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J.L. Mackie: The Subjectivity of Values

December 11th, 2007


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The following is a summary and critique of J. L. Mackie’s “The Subjectivity of Values,” an absolute MUST-READ for anyone interested in ethics. As the professor who graded the original version of this adequately pointed out, I addressed the Mackie’s relativity argument but not so much the queerness argument.

In “The Subjectivity of Values,” a chapter in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, J. L. Mackie develops his theory of “moral scepticism. ” In the first sentence, he states his thesis plainly: “there are no objective values. ” He goes on to fully define his position, by clarifying the sense in which he means it: that there do not exist in the world any such values. Though Mackie’s moral scepticism is a strong explanation for the failure of theories which posit values that are intrinsic features of the universe, such theories do not account for all theories which hold objective values; in short, not all objective theories are of the kind that Mackie describes and critiques. –more–>Initial Discussion

Mackie spends the first portion of the chapter emphasizing a critical set of distinctions to understand his argument: namely, that his theory is not a first-order (normative) form of subjectivism or scepticism, but a second-order (metaethically descriptive) one. For example, his position is not one of a moral skeptic who would argue that we ought to reject all conventional moral judgments (and thus make a positive, first-order statement about morality). Likewise, he is sure to distinguish between other second-order theses and his own. Subjectivist theories such as emotivism attempt to provide an explanation for what constitutes moral speech. An emotivist would argue that all moral speech is merely an instance of the speaker expressing his own attitude toward the subject (“stealing is wrong” means “boo for stealing! ”) In contrast, Mackie is simply describing the nature of normative statements and their respective ontological projections (or lack thereof). “Moral scepticism” is concerned with saying what does not exist, as opposed to what does; it is a negative, as opposed to a positive, doctrine.

Mackie does hold that there are clear factual descriptions of acts which we commonly ascribe to moral actions: “the present issue is with regard to the objectivity specifically of value, not with regard to the objectivity of those natural, factual differences on the basis of which differing values are assigned. ” In other words, kindness and cruelty can be described in totally non-normative terms; they simply are different classes of behavior to which moral values are commonly attached. However, value statements like “killing is wrong” are not propositional (true or false) like “three plus seven is ten” or “the earth is flat. ” The only exception is when there is an agreed upon standard of value (in a sense, an implicit transformation of a hypothetical imperative) for the subject of such a statement. For example, if it were agreed that a good ethics class is one which has a lecture on subjectivism and Hauptli’s ethics class did not have one, then the statement “Hauptli’s ethics class is good” has a truth-value (false). Morality can thus be derived from standards of evaluation, but Mackie argues that appealing to a standard of evaluation simply shifts the question posed by his scepticism to the standard.

The Arguments from Relativity and Queerness

After his introductory discussion, Mackie’s theory branches into two primary sections: the argument from relativity, and the argument from queerness. The argument from relativity begins from a point about the obvious historical variations in the content of moral beliefs across groups, classes, and societies. Of course, the presence of disagreement does not disprove the existence of objective value, just as disagreement does not disprove objective scientific facts.

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