Morality and Reality

Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong

by J.L. Mackie
Penguin, 249 pp., $1.95 (paper)


“If we can depend upon any principle which we learn from philosophy, this, I think, may be considered as certain and undoubted, that there is nothing, in itself, valuable or despicable, desirable or hateful, beautiful or deformed; but that these attributes arise from the particular constitution and fabric of human sentiment and affection.” The issue thus raised by Hume and by those who, horrified by Hume, insisted that moral right and wrong are “real characters of action,” not “qualities of our minds,” was long thought to be the central issue of moral philosophy.

Perhaps most of those who approach moral philosophy for the first time still expect to find either some refutation or confirmation of doubts about the “objectivity of value,” and they are disappointed when they find the question not merely unanswered but not even debated, and in its place detailed discussions of logical or linguistic issues. These discussions appear to many to take Hume’s skeptical position for granted and merely to refine upon it, substituting references to the “speech acts” of “commending,” “grading,” or “prescribing” for the eighteenth-century references to “sentiments and affections.”

Many contemporary philosophers believe that the “objectivity” or “subjectivity” of moral value, the truth or falsity of what may be called ethical realism, is not an important or even a genuine issue. Even if there were constituents of reality corresponding to the concepts of moral right and wrong, good and evil (and not merely to descriptions of the conduct or states of affairs which are judged in these terms), the course of moral argument, moral agreement and disagreement, would be unaffected: no moral problem would be easier (or more difficult) to solve. So the alleged value constituents of reality, the existence of which cannot in any case be demonstrated, can be dismissed as explaining nothing.

Both John Mackie (of Oxford) and Gilbert Harman (of Princeton) unfashionably, and I think rightly, take the question of the objectivity of value as the starting point of their introductions to moral philosophy and devote many pages to it. They are right in doing this because the objection that the alleged objective values or ethical constituents of reality explain nothing is an argument (which Harman develops at length in a brilliant first chapter of his book) against the existence of “moral facts” and not a reason for not discussing the issue. Even if the course of moral judgment and argument would remain unaffected, the loss of the belief that they are backed by something more than human attitudes or policies is, and will continue to be, for many as profound as the loss of belief in God. And in our own day the sense of the tragic “absurdity” of life in a world which contains no values awaiting discovery has spilled over into philosophy itself. Existentialism is the philosophy par excellence of the disappointed objectivist.

In any case, as Mackie argues, the issue is of great importance to general philosophy. If we had to accommodate a belief in objective…

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