Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Impossibly Easy Response to the Error Theory?

I've written previously on the way in which I think the prospectivist view of "ought" leads to the unfortunate result that we (who should know better) have to sanction all sorts of wrongdoing in light of the fact that agents have what we intuitively take to be defective evidence (normative and non-normative). The prospectivist, you'll recall, thinks that what you ought-really to do is a function not of what's best, but what's prospectively-best (where that's a matter of maximizing expectable value).

So, someone produces an argument for the error theory and we're thinking of what to say in response. The following response shouldn't cut it, but would (I think) cut it on the prospectivist view: some subject out there has evidence according to which the actions that would maximize expectable value are actions that won't serve the agent's interests but would answer to the demands of traditional morality. And, so while there are parts of traditional morality that are wrong, it's nevertheless true to say of this individual that he ought to do what would best serve the interests of others and so has overall reason to do something other than what he has self-interested reason to do. It looks as if we can generate the sorts of reasons and obligations to act that the error-theorist thinks we cannot have out of nothing but ignorance and appearances. I think that's a defect of the view. Am I wrong about that?


Anonymous said...

Umm, is this really you? I was told you had passed away?

Andrew Sepielli said...

Clayton -- Supposing you were willing to countenance different senses of 'ought', would this be a way of putting the point: The expected strength of objective moral reasons to help old people across the street, not screw over people to get ahead, etc. may be such that you morally ought, in the evidence-relative sense, to do those things, even if (unbeknownst to you) error theory is true?

If so, this strikes me as an excellent argument. Jake Ross provides something like it in his Ethics paper from 2006. Now, of course, this is a way of responding to the error theorist that is, as you put it, "eas[ier]" than proving that there are objective prescriptivities or whatever that big hand on the cover of Mackie's book is supposed to represent.

I suspect that whether you'll classify this sort of response as different and fishy or different but perfectly good will depend partly on whether you take the objective/subjective/prospective/etc. distinction to be a substantive dispute, or a conceptual distinction.

Clayton said...

Anon @ 5:00,

It's me if you mean Clayton Littlejohn.

Who is this, by the way? Obviously, I'd be interested to know if people thought I had passed away.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine told me she knew you and had spent the last couple of weeks by your deathbed. She said you were a professor at SMU, and kinda had an affair with her while you were engaged to some friend of hers. She said you are adopted and died of lung cancer. Is any of this true?

Clayton said...

Hi Anon,

Some of that's true, but not any of the interesting parts (I taught at SMU and was adopted, but I don't think I've ever had lung cancer, had an affair while engaged, or been engaged.) Drop me an email (cmlittlejohn@gmail.com) if you can provide me more detail.

Clayton said...


Thanks for the note. I've tracked down Ross' piece and hope to get a look at it next week. I was thinking about a view that denied that there were different senses of "ought" (well, it might agree that there are legal oughts, moral oughts, etc..., but not subjective and objective readings of "ought"). The oddity that worries me is the combination of views that I think Zimmerman had in his last book, which is that there's deontic value on the one hand and then there's what ought to be done which is a function of evidence concerning deontic value rather than deontic value.

This is something I'll have to come back to later, but I'll post if I get the chance to work on this.

Kimberly said...

A very scandalous response to your response to error theory!