Was Russell's 1922 Error Theory a Mistake?


  • Ray Perkins Plymouth State University




Recent Russell scholarship has made clear the importance of Russell’s contributions

to ethical theory. But his provocative two-page 1922 paper, “Is There an

Absolute Good?”, anticipating by two decades what has come to be called “error

theory”, is still little known and not fully understood by students of Russell’s

ethics. In that little paper, never published in Russell’s lifetime, he criticizes the

“absolutist” view of G.E. Moore; and, with the help of his own 1905 theory of

descriptions, he exposes what he takes to be the fallacy underlying Moore’s (and

his own earlier) arguments regarding value judgments and puts forward a new

analysis which preserves the “absolutist” meaning at the cost of rendering all value

judgments false. This article attempts to: (1) make clear just what Russell was

doing in his little paper and how to understand it in the evolution of his metaethical

thinking, (2) defend his 1922 theory against some recent criticisms, and

(3) suggest the most likely reasons why he so quickly abandoned his new theory.