Does Ethics Rest On A Mistake? Three Arguments That It Does 

There are at least three philosophy papers whose titles ask this question. They all argue that ethics does rest on a mistake. However, they disagree about the mistake and, therefore, about the solution. Below I’ll give a very brief overview of each paper.

Prichard, H. A. (1912). Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake? Mind, 21(81), 21–37. [HTML, open access]

  • Answer: yes.
  • The mistake: thinking that philosophical reasoning confers the motivating force of moral obligation.
  • Solution: intuitionism — in the same way that we “know” or “have access” to the deductive force of logical entailment or mathematical proof, we have the ability to “know” or “have access” to motivational force of moral obligation.

Gettner, Alan. (1976). “Does moral philosophy rest on a mistake?” The Journal of Value Inquiry, 10(4), 241–252. [Online, behind paywall] 

  • Answer: yes.
  • The mistake: the method of trying to find moral laws (or treating ethics as a science).
  • The solution: challenge and supplant this method.

Jones, William Thomas. (1988, March). Does moral philosophy rest on a mistake? Humanities Working Paper, 132. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA [Online, open access]

  • Answer: yes.
  • The mistake: thinking that ethics is not fundamentally different from psychology, economics, and anthropology. (Error theory: our philosophical vocabulary led us to make this mistake.)
  • Solution: treat ethics as co-extensive with psychology, economics, and anthropology.
What Do you think?
  1. Does ethics rest on a mistake? If not, then where did these papers go wrong?
  2. If ethics rests on a mistake, what is the mistake?
  3. Is there a solution? If so, what is it?

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

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Angra Mainyu
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Hello I tend to agree with some of the arguments in the first paper, but I’m not sure the paper’s description of moral philosophy still applies to moral philosophy as practiced today (then again, I’m not a philosopher, so that might not tell you much). To the extent to which moral philosophy actually does what the paper describes, I tend to think it’s partly correct. It’s not entirely so, since it goes too far in ruling out other means of finding moral (or mathematical) truth (but then again, it was written in 191). For example, if we are in doubt… Read more »
Angra Mainyu
Guest
Hi Nick Thanks for your reply, and for your thoughtful questions/comments! Regarding the alien squid, I suppose that my answer could be classified as a form of species-relativism, though I think this is “objective” in the usual sense of the word. I would make a parallel with color: let’s say the alien-squid have all trichromatic color-like vision, but their experiences do not match the same wavelengths as ours. For example, the part of the EM spectrum they see is different from ours; if we used a red light, they would see no light whatsoever, but on the other hand, some… Read more »
Angra Mainyu
Guest

Thanks for your thoughtful comments as well, and yes, I agree with that.
I don’t know how pervasive (in moral psychology) that kind of mistake is, though.

Angra Mainyu
Guest
I tend to agree; I think as long as it’s clear that those are hypotheses in need of discussion – including empirical testing of the parts that are testable -, there should be no problem. However, endorsement of some of those hypotheses looks like jumping to conclusions to me, and in part that is so due to some not properly supported assumptions about human psychology. I don’t know whether this is a particular problem with ethics and assumptions about human psychology, though, or whether this difficulty spreads both to other areas of philosophy and to other assumptions (i.e., other than… Read more »
Angra Mainyu
Guest

I didn’t try to specify an extent, because that’s a really difficult matter and I don’t know the answer. I was just talking about the kind of relying we do in daily life. I think we need specific reasons to stop relying in a given case, rather than generally refraining from relying on that intuitive understanding. Still, it might be argued that relying for philosophical purposes requires some more evidence than relying for daily purposes, which is another tricky issue.

Thank you for discussing too!