Some Of Our Books


« Final Ethics retrospective: discussion with Christine Korsgaard and Tamar Schapiro | Main | New Videos on Character and Virtue »

August 10, 2015


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

So, one thing Mackie says that might cause trouble for your analysis is that claims like "lynching is evil" presuppose the existence of objective values. Even if we attributed the distinction you articulate between first-order and meta ethical questions to Mackie (which I think uncharitable), we could say that he's making a compound metaethical and first-order metaphysical claim---ethical claims presuppose that there are objective values (metaethical) and there are no such entities (first-order metaphysical). I see no first order ethical claim anywhere in this analysis of Mackie's error theory.

(Mackie claims that cases of presupposition failure result in falsity. This is sloppy, but we can be charitable.)

Many thanks for this comment. As far as I can see, you are agreeing with my point. Mackie’s position is that there are no objective values. My point is that this position is not a metaethical view on the understanding of metaethics that was standard in the middle decades of the 20th century. And in labeling the view a first-order metaphysical claim you are agreeing with this point. You are also disagreeing with Mackie. He characterizes his position as second-order moral skepticism.

Mackie does say that moral judgments make a claim to objectivity, which is conventionally built into the meaning of moral terms. This remark, I take it, is the meta-ethical view you are attributing to him. As such, it implies that Mackie rejects noncognitivist views. In this respect, his view is indistinguishable from that of the mid-twentieth century intuitionists and naturalists. That is the extent of his meta-ethics if his moral skepticism is a thesis of normative ethics and not metaethics. To attribute a compound claim to him, one component of which is metaethical and the other is normative, is like saying that W.D. Ross has a compound view, whose components are that ‘prima facie rightness’ is indefinable and that there are at least six basic prima facie duties. It’s not illuminating.

The distinction I am taking Mackie to mean by his distinction between first order and second order views is the distinction between normative ethics and metaethics as it was understood before Mackie published his book. If a different interpretation of Mackie’s distinction between first order and second order views would be more charitable to Mackie, I’d be interested to know what it is. Any interpretation of his distinction, however, must meet the two conditions that he attributes to it. First, the distinction must represent first order views as “completely independent” of second order views, and second, the distinction must have been “well-known and generally recognized” when Mackie punished his book.

You might find Randall Collins' essay 'Reflexivity and Social Embeddedness in the History of Ethical Philosophies.' (In Kusch (ed) The Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge. pp. 155–179) an interesting read. It concerns the emergence of normative or applied ethics and would be an interesting counter point to the advent of the term 'meta-ethics.'

Consider this line of response on Mackie's behalf: suppose I theorize about descriptions of unicorns, and I say that they are true just when they correctly represent unicorns as being the way that they actually are. Then I deny that there could ever be unicorns. Am I committed to the *falsity* of the sentence "unicorns have long, twirly horns"? It doesn't quite seem like it, any more than Strawson has to say that "the King of France is Bald" is false. I can hold the representational theory of truth w.r.t. claims about unicorns without committing myself to the falsity of that sentence. Mackie might be OK.

However, there is a disanalogy which makes me think this won't work. The unicorn is a subject to which I am applying some predicate. But in your moral sentence, the subject is lynching, and the predicate is "evil". Mackie is not denying that lynchings occur, so he can't be talking about *that* kind of presupposition-failure. Rather, it's more like someone who shows that there can be no such thing as baldness in the world. What must *they* say about "X is bald"? Here, it looks a lot more like the sentence has to be straightforwardly false: there are all kinds of heads, none of them are bald, so if you say that someone is bald, you're saying something false. Hmmm.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, John!

"To attribute a compound claim to him, one component of which is metaethical and the other is normative..."

There's no normative claim in the analysis I suggested. There's a non-normative metaphysical claim and a non-normative semantic claim. That there are no objective values, as Mackie understands it, is not normative. And the presupposition claim means that both "murder is wrong" and "murder is not wrong" both "crash" (again, Mackie says that they're false, but we shouldn't take this seriously. failed presuppositions aren't false.) Thats why it's important it's a presupposition, not an entailment or a component of the claim...presuppositions are preserved under negation.

Thanks for the rejoinder. Somebody who asserts that there are no moral duties—Hobbes, for instance, in his account of human beings in their natural condition (Leviathan, ch. 13)—is asserting a normative proposition. He or she is implying that no act is ever morally wrong. I don’t know what it would mean to say that this is a metaphysical assertion but not a normative one. The same goes for the proposition that there are no objective values. It implies that nothing is objectively good. Why deny this is a normative proposition? It’s like denying that the proposition there is no God is a theological proposition.

Mackie distinguishes first order moral skepticism from second order moral skepticism. The latter is the name he gives his position. Of the former he says that it is the rejection of all moral judgments. Whether one rejects all of them because they are all false or because they all “crash” owing to the falsity of a proposition they presuppose, one is still rejecting all moral judgments. This is a first order moral view on Mackie’s own description of it, and it is the view he is trying to avoid. So the idea that if there are no objective values, ‘Lynching is evil’ expresses neither a true nor a false proposition but rather one that is out of place because what it presupposes is false is of no help to Mackie.

Mackie wants to avoid first order moral skepticism because he accepts some moral judgments. He has moral opinions. He thinks that by identifying the moral skepticism he holds as a second order moral view, he can be a moral skeptic, i.e., deny the objectivity of values, without having to give up his moral opinions or adopt some noncognitivist account of ethical language. My point is that he can’t do this, that his exposition of such a position is inescapably incoherent.

I think when Mackie says his skepticism is independent of any first order view, he means that one who subscribes to it is free to continue valuing things just as always. This is supposed to be in contrast to, say, Nietzsche, whose skepticism (as Mackie understands it) leads to a particular evaluative or normative stance. Mackie values things much in the way a (middle class Anglo academic) moral realist does, only he doesn't think that in doing so he is responding correctly to any demand made by the way things are.

I have a couple of questions. The first is about the presupposition-failure interpretation of Mackie's error theory. I like this interpretation. My question, for Jack, is: where does Mackie say that assertions whose presuppositions fail are false?

My second question, for John, is: what is a normative proposition? There is no commonsense, pre-theoretic notion of a normative proposition, since 'normative proposition' is a philosopher's term of art. I don't see how we can decide what things are normative propositions until we have a fairly specific account of what a normative proposition is. In particular, I have no pre-theoretic view about whether the proposition that nothing is objectively good is a normative proposition. I can think of some theoretically laden accounts, some of which I like better than others, but it seems to me to be badly question-begging to start with any of them.

Thanks, Jamie, for your intervention. When I used the term ‘normative proposition’, I was echoing Jack Brooks’s term ‘normative claim’ in his statement that there was no normative claim in his suggested analysis. In the context of our exchange I took Jack to be saying that there was no proposition of normative ethics in his analysis. This way of taking his statement reflects my proceeding on the assumption that Mackie understood his distinction between first order moral views and second order moral views to be what Anglo-American philosophers at the time took as the distinction between normative ethics and metaethics. So my use of ‘normative proposition’ in this context is shorthand for proposition of normative ethics.

Accordingly, when I asked why deny that the proposition that nothing is objectively good is a normative proposition, what I meant was why deny that this proposition is a proposition of normative ethics. Because I think the proposition that pleasure is objectively good is a proposition of normative ethics and can’t imagine anyone’s seriously denying this and because I can’t see any reason to exclude other propositions whose predicate is ‘is objectively good’ from being propositions of normative ethics, I think it’s equally obvious that the proposition nothing is objectively good is a proposition of normative ethics. The former is a proposition that hedonists affirm. The latter is a proposition that nihilists affirm. And hedonism and nihilism are two views in normative ethics.

I hope this is a sufficient answer to your question. I assume you’re not asking what I think normative ethics is or how one determines its propositions but rather are interested in how I would distinguish normative propositions from nonnormative ones generally. Unfortunately, I too have no good answer to that question.

Let me try to respond to Jamie's question for Jack: I think there is no place where Mackie says that assertions whose presuppositions fail are all false. He comes close to saying so in Ethics (p. 35) but does not clearly say so. More generally, did Mackie take moral claims to be uniformly truth valueless (due to presupposition falure) or uniformly false? As far as I know and understand, both interpretations are compatible with what he said in Ethics and elsewhere. (Btw, Howard Sobel defended the "no truth value" interpretation of Mackie.)

Setting exegetical matters aside, I don't like the "no truth value" view as a version of moral error theory as much as Jack and Jamie seem to do. The reason is that according to moral error theory, utterances of sentences like "Torture is wrong" predicate a non-existent or uninstantiated property to an object (e.g. an act type or token). In general, I take such claims to be false. For example, the claim that John is a witch is false, not neither true nor false. The claim that John is not a witch is true. Similarly for the claim that tortue is wrong and the claim that torture is not wrong, according to error theory.

I agree that there is some intuitive appeal in the view that the claim that the present King of France is bald is neither true nor false. The claim that the present King of France is not bald seems just as untrue. In contrast, the claim that torture is not wrong seems from the perspective of moral error theorists to be true, since according them, nothing has the property of being wrong.

This leads to some other problems that I believe can be solved. I discuss them in my book on moral error theory (OUP 2014, pp. 11-15) and in my chapter on error theory in the forthcoming Routledge Handbook on Metaethics. (Please excuse the self-promotion!)

Jamie, I agree about the interpretation of Mackie on first order moralizing/valuing. About presupposition and falsity: having gone back and looked, I'm with Jonas. I overstated my interpretation above. What Mackie says in Ethics could be taken both ways, though he definitely says that objectivity is a presupposition of first order moral claims and that this presupposition is false:

"The assertion that there are objective values or intrinsically prescriptive entities or features of some kind. which ordinary moral judgements presuppose, is, I hold.
not meaningless but false." (Ethics, p 40, top)

As for whether it's better to go truth-valueless or false, I think this depends on independent views about semantics. I often think certain claims are meaningless or not true or false that others think are simply false. But that's independent of John's really stimulating post, so I'll not talk about it here. Jonas, I'm looking forward to seeing your chapter!

Aha. Funny – the reason I asked, Jack, is that I once said the same thing (during a question session at SPAWN, I think), and Jonas corrected me then.


according to moral error theory, utterances of sentences like "Torture is wrong" predicate a non-existent or uninstantiated property to an object (e.g. an act type or token). In general, I take such claims to be false.

Take Pekka Väyrynen’s view of lewdness. Pekka might have an error theory of lewdness, but he does not think that “Madonna’s show was lewd” predicates a non-existent or uninstantiated property to the show, and according to his view the statement isn’t false.
Of course, Pekka’s view is not a presupposition view, and there are other important disanalogies between his view of thick terms and Mackie’s view of moral terms, but the point is that you can be a kind of error theorist and reject a chunk of language as based on a mistake without being committed to the conclusion that everything said with that language is false.

John, I wonder if “objectively good”, for Mackie, is a conjunctive predicate. Maybe it conjoins a straightforwardly normative predicate with a non-normative, metaphysical one. In that case, asserting of something that it is “objectively good” would assert a normative claim, but then denying this same claim would not be itself a normative claim. (Compare: “No, the Pope is not both virtuous and divinely inspired.”)

Jamie, thanks for the follow up. Mackie holds that propositions of normative ethics include “a claim to objectivity” and this claim is part of the meaning of moral terms. As I interpret him, this view entails that moral terms like ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ denote objective properties as a matter of ordinary English. Consequently, the phrase ‘objectively good’ is not, on his view, a conjunctive predicate. It’s a redundancy. That is, one can’t separate the property of being objective from that of being good, as one can separate the property of being virtuous from that of being divinely inspired.

Maybe 'good' (in its moral use) has 'objective' as a presupposition.

Then 'objectively good' would seem redundant, but would make a different contribution to content and force from ‘good’. It would be like 'inappropriately lewd' (according to the presuppositional theory of the evaluative force of thick terms).

That would be one way of having objectivity as a part of the meaning of ‘good’, without entailing that the negation of ‘objectively good’ is just the negation of ‘good’.

Jamie: I don't know Pekka's view of lewdness well enough, but I agree with what you say, I think. In my book I discuss "moderate" versions of moral error theory according to which moral thought involve systematic errors without rendering moral judgements unformly false (or truth valueless). I tentatively attribute a version of such a view to Hume.

John: Mackie's general definition of 'good' is 'such as to satisfy requirements (etc.) of the kind in question' (Ethics, p. 55). These requirements can be objective, as in the case of moral evaluations, or subjective, as in cases of evaluations of sheepdogs or apples.

Jamie, do you think Mackie would want to say the same thing about ‘objectively elliptical’ or ‘objectively finite’? I take him to hold that primary properties are objective properties and that, say, astronomical judgments such as that the orbit of Venus around the Sun is elliptical make a claim to objectivity. But I don’t see any reason to interpret him as holding, e.g., that the judgment that Venus’s orbit is elliptical presupposes the proposition that Venus’s orbit is objective (or is characterized by an objective property). He can just say that the phrase ‘objectively elliptical’ is a redundancy. And the same would then have to be true of ‘objectively good’.

Jonas, thanks for this observation. I have been assuming in our discussion of the phrase ‘objectively good’ that ‘good’ occurs as a moral term (i.e. that we’ve been discussing the phrase, as Jamie puts it, in its moral use). When it occurs as a moral term, the phrase is a redundancy on Mackie’s view. If in using the phrase one wants to avoid leaving one’s readers uncertain about whether one is using it generally or as a moral term, one can add the modifier ‘morally’. In that case one creates the phrase ‘objectively morally good’ and then the redundancy, on Mackie’s view, is plain.

Suppose someone had the view that shapes are not objective: maybe the view that the only shapes things ever have are dispositions to look certain ways from certain perspectives, or some such secondary quality view. Then the question would arise whether these properties are the ones people are talking about when they say "the orbit is elliptical". A reasonable answer would be, no, they are presupposing in their assertions that shapes are objective (i.e., primary) qualities of things in space.
Does that sound crazy? (I mean, I guess the view that shapes are secondary qualities is a bit crazy, but aside from that.)

I don’t think trying to come up with a view of shape as like a secondary quality can succeed. Shape is not tied to any one sense modality. We perceive shapes by sight and by touch. Presumably, there could be beings with sensory powers that human beings lack who could perceive shapes through those powers. Perhaps, bats are an example. Some such point is commonly made in distinguishing primary from secondary qualities. I take it to imply that no analysis of shape as the disposition of an object to look a certain way from a certain perspective could be correct and that expanding the analysis by describing the disposition disjunctively (i.e., the disposition to look a certain way… or to feel tactually a certain way … or to produce a certain sonar image…) would not yield a correct analysis. That shape cannot be reduced to a dispositional property is one way of understanding it as an objective property. And on this understanding of it as an objective property, to characterize Venus’s orbit as elliptical entails characterizing it as having an objective property. Of course, Mackie may not have this understanding of objective in mind when he says that moral judgments make a claim to objectivity. But it seems to me a plausible interpretation of him.

In "The subjectivity of values" (1977), Mackie states "[b]y contrast, what I am discussing is a second order view, a view about the status of moral values and the nature of moral valuing, about where and how they fit into the world". Shortly after, he offers the example of "[a] man ...hold[ing] strong moral views, and indeed ones whose content was thoroughly conventional, while believing that they were simply attitudes and policies with regard to conduct...". This sounds a bit looser than the definition of second order you suggest he is alluding to.

Mackie’s position, on the interpretation I am putting forward, is incoherent. He distinguishes first order from second order moral views. He holds that first order moral views are completely independent of second order moral views. The defining thesis of his view, second order moral skepticism, is that there are no objective values. But if there are no objective values, then the sentence ‘Lynching is evil’ expresses a false proposition. And to say that the proposition that lynching is evil is false is to hold a first order moral view. Hence, his second order moral view implies a first order moral view. In other words, he both holds that first order moral views are completely independent of second order moral views and accepts propositions that entail that they are not completely independent.

As far as I can see, nothing in the bits from the opening section of his book that you quote help to remove this incoherence. Specifically, they do not offer or even gesture toward an understanding of second order moral view on which denying that there are any objective values is consistent with being free to affirm or deny any first order moral view. To the contrary, denying that there are any objective values, understood as “a view about the status of moral values and the nature of moral valuing”, still commits one to affirming that the proposition that lynching is evil is false. Yet if first order moral views are completely independent of second order moral views, then one’s second order moral view must leave one free to affirm or deny any first order view. The only way to avoid this result is to give a noncognitivist account of first order ethical sentences, and Mackie rejects noncognitivism when he says that moral judgments make a claim to objectivity.

If we interpret his distinction between first order moral views and second order moral views to be the same as the older distinction between normative ethics and metaethics, more exactly, if we take Mackie to suppose that the two distinctions are the same, then we can see where he blunders. The thesis that there are no objective values is not a proposition of metaethics, on the older distinction between normative ethics and metaethics. I take it this interpretation is what you are referring to when you refer to the definition of second order I suggest he is alluding to. But I offer this interpretation as a way to diagnose Mackie’s blunder. The blunder stands regardless, unless there is a plausible interpretation of what Mackie means by second order moral view that removes it.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Ethics at PEA Soup

PPE at PEA Soup

Like PEA Soup

Search PEA Soup


  • Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in any given post reflect the opinion of only that individual who posted the particular entry or comment.