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Moral Nihilism through J.L. Mackie’s Ethics
This session will consider whether morality is “real.” Specifically, we will discuss the merits of a position called “moral nihilism,” which radically rejects realism about morality. Moral nihilism is the view that there are no objective moral truths, that moral judgments have no absolute force, and that there are no universal moral obligations. In analytic meta-ethics, the most prominent nihilistic view is called “moral error theory.” According to moral error theory, all moral judgments are false because there are no objective values. On this view, moral judgments attempt to refer to objective values, but systematically fail to do so because objective values do not exist. Thus all moral judgments are systemically false. Australian philosopher J.L. Mackie made the first influential case for moral error theory in his 1977 Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, which will be our text for this session. You can find used copies of the book for under $10, including shipping:,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=detail I suggest our discussion focus on two main questions: First, what are the best arguments for and against Mackie’s error theory? Second, what are the implications of Mackie’s error theory for ethics? Mackie’s Ethicsis divided into three parts. Part I covers “The Status of Ethics.” The four chapters in Part I argue that error theory is correct because there are no objective values. Of these four chapters, please pay special attention to Chapter 1 on “The Subjectivity of Values,” which provides the core arguments for moral error theory. You can find Chapter 1 online here: . Chapter 3 provides a useful characterization of morality as an “institution.” Part II examines “The Content of Ethics,” giving Mackie’s view of the consequences of error theory for moral practice. Of the four chapters in Part II, Chapters 5 and 8 provide most of Mackie’s arguments for morality serving the social function of allowing self-interested human communities to flourish through cooperation and controlled competition. We will not focus much on Part III, called “Frontiers of Ethics,” which is shorter and briefly surveys issues in moral responsibility, theology, and philosophy of law. This write-up has four sections. First is a list of useful videos and secondary sources to get background on meta-ethics and Mackie’s error theory. Second is background on Mackie, including his biography and other notable works. Third are discussion questions. Fourth are chapter summaries for Parts I and II. For discussion questions and chapter summaries, please follow the google drive link at the bottom of the write-up (they're too long to post here). 1. Videos and Secondary Sources Videos: Some analytic philosophers seem to hold the meta-philosophical view that the drier the writing, the more forceful the philosophy. On this view, Mackie’s Ethics is forceful indeed. The book also assumes a great deal of familiarity with analytic meta-ethics. To help with this, I recorded a slide deck video that covers Mackie’s core arguments and some possible responses. ● Slide deck video on Mackie’s Ethics (45 mins): ● Slide deck from the video with jargon hyperlinked to SEP articles: The 10 minute PBS “Crash Course Philosophy” video below provides a good overview of the different views within moral realism and moral anti-realism. I would then watch the 10 minute video featuring Simon Blackburn, a prominent analytic philosopher working in meta-ethics. Blackburn explains the general issues involved in being a “realist” or “anti-realist” about any given thing: be it moral facts, numbers, or god. Around 7:30 he turns to ethics, and around 8:30 he talks about Mackie’s error theory. ● “Metaethics: Crash Course Philosophy” PBS video (10 minutes): ● Closer to Truth video featuring Simon Blackburn on Realism vs. Anti-Realism (10 minutes): Secondary Sources: I suggesting starting with the short SEP entry below on “Mackie's Arguments for the Moral Error Theory.” The entry covers the two core arguments Mackie makes in Chapter 1 for there being no objective values. I would then read the 7 page encyclopedia entry on error theory by Richard Joyce, a prominent error theorist. Also below is a link to the Error Theory section of the SEP entry on Moral Anti-Realism. ● SEP entry on “Mackie's Arguments for the Moral Error Theory”: ● Richard Joyce’s “Error Theory” entry for International Encyclopedia of Ethics (2013): ● SEP section on “Error Theory” in “Moral Anti-Realism” Entry: 2. Background on Mackie Biography: Mackie lived from 1917 to 1981. He studied philosophy at the University of Sydney under Scottish philosopher John Anderson, who developed a form of metaphysical realism influential at Sydney. After serving in the British Army in World War II, Mackie succeeded Anderson in 1959 as philosophy professor at Sydney. By 1974, Mackie was a philosophy Fellow at Oxford. His obituary notes that “his quiet manner tended to belie both the sharpness of his thought and his tenacity in argument.” Regarding the relevance of Mackie’s biography to his Ethics, I agree with the assessment that starts off the Partially Examined Life podcast on Mackie linked to below: “So there’s this guy - I don’t think his biography matters too much - he was at one of the big universities in England.” ● Mackie wikipedia entry: ● Mackie obituary: ● SEP entry on John Anderson, Mackie’s teacher: Other Works: Mackie wrote six books and many articles. The Ethics is his most widely known work. Following that, he is known for his work in philosophy of religion and in metaphysics. In philosophy of religion, Mackie defended the atheist argument that the evil in the world is incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent and morally good god. He argued for this view in his 1955 essay “Evil and Omnipotence” and in his 1982 book, the last written before he died, called The Miracle of Theism. It's certainly interesting that one of the most prominent moral error theorists is also well-known for making a specifically moral argument against god’s existence. ● Prospect Magazine - “Ethics is invented, not encountered—why the philosophy of JL Mackie remains essential reading”: ● Wireless Philosophy video on Mackie’s Atheistic Argument from Evil (5 minutes long): ● Partially Examined Life podcast on Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism (45 minutes long): 3. Discussion Questions 4. Chapter Summaries Discussion questions and chapter summaries can be found here:

West End Neighborhood Library

2301 L Street NW · Washington, DC

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    What we're about

    Did you take a philosophy class in high school or college and wish you had taken more? Do you read philosophy texts independently but have no one to discuss them with? Then this group is for you.

    Somewhat of a hybrid, it is a combination study group and book club. The backgrounds of our members vary: some have never taken a philosophy course and are essentially self-taught; others have doctorates in the field. We read authors considered "canonical." Although the majority of writers have been European and American, we have read and are open to texts from other cultures. Representative philosophers have included Plato, Averroes, Confucius, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Sartre, Arendt, Rawls, Foucault, and Butler. Most of the time we read a single book by a single author, but if their output has been substantial we will consider an anthology. We started the group in 2010 with the classical period and finished in 2013 with twentieth century writers. In 2014 we returned to the classical period and are repeating the chronology, adding new writers who were missed the first time around (to see the past reading schedule, from 2000 forward, click here ( We are currently reading 20th century philosophers and expect do continue doing so into 2019. For the updated 2018 schedule, please click here (

    Meetings are currently held at the West End Library in DC, located 2301 L St NW, Washington, DC 20037,
    on the third Saturday of each month, from 1:00-3:00 PM. The Foggy Bottom-GWU metro station is nearby.

    Tips in Preparing for Meetings

    After you have finished the reading, ask yourself: (1) What are the philosopher’s principal ideas? (2) What arguments are used to support them, and are they strong or weak? (3) Who were the author’s major influences, and whom in turn did he/she influence? (4) What was the historical context in which the author wrote, and did this affect what was said? (5) Are the author’s works still relevant today and, if so, how?

    To help in answering these questions, attendees are encouraged to consult the secondary resources posted in each announcement. Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy are especially useful.

    Rules of Conduct at Meetings

    Avoid monopolizing the conversation. If you've been speaking for several minutes, and sense others want to get in, relinquish the floor.

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    Challenging arguments and disputing facts are fine; personal attacks are not.

    If you have not read at least 50% of the recommended selections, consider skipping the meeting to allow other interested people to attend.

    Those who violate the rules of conduct repeatedly will be dropped from the group at the discretion of the organizer.


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    Although everyone is welcome to use our resources, our targeted audience, and membership, is now restricted to people who live in the Maryland, DC, and Virginia area. Those who joined before November 2016 have been grandfathered in.

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