Objective Moral Values Don’t Exist: J. L. Mackie Part 2

Notes and Thoughts on J. L. Mackie’s Ethics:  Inventing Right and Wrong;  The Subjectivity of Values

So, what were we talkin’ ’bout?  Ah! yes, that there are no objective moral values.  Let’s look a little more closely at what that might mean…

Standards of Evaluation

What might it mean to say there are no objective moral values?  One possible interpretation is that value statements can’t be true or false.  For example, the statement “helping little old ladies across the street” isn’t true or false.  It has no truth value because, as we learned with Ayer, moral statements refer to emotional attitudes–not states of affairs or things–so can’t be true or false.  

Despite this, Mackie–contrary to Ayer–says value statements can be true or false even if there are no objective values!  I know what you’re thinking…how does that work?  And how do magnets work?  To support his position he says evaluations are made all the time in relation to agreed and assumed standards. 

For instance, consider a beauty competition or figure skating competition: judges make evaluations based on standards or qualities that are particular to the contest.  The judges evaluate each competitor in relation to the predetermined standards of the competition.  The degree to which a competitor meets the standards will be an objective matter.  That is, “contestant x meets the criteria of gracefulness” can be subject to evaluation in terms of truth or falsity.  Comparative evaluations like “competitor x was more graceful than competitor y” will also be subject to truth/falsity considerations.  

The main point here is that you can have objective judgements even when those judgment are in respect to subjective standards.  Of course, there is also subjective interpretation of what the standards mean, but it is still possible to make objective judgments based on subjective standards.  If your head is spinning, here’s an example to illustrate.  

Consider the value judgments of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’.  If someone is convicted of a crime even though the court knows he is innocent, we make the objective statement that such an event would be unjust.  Our standard of what constitutes injustice is subjective–we define it into existence; it is a case like the one in the example.  But our judgment about whether our subjectively defined standard has been obtained in a particular instance (like in the example) is objective.

Aarg!  I don’t like that example, let me try another to make it clearer.  Suppose you enter a 100 meter race.  You finish the race 1st but the judges award the prize to the 3rd place finisher.  Now, the standard to determine what constitutes winning was set prior to the race; but it was subjective.  It could have been whoever runs 101 meters fastest, 102 meters fastest, 103 meters; or who finishes 2nd, whoever finishes 3rd…you get the point.  The race could have been judged by many standards.  There is nothing objective/special about about the standards.

The standard by which the contestants would be judged was totally subjective.  But, determining whether a contestant meets that predetermined subjective standard is objective.  So, because you met the predetermined subjective standard of judgement but were denied your just deserts, we can objectively call this situation ‘unjust.  Whew! That was complicated.  I should have just started with that example.

So, what’s Mackie’s next move?  He says something to the effect that, sure, we can make objective statements about whether something is just, but simply saying something is just or unjust still leaves open the question whether there is an objective requirement to do what is just and refrain from what is unjust.”  All we have learned is that we can say something is just or unjust.  But this has nothing to do with whether there is an objective obligation to do one or the other.  All we’ve accomplished is to say that a given act or event is just/unjust. 

We could reply to Mackie that what compels us to prefer what is just over what is unjust is that justice is desirable.  The problem with this answer is that while it may be true that justice is desirable, the fact that we desire something has no relation to its objective existence.  If I could desire things into existence, it would be a wonderful world indeed! A herd of unicorns for me!

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