A Lyrical Argument for Nihilistic Error Theory
I wrote this poem a while ago for an ethics class. It describes how Error theory, the believe that we are always in error when we make claims about morality, challenges the common ethical claim that God is the author of morality. While Divine Command Theory, DCT is highly refuted today, even among theosophers, its impression is still felt through religious practitioners.
Just a note: this isn’t my metaethical belief, rather it’s just a fun way to demonstrate metaethics.
What do you think? Do you agree that there are no moral facts? What system of ethics do you prescribe?
Dusk had arrived at the park by the sea. Once again, nature belonged to its forest inhabitants. The deer prefers leaves like the fox prefers meat; a chipmunk like myself prefers to contemplate. I emerged from my burrow and heard a curious sound of tiny paws digging through the ground. There I discovered a cousin of mine, a squirrel busying herself uncovering acorns to dine. I cleared my throat, “Excuse me, miss, but what are you doing? Those acorns you found belong to another. Is it not wrong to take from your brother?”
Without missing a beat, she refutes as a matter of fact, “Squirrels are not interested in matters like that. There are moral facts, it’s plain to me, but those are revealed by Great Oakley. She is all-wise and all-perfect and the author of all things true; more important is what she commands I do. If it was her will that squirrels don’t eat her crop, then what would be right is I ought to stop.”
Ah, Great Oakley, a squirrel’s deity, and this particular squirrel expressed piety. I scampered closer to make further inquiry.
“It’s curious to ask who authors what’s right; I suspect that there’s more than your divine insight. Your position is clear and follows my query, your position I call Divine Command Theory.1 What is moral is what Oakley commands, and what is not, She forbids. Does that sound right?”
“Indeed it is.”
“Permit me a bit more. Does Oakley command because these actions are right, or are they moral because Oakley commands them? You can see the dilemma, I’m sure. If the former, then it appears that what is right exists outside Oakley’s heavenly sight. In such a case, She’s hardly all-wise, and there is at least one thing she did not comprise. If the latter horn is true, this is equally difficult. How does Oakly decide what’s permissible? It would appear quite arbitrary, for it would be these reasons, not Her command, that justify morality. How could this be if She exists so perfectly?”
The squirrel’s heart turned.
“How wise, my cousin of mine, I never paused to commit this to mind. It seems in both cases, this position fails. Now I am inclined to believe that there are simply no morals for me to retrieve. In lieu of any objective moral fact, I am free to fill my cheeks as a non-moral act!”
She resumed stuffing acorns into her cheeks.
I laughed and sat with her, for even a chipmunk can enjoy a snack, “From my own thoughts, I agree, but I don’t believe in Great Oakley. Our forest is absent of moral claims, and far worse is they justify our chains. My position of why I am so weary is what I shall call an Error Theory.2 This world lacks moral features, and thus these judgements can never be true. Try as we might, our judgements are frail, and these descriptions ultimately fail. So it follows, as you plainly see, there’s no such thing as morality. If such objectivity exists, it necessarily requires categorical reasons despite our desires. It’s pretty convenient that Oakley’s commands just so happen to follow your hungry plans! Your bulging cheeks are evidence to me that you spoke in error about morality.” As she munched, I continued.
“Error theory focuses on what’s metaphysically amiss and reminds of the strangeness if values exist.3
Objective facts are things we can justify, and unlike rain, values do not fall from the sky. A squirrel must eat, obviously, so your desire to eat is based on objectivity. But where are these values you held so dear? If you look all around, I think you’ll agree that values are not the things to be found. The advantage is that Error Theory corresponds to what positively is true, and it perfectly describes your desire to chew! So now that you have freed yourself from Oakley’s commands, you discover a true fact instead of moral demands. Recall morality tends to enslave, and to uphold it gives your control away. Consider if Oakley demands you to refrain, then it seems Her law would justify great pain. If that was her command, it would be quite dire, then it would seem what’s moral is for you to expire!”4
My cousin seemed convinced, but as I turned away, it appeared she had something more to say.
“You gave me cause to accept what you say, but it seems to me morals aren’t easily explained away. Morality for digging out nuts may cause us suspicions, but how do we reconcile our greater intuitions? It seems that other circumstances are far from minuscule. Consider murder by a wolf; this action is impermissible. It causes great suffering; no one would abide by this action if done to themselves or their tribe. Where are these natural facts which describe our moral intuitions in matters like that?”
I was impressed. I couldn’t hide. I turned to the squirrel for a final reply. “Consider suffering as a positivist description. It is, or it isn’t; it’s a simple prescription. Now consider a claim built on an ought. There’s something else present than the positivist brought. The ought adds a value, and if you recall, a value is not represented in the world at all! How do we use reason to justify the truth of such value claims? A bitter truth, more bitter than acorn rot, is that reason does not justify an ‘is’ to an ‘ought.’5 While we agree, we’d rather not be a victim of a wolf’s murderous spree. The explanation that the naturalists give is this great intuition is our desire to live.” With everything said, she thanked me, so I took my leave beneath the forest canopy.
- Shafer-Landau, Russ. “Morality and Religion.” The Fundamentals of Ethics, 4th ed., 67–68. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
- Shafer-Landau, Russ. “Moral Nihilism.” The Fundamentals of Ethics, 4th ed., 311–312. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
- Mackie, J.L. “ The Argument from Queerness.” Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, 38–40. 1977.
- Inspired by Nietzche’s critique of slave morality. Wolff, Jonathan, and Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Beyond Good and Evil.” Essay in Readings in Moral Philosophy, 32–38. New York: W.W. Norton et Company, 2018.
- Wolff, Jonathan, and David Hume. “Moral Distinction Not Derived from Reason.” Essay in Readings in Moral Philosophy, 17–21. New York: W.W. Norton et Company, 2018.