Tuesday, February 16, 2016

J.L. Mackie's Shmoral Realism

It has come to my attention that I have not posted my argument for holding that J.L. Mackie, in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, was defending "shmoral realism".

I would have sworn that I had posted this argument long ago, but I have not been able to find it. So, here it is - or, at least, the first half of it.

The term comes from Simon Blackburn who, in "Errors and the Phenomenology of Values" (in Morality and Objectivity, Ted Honderich (ed.), Routledge & Kegan Paul (1985)) reported that it seemed odd that Mackie would argue that there are no objective values, that all moral claims are false, and then go on to engage in the practice of moralizing as if there was nothing wrong.

According to Blackburn, Mackie should have isolated this error, developed a new practice free of this error (calling it "shmorality", to coin a term), and then go on to show how "shmorality" is better than our error-filled morality.

In reading Mackie, it seems to me that Mackie did exactly this.

Well, almost exactly.

Mackie did not invent a new term. Instead, he sought to reform the existing terms. To justify this move, he gave an example of reforming an old term for a new purpose, using the term "atom".

The word "atom" originally meant "without parts" - something that cannot be divided any further. By the 19th century, scientists were busy researching oxygen, hydrogen, lead, and gold atoms. However, it was then suggested that these smallest pieces of an element did, in fact, have parts. They were made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons.

**The fact that the word 'atom', as used in nineteenth-century physics, had as a part of its meaning 'indivisible particle of matter' did not in itself, even in the nineteenth century, compel anyone to believe that there are indivisible material particles. One could either refrain from using the term 'atom' in affirmative statement or, as physicists have subsequently done, use the term with other parts of its meaning only, dropping the requirement of indivisibility. (Mackie: p. 100).

Scientists could have preserved the original meaning of the term - asserting that these smallest bits of oxygen, hydrogen, and the like were not 'atoms'. However, what they decided to do instead was reform the term. They dropped 'indivisibility' from the meaning of the term, and continued to use it to refer to the smallest bits of oxygen, hydrogen, lead, and gold.

This is what Mackie tried to do to morality. He dropped 'intrinsic prescriptivity' from the meaning of the term, and he looked at what was left.

What was left after 'intrinsic prescriptivity' was removed was universalizability. Moral prescriptions are supposed to be universal.

Here, he distinguished three stages of universalizability. The two that concern us here are the second and third stage which, properly understood, describe the difference between 'morality' and 'shmorality' or, in Mackie's way of presenting things, the difference between error-filled morality and reformed error-free morality.

The second stage of universalizability universalizes across such things as race, gender, and economic status. However, the error of intrinsic prescriptivity results in it being the case that people do not universalize across interests. People take their interests to be signs of an intrinsic moral property - something that all properly functioning people should react to in the same way. Those who do not respond properly are condemned and otherwise put down.

In this second stage of universalization, we look for prescriptive maxims that we are prepared not only to apply to all persons (groups of persons, nations, and so on) alike as things are, but also to go on applying no matter how individuals change their mental and physical qualities and resources and social status. And we must allow not only for changes which may, as a matter of practical, causal, possibility come about, starting from where we are, but also for differences of condition and inversions of role that could not possibly occur, and which it may take a considerable effort even to imagine. (Mackie: p. 90)

However, once we realize that this intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist, we recognize that there is no justification for the inference that all people ought to react the same way to the same values. This leads to a third stage of universalizability, which not only universalizes across gender, race, and social status, but also across interests. At this state, individuals are no longer taking their sentiments as signs of an objective truth to be forced on others, but admit that different people have different interests grounded on their own subjective states.

In this third stage we are taking some account of all actual desires, tastes, preferences, ideals, and values, including ones which are radically different from and hostile to our own, and consequently taking some account of all the actual interests that anyone has, including those that arise from his having preferences and values that we do not share . . . We must . . . look not for principles which can be wholeheartedly endorsed from every point of view, but for ones which represent an acceptable compromise between the different actual points of view. (Mackie: p. 93).

At this third stage of morality . . . under the practice of shmorality, to borrow Blackburn's turn . . . the moral (shmoral) project is to seek the best compromise across a wide variety of interests.

This second sort of universalizability is linked with the fact . . . that moral judgments commonly include a claim of objectivity. The claim that some difference is objectively morally relevant in a certain context is not easy to reconcile with the admission that, while it appears relevant from one interested point of view, it does not appear relevant from the point of view of someone whose situation and qualities are different. By contrast, the claim to objectivity has no tendency to support the third stage of universalization. Quite the reverse. It is all too easy to believe that the objective validity of one's own ideals provides an overwhelmingly strong reason for taking no account at all ideals that conflict with them, or of interests associated with including rival ideals (Mackie: pp. 96-7).

This leaves open the question of whether "shmorality" - to borrow Blackburn's term - is real. That is a long and difficult question to answer in its own right. I would argue that it is, but I do not have the space to do so here.

For the purposes of this post, I simply wanted to demonstrate that Mackie did not think we were doomed to live forever in error-filled morality. This is no more true of us than it was true of scientists who discovered that what they had been calling "atoms" actually had parts. We gave the option to reform moral terms - to invent a new moral langauge - one that is free of error.

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