Mackie’s error theory: is morality objective?

The error theory is an ethical position that defends that moral judgments are social constructions. Let’s see what it consists of.

Last update: May 17, 2022

long time ago morality has existed to regulate human behavior, determining which actions are considered correct and which are not. Now, around this issue, multiple discussions and ethical theories have been generated that have tried to explain the nature of morality, one of them being Mackie’s theory of error.

This theory was proposed by philosopher John L. Mackie in 1977. It posits that people are systematically wrong when they make moral judgments. For morality is nothing more than a subjective invention passively accepted by all.

What is Mackie’s error theory?

Mackie’s error theory represents a skeptical view of morality, since it defends that all our moral judgments are false. Namely, there are no moral facts in the external world to which our judgments correspond. Therefore, when we judge an action as right or wrong, we are always wrong.

In this sense, Mackie argues that morality is not objective, but a social construction that determines which behavioral patterns should be accepted and which should be rejected.

To better understand this idea, let us cite an example.

We are wrong if we believe that torturing puppies for fun is a morally wrong act. For in said action there is no objective property that tells us precisely that it is immoral.

This does not happen when we observe, for example, a ball. In this case we can perceive with our senses properties such as its shape, size and color. But when we see someone torturing a puppy, though we see pain, we do not perceive evil literally.

Thus, we cannot use our senses or any other measuring instrument to confirm morality of a fact. Therefore, notions like good and bad, fair and unfair, right and wrong, are not objective properties of our world, but subjective creations of man.

It should be noted that Mackie’s intention is not to eliminate or render morality useless. That is, he does not pretend that the facts stop being cataloged as correct and incorrect.

Unlike, what he seeks is that morality be understood as a relative matter and not as a universal absolute. In fact, he proposes that ethics and morals must continually reinvent themselves, depending on how humanity evolves.

Morality is built from human parameters, but there are no objective elements to support it.


Main arguments of the theory

To defend his theory of error, Mackie uses two arguments that support it. Let’s see.

1. Argument from relativity

defends that morality has always depended on the context, the time and the forms of relationship established in each society. Therefore, what one culture considers morally correct may not be so for another. In fact, that’s how it happens.

For example, there is much disagreement in the moral judgments that have been established around abortion or the death penalty. And we can see that in the laws that govern the various states of the world.

2. Argument from rarity

For his part, Mackie argues that, if we start from the idea that morality is objective, then there should exist in the external world completely different entitieswith strange and unknown qualities that account for it.

In addition, in order to perceive these entities, it must be necessary to possess unique, moral and intuitive perceptive faculties, different from those we already possess (the senses). However, this does not happen.

So Mackie argues that, When making a moral judgment, what really happens is a reaction that is derived from what is culturally learned and its connection with one’s own experiences. The process is merely subjective.

Analogy with color perception

To make the error theory more understandable, the author used color perception as an analogy. In this case, he affirms that the objects of the world do not possess, in themselves, the colors that we perceive from them.

Well, when we observe colors, what we really perceive is the refraction in our eyes of the wavelengths of light that the object has not been able to absorb.

Hence color is not an intrinsic property of the object, but a biological reaction of the human visual mechanism to the reflection of light. In other words, color is not an objective property, but a subjective one, like moral facts.

In fact, not everyone perceives the same colors and shades in objects, as is the case with colorblind people. And the same thing happens with moral properties: there is nothing in the objective world that has, in itself, the property of morality.

The color palette is not perceived the same from each eye, which represents an analogy with subjective morality.


The subjectivity of morality

In sum, Mackie’s error theory argues that there are no moral facts in themselvesbut it is the people who attribute moral properties to human behavior.

Therefore, we would fall into error if we believed that our moral judgments objectively correspond to reality. What do you think?

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