions; and (3) we think that when these normative judgements conflict, at least one of means that there is no reason for us to believe this theory. It may be thought that this is a problem for the error theory, but I shall argue that it is not. Instead, I shall argue, our inability to believe the error theory undermines many objections that have been made to this theory.

This matters even if my arguments for the error theory fail. For it is often suggested that the arguments for an error theory about moral judgements actually support an error theory about all normative judgements, and this is often taken to be an objection to an error theory about moral judgements.4 Error theorists about moral judgements can answer this objection by endorsing what I say in this paper.

This paper consists of six sections. In section I, I argue that we cannot believe the error theory. In section II, I argue that this means that there is no reason for us to believe this theory. In sections III and IV, I argue that, instead of being a problem for the error theory, our inability to believe the error theory undermines many objections that have been made to this theory. In sections V and VI, I discuss three objections to my arguments, and I show that a common reaction to the error theory supports my view.

–  –  –

Before I can show why we cannot believe the error theory, I first need to defend two claims about belief. I shall begin by arguing that (B1) We cannot fail to believe what we believe to be entailed by our own beliefs.





We fully believe that p if we are wholly confident that p, and we partly believe that p if we are fairly but not wholly confident that p.5 I shall use the term ‘belief’ to mean full belief. I them must be incorrect. If you think that (1), (2) and (3) are not true of all normative judgements and properties, you can replace the terms ‘normative property’ and ‘normative judgement’ throughout this paper with ‘normative property of which (1) and (2) are true’ and ‘normative judgement of which (3) is true’.

See, for example, Terence Cuneo, The Normative Web (New York: Oxford, 2007).

For the distinction between full and partial belief, see, for example, David Christensen, Putting shall assume that when we are considering whether to give up the belief that p, we no longer fully believe that p, but at most partly believe that p.

To see that (B1) is true, consider a claim of the following form:

–  –  –

For example, suppose that someone says: “I believe that Socrates was a human being, that all human beings are mortal, and that this entails that Socrates was mortal, but I do not believe that Socrates was mortal.” This person may be insincere, or may fail to understand what he is saying, or may be considering whether to give up one of these beliefs.6 If so, he does not fully believe what he says he believes. Alternatively, he may be sincere, may understand what he is saying, and may not be considering whether to give up one of these beliefs. But if so, he is too confused to fully believe what he says he believes.7 If we doubt that (B1) is true, this may be because we fail to distinguish (B1) from certain other claims. (B1) does not say that we cannot fail to believe what is actually entailed by our own beliefs, or that we cannot fail to believe what we partly believe to be entailed by our own partial beliefs, or that we cannot have beliefs that we believe to be inconsistent.8 What (B1) says is that we cannot fail to believe what we ourselves fully believe to be entailed by our own full beliefs. (B1) is therefore much harder to deny than these other claims.

I shall next argue that (B2) We cannot have a belief while believing that there is no reason for this belief.

Logic in its Place (New York: Oxford, 2004), pp. 12-32.

Here and in what follows, I use ‘he’ to mean he or she.

He may not be too confused to partly believe what he says he believes, which means that (B1) is not true of partial beliefs. I shall come back to this in section V.

It may be thought that (B1) entails that we cannot have beliefs that we believe to be inconsistent, since inconsistent beliefs entail everything, and since we cannot believe everything. But people who believe that their own beliefs are inconsistent may not believe that these beliefs entail everything.

They may accept a paraconsistent logic.

I shall use the term ‘reason for belief’ to mean a consideration that counts in favour of this belief.9 If this term is used in this way, the belief that there is a reason for a belief is a normative judgement. While defending (B2), I shall not assume that the error theory is true. I shall instead be neutral between different accounts of the nature of normative judgements.10

To see that (B2) is true, consider a claim of the following form:

p, but there is no reason to believe that p.

For example, suppose that someone says: “Socrates was mortal, but there is no reason to believe that Socrates was mortal.” As before, this person may be insincere, or may fail to understand what he is saying, or may be considering whether to give up one of these beliefs.

If so, he does not fully believe what he says he believes. Alternatively, he may be sincere, may understand what he is saying, and may not be considering whether to give up one of these beliefs. But if so, he is too confused to fully believe what he says he believes.11 As before, if we doubt that (B2) is true, this may be because we fail to distinguish (B2) from certain other claims. (B2) does not say that we can only have a belief while believing that there is a reason for this belief, or that we cannot have a belief while believing that there is insufficient reason for this belief, or that we cannot have a partial belief while partly believing that there is no reason for this belief, or that we cannot have a belief while believing that there is no evidence for this belief. What (B2) says is that we cannot have a full belief while fully believing that there is no reason at all for this belief. (B2) is therefore much harder to deny than these other claims.12 I use the term ‘consideration’ to remain neutral on whether reasons for belief are facts, propositions, or beliefs.

While defending (B2), I shall use the term ‘belief’ in a minimalist sense. If this term is used in this sense, the thought that there is a reason for a belief can be called a ‘belief’ even if it is a noncognitive attitude.

As before, he may not be too confused to partly believing what he says he believes, which means that (B2) is not true of partial beliefs. I shall come back to this in section V.

In Delusions and Other Irrational Beliefs (New York: Oxford, 2010), Lisa Bortolotti describes patients with delusions who may seem to be believe that there is no reason for their deluded beliefs.

But these patients either have abnormal experiences that they take to be best explained by the contents It may be objected that (B2) is not true of compulsive beliefs. Suppose that someone says: “I will die tomorrow, but I know that there is no reason to believe that I will die tomorrow.” If this person’s belief that he will die tomorrow is compulsive, we may think that

he can fully believe what he says he believes. But if so, (B2) can be revised to:

(B2*) We cannot have a non-compulsive belief while believing that there is no reason for this belief.

In what follows, I shall ignore this revision, since none of the beliefs that I shall discuss is compulsive.

I can now show why we cannot believe the error theory. As I have said, according to the error theory, normative judgements are beliefs that ascribe normative properties, even though such properties do not exist. The property of being a reason for belief, in the sense of a consideration that counts in favour of this belief, is a normative property. If the error theory is true, this property does not exist. The error theory therefore entails that there is no reason to believe the error theory.

Anyone who understands the error theory well enough to be in a position to believe it knows that the error theory entails this. Therefore, given that (B1) We cannot fail to believe what we believe to be entailed by our own beliefs, anyone who believes the error theory believes that there is no reason to believe the error theory. But I have just argued that (B2) We cannot have a belief while believing that there is no reason for this belief.

This means that we cannot believe the error theory.

of their deluded beliefs (see p. 120), or they take considerations that are clearly not reasons for their deluded beliefs to be reasons for these beliefs (see p. 122). They therefore do not believe that there is no reason at all for their deluded beliefs.

It may be objected that the belief that there is a reason for a belief is not a normative judgement, but is instead the belief that there is evidence for this belief. But reasons for belief are considerations that we base our beliefs on, and we cannot base a belief on a consideration without making at least an implicit normative judgement. Suppose that I base my belief that Socrates was mortal on evidence about human beings’ mortality. In that case, I cannot see this evidence as merely causing me to have this belief, or as merely explaining why I have this belief. I must also make at least an implicit normative judgement about the relation between this evidence and this belief: I must take this evidence to support, or to justify, or to count in favour of this belief.13 It may also be objected that we can believe the error theory if we take the normative judgement that there is a reason for a belief to be a non-cognitive attitude, or if we take the relation of counting in favour to be identical to a descriptive relation. But this misunderstands my argument. While defending (B2), I was neutral between different accounts of the nature of normative judgements. But when I argued that we cannot believe the error theory, I was not neutral between these different accounts. Instead, I construed the normative judgement that there is a reason for a belief the way the error theory construes it: as a belief that ascribes a normative property. Those who reject this construal do not believe an error theory about all normative judgements, but instead believe a more limited error theory.



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