Ethical Theory Spring 2021

Cognitivist Error Theory


Both Mackie and Ayer deny that there are any objective values. As Mackie puts it, values “are not part of the fabric of the world” (Mackie 1977, 15).

They disagree about how moral language works. Ayer thinks that moral language expresses feelings rather than trying to describe real features of the world. Mackie thinks that moral language does try to describe real features of the world.

After describing the differences between Ayer and Mackie, we will talk about three things.

  1. Mackie’s distinction between first and second order moral views (see §1).

  2. Mackie’s first argument for a subjectivist theory of ethics. He calls this the argument from relativity (§8).

  3. Mackie’s second argument for a subjectivist theory of ethics. He calls this the argument from queerness (§9).

Moral language

Ayer thinks that moral language does not even attempt to say anything about how things really are. It is “non-cognitive,” meaning that it does not purport to say anything true or false. Rather, Ayer believes, what moral language does is express the speaker’s attitudes or emotions. When you say “it’s wrong to kill the innocent,” you are not saying “it is true that it is wrong to kill the innocent.” What you are saying is “boo!,” directed at killing the innocent.

Mackie thinks that moral language is cognitive, that is, it does seek to describe how things really are. When you say “it’s wrong to kill the innocent,” you mean to say that something is true about killing the innocent, namely, that it is wrong.

Ah, you say, but Mackie believes that “being wrong” is not part of the fabric of the world. So what does he think we are talking about when we say or think that something that really happened, like a murder of an innocent person, is wrong? The answer is that what we are saying or thinking is literally false. The same is true for every other statement of values.

Since Mackie thinks moral propositions are always false, he has what is called an error theory. That means just what it sounds like: moral language is systematically in error.

For Ayer, by contrast, we don’t make an error in using moral language. All we mean to do is express our emotions, nothing more, and so we can’t make a mistake or be wrong. Or, to be more precise, we can be wrong only if we misunderstand or misrepresent our own feelings. We can’t be wrong about the way the world is because we never tried to say anything about that.

First and second order moral theories

OK, so all our moral ideas are false. That sounds pretty dramatic! It’s not true that killing is wrong. It’s not true that kindness is good. Saving the drowning child is not the right thing to do. It’s not wrong either. Both claims are false. It is not true that you would be allowed to unplug yourself from the violinist or that you would not be allowed to unplug yourself. I could go on. Take anything you believe about morality. You’re wrong. Take the negation of everything you believe. That’s wrong too. It’s all wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

If you’re wondering where this leaves us, Mackie has a surprising answer: right where we always were. Nothing changes. How could this be?

He distinguishes between what he calls first order moral views and a second order moral views. The idea is that the first order moral views contain all of our beliefs about good, bad, right, and wrong. As Mackie puts it, adopting a particular first order moral view, such that punishing the innocent is wrong involves “taking a certain practical, normative stand” (Mackie 1977, 16). Second order moral views, by contrast, are about the “status of moral values and moral valuing, about where and how they fit into the world” (Mackie 1977, 16).

He claims that you can deny that moral values are true as a second order claim while continuing to hold very strong first order moral views. This is something we will need to talk about. Do we buy it? Are there any analogies from other parts of life where we can draw this distinction in the way Mackie describes? I assume that if I told you that alchemy is false that you would cease to believe specific recipes for converting metals into gold. Are there other areas of life where the thought “this isn’t really true” doesn’t have much impact on your behavior?

The Argument from Relativity

Mackie thinks there are two main reasons for believing that there are no objective truths about morality. He calls these “the argument from relativity” (§8, pp. 36-38) and “the argument from queerness” (§9, pp. 38-42).

The argument from relativity turns on the alleged fact that disagreements about values persist in ways that disagreements about facts do not. Specifically, Mackie claims that disagreements in other areas are due to inadequate evidence while this is not true of moral disagreements.

What do we think about this?

The argument from queerness

The argument from queerness is really two arguments. One is metaphysical (concerning the nature of reality) and the other is epistemological (concerning the nature of knowledge).

The metaphysical argument goes like this. There are no moral facts because if there were moral facts, they would be completely different from any other facts. Why would they be different? Well, if there were moral facts, they would motivate behavior. Someone who believed that lying was wrong would be motivated not to lie, for instance.

But, generally speaking, there is a gap between believing a fact and being motivated by that belief. “Giving him the stuff in the glass would kill him” is a factual statement about what the stuff in the glass would do. If you didn’t want him to die, believing this fact would lead you not to give it to him. But if did want him to die, this fact would tell you how to achieve your aim. There’s nothing about believing the fact itself that tells you what to do. That depends on what you care about.

Of course, it’s possible that beliefs about moral facts do motivate behavior. Nothing Mackie says shows that’s impossible. The most he can say here is that this would make moral facts unique (or “queer”) since factual beliefs do not ordinarily have this kind of motivational effect. And that, he believes, is good reason to believe that there are no moral facts.

The epistemological argument also turns on the unique qualities that moral facts would have to have if they existed. Here, the point is that moral facts would have to be known through some means other than the five senses. All the other facts are ultimately known through the senses, according to Mackie. But you can’t see, hear, taste, touch, or smell moral facts. So you would need some other way of coming to know them. That’s what makes moral facts unique (or “queer”).

So, for instance, when Moore says that moral qualities are non-natural, he has a problem: how do we know what a non-natural property is? That’s the kind of problem Mackie is taling about.

Key Points

These are the points that you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. How Mackie’s position differs from Ayer’s: cognitivist error theory vs. non-cognitivist expressivism.

  2. The argument from relativity.

  3. The two ways that Mackie thinks moral facts would be unique (or, as he puts it, “queer”): metaphysical (beliefs about them would motivate behavior) and epistemological (not known by the senses).


Mackie, J. L. 1977. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. New York: Penguin.