Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Guest Bloggers - Mackie and Moral Disagreement

As you can see below, two guest bloggers have written posts on a piece by J.L. Mackie.  Aaron and Chelsea are students in my Modern Ethical Theory class this semester.  Their posts have to do with Mackie's argument from relativity which he offered in support of a metaethical theory known as error theory.  

It's worth noting this blurb from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (available here):
The Argument from Relativity (often more perspicaciously referred to as “the Argument from Disagreement”) begins with an empirical observation: that there is an enormous amount of variation in moral views, and that moral disagreements are often characterized by an unusual degree of intractability. Mackie argues that the best explanation of these phenomena is that moral judgments “reflect adherence to and participation in different ways of life” (1977: 36). This, at least, is a better explanation than the hypothesis that there is a realm of objective moral facts to which some cultures have inferior epistemic access than others. The example Mackie uses is of two cultures' divergent moral views regarding monogamy. Is it really plausible, he asks, that one culture enjoys access to the moral facts regarding marital arrangements whereas the other lacks that access? Isn't it much more likely that monogamy happened to develop in one culture but not in the other (for whatever cultural or anthropological reasons), and that the respective moral views emerged as a result
Opposition to the Argument from Relativity can, broadly speaking, take two forms. First, one might deny the empirical premise, arguing that moral disagreement is not really as widespread as it is often made out to be, or at least arguing that much of the conspicuous disagreement masks extensive moral agreement at a deeper level (a level pertaining to more fundamental moral principles). Mackie makes some brief remarks in response to this argument (1977: 37). Second, one might accept the phenomenon of moral disagreement at face value but deny that the best explanation of this favors the error theory. Often both strategies are deployed side by side. 
Aaron and Chelsea characterize Mackie's argument in slightly different ways and theirs are different from the way that it's put in the SEP.  It will thus be helpful for our discussion to consider more formal/precise statements of Mackie's argument.  Following the SEP entry, here's one way to put the argument:

Mackie's Argument from Relativity (or, better, Argument from Disagreement)
(1) There is genuine (and seemingly intractable) moral disagreement. (This is an empirical observation that Mackie made.) 

(2) One explanation for this disagreement is that there are objective moral truths/facts and some cultures have inferior epistemic access to these facts than others, i.e., some cultures are better when it comes to recognizing the moral facts than others.  On this view, some cultures are correct in making certain moral claims while others are incorrect.  

(3) Another explanation of moral disagreement is that there are no objective moral truths, and that moral disagreement is simply a result of cultures developing differently.  Some cultures developed in such a way that monogamy is deemed morally good and others didn't develop in this way.  On this view, there is no "right" answer when it comes to a moral issue--neither party in a moral dispute is correct or incorrect.  

(4) The explanation described in (3) is a better explanation of moral disagreement than the one described in (2). This is because it's simpler (not as many entities need to be credenced, etc.) and it involves a more plausible causal story about why there is moral disagreement (i.e., it's more plausible to think that anthropological/sociological facts lead to moral disagreement than that disagreement is due to different cultures having varying degrees of epistemic access to the moral facts that exist).  

(5) Therefore, we ought to think that the explanation in (3) is the correct explanation.  So, we should think that there are no objective moral facts/truths.  

(6) If there are no objective moral truths, then no moral claims are true.

This might not be the best way to characterize Mackie's argument.  Feel free to comment on this post if you think there's a more accurate way to put it.  In addition, independent from considerations about textual accuracy/being sure that we're characterizing Mackie's argument correctly, is there a more powerful way to put the argument?  In other words, is there a more powerful way to show that error theory ought to be accepted from the premise that moral disagreements exists?  

And let's not forget Aaron and Chelsea's posts.  They didn't put Mackie's argument in premise-conclusion form. How might we more formally phrase the argument as they characterize it?  In addition, how might their objections be applied to the formulation of Mackie's argument above?  Would they claim that the explanation in (2) is actually to be preferred over the one in (3)?  What justification might one have for this?  

It will be easier if all comments related to Mackie's argument are made to this post.  

And thanks to Aaron and Chelsea for volunteering to go first as guest bloggers.

Objectivism and Mackie's Argument From Relativity II

**This is from guest blogger Chelsea R.** 
In his piece “The Subjectivity of Values” J. L. Mackie firmly states, “There are no objective values.”  Mackie believes there are no absolute, objective, universal moral truths and he argues in favor of moral skepticism, which is the view that we cannot have knowledge about morality.  
It seems to me that Mackie's view and emotivism are fairly similar.  However, his view is different because he does not say that moral judgments are meaningless. Rather, he says that they are a failed attempt at describing reality. Mackie considers moral judgments to be truth apt (unlike emotivism), but thinks that all moral judgments are false.  His view is called error theory because he thought that we are always in error whenever we make a moral judgment.      
Mackie first attacks objective morality in his piece in the section entitled “The Argument from Relativity.”  He first brings up differences in morals based upon culture. He says that morals are best understood on a relative level. Rather than one culture being correct and the others misinterpreting the moral principal, each culture receives their morals from their different ways of life. “Disagreement about moral codes seems to reflect people’s adherence to and participation in different ways of life.” (Ethical Theory, 2013, 27)  One culture is not more moral than another, and one culture is not considered right over another. This almost mimics moral relativism, where what is morally good/bad is determined by what a person or culture deems good/bad.  However, Mackie goes on to say that such moral disagreement violates his criterion for objective values. By pointing out vast moral discrepancies between cultures, Mackie tries to render the idea that a pre-set, universal, moral code is a farfetched idea. When one culture believes doing ‘x’ is right solely because the action is right, while another culture is neutral to ‘x’, moral principle ‘x’ is not capable of sparking action in every person solely on its intrinsic rightfulness. This logic is meant to make an objective value seem impossible.
I find Mackie’s arguments regarding cultural moral subjectivity to be rather unconvincing. For a Moral Objectivist, this entire argument can be ended swiftly. It can be the case that some cultures have adopted a moral code that clearly violates most ideas of morality. A moral objectivist would simply say that this culture is wrong and the moral principles that they’re violating are part of a pre-set universal truth. This claim from an objectivist would circumvent Mackie’s argument.
There some cultures that have normalized heinous acts like forced female genital mutilation, intense animal cruelty, and things of that nature. Mackie’s definition of an objective value is that the value must be the cause of an action solely for the intrinsic rightness of the action. Even if some people do not find these types of actions wrong, there are people do find them wrong and that will take action solely because it is right. His all-or-nothing approach in his definition of what an objective value is completely illegitimate because there is not one conceivable moral truth that will get a 100% pass rate. A non-moral example is the question, “Is there life on other planets?” This question is a proposition with truth-aptness; it has a clear yes or no answer. Just because people might disagree over the answer does not make the question false. Disagreements do not mean that there in an inherent lack of truth.

Objectivism and Mackie's Argument from Relativity

**This is from guest blogger Aaron F.**

In his article, "The Subjectivity of Values," J. L. Mackie argues for the claim that “there are no objective values” (Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2007, 25), and in particular, that there are no objective moral values. While there may be objectively observable differences between actions that are generally characterized as morally good or bad, there is nothing that makes them objectively actually good or bad. He presents two main arguments for this claim, and I will briefly address the first, which he calls the argument from relativity.

The argument from relativity observes that there is substantial disagreement in the particulars of moral codes across space and time. Furthermore, instead of the culture of a particular people being formed to its moral code, it more frequently seems to be the case that the moral code is formed to the culture. The best explanation for this is supposed to be that moral codes depend on culture, not that differences in moral codes arise from a highly fallible ability to discern moral truths (30-31). This claim is further supplemented by the observation that human societies benefit from their members accepting moral codes as objective since this will often facilitate peace and stability (34). 

The moral objectivist might reply by arguing that it is only very general, basic principles that are objective.  Mackie, however, thinks this strategy fails because it does not render particular actions wrong in themselves. Rather, their wrongness derives from their relation to basic principles, and so we must discover the wrongness of particular actions by discerning this relation. Thus, the objectivist seems forced to claim that moral judgments proceed by reason from basic principles, which are discovered by some faculty of moral intuition. But actual judgments do not seem to be derivations from first principles. Rather, Mackie claims, they appear to immediately present particular actions as wrong or right—intuitions intervene at the level of particular judgments about discrete actions, condemning them directly, not derivatively (31).

I will now present a brief defense of the sort of objectivist view Mackie is attacking, namely, one on which there are basic moral principles that are objectively true and that are discerned by a faculty of moral intuition. My first task will be to give an account of Mackie’s observations, and then to briefly state a shortcoming of the argument from relativity. Let us begin by assuming that we have a faculty of moral intuition. Then we can explain the observation that moral codes fit cultures, rather than the other way around, in two ways. The first explanation, presented by Mackie as a standard objectivist claim, is that different particular moral codes could develop from the same basic principles given different cultural circumstances.

The second is that existing cultural standards could interfere with our ability to discern basic principles. For instance, suppose something like the Golden Rule is a basic principle. Then if a culture has developed the norm that everyone ought to favor his or her own interests above those of others, it is plausible to think that members of this society will have a more difficult time perceiving and accepting the Golden Rule than they would without the norm. Second, we may be able to say that our faculty of moral intuition is, in a sense, hyperactive, intervening to present judgments about particular actions directly even though it is meant to present judgments about basic moral principles. This might be thought of as akin to guessing at the answer to difficult sums when the correct result would be much more reliably found by using reason to work from basic principles that are immediately graspable through intuition.  Furthermore, if one engages in a good piece of moral reasoning the conclusion will be a sound moral judgment. Then, through familiarity, one may come to correctly judge particular actions as wrong or right without rehearsing the derivation.

Thus, it appears that the objectivist account can accommodate Mackie’s observations. However, he could still say that his explanation is superior in that it is more parsimonious. So I should make an attempt to show that his theory provides a worse explanation of the phenomena we observe than the objectivist's account. According to Mackie, the argument from relativity is supported by the observation that a given society has a vested interested in its members accepting a code of morality as objective. But this suggests that most members of most societies are under some kind massive self-deception, formulating and accepting contrived principles as though they were natural principles. Is it really more plausible to think that one can fabricate a set of moral principles, taking them to be objectively true, when they are really nothing but social constructs motivated, at least in part, by nothing more than their usefulness? If moral principles really were nothing but useful conventions, one would expect them to be viewed and accepted as just that, not as objective, universally binding rules. Thus, given that an objectivist account can accommodate all of Mackie’s observations, Mackie’s argument from relativity appears deficient in that the resulting picture does not adequately predict what we observe.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Emotivism: Should we think that appearances are misleading?

Cognitivists think that moral judgments are expressions of one's beliefs (or other cognitive states).  They think that moral judgments have truth conditions/are the sorts of things that could be true or false.  Non-cognitivists, on the other hand, think that moral judgments are expressions of one's desires, sentiments, or other non-cognitive attitudes.  As such, non-cogntivists tend to think that moral judgments don't have truth conditions/that they're not the sort of things that could be true or false.

A. J. Ayer was a non-cognitivist who thought that moral judgments are expressions of an agent's feelings of approval or disapproval.  According to him, what one does when one makes a moral judgment is express one's moral sentiments--one doesn't report or describe some fact.   Ayer's version of non-cognitivism is known as emotivism.

Consider a moral judgment of the form:  "X is wrong"  Emotivists like Ayer think that this should be understood to mean something like:  "Boo X!" or "X, meh!"  Just as I'm not asserting something that could be true or false when I say "Go Badgers!,"  I am not asserting something that could be true or false when I say "X is wrong."  This is because what I'm really doing by saying this is expressing my feelings about X.  Such an expression--it's a sort of exclamation or rooting--isn't the sort of claim that could be true or false, or so Ayer's argument goes.

One objection to emotivism involves moral disagreement.  If I say "X is wrong" and you say "X is morally permissible," it appears that we have contradicted each other and that there's some fact about which we are in dispute (i.e., whether it is the case that X is wrong).

Here's (part of) Ayer's reply to this objection:

"When someone disagrees with us about the moral value of a certain type of action, we do admittedly resort to  argument in order to win him over to our way of thinking.  But we do not attempt to show by our arguments that he has the 'wrong' ethical feeling towards a situation whose nature he has correctly apprehended.  What we attempt to show is that he is mistaken about the facts of the case..."
(Language, Truth, and Logic, 1946, 111)

So he thought that moral disagreement isn't a case of having contradictory beliefs (as the cognitivist would see things).  Rather, it's a matter of having feelings that clash or do not coincide.  I feel that X is wrong and you feel that X is morally permissible.  These feelings are not contradictory.  What would it even mean to say that feelings are contradictory?  Given this, Ayer thought that there really isn't any such thing as moral disagreement. There's only disagreement about certain facts (e.g., whether Mary stabbed Paula on purpose or whether a fetus is a person) and this is what explains any intuitions we have about there being a conflict between the claim that X is wrong and the claim that X is morally permissible.

I don't find Ayer's reply to the "moral disagreement objection" very satisfying.  I'm not going to offer much of an argument here, since I'm primarily interested in what my students think about this issue.  One general worry I have about emotivism has to do with a divergence in how things appear and how things really are (assuming that emotivism is true).  That is, for example, the emotivist denies that a moral claim like, "X is wrong" functions as a subject-predicate sentence.  When one says something of the form, "a is b," she usually means to ascribe a predicate/property (b) to a subject/thing (a).  Emotivists deny that this is true of moral claims.  They think that "X is wrong" is not a subject-predicate sentence.  The "surface grammar" of such a claim is misleading.

A similar point can be made regarding moral disagreement.  It appears that you and I actually disagree when I say that X is wrong and you say that X is morally permissible.  That is, it appears from this exchange that we disagree about a fact--whether X is wrong--and that what we're doing is more substantive than simply expressing our feelings (which happen to differ) regarding X.  It seems different than when I say something like, "I love dark ales" and you say, "I prefer lighter lagers."  There's a sense in which we're disagreeing, but it's not the same sense as when we have a moral dispute.  It seems to me that moral disputes are often genuine disagreements, much like when I say that "Wellington is the capital of New Zealand" and you say "No, it's Auckland."  As indicated above, however, Ayer denies that things are as they appear.

So, the emotivist denies that appearances should be taken to indicate what's really going on.  Given this, I think the emotivist has some work to do to justify why we ought to accept her theory over one that doesn't have such counterintuitive commitments.  To his credit, Ayer does offer arguments for why one should accept emotivism.  But only a few of these speak to this issue of why we should view things quite differently than they appear--and, as you can tell, I find these to be rather weak.  Comments about this and other issues related to emotivism are most welcome.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Yale/UConn Grad Conference


Yale/UConn Graduate Philosophy Conference
May 5th, 2013 
University of Connecticut, Storrs

Keynote Speaker: Karl Ameriks, Notre Dame

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: February 15th, 2013

Papers should be no longer than 4,000 words a topic in any area of philosophy including history of philosophy, and should be suitable for a 30 minute presentation.  They should be prepared for blind review and formatted as either .doc or .pdf files.  A separate cover letter should contain author details (name, institutional affiliation, contact details), the paper title, word count, and a brief abstract (no more than 300 words).

Notification of decisions will be sent by March 1st.

All submissions, questions and concerns should be sent to

A.J. Ayer and Tyson

Among other things, Ayer is known for rescuing Naomi Campbell from Mike Tyson in 1987.  They were at a party in New York.  Ayer was then 77 and Mike was still the champ...

“Ayer was now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez’s West 57th Street apartment, chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: ‘Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.’ Ayer stood his ground: ‘And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.’ Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.” - Ben Rogers, A.J. Ayer: A Life

Thursday, January 17, 2013

My Ethics Course This Semester

I'm teaching a course called Modern Ethical Theory this term.  The majority of posts over the next few months will deal with material covered in my class.  I'll be asking my students to write posts and comments, but all readers of this blog are welcome to chime in.  The first piece we're reading is an excerpt from A.J. Ayer's famous book Language, Truth and Logic called "A Critique of Ethics."  I'll write a post about it in the next few days.

Monday, January 7, 2013

UIUC Grad Conference

36th Annual Graduate Philosophy Conference at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
March 8th-10th 2013

Keynote Speaker:
John Doris

The graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign invite submissions of quality work by current graduate students in any area of philosophy, particularly those in the analytic tradition. Papers related to the work of John Doris are especially welcome.

Papers should be approximately 3000 words in length and preceded by a 250-word abstract. All submissions should be prepared for blind review. Submitted papers must be received as .doc, .docx, or .pdf files no later than January 15th. Acceptances will be announced by February 1st.

Please send all submissions to

All questions may be directed to John Clevenger (Conference Organizer):