Article Summary: “The Subjectivity of Values” by JL Mackie

From Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, London: Penguin Books, 1991. (originally published 1977)


Mackie argues for an ’error theory’ regarding objective morality: he believes moral judgments presuppose moral objectivity, which is itself false. Mackie believes moral objectivity requires two things: intrinsic reason-giving power (e.g., an action’s being objectively right is itself a reason to carry out the action), and the ability to categorically (unconditionally) motivate us to act. Mackie thinks that moral values have neither of these features, and thus are not objective.

Before arguing that moral values have neither intrinsic reason-giving power nor categorical motivating power, however, Mackie delimits his theory (what he calls ’moral skepticism’) from other popular theories in metaethics. In the first place, his theory is not subjectivist: it is not claiming that we ought to do whatever we feel is right. Further, it is not emotivist: while the emotivist says a moral judgment is merely an expression of the utterer’s feelings, Mackie thinks that moral judgments legitimately attempt to, and fail to, explain reality. In other words, while an emotivist says moral terms are neither true nor false, Mackie says that they are all false. Finally, Mackie makes clear that he is not dealing with moral values derived from hypothetical imperatives. The target of his opprobrium are values which claim to be objectively categorical in nature.

With his theory clarified, Mackie attacks the notion that moral values are intrinsically reason-giving. Mackie thinks this is false because he thinks moral values are best understood as subjective. In particular, he cites the widespread disagreement among cultures regarding moral norms and says that this disagreement is best explained as being caused by competing ways of life, rather than competing perceptions of objective morals. Since such ways
of life would be subjective, and since something which is subjective cannot be intrinsically reason-giving, it follows that moral values are not intrinsically
reason-giving. Mackie concludes this specific argument by responding to a criticism: perhaps it is not specific values but rather general principles of morality which all cultures agree upon, the critic might say. Mackie believes this is an inadequate response because it characterizes specific moral values as contingently and derivatively true: on this scheme, rape would only be
wrong because it violates some more general principle; if it had not violated the principle, then it would not be wrong (my example).

Next, Mackie presents what he calls the ’argument from queerness’ against the idea that moral values are categorically motivating. Since natural features of the world are not categorically motivating, moral values must be a strange, alternative sort of feature, unlike anything else we are aware of. Further, it must be the case that there is a special sense for detecting these alternative sorts of worldly feature. According to Mackie, no adequate explanation of these properties has ever been posited; further, he does not believe any such account is forthcoming. We therefore ought to suppose that these bizarre worldly features which are posited as real in fact are not. Moral judgments are best understood as subjective reactions on the part of agents to the world around them; such reactions, however, cannot undergird any categorically motivating moral value. Therefore, moral values do not have categorical motivating power.

Mackie concludes by recognizing that the ’queerness’ of moral objectivity is not as easily recognized in everyday moral judgments as it is in outlandish
philosophical reconstructions like Plato’s Forms. Mackie thinks this is so because in everyday judgments, the prescriptivity derived from the presupposition that morals are objective exists alongside other reasons, thoughts, and language. In some sense, then, the queerness is disguised. Further, Mackie thinks that since we tend to read our feelings into external objects, we probably do the same for moral things: we suppose (incorrectly) that the feeling an object or act elicits is a property of the object itself. Yet another psychological reason is that when we desire something, we try to characterize it as good. But instead of recognizing this, we pretend that the thing is intrinsically good, and that that is why we desire it. Mackie also thinks there are pragmatic reasons for the persistence of prescriptivity in our language: it might be the case that society depends upon the use of such
language. Keeping people in order may depend upon a claim of objectivity to our prescriptive language. This pragmatic reasoning also holds for individuals: people recognize (consciously or not) that objective morality provides a wellspring of authority; it allows demands made upon others in interpersonal relationships to be imbued with a motivational force they would otherwise not have.

Logical Outline

Argument One (There are no objective morals)

  1. In order for values to be objective, they must compel us to obey regardless of our desires, and they must be intrinsically reason-giving.
  2. Moral values do not motivate us to obey categorically.

S1. Natural objects do no impart categorical motivation to obey.
S2. So, if objective morals categorically motivate, they must be an
as-of-yet unknown type of feature of reality (r), and further must be detectable by some as-of-yet unknown perceptual apparatus (p). [from S1]
S3. No adequate explanation for (r) or (p) exists, and none is
S4. Therefore, it is most reasonable to suppose moral values are
subjective rather than objective. [S2,S3]
S5. Therefore, moral values are not categorically motivating. [S4,S2]

3. Moral values are not intrinsically reason-giving.

S1. If morals are subjective, then moral prescriptivity is best un-
derstood as emerging from intuition and not reason.
S2. If moral prescriptivity emerges from intuition, then moral values cannot be intrinsically reason-giving.
S3. Therefore, if morals are subjective, then they cannot be intrinsically reason-giving. [S1,S2]
S4. The variation of moral values among cultures is best explained
as emerging from alternative, subjective ways of life, not that it emerges from alternative perceptions of objective reality.
S5. Therefore, it is most reasonable to assume moral values are
subjective. [from S4]
S6. Therefore, moral values are not intrinsically reason-giving.

4. Moral values do not impart categorical motivation to obey, nor are they intrinsically reason-giving. [2,3]
5. Therefore, moral values are not objective. [4,1]

Symbolic Notation

Primary Argument
1. O → (C ∧ I)
2. ¬C ∧ ¬I…Therefore, ¬O
3. ¬C (2, SIMP)
4. ¬C ∨ ¬I (3,ADD)
5. ¬(C ∧ I) (4,DeM)
6. ¬O (5, 1,MT)

Where O=Moral values are objective, C=Moral values are categorically
motivating, and I=Moral values are intrinsically reason-giving.

Sub-argument One: Moral values are not intrinsically reason-giving
1. S → E
2. E → ¬I
3. S…Therefore, ¬I
4. S → ¬I (1, 2,HS)
5. ¬I (3, 4,MP)

Where S=Moral values are subjective, E=Moral values emerge from
intuition, and I=Moral values are intrinsically reason-giving.

Sub-Argument Two: Moral values are not categorically motivating.
1. C → (R ∧ P)
2. ¬E
3. ¬E ≡ ¬(R ∨ P)…Therefore, ¬C
4. [¬E → ¬(R ∨ P)] ∧ [¬(R ∨ P) → ¬E] (3,EQUIV )
5. [¬E → ¬(R ∨ P)] (4, SIMP)
6. ¬(R ∨ P) (5, 2,MP)
7. ¬R ∧ ¬P (6,DeM)
8. ¬R (7, SIMP)
9. ¬(R ∧ P)
10. ¬C (11, 1,MT)

Where C=Morals are categorically motivating, R=Moral values exist as a
currently-unknown facet of reality, P=We need an alternate sense to detect
moral features, and E=There is an adequate explanation for R and P.


Filed under Article Summaries

2 responses to “Article Summary: “The Subjectivity of Values” by JL Mackie

  1. Dani

    Both you and Mackie are awesome. I don’t understand why more people don’t realize the irrefutable (in every sense of that word) nature of his arguments.

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