Mathais Sarrazin: The “Rightness” Error

J.L. Mackie’s Error Theory postulates that all normative claims are false. It does this based upon his denial of moral realism. Without objective moral facts “out there”, Error theory asserts that any purportedly moral claims are false because such statements make the assertion that some subject (a moral claim) belongs in the predicate of either “Rightness” or “Wrongness”, neither of which exist. As a result the statement “murder is wrong” is false, since the predicate “wrong” has no extension, and therefore the subject “murder” could not possibly be in it. In arguing for Error Theory, Mackie spends a great deal of time attempting to refute moral realism; however, this paper’s primary concern is with the relationship between moral realism and normative ethics, so to facilitate this process I will hereafter labour under the assumption that there is no moral realism. I will follow this line of argumentation through to its conclusion, in order to asses what impact this would have on the possibility of making justified normative claims. For the sake of clarity I will use throughout this paper the definition of moral realism put forward by David Brink in his book Moral Realism and Moral Inquiry, that is that “Moral realism is roughly the view that there are moral facts and true moral claims whose existence and nature are independent of our beliefs about what is right and wrong” . Normative claims will also be defined as they are by Brink, as claims about things which are morally important (e.g., what is right and wrong). Throughout this paper the primary focus will be on finding an answer to the question “can justified normative claims be made without moral realism?” To this end I will examine several contemporary papers addressing this question, as well as asses the stronger candidate metaethical positions for how they contribute to an answer. Furthermore I will postulate the hypothesis that justified normative claims can be made without moral realism, in hopes of either finding support for this hypothesis, or reason to reject it.

First it is important to note the implications of abandoning moral realism. This implies that we need to do away with all theoretical foundations for the inherence of objective mind-independent moral facts. As a result, the notion of a metaphysical ground from morality will be cast aside; as will, to some smaller extent, the rational grounds for a deontology such as Kant’s. These can both be done without affecting the world as we experience it. First let it be that there are no metaphysical postulates known as morals, second, allow that human rationality cannot provide an objective ground for moral realism, since hypothetically this is too queer and would require psychological corroboration which is not presently available. So the world without moral realism look very much the same as it does now and the phenomenology of making moral judgements stays exactly as it would in a world where there were real moral facts. This brings us to our first consideration, that is that presumably people would continue to make moral judgements.

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