What is Morality? Error Theory Summarized

In two previous posts (see here and here) I discussed “Error Theory” which is an explanation of our moral senses that, following a naturalistic world view to its logical conclusions, finds that our moral sense is actually a delusion.

Those two posts were long and unwieldy as blog posts. They were pretty good summaries of Richard Joyce’s arguments in favor of (his form of) Error Theory out of his book The Evolution of Morality. But I thought it might be useful to have a shorter summary of his thoughts to reference and because I doubt most people would bother reading my longer summaries.

However, I would ask people to keep in mind the rule of summaries:

The Summary is never equivalent to the Whole and this thus misleading.

And at this point, we are now dealing with the summary of a summary. That being said, here is Error Theory in a short summary:

Error Theory Summarized

Error Theory starts with the realization that there has never been a logically consistent wholly naturalistic explanation for what we experience as morality through our moral sense. Despite some rather smart philosophers coming up with some rather clever arguments, all (so far anyhow) can be demonstrated to be either logically inconsistent or homunculi arguments. (i.e. arguments that sneak the conclusion into the premises and are thus circular.) [1]

At first this might seem like an impossible claim. Could it really be that no one has ever advanced a logically coherent or non-homunculus naturalistic explanation of our beliefs in the existence of morality?

I caution our primarily religious readers here to note that I keep saying naturalistic explanation. So I am only talking about explanations that do not invoke a Supernatural Something-Like-God (whether this is actually God, a Buddhist “Universe” that happens to be supernaturally just, or some sort of “theory of forms” that fills the same purpose as “God”). In fact, it is possible to come up with a logically consistent Supernaturalistic Explanation for Morality. And I will do so in a future post. So the challenge here that has to be met is to come up with a logically consistent, non-homunculus, rational explanation for how we experience morality without invoking anything outside of known natural laws.

Obviously it would be impossible for me to take every possible naturalistic explanation for morality advanced over the years and demonstrate that every single one of them is logically inconsistent. But I don’t need to. The challenge isn’t for me to take every explanation, but to take any explanation so advanced and demonstrate it is logically inconsistent in some way. So this means that I will never be able to prove there is no such thing as a naturalistic explanation for morality. Such proofs do not exist in science at all and are themselves just an epistemological (i.e. theory of knowledge) error. Consequently, it is not my duty to demonstrate that there is no possible naturalistic explanation for our sense of morality, but rather is the duty of the skeptic to advance an actual suggested naturalistic explanation and then for us to critically analyze it for any sort of logical inconsistency.

Joyce, in his book, takes several suggested explanations for morality and demonstrates significant issues with each.

Non-Cognitivism Debunked

For example, he considers the “non-cognitivism” of A.J. Ayer who claimed that morality was merely an expression of the individual that they did not approve of someone else’s actions. But Joyce essentially asks if this is what we really mean when we express moral judgments? Are we really only merely saying “I personally dislike (do not prefer) what you are doing?”

Joyce points out that this isn’t the case. He uses the example of two hypothetical animal rights activist that stand out and watch fox hunters go hunting. One shouts “I personally do not like killing animals!” and the other shouts “Hunting animals is morally wrong!”

These two animal rights activists are not merely making the same claim! The first is merely expressing his own personal preference, and so the question of “and so?” is the proper response. The second is making a factual and objective claim about the world. He is claiming that there is some actually existing moral clout or authority out there that all human beings are subject to and that is is a moral fact that what the hunters are doing is in violation of this moral authority. So the proper response to him is to argue that in fact there is nothing morally wrong with hunting animals and that he is mistaken about his moral facts.

The Problem of “Moral Facts” and “Moral Authority”

The difference between these two activists is the additional of moral language, and by extension, moral thought, of the second one. Moral thought is not an assertion of personal preferences. It is the assertion of the existence of moral facts in the world. It is this claim of the existence of moral facts and the existence of a moral authority we’re all subject to that makes a naturalistic explanation for morality probably impossible.

Actually, “probably impossible” has a rather specific meaning here that should be brought out. It’s actually short hand for “Given that there are no currently existing naturalistic explanations for how there could possibly be a moral authority and moral facts that objectively exists — and that all human beings are subject to — our best explanation is that there are no such moral facts or moral authority. This is subject to revision if someone actually comes up with such a naturalistic explanation.” [2]

In short, Error Theory asserts that until someone can come up with a naturalistic explanation for morality, our best explanation is that morality is a delusional trick of the brain that evolution bestowed upon us because it had statistical reproductive advantage. Namely that it allowed human societies to form, which gave humans substantial survival advantage over other animals.

Ought vs. Want

The animal rights activist that is claiming the hunters are behaving immorally is actually making a specific claim on them: that even though they enjoy hunting and want to go hunting animals that they ought not to because it violates this invisible moral authority.

In fact, morality is specifically always about what one ought to do regardless of what they want to do.

If there were a community that simply always wanted to do the ‘morally right thing’ they would have no concept of morality at all. They would simply always want to behave in what we see as moral ways. They’d never even think about doing otherwise because they don’t want to. Absence the struggle between ought and want there is no such thing as morality at all.

Debunking Other Theories

Joyce goes on to debunk a number of other supposed naturalistic explanations. The following chart gives a quick summary of the arguments and why they are logically inconsistent.

Suggested Explanation Rational Issue
Morality is about utility. Moral statements are really just good advice. Morality does have utility, but only on a statistical basis. When we speak in the language of moral facts, do we really and truly have an unspoken caveat of “well, unless this is one of those special cases where you can be immoral and get away with it.” Or do we actually feel that morality is inescapable because it applies to everyone?
Morality is about how to avoid self-harm They why do we punish those that are immoral? Haven’t they already harmed themselves?
Morality is like etiquette. It’s inescapable only in that people will judge you based on the culture specific rules. But there is no actual authority or clout behind it. People are free to ignore etiquette in situations where etiquette doesn’t apply, like say in their own home or while they are alone. Equivalently, can a person murder a person so long as they are in a situation where no one will see or judge them?
The perception of moral authority or clout stems from the fact that we all exist in a sort of moral framework. This is really an argument that moral authority is just an illusion due to being in said moral framework. Thus this is really an argument in favor of Error Theory. We are therefore well within our rights to scoff at morality if we so choose because it’s not something a rational person will believe in.
Morality is a private matter Morality overwhelmingly describes interactions between people. If we did discover the existence of a ‘private morality’ (like, say, Robinson Crusoe believing that ‘it is forbidden to go to the west side of the island’) we’d feel a need to explain why such ‘morality’ existed at all. No so for morality that explains interpersonal interactions.
Evolution vindicates morality by demonstrating its value for species survival. This is how we can come up with a naturalistic explanation for morality. On the contrary. This is actually a disproof of morality as we experience it. First of all, does the fact that we evolutionarily desire sweats because the high caloric content gave survival advantages mean that obesity today is vindicated? Secondly, this really just collapses down to the utilitarian argument above, with the same problems. Third, doesn’t this argument really just suggest that morality is an illusion of the mind that happened to have survival advantage in most cases? So doesn’t this argument actually confirm Error Theory as correct?
One ought to be good because it’s human nature to be good. Actually, it’s also human nature to want to not be moral. We have multiple conflicting desires. If we didn’t, there would be no concept of morality at all. (See Ought vs. Want above)
Evolution creates purpose, such as a heart having the purpose of pumping blood. This is a naturalistic explanation for Aristotle’s (otherwise supernatural) theory of forms. Our form as a human being is fulfilled by being moral because this separates us from the other animals. Yes, a heart has the purpose of pumping blood. But this is because it exists within a purpose driven context – in this case an organism. Likewise Aristotle would have argued that a carpenter has the purpose of carpentry and should only fulfill that purpose in society. (i.e. he should know his place.) Do we honestly still believe that? But even in that case, we still had a purpose driven context: a society. Can we really then rationally just assume that therefore everything in existence has an equivalent purpose driven context without an explanation of why that is? Oh, and evolution actually works by taking something that fulfills one purpose and then having it fulfill a new purpose. So evolution actually undermines Aristotle’s argument for forms.

Punishment, Deserts, Guilt, and Moral Equilibrium

Joyce points out that another important aspect of our sense of morality is the fact that we believe certain types of immoral actions deserve certain types of responses. A person that behaves immorality deserves a punishment. In fact, we believe this so strongly, that we feel guilty when we do something immoral. Guilt is actually a feeling that we deserve a punishment! (Note: I like Mark D’s suggestion that it’s actually more than this and includes a sense of a need to reform and restore. But this addition does not change the point Joyce is making.)

Joyce points out that it would be impossible for a moral system to exist absent this sense of desert.

Joyce uses a thought experiment of a hypothetical community where the concept of deserts does not exist. This group of people does protect its community from harm, however. If someone murders someone, they don’t mind locking the perpetrator up for the good of the community. But they in no way think the person deserves punishment. They are doing it solely to protect the community.

At first it might be tempting to say that these people are a lot like us. They have moral rules, they even punish people for them in many of the same cases where we would. But this tiny little (and purely mental) change – the absence of deserts – turns out to make them subtantially different from us.

The first thing is that these people could not possibly have a concept of justice. Indeed, it would be impossible for them to have anything like what we call a ‘moral conscience’ at all. Justice is the belief that there is a sort of moral equilibrium in the world. When someone violates moral rules something must be done to bring the equilibrium back into balance via a punishment. This hypothetical community has no such beliefs. They couldn’t even watch our entertainment – where we find great joy in watching people get their moral deserts by the end of the show – and understand it.

To really understand the difference between us and these people, imagine one of them murdering a person and then getting away and never doing it again. Think about how we feel about such a person compared to say a crocodile doing the same thing. To these people, the murder is no different then how we view the crocodile.

What Is Morality?

Based on the above summarized thoughts, what then makes up what we call morality? The following is a list of how we view morality:

  1. Morality is about what we ought to do regardless of what we want to do.
  2. Morality is a fact about the world and not a preference or construct.
  3. Morality is (usually) about interpersonal interactions.
  4. Morality based on the presumed existence of moral facts in the world that stem from the presumed existence of a moral authority or moral clout that objectively exists.
  5. Morality is therefore inescapable. Everyone is subject to moral authority regardless of whether want to be or not. This means morality applies in all situations, even ones where it’s against your own best interests.
  6. In fact, Morality is so inescapable, that it even applies to dead people. This is why we consistently judge historical societies and figures and their actions through the lens of morality. [3]
  7. Morality indirectly asserts the existence of a moral equilibrium that is taken out of balance by immoral acts and put back into balance by punishment and deserts.

A naturalistic explanation for morality, at least as we humans actually practice it and understand it, would have to literally explain all of the above as really existing. Where does this moral authority come from using only the laws of physics? What basic particles build up this moral equilibrium? Why is morality so inescapable even in situations where there is no utilitarian value at all including when a person is already dead?

Given the above, it really is difficult to imagine how one could possibly come up with a naturalistic explanation for morality. And given correct epistemological principles, the fact that there are no naturalistic explanations for morality is best explained by the non-existence of morality. Morality is therefore a delusion. Or so claims Error Theory.


[1] A homunculus was a ‘little man’ that was believed to live inside the brain and direct our every action. This was sometimes advanced as the explanation of how our brain worked. But then who was directing the homunculus? Despite this explanations sometimes popularity, this explanation was really a non-explanation because it just takes the mystery of how consciousness works and moves it back a step without explaining it at all. But many people didn’t realize this and thought they now had an explanation. There are a surprising number of homunculus explanations out there that even very smart people still use today without even realizing it.

[2] Note that this claim that a certain explanation is the best is related to but not identical to Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor is about the simplest explanation that fits the facts. This is about the non-existence of a naturalistic explanation for morality. If no one can advance such an explanation that isn’t proven inconsistent, then we have only one explanation surviving at that moment — that morality is a delusion.

[3] This is why we consistently judge historical societies and figures and their actions through the lens of morality. Actually, I’m going to hypothesize further than this. I believe that if all historians that enjoyed doing history specifically because they wanted to look at the moral implications the past and make moral judgments about it were suddenly removed from the earth, that we’d have very few historians indeed. Imagine a modern view of American history that didn’t emphasize the issues of racial tensions and slavery.

Or imagine a modern view of Mormon History by a believer that didn’t emphasize God’s hand working in the history or, for that matter, a modern view of Mormon History by a practicing-but-not-believing Mormon that wasn’t primarily really about the evils of polygamy or the evils of priesthood authority. I believe History is not simply a recitation of historical facts but that it’s primarily about moral judgments of those in the past and therefore history is primarily about shaping modern narratives and is only secondarily about understanding the past. And perhaps this is how it should be. I do not know. I am not making a moral judgment on history or historians here. Just pointing out that this is the case.

13 thoughts on “What is Morality? Error Theory Summarized

  1. Bruce, very interesting. I will be interested to see if anybody can debunk any of your claims above. I basically came to a similar, much simpler, conclusion during the time of my conversion to the Church. My entire moral paradigm was shaken up. So, I basically accepted the fact that morality must be beyond my understanding ultimately and therefore the province of a deity.

  2. Bruce writes, “One ought to be good because it’s human nature to be good. Actually, it’s also human nature to want to not be moral. We have multiple conflicting desires. If we didn’t, there would be no concept of morality at all. (See Ought vs. Want above)”

    I assume this purports to describe Aristotelian natural law theory. If so, its inclusion in this list is a category mistake. Natural law is not a naturalistic explanation of morality, but a metaphysical one. It’s the determination of right and wrong based on the natures of things. But the “nature” of a thing is a metaphysical concept.

    Bruce writes, “So evolution actually undermines Aristotle’s argument for forms.”

    I would say rather that Aristotle’s argument for forms undermines evolution. : )

  3. The more I think about it, the more I am finding the idea of a “naturalistic explanation of morality” unintelligible.

    Can “morality” even be defined naturalistically? If so, how is it defined?

    I understand “morality” to mean a law or guideline for behavior. But how could such a thing exist other than in the minds of intelligent beings?

    You say that a naturalistic explanation of morality is one that explains it “without invoking anything outside of known natural laws”. But how could such laws explain a thing that exists only in the mind?

  4. It’s mumbo jumbo like this that has inspired all of my anti-philosophy/science threads as of late. Don’t get me wrong, Bruce’s post is intelligent and very well argued in the philosophical tradition. But just like any other tradition, it takes certain ideas and assumptions for granted.

    In this case, the assumption that the primary aim of language is to describe or represent reality which in turn leads to the assumption that truth is simply an accurate description or representation of reality. This then leads to the conclusion that, since there is (supposedly) nothing in reality which moral language accurately describes or represents, morality must be an error or falsity.

    I disagree with this line of reasoning for the very start:
    -describing or representing reality is not the primary purpose of language use
    -truth does not consist primarily in an accurate description or representation of reality
    -“naturalistic reality” is not terribly relevant to the truth or validity of moral language

  5. Agellius,

    You actually make a good point. The argument in question really wasn’t Aristotle’s per se, but someone elses that *utilized* Aristotle’s but folded it into evolution. It was actually an argument via evolution with a bit of Aristotle’s meta physics thrown in.

    That being said, frankly, evolution and forms can’t both be wholly correct. (You seem to agree with that point.)

  6. Jeff G,

    You make many good points and I would like to know more about where you are coming from. (i.e. feel free to supply links.)

    That being said, the argument you suggest doesn’t seem the same as the Joyce’s argument that I summarize. I think the conclusion makes this particularly clear. That isn’t to say that the two arguments aren’t similar and perhaps your counter arguments would apply just as much to Joyce’s. But I think we are at least dealing with somewhat different arguments, for this one has little to do with language other than the assumption it’s an expression of thought.

  7. I personally don’t think you can have a fully naturalistic explanation of morality. However, what if morality itself is the ‘something-like-God’ you describe? Morality is transcendent, universal and independent of humanity. It simply exists in and of itself as a universal standard. Now, our perceptions of this morality may differ. But perhaps to say ‘murder is wrong’ means that murder violates some transcendent moral law that was not created or given by a divine lawmaker but simply is – this moral law simply exists in and of itself and independent of anything else, and moral statements are statements of how we perceive actions to relate to this transcendent morality, which we all have some kind of intuitive understanding of. This is definitely not naturalistic, but it removes the need for a Divine Lawmaker. Forgive me if I have misunderstood the point of your post – I haven’t read your other posts on morality and error theory.

  8. Bruce writes, “That being said, frankly, evolution and forms can’t both be wholly correct. (You seem to agree with that point.)”

    Yes. Evolution entails the adoption of a metaphysical position which is definitely at odds with Aristotle’s.

  9. Bruce,

    I know that I wasn’t directly addressing the argument which Joyce presents. Rather, I was rejecting an argument which is implicit throughout the entire Enlightenment project, Joyce included.

    My rejection follows closely, but not exactly the steps of pragmatists like William James and Richard Rorty. Here are a few of the posts that I have put up on the subject:


  10. Jeff, thanks for the links. I will read over time with great interest. And thank you for the further explanation.

    Agellius, side thread: Catholics do not necessarily reject evolution. But they do accept Aristotle. If I were to venture a guess I would think that means that they accepts parts of evolution. Can you enlighten me further?

    themormonbrit says: “However, what if morality itself is the ‘something-like-God’ you describe?”

    I have actually long claimed that Morality can play such a role.

    However, it’s not quite as easy as that. Consider the following points for discussion:

    1. If Morality is our (impersonal) Something-Like-God, why should I care about it? In short, why is it relevant in any way shape or form? (And if it is not, then in what sense is it transcendent?)

    2. If Morality is transcendent, please solve the problem of evil for me. See https://www.millennialstar.org/what-is-morality-the-problem-of-evil-is-a-two-edged-sword/

    In short, just saying “Morality is something-like-God” starts you down a possible road to an answer, but fails to get you there by itself. The theory or explanation needs more than just that.

  11. Ok, Bruce, so I haven’t given this as much thought as you have, and I regretfully have not read the rest of your series of posts, so with that very big disclaimer, here’s my response:

    Morality is relevant because obedience to it brings some kind of satisfaction and peace. Now, of course, this raises the very important question of why this is the case – why do we seemingly have a built-in need to follow this objective moral law in order to have peace of conscience? To which I must confess that I have no good answers. Evolution cannot explain it, as you have argued.
    So, basically, you’ve got me here. Morality being something-like-God falls down under close scrutiny. I just wrote my comment because I had a sudden thought and wanted to hear your response to it. But, bearing in mind the objections you raise, I think you are right – morality cannot be explained simply in terms of ‘something-like-God’.

  12. Bruce writes, “Agellius, side thread: Catholics do not necessarily reject evolution. But they do accept Aristotle. If I were to venture a guess I would think that means that they accepts parts of evolution. Can you enlighten me further?”

    Well, I wasn’t speaking for the Catholic Church. The Church does not endorse Aristotle’s philosophy as a matter of doctrine. This is obvious in a sense, since his philosophy is a matter of reason, not revelation. The Church does endorse the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas — though again not as a matter of doctrine — who for the most part accepts Aristotle’s philosophy as correct, but develops it further.

    When you say, “Catholics do not necessarily reject evolution,” I assume what you mean is that evolution is not necessarily incompatible with Catholic teaching. That’s true in the sense that the Church has not made a formal pronouncement condemning belief in evolution. Nor would I expect it to do so, since, again, the compatibility of evolution and Aristotelian philosophy is a scientific and philosophical question, and not a religious one.

  13. Jeff G,

    I read all your posts and liked them a lot. Strangely, I basically disagree with them all, yet it seems obvious to me that you and I are headed towards the same end game. But are getting there in mutually exclusive ways.

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