Senior Literature Review Fall 2018

Coleman’s First Presentation


Coleman presented the bulk of John Mackie’s celebrated subjectivist account of ethics.

Mackie has two arguments for subjectivism:

  1. The argument from relativity

  2. The argument from queerness. This has two parts:

    1. Metaphysical: objective values would be unlike all other known facts

    2. Epistemological: we would need a special kind of sense to know facts about objective values and Mackie does not believe there is such a thing.

Since the argument from queerness has two parts, we decided he would have been better served by saying he had three arguments.

The argument from relativity is fairly straightforward. It’s harder to see exactly where he makes his case for the two parts of the argument from queerness. For the metaphysical part, I would look at the paragraph on Plato’s Form of the Good (Mackie 1977, 41). For the epistemological part, I would look at the paragraph that asks about the connection between the fact that an action is cruel and the alleged fact that it is wrong (Mackie 1977, 41).

Our Discussion

One feature of Mackie’s theory is that it is a cognitivist theory about the meaning of evaluative thoughts and language. Some subjectivists say that we are not trying to say that things are objectively good, bad, right or wrong. Rather, they think, we are expressing our feelings when we say those things. Mackie disagrees. He thinks that when I say the flu is bad, I mean exactly what I seem to be saying, namely, that the flu is truly a bad thing and not just that I don’t like it.

However, Mackie also thinks that we are systematically mistaken. We think that values are objective and so statements employing evaluative language could be true or false. But, as it turns out, they are all false. For this reason, Mackie calls his theory an error theory.

Paskalina was suspicious of this. If objective values are really so foreign and unlike everything else in the fabric of the universe, what is the content of our thought that things are genuinely good or bad? It’s not like thinking that the table has a shape or a weight. It’s like thinking that the table has … well, what? Goodness? If the very idea is as incoherent as Mackie suggests it is, then, well, those ideas should be incoherent. It shouldn’t be that we are making perfectly plain statements that just happen to be false.

If my memory serves me correctly, Barry Stroud made a similar argument about Hume’s so-called “projectivist” theories of causal necessity and ethics (Stroud 1993). That’s pretty good company!

James worried that Mackie’s argument is too strong. It appears to treat every evaluative thought as erroneous. So something like “if you want to play chess, you should get a chessboard” would be false just as “you should be kind to animals” is false. James thinks the statement about chess is true and so he would reject the argument if it implied otherwise.

Oscar noted that everything is unique. Since that is so, there has to be some special way that the putatively objective facts about values are “queer.” (In my opinion, the answer is that the facts about values are supposed to motivate action while the normal ones are not. I’m not saying that I necessarily agree; I just mean that’s how he demarcates the “queer” category of facts.)


Mackie, J. L. 1977. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. New York: Penguin.
Stroud, Barry. 1993. ‘Gilding and Staining’ the World with ‘Sentiments’ and ‘Phantasms’.” Hume Studies 19 (2): 253–72.