Monday, December 28, 2015

J.L. Mackie's Error Theory Interpreted

In my return to academic philosophy, I have discovered that there is a new anthology of writings on J.L. Mackie’s “error theory”.

Joyce, Richard and Kirchin, Simon (eds.), A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory (Philosophical Studies Series, Book 114), 2009.

I find it interesting to note that people are still misinterpreting Mackie.

The standard interpretation of Mackie has him saying the following:

(P1) All moral claims attribute a property of objective, intrinsic prescriptivity to its objects of evaluation.
(P2) Objective intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist.
(C) Therefore, all moral claims are false.

All moral claims. “Rape is wrong”, “Slavery is wrong”, “You shouldn’t round up a whole group of people and kill them off”, “You should not kidnap a child and skin it alive while soaking it in a tub of salt water.” All of these statements are false.

This is exactly what Mackie says in the first three chapters of his book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.

I have some objections to premise (P1) in this argument. However, I will allow that if (P1) is true, then the rest follows. Furthermore, I would argue that whether or not P1 is true is not particularly important. There is no reason to pour a lot of effort into deciding that particular issue.

This is what one gets if one reads the first three chapters of Mackie’s book. And, ironically, the editors of this new anthology actually comment that “few readers explore beyond Chapter 3”.

Yet, it is beyond Chapter 3 where Mackie wrote:
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).
 These claims invite us to draw the following analogy.

(P1) All claims in physics attribute to the smallest bits of gold, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and any other element that it is without parts.
(P2) The smallest bits of an element has parts – they are made up of neutrons, protons, and electrons.
(C) Therefore, all physics claims about the smallest pieces of an element are false.

Why is this the case?

It is because the word “atom” literally means – or literally meant – “without parts”. “A-tom” meant “without parts” the same way that “a-theist” meant “without religion”.

By calling the smallest bits of gold, oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen “atoms”, physicists were saying that they were “without parts”. But they did have parts. Therefore, all claims about atoms were false.

Yet, this did not end all talk of atoms.

So, the argument seems to be, “Why can’t we do the same with respect to morality? Why can’t we just drop this claim of intrinsic prescriptivity – the same way that physicists dropped the claim of ‘without parts’ – and go from there?

My interpretation of Mackie is that this is exactly what he did. He dropped the claim of intrinsic prescriptivity from moral terms and went on to show that morality would look like if it did not include this error.

What it would look like is a lot like the morality that I discuss in this blog. I assert that there is no such thing as “objective, intrinsic prescriptivity,” but that there are moral facts. Those moral facts relate malleable desires to other desires.

I do not think that “objective, intrinsic prescriptivity” is built into the meaning of moral terms. I believe that many people falsely believe that some morality is to be understood in terms of intrinsic prescriptivity – but they have not built it into the meaning of the terms.

In other words, I hold that Mackie’s (P1) is false.

But here is where I say that this is not important. We can hold that Mackie’s (P1) is true, then drop intrinsic prescriptivity from the meaning of moral terms, and end up evaluating desires according to the strength and number of their connections to other desires. Or we can hold that morality is about the strength and number of connections between malleable desires and other desire to start with. Both options will get us to the same place. Both options will allow us to dismiss as false any claim that tries attributes intrinsic prescriptivity to objects of evaluation. Either way, Mackie’s (P1) becomes little more than an academic curiosity.

I am going to be reading through this anthology to see what they say about Mackie’s ethics. However, at first glance, this interpretation does not yet seem to be a part of the popular discussion. Possibly because, as the editors of this anthology report, few people explore beyond Chapter 3. 

1 comment:

Secular Outpost said...

I think part of the problem with the interpretation and misinterpretation of Mackie's error theory has to do with the fact that Mackie never explicitly stated the logical formulation of his argument. I offered my own tentative analysis of his argument's structure a year ago (see here). Regardless of whether my interpretation is correct, however, in my opinion Mackie could have prevented a lot of confusion by being more explicit about his argument.