Reinventing <em>Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong</em>


  • Michael Ridge University of Edinburgh



I offer new arguments for an unorthodox reading of J. L. Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, one on which Mackie does not think all substantive moral claims are false, but allows that a proper subset of them are true. Further, those that are true should be understood in terms of a “hybrid theory”. The proposed reading is one on which Mackie is a conceptual pruner, arguing that we should prune away error-ridden moral claims but hold onto those already free of error. This reading is very different from the standard ones found in the literature. I build on recent work by Moberger and argue that this reading is better corroborated by close attention to the way in which Mackie argues at length that terms like “good” and “ought” are systematically context-sensitive, as well as by considerable additional textual evidence. This reading, however, faces an important challenge—to explain in what sense, if any, morality retains its “normativity” on the proposed reading. I argue that this challenge can be met, at least given some of Mackie’s further assumptions about the nature of rationality.


Blackburn, Simon, 1999. Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brandt, Richard B., 1979. A Theory of the Good and the Right. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cappelen, Herman, 2018. Fixing Language: An Essay on Conceptual Engineering. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dreier, James, 2015. “Fixing Language: An Essay on Conceptual Engineering.” In Motivational Internalism, edited by Gunnar Björsson, Caj Standberg, Ragnar Francén Olinder, John Eriksson and Fredrik Björklund, pp. 167–81. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fletcher, Guy and Michael Ridge, eds., 2014. Having It Both Ways. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gill, Michael B., 2009. “Indeterminacy and Variability in Meta-Ethics.” Philosophical Studies 145: 215–34.

Hume, David, 1739–40. A Treatise of Human Nature. London: John Noon. Critical edition by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007.

Joyce, Richard, 2005. “Moral Fictionalism.” In Fictionalism in Metaphysics, edited by Mark Eli Kalderon, pp. 287–313. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 2011. The Myth of Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Joyce, Richard and Simon Kirchin, eds., 2010. A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie’s Moral Error Theory. Dordrecht: Springer.

Köhler, Sebastian and Michael Ridge, 2013. Ratio 26: 428–49.

Kalf, Wouter Floris, 2019. “Mackie’s Conceptual Reform Moral Error Theory.” Journal of Value Inquiry 53: 175–91.

Korsgaard, Christin M., 1996. The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lenman, James, 2013. “Ethics Without Errors.” Ratio 26: 391–409.

Lutz, Matt, 2014. “The ‘Now What’ Problem for error theory.” Philosophical Studies 171: 351–71.

Mackie, J. L., 1955. “Responsibility and Language.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 33: 143–59. Reprinted in Mackie (1985b), pp. 15-27.

———, 1976. Problems From Locke. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

———, 1977. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

———, 1980. Hume’s Moral Theory. London: Routledge.

———, 1982. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 1985a. “Bootstraps Enterprises.” In Mackie (1985b), pp. 145–52.

———, 1985b. Persons and Values: Selected Papers Volume 2, edited by Joan and Penelope Mackie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 1969. “Aesthetic Judgments—A Logical Study.” The Pluralist 2: 3–17. Reprinted in Mackie (1985b), pp. 60–76.

Moberger, Victor, 2017. “Not Just Errors: A New Interpretation of Mackie’s Error Theory.” Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy 5(3): 1–12.

Olson, Jonas, 2014. Moral Error Theory: History, Critique, Defence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parfit, Derek, 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rawls, John, 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ridge, Michael, 2014. Impassioned Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scanlon, T. M., 2014. Being Realistic About Reasons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scharp, Kevin, 2013. Replacing Truth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schroeder, Mark, 2007. Slaves of the Passions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Michael, 1994. The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell.

Stevenson, Charles L., 1944. Ethics and Language. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Streumer, Bart, 2017. Unbelievable Errors. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

West, Caroline, 2010. “Business as Usual? The Error Theory, Internalism and the Function of Morality.” In Joyce and Kirchin (2010), pp. 183–98.