Mackie and the Meaning of Moral Terms
Moral error theory is comprised of two parts: a denial of the existence of objective values, and a claim about the ways in which we attempt to make reference to such objective values. John Mackie is sometimes presented as endorsing the view that we necessarily presuppose such objective values in our moral language and thought. In a series of recent papers, though, Victor Moberger (2017), Selim Berker (2019), and Michael Ridge (2020) point out that Mackie does not seem to commit himself to this view. They argue that Mackie thinks this reference to objective values can, and perhaps should, be detached from our moral statements and judgments. In this paper, I argue that Moberger, Berker, and Ridge are right to point out that Mackie stops short of claiming a necessary connection between moral language and a commitment to objective values, but that he does not endorse the contrary claim either. Instead, Mackie stays neutral on the question whether it is possible to assert moral statements or make moral judgments without presupposing objective value. This is because he does not need to take a position on this matter. Mackie only engages with the conceptual analysis of moral language and thought to the extent required to achieve his argumentative goals: he wants to reject revisionary analyses of moral language and to refute the idea that we can assume moral truths to be in alignment with ordinary moral language.
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