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Ethical Anti-Realism

There are no objective values.

On the face of it, Mackies thesis is an

ontological one. More specifically, though, it is a meta-ethical thesis. Its also very broad: The claim that values are not objective, are not part of the fabric of the world, is meant to include not only moral goodness [], but also other things that could be more loosely called moral values or disvalues rightness and wrongness, duty, obligation, an actions being rotten and contemptible, and so on. It also includes non-moral values, notably

Meta-ethics is (according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

the attempt to understand the metaphysical, epistemological, semantic, and psychological, presuppositions and commitments of moral thought, talk, and practice, and studies such questions as: Is morality more a matter of taste than truth? Are moral standards culturally relative? Are there moral facts? If there are moral facts, what is their origin? How is it that they set an appropriate standard for our behavior? How do we learn about the moral facts, if there are any?

Moral skepticism
Mackie accepts the title of moral skeptic, but he

cautions that this has to be understood in the second of the following two senses:
First-order moral skepticism: The rejection of (commonly

accepted) claims as to what is good or bad, morally right or wrong, etc. Second-order moral skepticism: The rejection of the view that morality is objective, that there are moral facts or values.

The claim to objectivity

Most Western philosophers have held that there are

objective values: that certain ends are intrinsically desirable.

Examples: Plato, Aristotle, Clarke, Kant, Sidgwick. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) wrote:

Some things are in their own nature Good and Reasonable and Fit to be done, such as keeping Faith, and performing equitable Compacts, and the like; And these receive not their obligatory power, from any Law or Authority, but are only declared, confirmed and inforced by penalties, upon such as would not perhaps be governed by right Reason only. Other things are in their own nature absolutely Evil, such as breaking Faith, refusing to perform equitable Compacts, cruelly destroying those who have neither directly nor indirectly given any occasion for any such treatment, and the like; And these cannot by any Law or Authority whatsoever, be made fit and reasonable, or excusable to be practised.

Non-cognitivism and naturalism

There are two relatively modern views that reject this

Non-cognitivism holds that ethical terms (like good)

conventionally express either attitudes which the speaker purports to adopt towards whatever it is that he characterizes morally, or prescriptions or recommendations, subject perhaps to the constraint of universalizability. Naturalism, on the other hand, holds that ethical terms are descriptive in meaning, but descriptive of natural features, partly of such features as everyone [] would recognize as distinguishing kind actions from cruel ones, courage from cowardice, politeness from rudeness, and so on, and partly

Common-sense objectivism (1)

Mackie says that each of the two views gains much of its

plausibility from the felt inadequacy of the other. On the felt inadequacy of non-cognitivism: It is a very natural reaction to any non-cognitivist analysis of ethical terms to protest that there is more to ethics than this, something more external to the maker of moral judgments, more authoritative over both him and those of or to whom he speaks.
(p. 32)

This at first seems to give an advantage to naturalism, because

[i]t will not be a matter of choice or decision whether an action is cruel or unjust or imprudent or whether it is likely to produce more distress than pleasure. (p. 33) However, these naturalistic features of cruelty and injustice, etc., are not practical, i.e., not inherently action-guiding. Rather, in those cases where moral judgments (naturalistically understood) are practical, their practicality is wholly relative to desires or possible satisfactions of the person or persons whose actions are to

Common-sense objectivism (2)

As a result, it can be said that both non-cognitivism

and naturalism leave out the apparent authority of ethics. In particular:

Naturalism excludes the categorically imperative

aspect, i.e., the inherently action-guiding aspect of moral judgments. Non-cognitivism excludes the claim to objective validity or truth.
Anyone who agrees with this assessment is another data point in favor of Mackies thesis (p. 31) that

common-sense morality is committed to the existence of objective values.

Common-sense objectivism (3)

More confirming evidence comes from
People in whom the realization that there are no

objective values has led to a decay of subjective concern and sense of purpose (p. 34). Philosophers, such as Bertrand Russell, whose official view is non-objectivist, but who all the same confess to objectivist leanings.

Consequence for the meaning of ethical terms

From the thesis that common-sense morality is

committed to the existence of objective values, Mackie is led to the conclusion that its part of the meaning of terms like good or bad that, if any given thing is good or bad, then its objectively good or bad (in an inherently action-guiding sense). [O]rdinary moral judgments include a claim to objectivity, an assumption that there are objective values []. And I do not think it is going too far to say that this assumption has been incorporated in the basic, conventional meanings of moral terms. Any analysis of the meanings of moral terms which omits this claim to objective, intrinsic, prescriptivity is to that extent incomplete. (p. 35)

Towards an error theory of morals

Having established his claim about the meaning of

ethical terms, Mackie now only needs to establish that nothing is in fact objectively good or bad: that nothing in fact exhibits an objective, intrinsic, prescriptivity. Analogy: To argue for an error theory of unicorns
(assuming for the sake of example that most people do believe in unicorns), one could proceed as follows: First, establish that its part of the meaning of unicorn that any unicorn has to be a horse-shaped creature with a single horn growing out of its forehead. Second, establish that there is in fact no such creature.

The argument from relativity (1)

Radical moral disagreement

make[s] it difficult to treat [moral] judgments as apprehensions of objective [moral] truths. (p. 36) Why is this relevant for the question of whether there are objective moral truths? There seems to be at least one tacit premise at work here. For example:
If our moral judgments cannot plausibly be seen as the result of

apprehending objective moral truths, then we have no good reason to think that there are any objective moral truths. If we have no good reason to think that there are such truths, then its plausible that there are no such truths.
These two premises, together with
Our moral judgments cannot plausibly be seen as the result of

apprehending objective moral truths,

Its plausible that there are no such truths.

The argument from relativity (2)

Mackie admits that this argument can in part be countered

by pointing out that, with respect to certain basic principles, there is in fact no radical disagreement. Such principles may include:
The principle that moral maxims should be universalizable. The principle that one should (ceteris paribus) do what

tends, or seems likely, to promote the general happiness.

But even if there is universal agreement about these

principles, will that make it any more plausible that the relevant judgments are the result of apprehending objective moral truths? Arguably not if there is a better explanation for those judgments. (Potential candidate: evolution.)

The argument from queerness (1)

If there were objective values, then they would be

entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. (p. 38) Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. (ibid.) This strangeness of objective values provides a good reason to believe that there are no such things. Similarly, the strangeness of a special faculty of moral perception or intuition provides a good reason to believe that there is no such faculty.

The argument from queerness (2)

A moral realist might counter the argument by presenting

companions in guilt: For example, Richard Price argues that it is not moral knowledge alone that such an empiricism as those of Locke and Hume is unable to account for, but also our knowledge and even our ideas of essence, number, identity, diversity, solidity, inertia, substance, the necessary existence and infinite extension of time and space, necessity and possibility in general, power, and causation. (p. 39) Mackies response is in two parts:
At least for some of the things Price mentions, our ideas and

knowledge of them can be satisfactorily accounted for in empirical terms. As for the others (e.g., metaphysical necessities or essences), their existence should be called into doubt just as much as that of objective values.

Patterns of objectification (1)

From his argument from queerness, Mackie

conclude that it is in the end less paradoxical to reject than to retain the common-sense belief in the objectivity of moral values, provided that we can explain how this belief, if it is false, has become established and is so resistant to criticisms. (p. 42) So his next task is that of satisfying this proviso, i.e., he has to explain
(i) how the belief in the objectivity of moral values has become established, and (ii) why it is so resistant to criticisms.

Patterns of objectification (2)

Mackie lists some mechanisms that seem to contribute to

the establishment (and resilience) of the belief in the objectivity of moral values:
Projection of moral attitudes onto the actions (or persons) at

which they are directed. (Cf. the pathetic fallacy.) Internalization of social pressures. Motives for objectivation: We need morality to regulate interpersonal relations [], often in opposition to contrary inclinations. We therefore want our moral judgments to be authoritative for other agents as well as ourselves: objective validity would give them the authority required. (p. 43) Confusion of objective desirability (i.e., of objective features that make a thing capable of arousing or satisfying desires) with objective goodness.

Patterns of objectification (3)

Confusion of hypothetical imperatives (e.g., you must do this

to satisfy such-and-such wants) with categorical imperatives.

What does this mean?

The action in question is still required in something like the way in which it would be if it were appropriately related to a want, but it is no longer admitted that there is any contingent want upon which its being required depends. (p. 44) Why would this happen? [T]his move can be understood when we remember that at least our central and basic moral judgments represent social demands, where the source of the demand is indeterminate and diffuse. Whose demands are in question, the agents, or the speakers, or those of an indefinite multitude of other people? All of these in a way, but there are advantages in not specifying them precisely. (ibid.) What advantages? The speaker is expressing demands which he makes as a member of a community []; also what is required of this particular agent would be required of any other in a relevantly similar situation; but the agent too is expected to have

Patterns of objectification (4)

Inheritance of ways of thinking that really make sense only in the

context of a theistic belief system: Elizabeth Anscombe has argued that modern, nonAristotelian concepts of moral obligation, moral duty, of what is morally right or wrong, and of the moral sense of ought are survivals outside the framework of thought that made them really intelligible, namely the belief in divine law. (p. 45)
Mackie doesnt exactly buy this:

As Cudworth and Clarke and Price, for example, show, even those who still admit divine commands, or the positive law of God, may believe moral values to have an independent objective but still action-guiding authority. (ibid.)
Confusion of the good for man in the descriptive sense with the

good for man in the normative sense.

The two senses could be linked if there were some God who made people

pursue (and flourish if they achieve) what is in fact their true moral purpose. But Mackie sees here no threat to his argument, since he takes theism to be indefensible.

Mackies error theory of morals conflicts strongly with ordinary

moral thinking. But he takes himself to have good arguments for it:
1. 2.



The relativity or variability of some important starting points of moral thinking and their apparent dependence on ways of life. The metaphysical peculiarity of the supposed objective values, in that they would have to be intrinsically action-guiding and motivating. The problem of how such values could be consequential or supervenient upon natural features. The corresponding epistemological difficulty of accounting for our knowledge of value entities or features and of their links with the features on which they would be consequential. The possibility of explaining, in terms of several different patterns of objectivation *+, how even if there were no such objective values people not only might have come to suppose that there are but also might persist firmly in that belief.