Philosophical Ethics: J.L. Mackie’s Error Theory And Jonathan Harrison’s Critique Thereof

In a series of posts this semester, I am going to blog all (or almost all) the lecture topics for the two Philosophical Ethics classes I am teaching this semester. Each of these posts will primarily explicate the reading or a theme that dominated class discussion in a way that should be accessible to novices (such as my students are). I will also offer some degree of analysis of the ideas considered and then pose suggested discussion questions. These posts will usually feature more speculation than argumentation from me as I try to stimulate your thinking rather than stake out my own positions. Some of my students will be responding to these short discussion primers in a private forum through the university. I’ve told the students they are free to discuss the blog post versions of these discussion primers as well, so they might show up here.  The text we are using and from which all citations will be taken is Ethical Theory: classical and contemporary readings, edited by Louis Pojman. Wadsworth: California, 2007). This post explores J.L. Mackie’s agreement with intuitionists that when using moral terms people mean to refer objectively to moral facts and his disagreement with them about whether such facts actually do exist.

J.L. Mackie draws an important distinction between two different questions often confused with each other.  The distinction is between what our moral judgments are actually about and what we think that our moral judgments are about.  Many moral realists think that our moral judgments are about “moral facts” of some sort and they also think that we think of our moral judgments as being about such “moral facts.”  Emotivists (like Ayer and Stevenson) think that there are no moral facts for our moralizing statements to be about and that we do not even intend to refer to moral facts when using moral terms but that we only ever intend to express our strong positive or negative feelings towards whatever we are calling “good” or “bad” or “right or “wrong.”  In other words, according to emotivists, there are neither moral facts nor attempts to express moral facts nor the belief that we are referring to moral facts.  Moral language expressively conveys our strong feelings and is only intended to do this, not to communicate any facts about the world which are independent of our attitudes.

Mackie’s position is that the moral realists are right that we intend to refer to moral facts when we use moral terms.  He thinks the emotivists are wrong that we intend to refer only to our feelings and to express them with forceful language.  He thinks that the emotivists are correct that there are no moral facts and that the moral realist is mistaken to think they exist.   So he agrees with the emotivists that our moral language is rooted in our attitudes towards different features of our experience, rather than in any objective moral facts about the world.  Yet, he disagrees with the emotivists’ view that all we think we are doing when using moral terms is expressing our feelings.  We think we are referring to objective moral facts.  In this way we are constantly in error.  Mackie’s position is called “error theory” and it is the view that we are systematically in error about what we refer to.  We think we refer to moral facts when we only refer to our moral feelings in actuality.

Mackie, following Anscombe, attributes our fundamental errors about morality to the history of ethics as rooted in now bygone systems of law.  He writes that “ethics is a system of law from which the legislator has been removed.” (pg. 507)  In past eras there were positive laws, laid down either by states or religious powers claiming divine authority, about which it could be said, “the fact is that the law says this (or that)” or that.  We have continued to talk about moral judgments as though they are facts about what “the law” says but there is no such moral “law” within nature making for moral “facts” within nature.  There are only our practices of making value judgments.

Another cause of our erroneous way of speaking about morality is our tendency to commit the “pathetic fallacy.”  The word pathos in Greek, means feeling.  By “pathetic fallacy” Mackie refers to our tendency to characterize objects by the feelings they provoke in us.  For example, instead of saying simply that I don’t like the taste of grapefruit I say that grapefruit is “gross.”  I turn my repulsion from grapefruits into a property of grapefruits, their “grossness” that I might erroneously say causes my revulsion.  There is no “grossness” in the grapefruit that causes my revulsion, there is only my revulsion to an actual property (or properties) of grapefruits, like their sourness or their flavor.  Similarly, when we call things or situations or people, etc. “bad” we are taking our aversion to them and attributing to them a property of “badness” that allegedly inheres in those situations or people and is itself responsible for our attitudes.

Jonathan Harrison raises challenges to Mackie which come from several distinct angles.  The first is that Mackie is mistaken to discuss moral facts as though they involve a special “realm” of strange entities of good and badness.  Harrison demonstrates this point by discussing the factual character of statements that one ought to make a certain move in chess.

Before explain Harrison’s analogy though, it first helps to make an important distinction in moral philosophy which Kant famously formulated as the difference between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives.  A hypothetical imperative is something one must do if one wants to achieve a particular end.  So, for example, if I want to make an omelet it is imperative that I break at least one egg.  I must do this if I want to make an omelet.  I need not do it if I do not want to make an omelet and there is likely no moral reason I will ever have to make an omelet but, nonetheless, if I want to do it I (or someone else at least) must break an egg.  A categorical imperative on the other hand is an imperative for all rational agents universally, regardless of their specific ends that they set for themselves.  A moral imperative would theoretically be a categorical imperative incumbent upon all rational agents regardless of their ends in life.  A hypothetical imperative is only an imperative for specific ends one may or may not have.

Harrison points out that the “ought” of a hypothetical imperative is clearly a fact.  It is a fact that if I want to make an omelet, I ought to break at least one egg for its yoke.  There is no strange realm of “facts” or “properties” which the egg has which is necessary to explain why I ought to break the egg.  All we need to know is that if my desire is to make an omelet this is what it factually takes to fulfill the desire and if I am to fulfill my desire as a matter of fact, I (or someone on my behalf) must/ought/should break an egg.  The question remains whether there are any moral oughts that bind all agents universally as moral oughts.  But that does not mean that the words ought, right, and good in the case of hypothetical imperatives about what one ought to do to make an omelet, how it is right to make an omelet, or what is a good way to make an omelet, are not fact statements or that they are statements about a mysterious realm of properties divorced from the natural world as we know it.

From there, Harrison challenges Mackie’s claim that he is not trying to say that moral statements are neither true nor false but meaningless since they are not about matters about which there is a true or false possibility.  Harrison thinks on the contrary that what Mackie is saying really amounts to saying that all moral statements are false.  Then Mackie contradicts his own insistence that moral judgments are all meaningless with respect to truth and falsity by arguing for various moral positions and contradicting his epistemology through his practice by implicitly ceding that truth and falsity is possible.

Harrison also distinguishes that even if we can not know for sure that any particular one of our moral propositions is true, we can still assert it.  He thinks that there is a difference between stating a proposition, “suicide is wrong” and insisting that it is true, “It is true that suicide is wrong.” Both sentences implicitly say that it is true suicide is wrong, but explicitly claiming it is true implies that I have some means of assuring that it in fact is true in the case that it would come into doubt.  Imagine I am talking to you and I repeat what I think is a scientific fact though I don’t remember exactly how I picked it up and, even if I did, I don’t have the scientific expertise to vouch for how it is known to be true.  If you were to contradict me and tell me I was wrong, I couldn’t come back to you with a firm statement that, “No, it is true that x.”   Even though when I made the scientific claim a moment ago, it was implicit that I took it to be true, I would not make the statement about its being true since that has the connotations that I am very confident about its truth when in fact I am not at all confident once you challenge me on it.

Harrison also stresses that insofar as we have arrangements of acting cooperatively and in mutual coordination, we must rely on each other not to take advantage of each other’s doing their part and not do our own in return.  Because of how this would undermine the very systems of cooperation which were naturally selected in our species because of the effective way in which they preserved us, we can consider our moral sentiments which guard and enforce these practices of pulling our weight in cooperative endeavors to have real force.  In this connection, he writes on pg. 513:

The fact that man has a sense of duty may be nature’s answer to practical problems like this.  But this does not mean that anyone has invented this solution.  It has come about, I dare say, as the result of a process of natural selection, but this does not mean that someone thought it up deliberately, any more than does the fact that the eye is another of nature’s solutions to a practical problem mean that someone invented the eye.

In this way, Harrison stresses that while we may write many of our own rules, it is most likely that no humans invented the practices of having moral rules as some deliberate effort to create morality to control others.  Mackie argues that the fact that there is no genuine right and wrong or good and bad in facts, we have the liberty to change what we call right and wrong or good and bad when our use of the words becomes outdated or ill fit for new problems or circumstances.  Harrison agrees we sometimes need to change our judgments about these things but argues we do not need to claim that these terms refer to nothing objective to make such necessary changes in how we use these terms.  He writes that not only can we change our moral codes when we believe in some sort of moral truth but we can actually explain that what we are doing is making them better, something Mackie cannot say.  Mackie wants to change these codes presumably as a judgment about what would be better but by denying any objectivity to the word he denies any justification for making such choices.  As Harrison points out, changes in our moral codes reflect either new information or changed circumstances that lead to judgments that the old ways of conceiving them were wrong and that they can be made more correct.  When Mackie calls all moral language erroneous he refuses such bases for explaining why the codes need to change since they are, on his conception, wrong as they are and wrong as they will be once changed.  They’re always just an error at bottom.

Harrison thinks Mackie may escape this problem if he concedes that there at least degrees of truth.   It is better if people make certain kinds of mistaken moral judgments than others.  But, as Harrison notes, this would mean that it were true that some moral judgments were better than others and Mackie requires that there is no truth about better and worse (any more than there is truth about good or bad, since better and worse are just degrees of good and bad).

Finally, on pg. 515 Harrison stresses that while humans may make rules for themselves, the facts about whether they are fair or useful or whether they ought to be followed are not also invented by humans:

And though men invent rules, they do not, and cannot invent such things as whether the rules ought to be obeyed.  Sometimes they ought to be obeyed, sometimes they ought not.  Whether  they ought to be obeyed or not will depend to a very large extent, if not entirely, upon whether or not they are fair and useful.  If they are fair and useful, men do not invent this fact, and if they ought to obey these rules for this reason, then this is not something they invent either.  Similarly, though men invent theories, they do not invent their truth:  though men invent new ways of doing things, they do not invent the success of these ways.  To emphasize the point, though the rules are invented, the truths to the effect that the rules ought to be obeyed, if they ought to be obeyed, are not.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Ling

    Just like to express my gratefulness that it helps me understanding better in Markie’s moral position. I’m a 1st year philosophy student and doing an essay on morality.
    Thanks agian for the above article which is so easy to understand compared to others (including my lecturer’s )

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

    No problem! Hope to see you around more often, Ling!

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  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Thanks for this; I keep hearing the term “moral error theory” bandied about and haven’t really quite grokked it until now. This made perfect sense.

    I really liked what you wrote here:

    Because of how this would undermine the very systems of cooperation which were naturally selected in our species because of the effective way in which they preserved us, we can consider our moral sentiments which guard and enforce these practices of pulling our weight in cooperative endeavors to have real force.

    Approaching the whole idea of objective moral grounding from a purely amateur layperson perspective, I’ve sort of approached a similar sentiment. Certainly I think it is difficult to deny that certain moral truths are objective within our species, i.e. given that we are humans and we know humans have certain natural traits and natural preferences, it is hard to argue for that basic moral imperatives are arbitrary within that context.

    I think I am almost willing to go one step further and assert that a more limited morality could be viewed as objective even beyond that context, if it turns out to be true that any naturally selected being capable of thinking of concepts such as morality must inherently have certain traits and preferences. For instance, I find it difficult to imagine how a species which did not value creativeness and inventiveness over wanton destruction could possibly develop the mental vocabulary to self-describe their preferences in a way that we could ever describe as a moral code.

    Anyway, I’ll read more before I spout on about this any further.


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