J. L. Mackie: A Moral Subjectivist and His Magical System

J. L. Mackie was an Australian philosopher.  He was astute enough to realize that there are no such things as objective good and evil.  In fact, the very first sentence of his Ethics:  Inventing Right and Wrong consists of the bald statement,

There are no objective moral values.

A couple of paragraphs later he elaborates as follows:

The claim that values are not objective, are not part of the fabric of the world, is meant to include not only moral goodness, which might be most naturally equated with moral value, but also other things that could be more loosely called moral values or disvalues – rightness and wrongness, duty obligation, an action’s being rotten and contemptible, and so on.

In the next four chapters of his book, Mackie elaborates on this theme and its implications.  At the beginning of chapter 5 he claims to have demonstrated that,

…no substantive moral conclusions or serious constraints on moral views can be derived from either the meanings of moral terms or the logic of moral discourse.

Perhaps, but at this point Mackie has climbed quite a ways up the scaffolding he was busy building in the first four chapters.  Like so many “subjective moralists” before him, he now makes the mistake of looking down.  He suffers an attack of vertigo, based on the realization that if he climbs much higher, he will be forced to admit that all the tomes of moral philosophy he has spent a lifetime reading, the very basis of his claims to be an “expert,” are actually irrelevant to the subject he claims to be an expert about, other than as historical curiosities.  As we read on, he begins carefully climbing back down.  In the following passage we find him taking his first tentative steps in reverse:

What tasks then remain for moral philosophy?  One could study the moral views and beliefs of our own society or others, perhaps through time, taking as one’s subject what is summed up in Westermarck’s title, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  But this perhaps belongs rather to anthropology and sociology.  More congenial to philosophers and more amenable to philosophical methods would be the attempt systematically to describe our own moral consciousness or some part of it, such as our “sense of justice,” to find some set of principles which were themselves fairly acceptable to us and with which, along with their practical consequences and applications, our “intuitive” (but really subjective) detailed moral judgements would be in “reflective equilibrium.”

Mackie should have read Westermarck more carefully.  He’s the only one I know of other than Darwin himself who not only realized the subjective nature of moral judgements, but was also aware of the implications of the fact that morality is a manifestation of emotions that exist as a result of natural selection.  Mackie paid lip service to Darwin, but clearly didn’t understand the process of natural selection.  Nothing evolves to serve a purpose, or to perform a task.  Moral emotions evolved because they happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce at a particular point in time.  As we read on, it becomes clear that what Mackie is saying in the above passage is that the job of the moral philosopher is to discover this nonexistent task, and then concoct a moral system designed to accomplish the task.  As he puts it,

At least we can look at the matter in another way.  Morality is not to be discovered, but to be made:  we have to decide what moral views to adopt, what moral stands to take.

Let’s consider what Mackie is saying here if morality really is a manifestation of evolved behavioral predispositions.  In that case it must be a manifestation of emotions, so what Mackie is saying is that we have to manipulate emotions.  Apparently he assumes they are so malleable they can be manipulated at will to make them conform to any “moral stand.”  What, however, would be the point of taking this, that, or the other “moral stand?”  Mackie explains,

In the narrow sense, a morality is a system of a particular sort of constraints on conduct – ones whose central task is to protect the interests of persons other than the agent and which present themselves to an agent as checks on his natural inclinations or spontaneous tendencies to act.

A bit later on he quotes another moral philosopher, G. J. Warnock, as follows:

…we shall understand (morality) better if we ask what it is for, what is the object of morality.  Morality is a species of evaluation, a kind of appraisal of human conduct; this must, he (Warnock) suggests, have some distinctive point, there must be something that it is supposed to bring about… The function of morality is primarily to counteract this limitation of men’s sympathies.  We can decide what the content of morality must be by inquiring how this can best be done.

According to Mackie, these comments, evoking as they do “tasks,” and “purposes” and “functions” of a form of evolved behavior, and thereby flying in the face of everything Darwin taught about natural selection, are “…a useful approach.”  In fact, they are the foundation of sand upon which Mackie will later erect an elaborate moral system.  All Mackie is really suggesting is that we manipulate some emotions in order to satisfy another emotion.  Apparently the moral itch he wants to scratch is the “limitation of men’s sympathies.”  However, this particular moral itch has no more objective legitimacy or external authority than the desire to hang a thief, or take vengeance on an enemy, or satisfy any other whim one could suggest.  This fundamental error is made by every moral subjectivist, moral nihilist, or moral relativist I am aware of except for Westermarck and Darwin himself.  Herbert Spencer, who may have been wrong about many things, but was an original thinker for all that, exposed the error very nicely in the case of utilitarianism in his Social Statics (pp. 33-35), more than a century and a half ago.  It comes in the form of a dialog, closing with the following:

Wherefore, if reduced to its simplest form, your doctrine turns out to be the assertion, that all men have equal claims to happiness; or applying it personally – that you have as good a right to happiness as I have.

No doubt I have.

And pray, sir, who told you that you have as good a right to happiness as I have?

Who told me?  I am sure of it; I know it; I feel it; I…

Nay, nay, that will not do.  Give me your authority.  Tell you who told you this – how you got at it – whence you derived it.

Whereupon, after some shuffling, our petitioner is forced to confess, that he has no other authority than his own feeling – that he has simply an innate perception of the fact; or, in other words, that “his moral sense tells him so.”

So much for Mackie’s “useful approach.”  In fact, it is nothing but the expression of an emotional whim, and is similar in that regard to all the other ultimate goods that ever tickled the fancy of moral philosophers.  In spite of that he uses the remainder of the book to start tacking together yet another moral system, complete with hairsplitting distinctions between alternative “oughts” that would gladden the hearts of pettifogging lawyers and quibbling theologians alike.  In the end his “subjective” morality is anything but that.  It has now become a tool that is to be “made” to perform a “function,” and this “function” is to promote the “higher goal” of “protecting the interests of persons other than the agent,” a goal which is not only unrelated to the reasons that morality evolved to begin with, but has now, for all practical purposes, been transmogrified into an objective good.

Why does it matter?  Why not just let Mackie and the rest of the “experts on ethics” continue to play in their sandboxes?  In my opinion, because we can no longer afford to blindly respond to the emotions that give rise to morality as if they were still operating in the environment in which they evolved.  The environment is radically different now, and the games we are playing with moral emotions are becoming increasingly dangerous.  The emotions aren’t going anywhere.  We are profoundly moral beings, and simply suppressing our moral emotions is not an option.  I personally would prefer that we find a way to accommodate them that doesn’t involve the moral blackmail, bullying, and pious posing that are currently the preferred methods of adjusting our differences over what our moral emotions are trying to tell us.  However, we can only do that if we understand what morality really is, and how and why it evolved.  The invention of yet another moral “system” is not the way to gain that understanding.


Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

8 thoughts on “J. L. Mackie: A Moral Subjectivist and His Magical System”

  1. There is a strong academic stream in Australian Univeristies re this type of work.
    Mackie was a student of Anderson a Scottish academic who came to Aus.
    Anderson lectured both Mackie and another interesting thinker, Armstrong. Armstrong was considered a leading philosopher of the 20th C by some and a great and prolific writer on Materialism /physicalism.
    An interesting aside, Armstrong contributed to “Quadrant’, a conservative academic journal in Australia which continues to this day. In an era of concern over foreign interference its interesting to note that much of its seed funding came from the CIA. Quadrant was initially aimed at a academic debate and trying to win over people by the weight of its logic and clarity. Sadly even its supporters lament that it has become a shouting hall for some.
    On a micro level I know a women who gained a PhD in Psychology at ANU (Australian National University) and was there at the time when Anderson and Armstrong were in attendance. Apparently she said to the great Anderson that Plato was a joke. He commented that if she was his student he would have failed her as a matter of principle. She was a contemporary of Germanic Greer, whom she calls Germs. Sometimes its a small world.
    Have you heard of these academics? I’m tempted to acquire some of their work.

  2. I must admit I haven’t read Anderson or Armstrong. Armstrong’s career reminds me of James Burnham’s, although Burnham became more conservative in the end.

    I was unfamiliar with the Quadrant’s background. It’s my “go to” journal to keep an eye on what conservatives in Australia are thinking. I occasionally read the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC News for the other end of the ideological spectrum, and also read Quillette and Tim Blair. If you can recommend any other good sites, let me know.

  3. The mass media right, for what they are worth, seem to be a owned by of your countryman, my ex countryman, Mr Rupert Murdoch, the Institute of Pubilc Affairs and a few likely billionaires.. They seem to march in lock step on most issues and they argue sides rather than explore more intellectual or scientifically driven views.
    This is across the spectrum and seems to be a malaise of our public discourse. An example of this is the current Royal Commission into the historic problems in regards institutions and child sex abuse. The afore mentioned commentators/journalists of the ‘right’ (Andrew Bolt, Paul Kelly, Gerard Henderson, Miranda Divine etc ) have all come out attacking the Victorian Police for having the nerve to charge Mr George Pell, (3rd in charge in the Vatican) with historic Child Sex abuse accusations/claims.
    You have shown over and again the negative aspects of group behaviour, this clustering of ideas and the ingroup is of no surprise. What it does for me however is to lower the credibility of all their other arguments. Personally I’m not interested in cheer squads for the powerful, I’m not one.
    Non of us are immune to mistakes, Tinbergen averreached re Autism, Ardrey was wrong re the next Ice Age and the positives of Global Warming., One of the things I admire so much re Ardrey was his ability to be nimble, to change his opinion re issues. He was indeed a group of one.
    Back on topic,. The ‘intellectual Right’, in the Australian context, always ride with the Church. I find it hard to comprehend that they are devout, do you think I’m missing something?
    The same and worse can, of course, be levelled at the left in Aust, you know the patterns there!

  4. That’s another thing I admire about Ardrey as well. He never pretended to infallibility. When he was wrong he was quick to admit it, often from one book to the next.

    It’s true that the Right is mostly devout, or at least pretends to be. There are notable exceptions, though, as well as some secular leftists drifting right as they react against what they call the “regressive Left,” or sometimes “postmodernism.” When you see apparently sober, intelligent, capable people who to all appearances actually believe such palpable nonsense, you have to keep in mind that you belong to the same species. It encourages you to challenge your own beliefs more aggressively.

  5. Well said, if I can indulge a few thoughts.
    One of the great advantages of my self imposed exile is that I have no impediment in looking at each issue as clearly as I can without any worry of censure of any group. This leads to great freedom and as I’ve crossed the ideological boundaries on many issues there always appears an unconscious warning that I’m crossing the line. Without a group this is no longer relevant and I find these unconscious warning most fascinating.
    There is another great advantage of being ‘outgroup’; when looking at the writings of many who I admire its interesting to find where I disagree,.
    A great example where my ‘free’ thoughts contradict with those who I admire most is in regard the materialist/physicalist divide. Both A O Wilson and the great Lorenz make almost identical statements. “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. (I have the reference info if your curious) Now this always struck me as difficult, it lends itself as Lorenz himself state, to an ‘almost mystical’ interpretation. How can there be more, how can the sum of the parts be greater than the whole? I’ve come to the conclusion that this is only possible if our understanding, or the ability to comprehend the original parts is lacking. Both the examples, Lorenz with an electrical conductor and Wilson with the ‘Ants nest’ can be answered as such.
    The Wilson example with the leaf cutter ant was clarified for me by that great work of Morias. Now Morias saw things, I believe, precisely because he was an outsider, a group of one.
    I’m convinced Morias was/is not more known as few could actually grasp what he meant, Ardrey knew!

  6. Back to sources of information,. I’ve taken to watching Ron Paul, could I ask what you think of his analysis and if there were any other commentators on geopolitics you recommend?

  7. Of course, my opinion of any politician is only a reflection of my personal goals and priorities. I like Paul’s support for borders and the enforcement of our immigration laws, his opposition to most of our military actions in the Middle East, and his libertarian philosophy in general. I don’t support his pro-life stance or his favorable attitude towards the possibility of secession. No doubt the fundamental philosophy on which his world view is based is different from mine, and the same goes for every other politician I know of.

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