Objective Moral Values Don’t Exist: Mackie Part 1

Mackie on Objectivity/Subjectivity
Mackie’s Arguments from Relativity and Queerness 

Notes and Thoughts on J. L. Mackie’s Ethics:  Inventing Right and Wrong, Part 1


Mackie represents the position in meta-ethics known a moral skepticism.  As you may have guessed, his position is typified by a strong belief in a god and objective moral values.  Jk. lol.  Actually, moral skepticism can be interpreted in two ways: (1) the belief there there is no such thing as morality; (2) there is no way to objectively define moral values.  Mackie is of the second kind.

Moral Skepticism 

The first sentence in his book reads: “There are no objective moral values”.  Many philosophers have fretted over how to interpret this cryptic statement.  Does he mean that there are no objective moral values or does he mean there are no objective moral values?  It’s pretty ambiguous, but for now we’ll interpret him as saying that there are no objective moral values.

OK,  but lets get a little more specific about what this means.  Moral values include concepts like good, evil, wrong, duty, and obligation.  More generally, we can also include in his position any value statement, including those of aesthetics.  Objective means there is some absolute standard for these terms because they are real qualities.  So, ‘good’ will apply to the same things everywhere in the universe, in every situation–as will the other value statements like ‘ugly’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘wrong’.

Well, lets examine a possible philosophical objection to Mackie’s claim that there are no objective moral values. (1) Oh! Yeah!?  On second thought, perhaps this objection is too tough to deal with right away.  Lets deal with something a little easier.

(2)  “Well, Mr. Smarty pants, if you don’t think there’s any real difference between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ action then you are saying punching you right in the nose (“POW”) and giving you a lollipop are of equal merit.”  Mackie’s response is that we are confusing the issue:  we need to distinguish between an act, how we describe the act, and how we ascribe value to the act.  These distinctions and their relevance in determining the existence of objective moral values can be better understood when we consider first and second order questions in ethics…

First and Second Order Questions

So, within ethics we have first and second order questions.  First order questions deal with questions like “how ought we to act?” “what are my duties to myself and what are my duties to my community”.  In first order ethical questions, values (whatever they may be) are usually presupposed.  Second order questions involve issues in the realm of meta-ethics.  These are questions like what “what is a value?”; “what does ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mean?”; “in cases of moral disagreement, what is at issue?”.

Some suggest we do linguistic analysis to figure out what people are referring to when they use moral concepts–maybe this will tell us what moral values are.  But, perhaps all this really tells is the conventional usage for the value term in question.  Consider an analogy with our perceiving the colour red.  We could do a linguistic analysis of what people are referring to when they say “I see ‘red’ people”.  They can describe the experience of seeing ‘red’ and what it’s like.

But what is the act of perceiving red?  Red is when a light at a certain frequency comes through the retina…something something…then stimulates the optical nerve (hehe…I said “stimulates”)…something something…then stimulates visual cortex…etc.  What I refer to when I use the word ‘red’ and what perception of red entails are two completely different things.  For this reason, Mackie doesn’t think linguistic analysis will help us solve our problem of understanding what a value is.

Hume made a similar argument that went a little somethin’ like this:  what does the concept ‘bad’ refer to?  If I observe a bad act and examine it under a microscope, will I observe the property of badness?  Nope.  But notice we are now asking another class of question: Does badness exist and if so, in what sense?

These questions of existence also second order questions but concern ontology (having to do with existence).  So, people can argue all day about what the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ means and maybe I can give a complete definition; but in what sense can we say that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ exist in any intelligible way?  Is badness something that I can touch? taste? feel? smell? how many quarks does it have? etc…if not, in what sense is it real?

Just because I can define something doesn’t make it real: I can define unicorns but it doesn’t make them real…or does it? (jk, lol)  So, finding out what a word means does little work in helping us discover whether it exists or not.  

Is Objectivity a Real Issue?

Some people might respond to Mackie by saying it’s poppycock.  The ontological status of values is irrelevant (i.e., it doesn’t matter that we can’t figure out in what sense they exist).  Consider two basic positions on morality: the subjectivist (thinks moral values are subjective) and the objectivist (there is only one True moral code and they are the objective moral values).

Regardless of your position, we all have some idea as to what it means to think or say something is ‘wrong’.   Some people (subjectivists) say it expresses an attitude of disproval; others (objectivists) say it’s a moral intuition, but the outcome will be the same; the two camps will understand each other.  So what’s the dealy-yo? It seems that whether one is a subjectivist or an objectivist, people are still concerned about the same things and the subjectivist world is indistinguishable from an objectivist world…or is it!  Oh! Snap!  Here comes Mackie!

How does an objectivist come to know values?  Well, for the objectivist, values are real and exist in “the fabric of the world”; so, objectivists have some spider sense that can detect the values.  (When two objectivist disagree, obviously someone’s spider senses aren’t working properly–usually the other person’s.)

But we can see how the two views will differ when we consider how a subjectivist moral concerns are acquired or changed. When a subjectivist acquires or changes a value it’s because something new has developed on their emotive side.  In the case of an act they consider ‘wrong’, they develop an repugnance and they express the repugnance with the word or thought ‘wrong’.

But what about if we found that there were certain things that were universally condemned or valued?  Wouldn’t that shew the existence of objective moral values?  Nope.  In the unlikely case of this happening it would only shew that all people share some values, not that those values exist.  If our beliefs caused things to exist, our universe would be a truly remarkable place, indeed! (I love it when I can end a sentence with “indeed!”; I do indeed!)

Suppose an objectivist, after deep quantum spiritual contemplation of the universe, realizes that doing x is wrong (maaaaan!).  Does his proclamation that x is wrong make it so?  Is a person or group’s proclamation enough to make something really exist?  Nope.  But what if they really know, I mean like, they can just feel they’re right.  Nope.  No, man, you don’t understand because you’re not in tune with the universe/god/nature like I am…blah! blah! blah!

So, to quickly summarize, some sort of statement of the ontological status of values is going to matter if our ethical theories are going to be able to give (or not give) a coherent account of how we come to know values; and in the case of subjectivists, how we come to change values.

Part 2 tomorrow, if you can stand the suspense!

Mackie on Objectivity/Subjectivity
Mackie’s Arguments from Relativity and Queerness 

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