A moral error theory is one form of moral anti-realism; it combines cognitivism with a failure theory, the belief that moral claims, despite their being truth-valued, are none of them true – Richard Garner
Two questions have always puzzled me: How and why was Jesus born? I don’t mean birthed by Mary, I think I understand how that happened (at least the last bit). I mean divided from the father. Something must have prompted this ultimate schizoid break; Jesus is clearly depicted as the son of god, and physically or metaphorically, the single defining characteristic of a child relative to a parent is coming after. The impetus had to come from outside of the father, as events, such as procreation, must occur in time and not strictly within the timeless deity. It is impossible to be sure, but I believe I may finally have the solution to this mystery. I believe Jesus was born of god in response to a human error concerning morality. Jesus was then born to woman to correct that error – man’s moral realism.
Morality was subjective from the start in the Christian narrative. I don’t see how god could coexist with objective moral entities. When we speak of objective moral terms, we do so in terms of obligations, whether those are obligations to carry out certain moral acts or to bring about certain morally right conditions. In other words, “good” and “evil” are real entities and morality is the set of conformist obligations which the existence of good and evil entails. I don’t see how god could be beholden to something external, if he is eternal and universal. Even if we say he created these principles, I don’t see how he could be obligated to them. As humans, our creations may demand things of us, but they do so on the basis of our identifying limitations and the relations which those limits entail. For instance, I’m obligated to be a good parent by, at minimum, the history I share with my children, my parents, my culture and my species. Good parenting is something I can learn about, and something for which I am responsible only after I have children, even if I have some nascent moral sense demanding that I be a good parent. The obligation is circumstantial. An eternal, universal entity can have no such obligatory relationships. There is no venue in which to have them. There can be no history of an eternal, universal god; he is it.
If we want to preserve objective moral terms then, we must place them within the deity. But now the situation is indistinguishable from moral subjectivity, with god being the singular subject of moral terms. By moral subjectivity, I mean the situation in which moral terms operate only in reference to a subject. To use J. L. Mackie’s language, moral terms operate “within the institution” of a subject’s identity, “such as to satisfy the requirements (etc.) of the kind in question”. In the light of moral subjectivity (with god as the singular subject), the biblical narrative begins to come together in a more coherent fashion, beginning with the Fall.
The tree had to be, if it represented the differentiation between what is, for the created, and what may be “within the institution” of god. When Adam and Eve ate the tree’s fruit, they did not learn the details of good and evil things which had surrounded them in the garden all along. They learned of the possibility of distinction, deficiency and failure. They were exposed to their own inadequacies, and were thereby exiled. The remainder of the old testament can be seen as a divine project of re-education, and a human project of reconciliation, aimed at herding the descendants of the first couple into the institution of man which apple-eating had created.
The initial formula had two elements: external focus (obedience) and right action (rules). The institution was defined. Even in the remedial program, god was pushing his followers toward an understanding of moral subjectivity. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, for instance, Isaac was spared from sacrifice. The lesson was obedience in principle, not simply reconciliation with good through right acts. If it were the latter, Isaac should have died. Instead, god delivers the message that sacrifices and the right actions which they represent will not avail Abraham, only devotion will. In taking his son off the alter, Abraham relinquished any hope of goodness through right actions, of conformity to an objective set of obligations to goodness. He began to act according to the requirements of personhood, fulfilling the requirements of personhood rather than those of the singular subject, albeit under direct supervision.
Despite all the talk of rules and obedience, the primary lesson of the rules-and-obedience program was that of devotion. Devotion focused the mind on one’s own business – the propriety of one’s own relationships and actions relative to those relationships. That was the point, and one which needed making before people could make the next step toward reconciliation. However, a project based on rules and obedience is easily corrupted. Rules invite arbiters and before you know it, a food chain of authority develops, as it did in the biblical narrative.
In the Christian story, the food chain was a preparatory element as much as was the devotional lesson, in the rules-and-obedience regime. Jesus would have had a much harder time making his point without the Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, and all the other arbiters of duty-binding rules. The arbiters were used to represent a “do as I say, not as I do” vision of morality. This is in contrast to Jesus, who sought to lead by example. His entire project was aimed at demonstrating the principles of goodness within the institution of personhood. Here was the reason for the man/god chimera. The chimera was a means whose rationale lay in an understanding of morality as subjective, pertaining to individual subjects and their circumstances. To explain such a system, as opposed to one grounded in some objective moral terms, god couldn’t simply hand down edicts by way of instruction; he had to provide an example. But beyond bringing god’s followers around to a subjective system of morality, Jesus presented a moral error theory.
There is no “good”, there is only god. How else are we to interpret Jesus’ message of salvation through him and him alone (assuming his divine half is the one doing the saving)? When we speak of good within personhood as a ‘kind’, we actually refer to all those individual activities within their circumstances which satisfy the requirements (etc.) of, not divinity or creation, but personhood, which Jesus was supposed to exemplify. So when we make claims about ‘good’ simpliciter, none of those claims are true, as they refer to nothing in particular.
In the old days, disruption of the food chain by proposing this sort of error theory could get you killed. It still can get you killed (or at least marginalized) by the same lot who would have done the killing in the old days. For that reason alone, the story merits attention, from those who consider it allegory and from those who consider it fact, but especially from those who consider it fact. They are natural parts of the food chain and so are most at risk of being persuaded by the arbiters of morality that objective good exists. If they don’t get the message, they may be the soldiers in future pogroms, crusades and inquisitions carried out as obligations to good ends.