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Error theory - we are in error when we make any moral statement.

Error theory is a cognitivist form of moral nihilism. It is the view that ethical statements can be propositions, but that all ethical propositions are false (or cannot be true) — that we are generally in error when we make any moral statement.

There are generally two forms of error theory, which depend on the semantic reason for our error in making ethical statements. Global falsity holds that all ethical statements are false propositions.

Presupposition failure alternatively holds that the statements are not explicitly false, but are certainly not true because the statements themselves make false presuppositions about morality (namely, that morality exists)

The Argument from Relativity (often more perspicaciously referred to as “the Argument from Disagreement”) begins with an empirical observation: that there is an enormous amount of variation in moral views, and that moral disagreements are often characterized by an unusual degree of intractability. 

Mackie argues that the best explanation of these phenomena is that moral judgments “reflect adherence to and participation in different ways of life” (1977: 36). This, at least, is a better explanation than the hypothesis that there is a realm of objective moral facts to which some cultures have inferior epistemic access than others. 

The example Mackie uses is of two cultures' divergent moral views regarding monogamy. Is it really plausible, he asks, that one culture enjoys access to the moral facts regarding marital arrangements whereas the other lacks that access? Isn't it much more likely that monogamy happened to develop in one culture but not in the other (for whatever cultural or anthropological reasons), and that the respective moral views emerged as a result?

In light of these observations, the error theory arises because (Mackie thinks) moral discourse is pervaded through and through with aspirations to robust, institution-transcendent prescriptivity. To some extent he considers that this is due to a natural human projectivist tendency (1977: 42), but he also thinks that the problematic notions of “what is intrinsically fitting or required by the nature of things” are in part the product of institutional thinking, and thus so too are the concepts of value, obligation, and reasons that depend on these notions (1977: 82). However, this does not mean that these notions and concepts are institutional in content; the idea of an institution-transcendent requirement is not shown to be any less erroneous, Mackie thinks, if we observe that the idea grew out of, and remains supported by, a widely accepted institution.

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