– Your discussion notes should be about 300-400 words, which is about 1-page (double-spaced).- It will not be sufficient to merely flag or state your points of interest or confusion. Rather, you will have to develop your thinking to some reasonable degree. You should contextualize your points, giving sufficient background to understand them. And you should aim to give a charitable reading of the text, which will sometimes require you to go beyond the text. – Below are the attached readings. You’re discussion only has to be over one of the readings.
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Philos Stud (2014) 171:351–371
The ‘Now What’ Problem for error theory
Published online: 31 December 2013
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013
Abstract Error theorists hold that, although our first-order moral thought and
discourse commits us to the existence of moral truths, there are no such truths.
Holding this position in metaethics puts the error theorist in an uncomfortable
position regarding first-order morality. When it comes to our pre-theoretic moral
commitments, what should the error theorist think? What should she say? What
should she do? I call this the ‘Now What’ Problem for error theory. This paper
suggests a framework for evaluating different approaches to the ‘Now What’
Problem, and goes on to evaluate the three most common responses to this problem.
All three are found to have noteworthy problems. Finally, I present my own solution, and argue that it presents the most appealing solution to the ‘Now What’
Error theory Fictionalism Abolitionism Conservationism
Errol the Error Theorist has just completed his dissertation on moral error theory.
He has argued, as persuasively as he knows how, that there are no objective moral
truths. Errol’s arguments are as good as arguments for error theory could possibly
be, and he finishes his dissertation feeling supremely confident that he has set upon
the truth. Leaving his office, Errol sees his friend Rachel, who is in the living room
watching the news. The top story of the day is about a serial rapist and murderer,
with a penchant for corpse mutilation—a truly sickening story. Rachel, watching the
M. Lutz (&)
University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
1726 Winona Blvd #103, Los Angeles, CA 90027, USA
TV aghast, exclaims ‘‘God, this is awful! Isn’t that right, Errol?’’ Errol is
immediately inclined to agree, but before he opens his mouth, he remembers his
commitment to the view that nothing is really awful in the absolute, moral sense that
Rachel intends.1 So how should he respond to Rachel?
Of course, the puzzle that Errol faces is more general than how he should answer
one question posed by a friend. Moral thought, discourse, and action play a large
role in all of our lives. Error theorists, it is widely supposed, put themselves in a
position where they must abandon all of these commitments, thereby leaving a
gaping hole in their normative lives. How should error theorists proceed in light of
this development; how should they allow their first-order normative lives to be
impacted by their second-order normative commitments? I call this the ‘Now What’
Problem for error theory. This paper will explore how error theorists can—and
should (we’ll see in a second why this isn’t in tension with the error theory itself)—
respond to the ‘Now What’ Problem.
A good solution to the ‘Now What’ Problem will serve two important functions.
First, it will serve as a bit of practical advice for error theorists who still have to
navigate the world, thinking about what to do, acting, and interacting with others
(i.e., all error theorists). While this is surely a useful thing to have, the (sad) fact of
the matter is that there aren’t all that many error theorists, and so this benefit is
going to be rather limited in scope. But second, a good solution to the ‘Now What’
Problem serves an important role in rebutting an objection to the error theory. Many
people consider the error theory to be an entirely unacceptable metaethical theory
because they feel as though they must be giving up something essential in accepting
it.2 A good solution to the ‘Now What’ Problem will provide a framework wherein
error theorists are not forced to give up much (or anything) of importance. And thus
one important source of resistance to adopting an error theory about morality can be
Section 1 will address some preliminary issues. Sections 2 through 4 will ask a
series of yes/no questions designed to divide up the logical space of potential
solutions to the ‘Now What’ Problem, and will show the rather severe costs that are
incurred by giving certain answers to these questions. This discussion will drive us
toward a particular solution to the ‘Now What’ Problem, that I call Substitutionism,
which has been largely ignored in the current literature. Section 5 will examine the
commitments of Substitutionism, and look at what makes this kind of solution
powerful and desirable.
The question with which this paper is concerned is the question of how error
theorists should solve the ‘Now What’ Problem. This question is, obviously, a
normative question, but asking it is not in tension with the kind of error theory that
In the absolute, moral sense that he believes Rachel intends.
See Enoch (2011, Chap. 3) for an articulation of this form of resistance.
The ‘Now What’ Problem for error theory
this paper is concerned with. This paper is focused on an error theory about
morality, not about any other kind of normativity. While there are some global error
theorists, who adopt an error theory about all normativity,3 many error theorists,
including myself, are not. The common line of thought underlying the moral error
theory is that objective normativity is unacceptably problematic. Yet instrumental
normativity—normativity grounded in our own attitudes, plans, goals, or desires—is
not. So as long as we interpret the normative question of how we should solve the
‘Now What’ Problem as an appeal to instrumental normativity, there are no
problems. Some have questioned the intelligibility of a view that accepts one kind of
normativity while denying others,4 and there may be genuine cause for concern
here, but it is not my task in this paper either to argue for any particular version of
error theory or to defend the error theory against objections. My task is, instead, to
see how the ‘Now What’ Problem can be answered by an error theorist about
morality, assuming that an error theory about morality (and only morality) is
Even though one of the roles of a solution to the ‘Now What’ Problem is to
convince the realist that the error theory is a palatable view, it is important that this
is a problem that the error theorist is able to resolve on his own terms. While the
realist with whom the error theorist is engaging will have in mind a large number of
normative commitments that would resolve Errol’s problems (perhaps topped by the
command ‘‘Don’t be an error theorist’’), a genuine solution to the ‘Now What’
Problem must avoid even tacit endorsement of these non-instrumental norms, lest
his argument for the error theory be self-undermining. For this reason, the normative
questions that constitute the ‘Now What’ Problem must be understood as
instrumental normative questions.
While a moral error theorist will regard any claim to the effect that something
should be done, full stop, with suspicion, there is no problem at all with claims of
the form ‘‘S should X, provided that she has the following goals/desires/plans…’’
Hence, this is the form that my investigation into the ‘Now What’ Problem will
take. Rather than making broad claims about what the error theorist should do, we
will see what goals and desires will (plausibly) be fulfilled by certain courses of
action, and which will be frustrated. In order that the conclusions offered here will
hold in substantial generality, I will be looking at a handful of goals and desires that
are shared by (almost) all human agents—e.g. the goal to hold only true beliefs, or
the goal to get along with one’s friends. Solutions to the ‘Now What’ Problem will
See, e.g., Streumer (2011) and Biehl (2005).
See, e.g., Cuneo (2007).
For a defense of such a view, see Joyce (2001) or Mackie (1977). For both Joyce and Mackie, the
problem for morality that forces us to an error theory is not a problem for reasons as such, but for reasons
with a certain kind of property. For Mackie, these are ‘‘objective’’ reasons. For Joyce, these are reasons
that hold for an agent independently of that agent’s desires; ‘‘a reason for Uing regardless of whether
Uing serves his desires or furthers his interests’’ (p. 42). (Since Mackie isn’t very explicit about what he
means by ‘‘objective,’’ Mackie’s and Joyce’s worries may well amount to the same thing.) Consequently,
the version of error theory that these authors endorse is limited in the way described.
be better to the extent that these goals will be fulfilled, and worse to the extent that
they are not.
The different solutions to the ‘Now What’ Problem are not ‘‘views’’ in any
traditional sense, as they do not purport to describe the nature of the actual
normative lives of any individuals—not the life of the person on the street nor the
life of the committed error theorist.6 The different solutions to the ‘Now What’
Problem amount to different recommendations for how an error theorist might
proceed in everyday life, and so the following discussion will focus on the
instrumental costs of occupying different areas of the logical space of solutions to
the ‘Now What’ Problem.
The first question an error theorist should ask is whether or not he can maintain his
first-order moral beliefs while still being an error theorist. Some error theorists do
hold that we should indeed do this; this is the Conservationist solution to the ‘Now
Joyce (2001) reads Mackie as a Conservationist. Mackie famously said that his
error theory amounts to a second-order moral skepticism only, and not a first-order
moral skepticism. And while it is possible to be both a first-order and a second-order
skeptic (as some of the other views that we will examine recommend), it is open to
us to keep all of our first order moral beliefs while at the same time ‘‘believing that
they were simply attitudes and policies with regard to conduct that he and other
people held’’ (Mackie 1977, p. 16). But a different reading of Mackie’s view would
hold that Mackie is advocating for abandonment of our moral beliefs while seeing
our normative lives as governed by our ‘‘attitudes and policies.’’ On this reading,
Mackie would not be a Conservationist, but instead what I will be calling a
Substitutionist—more on this later.
For a more clear-cut take on the Conservationist view, we can look to the recent
defense of Conservationism by Jonas Olson. Olson urges ‘‘compartmentalization,’’
saying that we ought to believe that nothing is right or wrong while simultaneously
believing that a great number of particular things are right or wrong. Olson
‘‘recommends moral belief in morally engaged and everyday contexts and reserves
attendance to the belief that moral error theory is true to detached or critical contexts
such as the seminar room’’ (2011, p. 199).
The big cost of Conservationism is that it is irrational. The Conservationist
specifically recommends that, for any moral belief p, we both believe p and
disbelieve p, which is straightforwardly irrational. Olson tries to lessen the sting of
This point is sometimes not appreciated. Nolan et al. (2005), in their defense of Joycean Fictionalism,
argue that it is a better view than expressivism. But this is a strange apples-and-oranges comparison, since
Joycean Fictionalism, as a solution to the ‘Now What’ Problem, is a recommendation for error theorists,
while expressivism is a descriptive view about the actual nature of normative thought and language. The
fact that this kind of mistake even could be made to begin with shows how under-developed the current
literature on the ‘Now What’ Problem is.
The ‘Now What’ Problem for error theory
holding these inconsistent attitudes by reminding us that we are ‘‘compartmentalizing’’ our beliefs. But it’s hard to see how this mitigates the problem, rather than
simply naming it; compartmentalized inconsistent beliefs are still irrational. Olson
tries to provide more depth to this idea of compartmentalization by saying that, in
morally engaged contexts, Conservationists will have an occurrent belief that the
moral proposition is true, but a dispositional belief that it is false. This use of
terminology does not mitigate the concerns at all, since dispositional beliefs are still
full beliefs—they just are beliefs that one does not currently have in mind. (Or, at
least, this is the standard way of understanding the occurrent/dispositional distinction
regarding beliefs.) To the extent that we value rationality in our belief-like attitudes
(and this is something we all value), Conservationism will come with costs.
Second, and obviously related to this cost, is that the Conservationist holds onto
false beliefs (on the assumption that the error theory is true). According to the
Conservationist, we should hold onto beliefs that are not warranted, that are not true,
and that do not amount to knowledge. This violates a plethora of epistemic norms.
And if we interpret epistemic norms as instrumental norms directed at maximizing
true belief (and/or knowledge) while eliminating false beliefs,7 Conservationism will
fare poorly to the extent that we value true belief while disvaluing false belief (and we
do value this). In essence, the Conservationist is advocating for a form of Orwellian
doublethink regarding moral beliefs. To the extent that we hold doublethink to be
undesirable (and we do hold this), we should be wary of adopting Conservationism.
Finally, Conservationism might actually be an incoherent view. Apart from the
irrationality of both believing and disbelieving p, it might be impossible to both
simultaneously believe and disbelieve p.8 Olson considers this objection, but
ultimately holds that it is possible to do this. According to Olson, we do it all the
time. For instance, there might be a politician who is both a notorious liar and a
brilliant public speaker. Knowing that this politician is a liar, I disbelieve everything
that she says. And yet, when I hear her give a speech, I find myself believing what
she says. In this case, says Olson, I have an occurrent belief in what is being said at
the same time that I have a dispositional belief that what is being said is false. This
seems to me to misdescribe the case. If I truly do have an occurrent belief in what
the politician says, then I no longer have a dispositional belief that what the
politician says is false. If the politician gets me to believe what she is telling me
through force of rhetoric, then I have been convinced; I no longer disbelieve the
politician. Once the speech is over and I am able to escape the rhetorical thrall of the
speech, I might then revert back to my old belief. But this is not a case of my
holding two beliefs at once—I’m changing my mind! Consider: if I have a belief
that p, I will have any dispositions related to p that are constitutive of belief—for
example, I will treat it as a premise in my practical reasoning, I will assent to it if I
It is a matter of controversy whether epistemic norms are to be interpreted instrumentally or
categorically. My sympathies are with the interpretation of epistemic norms as instrumental. But even if
the best interpretation of our epistemic norms is as categorical norms, we can articulate a related set of
truth-directed instrumental norms that a Conservationist will end up violating.
Note that here I say might be. But even if the following arguments fail, the other problems for
Conservationism look damning enough that not much is lost by way of my overall argument.
am being open and honest, I will give whatever reasons I have for that belief if the
belief is questioned, and so on. Given this, it seems impossible for me to both
believe p and disbelieve p. (I take no stance on which (if any) of these dispositions
actually are constitutive norms on belief. But if there are any constitutive norms on
belief, there is a problem for Conservationism.) Even when I am in the middle of the
politician’s persuasive speech, I will be inclined to take p as a premise in my
practical reasoning, or I will not, and so on. It might instead be that I am ‘‘torn’’ in
such a case, and end up manifesting none of the relevant dispositions for believing
either p or not-p, but that is not a case of both believing p and disbelieving p, either.
That is a case of suspension of belief.
The Conservationist might respond by saying that as error theorists we ought to
believe that all moral propositions are false and yet, whenever we are in a position
where having moral beliefs will have a pragmatic benefit, we ought to change our
beliefs; we should allow ourselves to be convinced of the truth of our moral claims,
but only for the duration of the circumstances in which it is beneficial to hold onto
the moral belief in question.
This response saves Conservationism from incoherence worries, but only by
incurring other costs. For a disposition to change one’s moral attitudes rapidly back
and forth between belief and disbelief is a very fickle kind of disposition indeed. To
the extent that we are uncomfortable with inconstant attitudes (and we are
uncomfortable with them), we should be wary of this approach.
As I’ve been emphasizing throughout this section, all of the costs for
Conservationism are purely instrumental—they accrue only to the extent that we
have certain goals, where the goals I’ve been focusing on are widely shared. So as
not to become repetitious, in future sections of this paper I will drop the constant
references to the purely instrumental nature of these norms—but keep in mind that
that is the game we are playing (Fig. 1).
The discussion of the previous section suggests that it would be best for error
theorists to reject all first-order moral beliefs. If we do this, the next question to ask
is: is it possible for us to go on living and talking as though we had not done so? As
we will see, this is possible; but the Abolitionist recommends that we reject our
moral language and action as well. This section will examine the costs that come
from adopting such a recommendation.
The Abolitionist solution to the ‘Now What’ Problem has been defended by
Hinckfuss (1987) and Garner (2007). It is, in many ways, the default solution to the
‘Now What’ Problem.9 According to the Abolitionist, the fact that moral discourse
This can be seen in the tendency of many authors to use the term ‘‘error theory’’ interchangeably with
‘‘moral nihilism.’’ To equate these two terms is a mistake if we understand the first as a metaethical view,
and the second as a first-order normative view. Conservationists don’t seem to count as nihilists, and the
label doesn’t really seem apt for Fictionalists or Substitutionists. It is, however, precisely the right label to
apply to the Abolitionist. But not all error theorists are Abolitionists.
The ‘Now What’ Problem for error theory
Fig. 1 A taxonomy of solutions to the ‘Now What’ Problem
is used to refer to properties that are nowhere instantiated means that we should
ditch our moral discourse entirely. The Abolitionist treats moral discourse the same
way that scientists treat phlogiston discourse. Discourse about phlogiston was useful
and widely accepted within the scientific community up until a certain point. Then
scientists obtained good evidence that there is no such thing as phlogiston. And at
this point, they stopped talking about phlogiston, believing things about phlogiston,10 and acting as though phlogiston existed. Similarly, says the Abolitionist error
theorist, s …
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