Category Archives: J. L. Mackie

J. L. Mackie

A prescriptively universalizing (and therefore utilitarian) critical thinker would encourage the adoption and development of firm principles and dispositions of the ordinary moral sort, rather than the direct use of utilitarian calculation as a practical working morality. There are at least six reasons why this is so. Shortage of time and energy will in general preclude such calculations. Even if time and energy are available, the relevant information commonly is not. An agent’s judgment on particular issues is liable to be distorted by his own interests and special affections. Even if he were intellectually able to determine the right choice, weakness of will would be likely to impair his putting of it into effect. Even decisions that are right in themselves and actions based on them are liable to be misused as precedents, so that they will encourage and seem to legitimate wrong actions that are superficially similar to them. And, human nature being what it is, a practical working morality must not be too demanding: it is worse than useless to set standards so high that there is no real chance that actions will even approximate to them. Considerations of these sorts entail that a reasonable utilitarian critical thinker would recommend the adoption of fairly strict principles and the development of fairly firm dispositions in favor of honesty, veracity, agreement-keeping, justice, fairness, respect for various rights of individuals, gratitude to benefactors, special concern for some individuals connected in certain ways with the agent, and so on, as being more likely in general to produce behavior approximating to that which would be required by the utilitarian ideal than any other humanly viable working morality.

Mackie, J. L. (1984) ‘Rights, utility, and universalization’, in R. G. Frey (ed.) Utility and Rights, Minneapolis, pp. 91

J. L. Mackie

[I]t is quite true that it is logically possible that the subjective concern, the activity of valuing or of thinking things wrong, should go on in just the same way whether there are objective values or not. But to say this is only to reiterate that there is a logical distinction between first and second order ethics: first order judgments are not necessarily affected by the truth or falsity of a second order view. But it does not follow, and it is not true, that there is no difference whatever between these two worlds. In the one there is something that backs up and validates some of the subjective concern which people have for things, in the other there is not. Hare’s argument is similar to the positivist claim that there is no difference between a phenomenalist or Berkeleian world in which there are only minds and their ideas and the commonsense realist one in which there are also material things, because it is logically possible that people should have the same experiences in both. If we reject the positivism that would make the dispute between realists and phenomenalists a pseudo-question, we can reject Hare’s similarly supported dismissal of the issue of the objectivity of values.

J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, London, 1977, pp. 19-20