Mackie and the Meaning of Moral Terms


  • Tammo Lossau Johns Hopkins University



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.


Berker, Selim, 2019. “Mackie Was Not An Error Theorist.” Philosophical Perspectives 33(1): 5–25.

Blackburn, Simon, 1985. “Errors and the Phenomenology of Values.” In Honderich (1985), pp. 1–22.

Brink, David, 1984. “Moral Realism and the Sceptical Arguments from Disagreement and Queerness.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62(2): 111–25.

Finlay, Stephen, 2008. “The Error in the Error Theory.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86(3): 347–69.

Garner, Richard, 1990. “On the Genuine Queerness of Moral Properties and Facts.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 68(2): 137–46.

Hare, R. M., 1981. Moral Thinking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Honderich, Ted ed., 1985. Morality and Objectivity: A Tribute to J. L. Mackie. London: Routledge.

Joyce, Richard, 2001. The Myth of Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———, 2005. “Moral Fictionalism.” In Fictionalism in Metaphysics, edited by M. Kalderon, pp. 287–313. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lossau, Tammo, 2019. “ ‘Putting the Linguistic Method in its Place’: Mackie’s distinction between conceptual and factual analysis.” Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy 22: 92–105.

Mackie, J. L., 1946. “A Refutation of Morals.” Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy 24(1–2): 77–90.

———, 1951a. “Critical Notice.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 29(2): 114–24.

———, 1951b. “Logic and Professor Anderson.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 29(2): 109–13.

———, 1956. Contemporary Linguistic Philosophy: Its Strength and Its Weakness. Otago: University of Otago.

———, 1973. Truth, Probability, and Paradox. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 1976. Problems from Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, 1977. Ethics. Inventing Right and Wrong. London: Pelican Books.

Mackie, Joan, 1985. “The Publications of J. L. Mackie.” In Honderich (1985), pp. 223–28.

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. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ridge, Michael, 2020. “Reinventing Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.” Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy 8(4): 1–20.

Shafer-Landau, Russ, 2003. Moral Realism: A Defence. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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

Toulmin, Stephen, 1950. The Place of Reason in Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, Bernard, 1985. “Ethics and the Fabric of the World.” In Honderich (1985), pp. 203–14.