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John Leslie Mackie (1917-1981) was a philosopher who made significant contributions to the fields of ethics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion. A professor of philosophy at the universities of Sydney, Otago, New Zealand, and York, he was elected a fellow of the University of Oxford in 1967 and to the British Academy in 1974.
The first chapter of Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong is the locus classicus for error theories in contemporary meta-ethics. There he argues that ordinary moral discourse and thought involve an assumption that there are what he calls "objective values," and that this assumption is false. Consequently, ordinary moral thought and language are infected by an error that precludes any ordinary moral claims and thoughts from being true. Mackie first argues for a cognitivist interpretation of moral language. In other words, he argues that ordinary moral claims purport to describe facts about the world. In particular, ordinary moral language and thought purport to describe facts about objective moral values. What are objective moral values? They have two defining characteristics: (i) mind-independent existence (think of how chairs, trees, people, and electrons exist), and (ii) "intrinsic and categorical prescriptivity": that is, they are such that the mere apprehension of them will motivate a person to act in a certain way. The former characteristic is the source of their objectivity; the latter is the source of their normativity. But, he claims, we have good reason to think that no such things exist. Mackie's fundamental worry about these putative objective values is that these things are especially "queer," that they are unlike any other things we have good reason to think exist. As I understand Mackie, underlying his worries about the queerness of these putative entities is his perception of a tension in their nature. He appears to believe that the objectivity of these putative entities is in tension with their intrinsic and categorical action-guidingness.Read more ›
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It might be read as an introduction to Ethics, but it isn't one. It is rather one of the most important works in 20th century ethics.
Mackie's book was revolutionary since being the first one to combine anti-realism (no objectively prescriptive values in the world) with cognitivism (the meaning of ethical statements can be true or false). Most of the previous anti-realists were anti-realists mostly implicitly, only because of being non-cognitivsts. Mackie has a different view which in my opinion is much more closer to the truth. The book also contains his error theory (people have a disposition to see their value judgments as objective). While the reviewer cdtreyer as the mainstream tradition have concentrated on Mackie's error theory I think it is much less important than the denial of the objective values and the justification of the role of morality in quasi-contractual terms.
Mackie's views on positive morality are justified by quasi-contractual (he discusses Plato's Protagoras, Hobbes and Hume) means and would combine very well with evolutionary perspectives. The discussion on the content of normative views is just a brief sketch, but this isn't really what this book is about anyway. Anyone who claims that the contents of the first part of the book undermine the contents of the second should read chapter 5 again and again and again. That there are no objective values in the world does not mean that there can't be right or wrong - it simply must be (or rather already has largely been) invented and constructed.
If you are interested in ethics you simply need to read this small, but important book which, while not being an introduction is still quite simple and very elegantly written.Read more ›
This book is the father of all error theory books. He originates some of the central critiques of moral thought and discourse that guys like Richard Garner rely on (see also: Beyond Morality). They think there is something bizarre about morality's commitment to categorical reasons (things that you ought or ought not to do regardless of what your desires happen to be). They think moral properties are queer because he says that don't fit into a naturalistic worldview and because they are thought to supervene on non-moral properties (i.e. the moral properties "fix" the moral facts... so the non-moral fact of kicking a puppy is always accompanied by the property of wrongness).
As you may notice, the theory presented in this book does not agree with me. Error theory argues that morality is systemically erroneous... what do we do with moral thought and discourse then? If Mackie thinks supervenient relationships are flawed, exactly how do ordinary natural facts determine the moral facts? He argues for conservationism (rather than eliminativism) because he recognizes the instrinsic vlue of morality, although I don't see that working. I agree more with the ideas of David Boonin, David Enoch, and Michael Huemer.
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Mackie wants to convince us that objective values are not "part of the fabric of the universe." In other words, there are no moral claims that are objectively true, and no moral rules that are objectively binding on us. He gives three arguments in support of this claim. He argues that the best explanation for the diversity of ethical beliefs is that there is no matter of fact that some of us are getting right, while others are getting it wrong. He argues that the very existence of objective values is "queer" (by which he means "weird"), because they would have to have some strange sort of "intrinsic prescriptivity." And he argues that knowledge of objective values, if there were any, would require some strange, inexplicable form of moral intuition. I personally am unconvinced by Mackie's arguments. For example, why should our ethical disagreements lead us to believe that there are no ethical facts? People disagree about lots of things that are objective if anything is (e.g., whether UFO's are space aliens). However, this is clearly one of the paradigmatic statements and defenses of "moral anti-realism." For an alternative perspective to Mackie's, one might read Thomas Nagel's _The View from Nowhere_ (especially the chapters on ethics and value), or Alasdair MacIntyre's _After Virtue_.