The following is a quote taken from:


The error theorist doesn’t think that torturing innocent people is morally wrong, but doesn’t think that it is morally good or morally permissible either. It is important that criticisms of the moral error theorist do not trade on equivocating between the implications that hold in ordinary contexts and the implications that hold in metaethical contexts.

Very confused by this. If something isn't morally wrong, isn't it by definition morally permissible? How can something not be morally wrong... and at the same time not be morally permissible?

Also, I don't understand this distinction between ordinary and metaethical contexts. If an ordinary person says in an ordinary context, "torturing people is not morally wrong" And a philosopher speaking in a metaethical context says, "torturing people is not morally wrong" what exactly is the difference? Have the words changed meaning when the error theorist says the same words? Doesn't make sense to me.

  • There must be some assumption of permission as a substantive condition that is not automatically welded to the domain of discourse. At least, there is a pragmatic context where A waits on B to say what is permitted before acting, so the lack of an explicit permission has the vaguely more substantive result that A doesn't do anything. However, what you have said does make me wonder if there is a structural-realist argument against the moral error-theory: if there is a class of permissions defined as the absence of obligation and the absence of forbidding, these permissions exist at once? May 20, 2023 at 17:22
  • 🤔 A puzzle worthy of a genius, oui? My question is simple, why call the army when the police can handle it?
    – Hudjefa
    May 20, 2023 at 17:51
  • Error theorists do not think that anything is morally wrong when this is interpreted literally, as assigning a moral property to actions, because they do not believe that such properties exist. That is, interpreting moral discourse literally is a metaethical error. In ordinary (first order) contexts "not morally wrong" ⇒ "morally permissible" is valid, but that is because both expressions are reinterpreted in error theory as assertible on grounds other than truth conditions suggested by the surface grammar.
    – Conifold
    May 20, 2023 at 20:27
  • "because both sides are reinterpreted in error theory as assertible on grounds other than truth conditions"... What does "morally permissible" mean in error theory... after this reinterpretation. May 20, 2023 at 20:30
  • Details may differ, but roughly it means can/should be done to advance one's ethical goals. In Mackie's version, for example, the goals center around "self-referential altruism", the well-being of one's social circle, with family and friends as the highest priority.
    – Conifold
    May 20, 2023 at 21:52

2 Answers 2


One possibility is that the error-theorist accepts so-called norming but not normative propositions, e.g. the distinction between:

  1. It is permitted that A.
  2. I permit you to A.

Now, there doesn't seem to be much trouble saying, "If I permit you to A, then it is permitted that A," or we might qualify by saying, "If most people permit you to A, then it is permitted that A" (or something else, some other bridge-sentence) so the error-theorist would be moved to deny such things too. Or, if not outright deny them, weaken them by equating the "permitted-that" clause so strongly with the "permitted-to" clause that there is no strong reason to use the that-term instead of the to-term.

More acutely, a Mackiean error theorist might say that permitted-that clauses are acceptable but not in the "objectively prescriptive, and weird, fact" way (that Mackie inveighed against).

Remarks on "objectively prescriptive facts would be too weird" (added)

The statement, "Deontic properties would be objectively prescriptive," or, "There are objectively prescriptive facts (OPFs)," has played out in a few different ways, historically. The way that Mackie focuses on is:

  1. Identifying a deontic fact, or knowing a deontic property to be true of some object, would instill some willingness, even if not overriding, to comply with the prescription attendant upon the fact/objective property relation.

There are also:

  1. Instilling a desire or willingness to comply makes for a deontic fact after the fact: this is sort of metaethical constructivism. So a deontic fact isn't knowable before we are motivated to act accordingly, but such knowledge is an effect of something in our pure willing.

  2. There are facts such that, if they exist, their existence is accompanied by prescriptions, and somehow the facts themselves can be seen as issuing these prescriptions. And somehow, not complying with those prescriptions amounts to not accepting the facts. Perhaps the facts still count as known in some "clinical" manner, perhaps not, but the key is in rejecting-a-proposition being separable from believing-a-proposition in such a way that we can reject a proposition on some partly factual level while believing it on some other strictly factual level.

So: OPFs are such that either (A) the provided motivation is an effect of our knowledge of the facts, (B) the motivation is the cause of this knowledge, or (C) motivation and knowledge are simultaneous. The error theorist might say, then, that (A) is not logically given (the syntax of a fact, so to speak, is not a formal cause of anything with the syntax of a prescription) and so would have to be metaphysically grounded instead. But this is "weird" and unrealistic, perhaps (though see Korsgaard's argument that human beings and their actions themselves count as OPFs in this sense).

It's less obvious to me, though, that (B) or (C) is weirder than is compatible with a (naive) scientific worldview. At any rate, the error theorist can make a further distinction between normative propositions and deontic propositions sharply: a normative proposition can be true when there has been the required deed of norming (of giving a permission, say), but e.g. if A says, "I obligate B to do x," B can fully accept the fact that A has said such a thing while disregarding, in their actions, the obligation imposed on them by A: the normative fact is not an OPF of any of the above types (A), (B), or (C).

Divine-command theory, then, might be seen as equivocating (in historical arguments) between normative and deontic import. "God permits you to x," ends up with the motivational force of (A/B/C), but not on a normal truth-functional basis, but due to God's ominous powers. But so there would be a possible version of divine-command theory that was also, perchance, an error theory, bizarre as that might seem.

POSTSCRIPT: now, for all that, I don't want to pigeonhole error theorists as actively committed to depraved statements. Yes, an error theorist will be able to sincerely say, "Torturing children for years is morally permissible," and if we tried to maneuver them into only putting it that way, we would be doing them a disservice. For they would be minded to add, "... is morally permissible in the abstract sense that positive obligations and substantive prohibitions do not exist."

This doesn't mean that error theorists secretly desire that atrocities be committed. And having a world where non-error theory dominates the presuppositions of the discourse doesn't seem to have meant having a world where people less often committed atrocities. So we should be careful bordering on tolerant in arguing that error theorists are "dangerous" or offensive (i.e., we should not argue that they are specifically dangerous/offensive). Naive? Shallow? Factually mistaken? Yes. And maybe without objective moral intentions, they cannot have Kantian moral worth attach to their actual behavior. But so even if their behavior might not be from duty, it can still be according to duty, and I myself would prefer to leave them room to see the error of their ways.

  • Thanks for your response. But within that quote... they use "morally permissible"... Not simply "permissible"... I don't understand how morality enters in the discussion for the error theorist once he accepts there are no moral facts. If it is simply a matter of not permitting someone to do something... then why is morality still entering the discussion. If it is simply a matter of permitting... why does the error theorist not simply state... "we will not permit you to torture people." I don't understand how the error theorist after saying there are no moral facts, still uses moral language. May 20, 2023 at 20:39
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    @AmeetSharma I don't quite think that error theorists are being consistent to still use moral language. But perhaps it's more subtle: either they themselves don't clearly differentiate on the basis of the distinction between levels that their theory commits them to, or they still think that moral language is useful (at least "for the time being"). Perhaps they know they sound brazen, but this is for dramatic dialectical effect. If nothing is morally wrong, it's not morally wrong to use non-factual language as if it were factual, I suppose. May 20, 2023 at 21:02
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    But so can an error theorist say, "Nothing is morally permissible," without implying, "Everything is morally forbidden"? Or, they would think so, at least. Again, I'm tempted to argue for an objective deontic logic with initial premises that exist as true by "default," so that if the initial state of the system is null, logical dynamics would still extrapolate a substantial deontic state out of the moral vacuum (so to speak). The error theorist would want to resist, "Nothing is permitted = everything is forbidden," whereas I would use that equation to prove that not everything is permitted. May 20, 2023 at 21:27
  • I think we can simplify this by simply talking about positive moral obligation. When the moral realist says something is morally permissible... what they're saying is there's no "positive moral obligation" against the activity. ie: we are not morally obliged to avoid the activity. The moral error theorist would have to agree with this claim, for all possible activities including torture. There are no real moral obligations or facts to the error theorist. We can twist the word permissible around... but I really don't see how the error theorist can escape this conclusion. May 20, 2023 at 21:53
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    @AmeetSharma yeah, that might be the moral pragmatics, usually, though in deontic logic they normally allow using permission as a primitive and then defining the other operators from that, or indeed interdefining the operators on the basis of any as primitive. Or we might emphasize the permitted/merely-permitted distinction, or propose different kinds of permissibility, etc. It would be hard for an error theorist to prove all these concepts to be "meaningless"/counterfactual. (I'd advise against trying to simplify matters...) May 20, 2023 at 22:45

Error theorists take the view that there is no intrinsic morality. That doesn't mean you can't make judgements about what is and isn't acceptable behaviour- it just means that you should treat such judgements like any other judgements, rather than robing them in some special moralistic garb.

As for the use of 'morally permissible' within the quote, I think the absent phrase 'because they consider it is altogether a mistake to assign moral values' was assumed to be taken as read.

  • "That doesn't mean you can't make judgements about what is and isn't acceptable behaviour" I don't understand what "make judgments" means exactly... or "acceptable" for that matter for the error theorist. Is it a statement of personal preference? When the error theorist says there are no moral facts... then how is a judgment like "I prefer the taste of chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream" any different from "I prefer torturing to not torturing" for the moral error theorist. May 21, 2023 at 10:07
  • There are all kinds of judgements we make as individuals and collectively. What should be the speed limit? What tax should people pay? What shirt should I wear? Should we upgrade that airport runway? Are we investing enough in green energy? We take all kinds of decisions for all kinds of reasons, without attributing any abstract qualities to them such as 'morality'. If you think murder is wrong, that might be just that you don't like the idea, or that it is a behaviour that undermines social cohesiveness, or it makes a mess on the carpet... May 21, 2023 at 10:23
  • ...or any number of other reasons. You don't have to bring 'morality' into the picture. May 21, 2023 at 10:24
  • "If you think murder is wrong, that might be just that you don't like the idea, or that it is a behaviour that undermines social cohesiveness, or it makes a mess on the carpet" Right but that's not what I mean when I say murder is wrong. If the error theorist is right, then when I say murder is wrong I am making a factually incorrect statement. Because my statement is not just a statement of personal preference... there is at least a belief (maybe a false belief) that there is true fact relating wrongness and murder. So shouldn't the error theorist be saying we throw out all moral language? May 21, 2023 at 10:56

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