Making Sense of Morality: Error Theory

Various ethical terms
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Naturalism and Error Theory

Still another kind of naturalistic moral cognitivism is error theory, which has been defended by J. L. Mackie (d. 1981) and Richard Joyce (b. 1966). Mackie used two arguments for his view. First, the argument from relativity maintains that empirically, there are many moral differences amongst people. For him, the best explanation is that moral judgments are tied to different forms (or ways) of life, each of which has its way of interpreting reality. Second, the argument from queerness says that, if objectively real, moral qualities would be very bizarre things in an otherwise naturalistic world. Since we know natural kinds of things empirically, to know objectively real, intrinsically moral properties would require some extraordinary faculty.


Error theorists consistently hold that on naturalism, there are no intrinsically moral properties. This naturalistic view of what morals are trades upon language use. They are just ways of speaking according to the “grammar” (or, rules) of a given people that allows them to use moral discourse, yet while (apparently) avoiding the reality of morals.

For Further Reading

Richard Joyce, “Mackie’s arguments for the moral error theory,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Professor of ethics, philosophy of religion @ Biola's MA Christian Apologetics. Interests: ethics, knowledge, nominalism, & how Christians have been naturalized