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Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong Paperback – May 17, 1991
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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.
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Much of the rest of the book is devoted to expounding his subjective theory of moral rightness. I found it somewhat interesting (he decries factory farming way back in 1977!), but philosophically, I was unsure of its value. I'm not sure how we actually argue for moral principles, if we grant Mackie's metaethics. An argument that is, in principle, not rationally resolvable seems not like one a philosopher qua philosopher should take part.
Some thinkers hold that moral principles can be deduced from reason and introspection, while others hold that moral principles can be deduced from a careful examination of the varieties of human behavior observed across space and through time. The first might be called "objectivists" because moral principles, like mathematical principles, for these thinkers, are "out there" to be discovered. The second, by contrast, might be called "behaviorists" because they consider moral truths to be discovered in about the same way as we discover linguistic regularities: by observing how and when groups taken certain moral principles to be true, and by analyzing the commonalities and differences in the conception of morality in different societies. They may also be termed "evolutionary" because they invariably explain the commonalities and differences in moral principles in terms of the gene-culture coevolutionary process that lies at the basis of our development as a species.
There is no doubt in my mind but that the objectivists in the above sense are profoundly misled and misleading, and the behaviorists approach the study of morality correctly. In my view it is obvious that ethics should be studied scientifically, and those who propose to justify moral principles through Introspection or Reason are on the wrong track. Because most moral philosophers resoundingly reject my behaviorist/evolutionary position (the recently deceased Philippa Foote and the American David Chan being significant exceptions), I have been looking around for a philosophical critique of ethical objectivism. J. L. Mackie's well known book came to mind.
It is clear from the subtitle of this book that Mackie is not a behaviorist/evolutionary moralist. Indeed, the behavioral/evolutionary moralists are generally deeply critical of the notion that all moralities are possible and we can simply "invent" and socially instantiate the one that we prefer, as propounded by what John Tooby and Lida Cosmides have termed the "Standard Social Sciences Model." However, I thought he might have developed a cogent critique of objectivism even if his alternative is not acceptable. I was wrong. Mackie's arguments are, to my mind, extremely weak and not at all persuasive.
Mackie begins by defining ethics as "objective" if values are "part of the fabric of the world." But, both objectivists and behavioral/evolutionary moralists, in the sense defined above, believe that values are part of the fabric of the world, differing only on how we are to discover moral rules and their relation to empirical social practices. My objectivists care no more about what people say about ethics than a physicist cares about what people say about gravity. The physicist's skill and training trump anything folk-physics has to say about the subject. Behavioral/evolutionary ethicists, by contrast, value objectivist philosophical reasoning only when it gives insight into regularities concerning human moral principles and behavior.
Mackie's critique of objectivism, which he considers to be a critique of a moral skepticism sort, is based on two arguments. The first is the "relativist" argument that because people can vehemently and permanently disagree about the content of morality, and because there is not objective process of adjudicating disagreements of this sort, it is unlikely that morality is "part of the fabric" of the world. This argument, to my mind, has no weight at all. Language, for instance, is surely an objective part of human experience, but there are many highly distinct languages and linguistic structures.
The second of Mackie's critiques of objectivism is "the argument from queerness." He says that if morals are objective, then our way of knowing morals is different from that of knowing any other aspect of the fabric of the world (p. 38). But this is false. There are a hundred books on morality from the standpoint of traditional science, including arguments about the development of moral principle in species through Darwinian evolution.
So, my search for a philosophical critique of objectivist ethical theory goes on. Perhaps I should read the critiques of Foote and Chan to uncover the philosophical bases of objectivist ethics. Well, that should give me something to do on days that the Boston Celtics aren't playing.
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.
Think first of an example of non moral goodness. A good chair is such as to serve ends which are widely shared and revealed by the word ‘chair’ itself. To ask if the goodness of a given chair is "subjective" or "objective" is to start out in the wrong way. On the one hand, it is not an entirely subjective issue whether this is a good chair, because once the ends in view are fixed it is a matter of observable fact whether or not this chair is adequate to satisfy them (whether it wobbles, is sturdy enough to support a person’s weight, etc.). On the other hand, the issue of goodness is not entirely objective either because the desires, needs and practices of chair users set the ends for which chairs are employed.
The subjective/objective distinction doesn't give two mutually exclusive or jointly exhaustive alternatives. It does not present a real dilemma at all. The case in morality is more complicated in part because we evaluate ourselves with respect to our own needs and objectives. But it doesn't help to ask whether a thing's sufficiency to meet our goals is a subjective or objective matter.
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There are no objective moral facts -- if you think otherwise,
then name one.Read more