On the Dialectical Disadvantage of the Normative Error Theorist: A Reply to Clipsham


In response to the companions in guilt arguments, some error theorists have tried to defend a nihilist thesis that there truly are no normative epistemic reasons to believe, and further no normative reasons whatsoever, making them global normative error theorists. In his recent paper, Patrick Clipsham tries to adjudicate on this debate. Dubbing this nihilist response a “bullet-biting” one, he argues that sophisticated forms of this response are viable and immune from the frequently leveled charges. However, he further argues that despite its success of avoiding these charges, the nihilist response is bound to face a dialectical disadvantage, that is, it impairs the error theorist’s ability to criticize the opponents. In this paper, I argue for two propositions. First, while there are viable nihilist responses, they are not or at least should not be as how Clipsham has represented them. Second, the new charge from dialectical disadvantage also fails, along with the older charges.

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  1. 1.

    See esp. Rowland (2013) for a clear presentation of the strategy.

  2. 2.

    Here I follow Bedke (2010) in characterizing reasons as a kind of favoring relation, though I have complicated his three-place relation it into a four-place one, splitting the propositional attitude and the target proposition. This complication creates convenience for a charitable reading of Cowie, which I will discuss shortly. But on the other hand, I have intended for simplicity the evidence set w to include both evidence and the relevant background beliefs or propositions.

  3. 3.

    It can be misleading to clump these characterizations together, since they don’t always amount to the same thing. For example, authoritative reasons aren’t always categorical and hypothetical reasons need not be subjective. But Clipsham invites us to follow him in this interchangeable use as a stipulation (139), where one group describes the robust reasons intended by the moral objectivists, and the other describes the less-than-robust reasons needed by the error theorist to provide a satisfying response.

  4. 4.

    Note, however, it can give rise to normative differences in a different sense, one in which we may have a different subjective experience featuring normative concepts when we undergo these changes. I believe Case (2019)‘s “weak normativity argument” trades on this ambiguity.

  5. 5.

    It seems tempting to read such institutional reasons as a type of instrumental reasons grounded in the promotion of our desire to follow certain norms. Though I see no reasons against such reading, I leave this further claim to another occasion and remain content here as long as the institutional reasons so characterized are ontologically innocuous. -- It is also interesting to note that when Clipsham presents his own example of non-normative reasons “RANDOMIZE: If you want to have a clinical trial that has the lowest probability of using a biased sample, then you should randomly select your subjects” (143) on behalf of the error theorist, he is clearly resorting to instrumental reasons.

  6. 6.

    Note that prioritizing need not be outright accepting one and rejecting the other, but can take the form of compromising one conditional on its conflicting with the other. I thank an anonymous referee for pressing on this point. -- But also note that Clipsham sometimes do talk about “fully rejecting” (148); I stick to his other, better characterization in terms of “prioritizing”.

  7. 7.

    Though the policy may be misguidingly described as “prioritizing (P-b) within the constraint of (I-b)”. -- Some may worry that this deviates from Clipsham’s conception of the error theorist, who seems to care about parsimony only. I’m not sure if this is what Clipsham intends, but if it is, then the conception becomes irrelevant to the discussion, for it only produces a strawman-version of error theorists.

  8. 8.

    Contrast here with “revisionary metaphysics” where extant intuitions are more readily dismissed as illusory.

  9. 9.

    Given the wide range of virtues, we may expect certain theories to be neither intuitive nor parsimonious, but receives support from other virtues such as systematic elegance. For an arguable example, consider modal realism (I thank an anonymous referee for raising this possibility). But I assume nothing of the sort applies to moral objectivism, so I omit this complication. Indeed, if anything, moral objectivism threats to be discontinuous from empirical sciences by positing non-natural properties.

  10. 10.

    Note, however, strictly speaking only (3) counts as consequence of dialectical disadvantage in Clipsham’s sense. But this does not affect the force of the trilemma as such. I ignore this problem in what follows.

  11. 11.

    This assumption is harmless, since if the norms in fact favor moral objectivism, the problem facing the error theorist is no longer dialectic disadvantage, but rather her own inconsistency between the commitment to the norms and that to error theory.


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I thank an anonymous referee of this journal for valuable comments and suggestions, which have helped greatly with the improvement of this paper.

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Correspondence to Xinkan Zhao.

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Zhao, X. On the Dialectical Disadvantage of the Normative Error Theorist: A Reply to Clipsham. Philosophia (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-020-00236-z

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  • Error theory
  • Companions in guilt
  • Epistemic reasons
  • Self-defeat
  • Dialectical disadvantage