Why Jonas Olson Cannot Believe the Error Theory Either

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy
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  • 1 University of Groningen, Netherlands

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Jonas Olson writes that “a plausible moral error theory must be an error theory about all irreducible normativity”. I agree. But unlike Olson, I think we cannot believe this error theory. In this symposium contribution, I first argue that Olson should say that reasons for belief are irreducibly normative. I then argue that if reasons for belief are irreducibly normative, we cannot believe an error theory about all irreducible normativity. I then explain why I think Olson's objections to this argument fail. I end by showing that Olson cannot defend his view as a partly revisionary alternative to an error theory about all irreducible normativity.

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  • Olson Jonas. 2014. Moral Error Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Owens David. 2000. Reason without Freedom. London: Routledge.

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  • Streumer Bart. 2013. “ Can We Believe the Error Theory?” Journal of Philosophy 110: 194212.

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  • 1

    Olson 2014, p. 3.

  • 2

    Olson 2014, p. 122. Presumably, what Olson means here is that facts that involve the favoring relation are not reducible to these other facts.

  • 3

    Olson 2014, pp. 123–4, 136.

  • 4

    Olson 2014, pp. 126–35.

  • 6

    Olson 2014, pp. 127–35. Olson formulates these implications in terms of standards, but they can also be formulated in terms of ends.

  • 8

    Olson 2014, p. 156 (italics added).

  • 9

    Olson 2014, p. 158.

  • 10

    Olson 2014, p. 158.

  • 11

    Olson 2014, pp. 158–9, 164. Olson seems to think that when the term ‘reason’ is used in one of these ways, (4) has the same meaning as (6) or (7). Alternatively, you may think that when the term ‘reason’ is used in one of these ways, (4) has the same truthmaker as (6) or (7) without having the same meaning as (6) or (7). My objection below also applies to this view.

  • 12

    Olson 2014, p. 165.

  • 13

    Olson 2014, p. 165.

  • 14

    Olson 2014, p. 165. You may think that Olson could also take (4) to be equivalent to the descriptive claim that there is evidence that p. But for this claim to be descriptive, it must use the term ‘evidence’ to mean what Thomas Kelly calls ‘indicator evidence’: it must use this term to mean a consideration that indicates that p is true, either by logically implying p or by raising the probability that p is true (see Kelly 2006, §3, and 2007, p. 470, and Olson 2014, pp. 160–4). And (4) is not equivalent to the claim that there is a consideration that either logically implies p or raises the probability that p is true. For a consideration can be a reason to believe a necessary truth without either logically implying this truth or making this truth more likely to hold. There is indicator evidence for a very large number of trivial beliefs that there is no reason to have, since forming these beliefs would be a waste of your cognitive resources (see Harman 1986, p. 12). And there can perhaps also be instrumental reasons to have a belief for which there is no indicator evidence (though this is, of course, controversial).

  • 16

     See Streumer 2013. In what follows, I summarize a longer version of this argument that I give in Streumer forthcoming. Unlike Olson, I do not think that claims about instru­mental reasons can be equivalent to descriptive claims about what will promote the ­fulfillment of the agent’s desires, and I do not apply the term ‘normative judgment’ to ­beliefs about standards such as (7) or (8). I therefore take the error theory I defend to be an error theory about all normative judgments rather than about all irreducible normativity.

  • 25

     See Streumer 2013.

  • 26

    Olson 2014, pp. 171–2.

  • 27

    Streumer 2013, p. 198. I there called this claim ‘(B2).’

  • 28

    Olson 2014, p. 171.

  • 32

    Olson 2014, p. 168.

  • 33

    Olson 2014, pp. 190–6.

  • 34

    Olson 2014, p. 158 n. 20. By ‘reducible’ reasons for belief, Olson means hypothetical reasons for belief or reasons that are reducible to correctness norms.

  • 36

    Kierkegaard 1846, p. 13.

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