Mackie makes a good or sufficient case for morality being invention

Quotes from J. L. Mackie, Ethics Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin Books, 1990

Mackie teaches that our grounds for holding that morality really exists and is useful are riddled with errors so they are not grounds at all. He says our moral rules are queer for there is no test that shows they in fact make sense. The other problem is that large parts of humankind do not agree on what exactly is right and wrong which he says is best explained by people making moral rules up out of thin air.

Moral scepticism has the problem that it is virtually saying it is immoral to say morality is real. That argument is not relevant here for Mackie's point is that our reasons for saying morality is valid and not just a concocted social custom are nonsense. The reasons we want to be right are in fact not right according to Mackie.

MACKIE: Common-sense morality can be seen as a practically convenient approximation to utilitarianism, but not, therefore, something whose requirements can resist those of utility in the rare cases where there is an open conflict between them. Closer examination, however, reveals cracks in this apparently unitary structure. There are difficulties for and indeterminacies in utilitarianism. What are we to include in ‘all who are in any way affected’? Does this mean ‘all human beings’ or all sentient beings’? Are non-human animals included? A theory that equates good with pleasure and evil with pain would appear to have no non-arbitrary reason for excluding from consideration any creatures that are capable of feeling either pleasure or pain. Does it include only those who are now alive, or also future generations; and if so, only those who will exist or also those who might exist? We may have to compare alternative courses of action one of which would lead to there being a large population each of whose members was only moderately happy, and another of which would lead to there being a smaller population each of whose members was very happy; in the former there will be more total utility or happiness, in the latter a higher average utility or happiness. For a fixed population, the maxima of total utility and of average utility must coincide, but if the size of the population is itself variable they can fall apart. Which of the two, then, is it whose maximization is to be the criterion of right action? Again, is it really possible to measure quantities of pleasure and pain even for the same person at different times and in different sorts of experience? Is pleasure even sufficiently of the same category as pain to be measurable on the same scale and so to allow a quantity of one to balance a quantity of the other? Interpersonal measurement presents even greater difficulties, and the problem becomes still more acute if the pleasures and pains of non-human animals are to be taken into account. It can be argued that utilitarianism only appears to avoid the arbitrariness of some rival methods of ethics. It only pretends to provide a unitary decision procedure, and arbitrariness breaks out within any serious attempt to implement it, in whatever decisions are made in answer to some of these questions and in estimates of the comparative amounts of pleasure and pain that various courses of action will produce.

Comment: Difficulties do not amount to cracks!!

He is right that utilitarianism seems to want to ignore animal welfare a lot for it makes it unworkable as an ethic. And Utilitarians tend to worry more about the people alive now as opposed to future generations. After all you have to get the present and the near-future as right as you can so that future generations can look after themselves.

The argument that morality is fixed rules and principles is therefore not Utilitarian is wrong. If you think fixed rules are the best way to work towards the greatest happiness of most people that is still Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is said to be not morality at all. It is obvious that a set of moral rules can be created and yet not be morality. If they are wrong they are not morality.

Next he examines absolutism which teaches that some things in all times and all places and circumstances are wrong and which bases itself on the notion that no person must ever be treated as a means but as an end in themselves - not used but treated like a person. Let us see what he has to say.

MACKIE: Against absolutism about means, it can be argued that though the distinction between a means and a side effect can be drawn formally, the distinction is sometimes too fine and, in our ordinary thought about actions, too artificial to carry much weight in a practically viable moral system. It seems absurd to say that I must not use someone’s death as a means to some end – say, the saving of many other lives – and yet that I may use as a means to that end something which will inevitably, and to my certain knowledge, carry his death with it. To lay stress on such artificial distinctions is not merely implausible but also morally corrupting. Anscombe has herself said that, while the rejection of the principle of double effect has been the corruption of non-Catholic moral thought, its abuse has been the corruption of Catholic thought. I suggest that such corruption follows automatically from the view that a second effect as such, however certain and however well known to be certain, and apart from the special considerations introduced by the actions of other agents, has less moral weight than a means. Yet the devaluing of a second effect as such is required if absolutism is to be maintained in the face of some extreme problem cases. The same charge of artificiality can be brought against the other device that we mentioned as a way of defending absolute prohibitions, the distinction of positive acts from omissions. It is not of course artificial to distinguish evils that I directly bring about from some which I fail to prevent, even though it would have been remotely possible for me to prevent them. Any workable morality must make some distinction of spheres of responsibility, and hold me specially responsible for evils, whether produced by positive acts or by omissions, within my special sphere. But the distinction between what is and what is not within my sphere of responsibility is quite different from one between positive acts and omissions, and unlike the latter would not provide a defence for absolutism. I conclude that strict absolutism about means cannot be reasonably maintained, and that, given our approach to morality, it is not to be maintained at the expense of the above-mentioned qualification, that even where a bad second effect results from the action of another agent B, the more automatic B’s response can be foreseen as being, the more the responsibility for this effect must be referred back to A’s action. To neglect this qualification would be an evasion of responsibility. Absolutism has the dramatic appeal and, associated with this, the real practical merit of a straightforward and clear-cut, though severe, system of constraints. But against this are the artificiality into which it is forced at some points and its indefensible rigidity in some extreme cases.

Comment: The Principle of Double Effect is absolutely essential if you want to be absolutist. It is core and central. So if it is wrong then absolutism is unsustainable. It is false. It would interestingly be absolutely morally wrong to affirm the Principle! To say that it is wrong to say absolute morality exists is making an absolute morality after all. Mackie forgets that when you aim for anything other things go with it that you do not intend though you know they will happen. You cannot intend them all. Double Effect is about how you may aim to save somebody's life but break their ribs and maybe damage their brain to do so. It is about how you have to make a choice.

If the Principle is too hard to apply then absolutism will be unworkable. You will do as much damage as say a Utilitarian can do. But unworkable does not mean it is wrong. If nobody can solve a theorem that has nothing to do with showing the theorem is wrong.

Religion holds that God really acts when we act. God makes an input. But that implies that when Double Effect says it is wrong to kill a child in the womb to save the mother from a health problem that will not kill her it is guilty of making an assumption. The assumption is that God will not do the unexpected. But one of the big points about believing in God is to expect the unexpected! So you are sure now the mother will suffer but that does not give you the right to speak for tomorrow or even a half an hour's time. The future is God's call. So God is an obstacle to Double Effect. To bring God in to ground an absolutist morality will backfire.

Mackie's refutation of absolutism is riddled with errors and contradictions.

MACKIE: It is certain that far fewer people would be killed on the roads if there were a speed limit of, say, twenty miles an hour for all vehicles except those dealing with emergencies. Since we would not tolerate the deliberate killing of a comparable number of people in order to secure whatever advantages can be ascribed to travel at higher speeds, it seems paradoxical that we accept the statistical certainty of this number of deaths so long as for each individual it is (until he is actually killed) only a risk. But it becomes less paradoxical if we reflect that what matters is not just the result – so many deaths – but rather the flourishing of human life in certain ways, sustained by the appropriate dispositions.

Comment: Human life can flourish if the speed limit becomes 20. What did we do before cars? If our success has such a human cost that is not flourishing. Utilitarians and those who say that human life is absolutely sacred and comes first are simply as hypocritical as each other for not one of them would want it to become 20. Even if we did allow higher speeds how could we flourish at the thought of the price to be paid? Flourishing you do not enjoy much is not flourishing.

As bad as such fake moralities are, it is worse to try and present them as the will of an all-wise God. That is trying to use God to validate a flawed morality. Such morality needs to be seen for what it is instead of being divinised!

Mackie gave a bad refutation of double effect and absolutism. But this example proves that absolutists are not really as absolutist as they pretend and they are hypocrites. Hypocrisy is the norm among absolutists or self-styled ones. They are blasphemous users of God - not real devotees!

Absolutism presumes we have free will to choose an absolute (ie real) morality or oppose it.

MACKIE: Kant, having argued that there can be no sound speculative proof of the existence of God, thought that there is a cogent moral argument for this conclusion, that since God is needed to ensure the ultimate union of virtue and happiness, his existence can be established as a necessary presupposition of moral thought. But any such argument is back to front. What it is reasonable or rational to do may depend upon the facts, but the facts cannot depend upon what it is reasonable or rational to do. Equally, in our basic order of inference we must derive conclusions about what it is reasonable to do from what we believe the facts to be, and not the other way round.

Comment: So if it is reasonable to have bread on your table in famine time that does not put bread on the table. Kant is actually advocating the idolatry of having a God to serve some moral purpose. This is using God as a means not an end and totally contradicts what God is about!

MACKIE: Does God love what is good, or command what is right, because it is good or right, or is it good or right because he loves or commands it?

Comment: The Christian "solution" to this dilemma is that good is rooted in God's nature. But that is rewording the problem where something becomes good or right because he loves it is worded as "right is what is right according not to God's will but the way God is." That is a trick because what God loves says something about his nature. To say God's nature is love is to say that God loves love. Nature describes the kind of God God is and what he loves or otherwise. A stone is inanimate for it loves nothing and is not love. So Christian morality and worship are founded on lies - some morality!!

Love and justice are just facts even for God. Even he cannot alter them for they are his nature. That is what Christian doctrine holds. If love and justice are God's nature then it is only luck if he is happy with them for they mean he is going to be just and fair whether he likes it or not or consents or not. They are not gifts to God and they cannot be gifts from God. Giving is giving out of the abundance you have. But what is forced on you is not really what you have. It is what is shoved on you. Even if he likes justice and love they are not gifts for they are not concerned with what he wants. They are not about his will though he can use his will to exercise them. If morality is a fact for us it is a bigger fact for God!
We know that we cannot get away from making moral judgements: to say that morality is nonsense is to call it immoral so it follows that everybody is a moral judge. Morality is a fact that we have to live with so it is not a gift from God. Love or justice is no more a gift than breathing when you have to breathe is a gift to your lungs.
God supposedly gives us gifts of love and justice. That is where the God idea gets its appeal. A gift that God is forced to give is not a gift. A gift forced on us is not a gift at all. A gift that forces itself by default like morality does is not a gift for that reason either. It is degrading to call it a gift and it is degrading to receive it. It even degrades God the giver! Or actually God is not a giver but a victim.
A baby supposedly has the gift of life. But it has no say in the matter so how can it be a gift?  Christian morality as one of its core principles assumes that as God has given us the gift of existence we owe it to him to be moral as in loving and just. That does not follow at all.
Attempts to ground morality in God not only fail to succeed they end up contradicting morality.

MACKIE: The descriptive component of moral distinctions is logically independent of God’s will: God approves of this way of life because it is, in a purely descriptive sense, appropriate for men. But the prescriptive component of those distinctions is constituted by God’s will. The picture of God as an arbitrary tyrant is replaced by the belief that he demands of his creatures only that they should live in what will be, for them, the most satisfying way. We can then say that God is good meaning, descriptively, just this; any prescriptive or evaluative component in ‘good’ as applied to God will be subjective, it will express our approval of the sort of thing God does; the God-based objectively prescriptive element in moral terms as applied to human actions can have no non-trivial application to God.

Comment: This is idolatry once more. We decide what we want and then decide that God commands us to want these things. So God is about us not God. Is it any wonder religion that upholds God tends to be intolerant and think of how too often people want to force their ways on others?


Mackie attempted to sweepingly show that morality is nonsense. But it could be enough to show that many big moral rules are in fact wrong. You don't have to prove that ethics is completely wrong and fundamentally wrong. A version of ten commandments which has 9 dubious commandments still does not disprove morality completely for at least 1 rule must be right.

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