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The Subjectivity of Values – Notes on J.L Mackie

ET = extra thought

Moral scepticism - There are no objective values.

N.B. No one can deny that a cruel and a kind man behave in different ways, that is a “first order value” - a description. But is there a “second order value” that means the cruel man should be condemned?

ET: Problem. Is the (second order) value is wrapped up in the description? The person who describes something as cruel is condemning it automatically providing they were telling the truth about what they think. This is Descriptivism (Makie mentions it later ‘descriptions are intrinsically action guiding’)

Moral scepticism is a negative thesis. It says there are no objective values. The Moral sceptic must explain why people have become mistaken to believe there are objective values.

ET: Surely the freedom to exist is an objective value? Anyone who exists will agree, because by definition if they wished to cease existing they would kill themselves. The moral laws we make for ourselves are objectively necessary for survival.

Plato theory in the Forms, e.g. “the Form of the Good, are external, extra mental, realities. They are a central structural element in the fabric of the world. Knowing them or ‘seeing’ them will not merely tell one what to do but will ensure that they do it.” The philosopher-kings of the Republic can according to Plato be trusted with unchecked power. Objectivism is an ontological doctrine and so is different to Descriptivism, which is a theory about meaning.

Ontology = philosophical theory of being, existence, reality

Egoist and a utilitarian. Egoist says his happiness is objectively good. Utilitarian say it is no more good than the happiness of another man. ‘The mere fact that he is he can have nothing to do with its objective goodness.’ (Mackie quotes Sidgwick). Egoist claims it is objectively rational or obligatory for him to seek his own happiness. That is universalizing egoism, not refuting it. – objective value is to seek own happiness?

ET: Surely the egoist is simply a partially blind utilitarian? He seeks goodness but can’t see beyond his own shores? Like patriotism. It seems bad to the un-blind, but it is the blind grabbing those nearest to them for balance in the hope for happiness for themselves and those they grab.

Standards of evaluation – values can be objective relative to standards. E.g. winning of prizes, grading an ice skater. It would be objectively unjust to award higher marks to a worse learner driver. But is there any objective requirement to do what is just? The subjectivist would say the there is no objective validity about the choice of standards. Something can be called good simply because it satisfies a desire. The question of objectivity of values falls back to the standards themselves.

Hypothetical and categorical imperatives:

Reason for doing Y lies it in its causal connection with the desired end, X.

Statements can be both depending on the reason. E.g. ‘you ought to tell the truth’ (to be trusted next time) is a hypothetical imperative. ‘you ought to tell the truth’ (because it is a morally right judgement) is a categorical imperative. A categorical imperative is not contingent on any desire. Kant said moral judgements are all categorical imperatives, or applications of one categorical imperative. Makie says in opposition that these premises are us deciding to think a certain way and in some part of the argument the objective validity is lost.

The Claim to Objectivity:

Subjectivists may claim no ends or desires are objective, but are ‘inter-subjective’.

Kant, Sidgewick and Plato make claim to objective values. Kant says categorical imperative are objective. He says rational beings give moral law to themselves, but it is determinate and necessary. Richard Price says right and wrong are ‘real characters of actions’. Objectivism is a feature of philosophical tradition and has a firm basis in ordinary thought.

Ordinary moral judgements include a claim to objectivity. We take reasons from what we feel and we believe what we feel is right, objectively. The claim to objectivity is engrained in our language and thought, but it is not self-validating. Makie says everyone who makes moral judgements claims objectivity, but they are all false – ‘error theory’, which makes ‘moral scepticism’ appropriate. It goes against our usual thought processes, but can be supported in two ways: (in the conclusion Makie shows there are five ways)

1. The argument from relativity.

Morality varies between cultures and period. (ET: It appears to). I.e. there are disagreements about how to live. (not just disagreements about a scientific theory). E.g. monogamy. People usually approve of monogamy because they participate in monogamy, they don’t participate because they approve. Therefore moral codes reflect the lifestyle, rather than any perceptions of objective value.

This can be countered by what Sidgewick calls different methods of ethics, the principle of universalizability, or that one ought to conform to the specific rules of life in which one takes part, from which one profits and on which one relies. The Objectivist says this is how the objective moral character attaches itself to specified ground. But this is far from the normal ‘objective’ thought.

2. The argument from queerness.

If there were objective values we would need some kind of extra-sensory perception for they are utterly different to anything else in the Universe. ‘Intuition’ is a lame answer to which objectivists are compelled to resort.

Richard Price counters this. Our ideas of essence, number, identity, substance, power, causation etc come from our understanding – the power to discern truth. Perhaps it has the power to immediately perceive right and wrong?

Macke says it is unverifiable, empiricists and logical positivists would find it hard to accommodate.

If; ‘something is wrong because it is deliberately cruel’, what in the world does the ‘because’ signify? It a mysterious causality and can be much easier explained by some sort of subjective response.

Patterns of objectification:

It is easy to confuse a things desirability with its goodness. The fact we use the word ‘good’ for both desirable and morally good things is a trace of this pattern of objectification.

The words, “ought”, and “should” and “must” are used in hypothetical imperatives as well as moral/categorical imperatives, and so are traces of this pattern of objectification.

Moral thinking starts from the enforcement of social codes. Many features of modern European morality are traceable from Christianity. The sense of what is wrong a s ‘forbidden’ is a relic of ‘divine’ commands.

Elizabeth Anscombe says ‘ought’ has “become a word of mere mesmeric force… with only delusive appearance of content’. The belief in the divine legislator has faded out, why should the belief in the divine law remain? The pattern of objectification can be traced in our moral concepts and language.

Stating there is a general goal for human life implies objectivity. The argument from relativity applies: the radical diversity of the goals that men pursue and find satisfying makes it implausible to say they result as an imperfect grasp of a unitary true good. The argument from queerness still applies too.

ET: But, it is impossible to work out what an abstract painter is painting until he is finished and even then it is not clear. Picasso said to finish a work of art is to kill it. The Universe is ‘god’s’ work of art and we are kept alive by remaining unfinished and imperfect.

Conclusion by Mackie:

Objectivism is engrained in our thoughts and language but is false. There are solid arguments for moral scepticism – the lack of objective values. These are: 1. Relativity or variability. The values seem to depend on a starting point or way of life.

2. The metaphysical queerness/peculiarity of the supposed objective values. They would have to be intrinsically action guiding and motivating 3. Such values could be consequential upon natural features

4. Our difficulties in accounting for our knowledge of such values

5. Tracing the objectivity in several different patterns that explain how people come to believe in objectivism although there is no such value.

Therefore all first order moral judgements are false since they claim objectivity.

What are my views?

I think that observing only the actions of man in an attempt to understand Universal laws is a very limited perspective. Looking at all life you can see much simpler actions occurring again and again, i.e. survival at all costs. It is worth making sacrifices to survive because existence is beautiful. Spend some time in nature and you see we are all the same thing. This refutes the relativity argument. As for the queerness, Makie said himself it is common sense he is arguing against. It is not queer. We know people and other life has the same feelings and desires as us because if we look closely enough we can see they are the same. Because we are in existence and have minds we have claim to objectivity, though we may not always be able to prove it to others or to ourselves.

E.E.T: Claims to objective morality claim there is an objective reality

Realism and Normativity


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