yes, therapy helps!
Mackie's theory of error: does objective morality exist?

Mackie's theory of error: does objective morality exist?

May 21, 2024

The human being is a gregarious and social being, who needs contact with the other members of his species to survive and adapt successfully. But living together is not simple: it is necessary to establish a series of rules that allow us to limit our conduct in a way that respects both our own rights and those of others, norms that are generally based on ethics and morals: what It is good and what is wrong, right and wrong, what is just and unjust, what is worth or what is unworthy and what is considered permissible and what is not.

Since antiquity, morality has been the subject of philosophical discussion and with the time of scientific research from areas such as psychology or sociology, existing multiple positions, perspectives and theories in this regard. One of them is Mackie's theory of error , of which we are going to talk throughout this article.


  • Related article: "Differences between Psychology and Philosophy"

Mackie's theory of error: basic description

The so-called theory of error of Mackie is an approach made by the author according to which each and every one of our moral judgments are erroneous and false, based on the consideration that morality does not exist as an objective element , there are no moral properties in reality as such, but the moral is built on the basis of subjective beliefs. Technically, this theory would enter into a cognitivist perspective of what is called subjectivist antirealism.

The theory of error was elaborated by John Leslie Mackie in 1977, based on the premises of cognitivism and indicating that if there were true moral judgments, they would be principles that guide behavior directly and from which it would not be possible to doubt.


It considers that the moral judgment is a cognitive act that has capacity of falsification, but since the moral judgment only exists as soon as a property always always exists moral like so, invariable and no possibility of interpretation .

However, given that there is no such property at the absolute level but that what is moral or not is decided by the community of belonging, no moral judgment can be true either. Therefore, although it may be socially considered true for a given group to fully share such judgments, moral judgment always makes the mistake of believing itself objective.

The intention of the author is not to eliminate or consider useless the moral act (that is, he does not want to stop doing things considered fair or good), but to reform the way of understanding ethics and morality as something relative and not as a universal absolute. It's more, proposes that ethics and morals must continually reinvent themselves , not being something fixed to study but that has to be modified according to how humanity evolves.


Two basic arguments

In the elaboration of his theory, John Mackie considers and uses two different types of arguments. The first one is the argument of the relativity of moral judgments , arguing that what we consider moral may not be for another person without it being wrong.

The second argument is that of singularity. According to this argument, if there are objective properties or values they should be entities different from anything that exists , in addition to requiring a special faculty to be able to capture said property or value. And one more property would still be necessary, that of being able to interpret the observed facts with the objective value.

Instead, Mackie believes that what we really experience is a reaction to the vision of an event that derives from what is culturally learned or linked to one's own experiences. For example, that an animal hunts another to feed itself is a behavior that is visible to us, and that will generate different subjective impressions for each of those affected.

  • Maybe you're interested: "Moral relativism: definition and philosophical principles"

Morals as subjective perception: a comparison with color

Mackie's theory of error establishes, then, that every moral judgment is false or erroneous since it assumes that the moral property that we give to an act or phenomenon is universal.

As an analogy to make his theory more easily understood, the author himself used the example of color perception in his theory. We may see a red, blue, green or white object, as well as a large majority of people also.

But nevertheless, the object in question does not have that or those colors in itself , since in reality when we see colors what we see is the refraction in our eyes of the wavelengths of light that the object has not been able to absorb.

The color would not be a property of the object but a biological reaction of ours to the reflection of light: it will not be something objective but subjective. Thus, the water of the sea is not blue or the leaf of the green tree, but we perceive them of that color. And in fact, not everyone will see the same color , as it can happen in the case of a colorblind.

The same can be said of moral properties: there would be nothing good or bad, moral or amoral by itself but we perceive it as such in terms of its adjustment to our perception of the world. And just as a color blind person may not perceive the color red (even if he identifies a certain tone as such), another person will judge that an act that has a specific moral connotation for us has the opposite directly for him.

Although the fact that morality is something subjective today may seem logical to suppose, the truth is that morality has been throughout history held by a large number of people as something objective and unchanging, often being a reason for discrimination against collectives (for example people of race, religion or sexuality different from the typical one) or practices that today we consider habitual.

Bibliographic references:

  • Mackie, J. (2000). Ethics: the invention of the good and the bad. Barcelona: Gedisa.
  • Moreso, J.J. (2005.). The realm of rights and the objectivity of morals. Cartapacio, 4. Pompeu Fabra University.
  • Almeida, S. (2012). The problem of the semantics of moral language in the contemporary metathetic discussion. National university of Colombia. Department of Philosophy.
  • Villoria, M. and Izquierdo, A. (2015). Public ethics and good government. INAP.

Moral Skepticism - Error Theory (J.L Mackie) (May 2024).


Similar Articles