Mackie's Error Theory: Is Morality Objective?

Mackie's error theory is an ethical position that denies the objectivity of morality. It assumes that morality is a social construct.
Mackie's Error Theory: Is Morality Objective?
Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati

Written and verified by the philosopher Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati.

Last update: 28 May, 2022

Morality is a very old concept to regulate human behavior and determine which actions are considered right and which are wrong. However, multiple discussions and ethical theories have been generated around this topic that have attempted to explain the nature of morality, one of them being Mackie’s Error Theory.

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

What does Mackie’s error theory consist of?

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

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

To better understand this idea, let’s take a look at an example.

We’re wrong if we believe that torturing puppies for fun is a morally wrong act. For in such an action, there’s no objective rule that tells us precisely that it is immoral. This is not the case when we observe, for example, a ball. In this case, we can perceive with our senses properties such as its shape, size and color. However, when we see someone torturing a puppy, although we see the pain, we don’t literally perceive the evil.

Thus, we can’t use our senses or any other measuring instrument to confirm the morality of an event or action. Therefore, notions such as goodness and badness, just and unjust, 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 consider morality useless. That is, he doesn’t intend that facts cease to be categorized as right and wrong.

On the contrary, what he seeks is that morality is understood as a relative matter and not as a universal absolute. In fact, he proposes that ethics and morality should be continually reinvented, depending on how humanity evolves.

Moral como construcción humana.
Morality is constructed from human parameters, but there are no objective elements that support it.

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The main arguments of Mackie’s error theory

To defend his theory of error, Mackie resorts to two arguments that support it. Let’s take a look at them.

1. The argument of relativity

Mackie argues that morality has always depended on the context, the time, and the forms of relationships established in each society. Therefore, what one culture considers morally correct may not be correct for another. In fact, this is often the case.

For example, there’s much disagreement in the moral judgments that have been established around abortion or the death penalty. We can see this very clearly in the laws governing the various states of the world.

2. The argument from rarity

Meanwhile, Mackie defends that, if we start from the idea that morality is objective, then completely different entities should exist in the external world with strange and unknown qualities that account for it.

Moreover, to be able 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, in making a moral judgment, what really happens is a reaction that derives from what’s culturally learned and its linkage with one’s own experiences. The process is purely subjective.

An analogy with color perception

To make the error theory more understandable, the philosopher uses color perception as an analogy. In this case, he states that the objects of the world in themselves don’t possess the colors that we perceive they have.

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

So 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 of color-blind people. And the same is true for moral properties: there’s nothing in the objective world that has, in itself, the property of morality.

Mackie's Error Theory
The color palette is not perceived the same by each eye, which presents an interesting analogy for subjective morality.

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Mackie’s error theory: The subjectivity of morality

In short, Mackie’s error theory argues that there are no moral facts per se, but that it’s people who ascribe moral properties to human behavior.

Therefore, according to this theory, we’re wrong to believe that our moral judgments correspond objectively to reality. What do you think?

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