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The Concept of J.L. Mackie’s Reform of Error in the Moral Theory

Mackie argues for a “error theory” of objective morality: he believes that moral judgement presupposes moral objectivity, which is itself false. Mackie believes that moral objectivity requires two things: the inherent power of reasoning (e.g. the objective rightness of action is itself a reason to act), and the ability to categorically (unconditionally) motivate us to act. Mackie believes that moral values do not have any of these characteristics and are therefore not objective. Unfortunately, his statement is very short, and it is not entirely apparent from what he says precisely where the queerness of moral principles is meant to lie. In this paper, I will show, firstly, why the typical interpretation of Mackie is problematic and, secondly, offer a new interpretation. I’m trying to argue that whether or not we have reason to act in a morally correct way, what seems queer about moral properties is that there is a morally correct way to live in the first place. This understanding makes sense from Mackie’s suggestion that theism may be able to solve the problem of queerness; the notion of an objectively right way of life can make sense if theism is real, but not otherwise. It’s partially because we’re not going to have a social fix until we’re more morally articulated, until we have better concepts of how we should be acting at all levels. History is full of examples of moral renewal, the reversal of social unrest, the tightening of conduct and the reassertion of norms. It occurred in England in the 1830s, and in the U.S. in the midst of economic stress in the 1930s. It happens by organic collective action, with voices from all over saying softly: this is what we praise. We don’t do this. Every parent is in love with his or her children. Everyone’s battling. Yet we need principles and values to lead the way forwardADDIN CSL_CITATION {“citationItems”:[{“id”:”ITEM-1″,”itemData”:{“DOI”:”10.2307/2217728″,”ISSN”:”00318094″,”abstract”:”This work begins with an essay on the nature of philosophical analysis. In the context of a discussion of moore’s paradox af analysis the author distinguishes a number of different types of analysis which he later employs. (bp, Edited)”,”author”:[{“dropping-particle”:””,”family”:”Hunter”,”given”:”Geoffrey”,”non-dropping-particle”:””,”parse-names”:false,”suffix”:””},{“dropping-particle”:””,”family”:”Mackie”,”given”:”J. L.”,”non-dropping-particle”:””,”parse-names”:false,”suffix”:””}],”container-title”:”The Philosophical Quarterly”,”id”:”ITEM-1″,”issue”:”95″,”issued”:{“date-parts”:[[“1974″]]},”page”:”184″,”title”:”Truth Probability and Paradox: Studies in Philosophical Logic.”,”type”:”article-journal”,”volume”:”24″},”uris”:[“″]}],”mendeley”:{“formattedCitation”:”(Hunter & Mackie, 1974)”,”plainTextFormattedCitation”:”(Hunter & Mackie, 1974)”,”previouslyFormattedCitation”:”(Hunter & Mackie, 1974)”},”properties”:{“noteIndex”:0},”schema”:””}(Hunter & Mackie, 1974).

The Relativity Argument starts with an empiric observation: that there is an immense amount of difference in moral beliefs, and that moral differences are also distinguished by an extraordinary degree of intractability. Mackie argues that the best reason for these phenomena is that moral decisions “reflect adherence and participation in different ways of life” (1977: 36). This at least, is a better explanation than the theory that there is a field of objective moral facts to which certain societies have inferior epistemological access than others. The example Mackie uses is the two cultures’ varying moral views on monogamy. Is it really possible, he wonders, that one society enjoys access to moral facts about marital arrangements, while the other lacks access to them? Isn’t it much more likely that monogamy has evolved in one culture but not in the other for whatever cultural or anthropological reasons) and that their respective moral views have arisen as a result?

There are two strands of the reasoning from Queerness: one philosophical and one epistemological. The first notes that our conception of moral property is fundamentally one of a very peculiar kind of property, so that in order to explain its instantiation, we must place in the world “qualities or relations of a very strange kind, completely different from anything else in the universe” . The second notes that in order to monitor such odd properties, we will need some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, completely different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. These are not independent claims, because we are required to pose strange epistemological equipment only if it has already been identified that the properties in question are strange. So it is basically the philosophical line of the Queerness Statement that is load carrying.

A categorical imperative is an imperative (‘Do’) that is applied to a person, irrespective of the intent of that individual. It is to be contrasted with a hypothetical imperative, which relies on the ends of an individual. Thus, “Go to bed now is generally understood to be tactfully conditional, based on something like “…if you want a decent night’s sleep.” If it turns out that the person lacks this desire (or some other desire that promises to be fulfilled by following the advice), then the imperative should be removed. On the other hand, the categorical imperative “Don’t Kill Children” cannot be begged by the addressee to justify that he really loves killing children, that he lacks any wishes that would be fulfilled if the imperative is met; it is not a piece of advice at allADDIN CSL_CITATION {“citationItems”:[{“id”:”ITEM-1″,”itemData”:{“URL”:””,”accessed”:{“date-parts”:[[“2020″,”11″,”27″]]},”author”:[{“dropping-particle”:””,”family”:”Brooks”,”given”:”David”,”non-dropping-particle”:””,”parse-names”:false,”suffix”:””}],”id”:”ITEM-1″,”issued”:{“date-parts”:[[“2014″]]},”title”:”Opinion | The Cost of Relativism – The New York Times”,”type”:”webpage”},”uris”:[“″]}],”mendeley”:{“formattedCitation”:”(Brooks, 2014)”,”plainTextFormattedCitation”:”(Brooks, 2014)”,”previouslyFormattedCitation”:”(Brooks, 2014)”},”properties”:{“noteIndex”:0},”schema”:””}(Brooks, 2014). Notice that it does not seem to be categorical imperatives per se that trouble Mackie, but rather categorical imperatives that purport to be “objectively valid.” What he means by this restriction remains unclear. Mackie says the presence of “objective prescriptions” is important for moral properties, and he obviously finds those prescriptions metaphysically queer. He argues that he disputes that any “categorically imperative component is objectively valid” while refusing such prescriptions. In the light of these findings, the principle of error emerges because (Mackie thinks) moral debate is pervaded by and by expectations for robust institutional-transcendent prescriptivity. To some degree, Brooks considers that this is due to a natural human projectivist propensity, but he also argues that the problematic notions of what is inherently fitting or required by the nature of things” are partly the result of institutional thought, and therefore are conceptions of meaning, duty, and reasons that rely on these notions.

Mackie concludes by admitting that the ‘queerness’ of moral objectivity is not as readily understood in daily moral assessments as it is in the outlandish.

Philosophical reconstructions like the Plato Types. Mackie thinks this is because, in regular decisions, the prescriptivity arising from the belief that morality is empirical resides alongside other motives, emotions, and vocabulary. Then in a certain way, the queerness is concealed. In addition, Mackie thinks that because we prefer to read our emotions into external objects, we possibly do the same thing for moral things: we believe (incorrectly) that the object or behaviour is the property of the object itself. The psychological explanation is that we want to describe it as good when we want something. But instead of realising this, we pretend that the thing is inherently fine, and that’s why we want it. Mackie also suggests that there are pragmatic explanations for the persistence of prescriptivity in our language: it may be the case that culture depends on the use of that language. Keeping people in order can rely on the argument of objectivity to our prescriptive language. This pragmatic argument often extends to individuals: people understand (consciously or not) that objective morality offers a source of authority; it enables the demands made of others in interpersonal relationships to be imbued with a motivational power that they would otherwise not have hadADDIN CSL_CITATION {“citationItems”:[{“id”:”ITEM-1″,”itemData”:{“DOI”:”10.1086/596459″,”ISSN”:”00141704″,”author”:[{“dropping-particle”:””,”family”:”Sobel”,”given”:”David”,”non-dropping-particle”:””,”parse-names”:false,”suffix”:””}],”container-title”:”Ethics”,”id”:”ITEM-1″,”issue”:”2″,”issued”:{“date-parts”:[[“2009″,”1″,”17″]]},”page”:”336-352″,”publisher”:”The University of Chicago Press”,”title”:”Subjectivism and Idealization”,”type”:”article”,”volume”:”119″},”uris”:[“″]}],”mendeley”:{“formattedCitation”:”(Sobel, 2009)”,”plainTextFormattedCitation”:”(Sobel, 2009)”},”properties”:{“noteIndex”:0},”schema”:””}(Sobel, 2009).

Work citied

ADDIN Mendeley Bibliography CSL_BIBLIOGRAPHY Brooks, D. (2014). Opinion | The Cost of Relativism – The New York Times.

Hunter, G., & Mackie, J. L. (1974). Truth Probability and Paradox: Studies in Philosophical Logic. The Philosophical Quarterly, 24(95), 184.

Sobel, D. (2009). Subjectivism and Idealization. In Ethics (Vol. 119, Issue 2, pp. 336–352). The University of Chicago Press.

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