The human being is a gregarious and social being, who needs the contact with the other members of his species to survive and manage to adapt successfully. But living together is not easy: it is necessary to establish a series of rules that allow us to limit our behaviour in such a way that both our own rights and those of others are respected, rules that are generally based on ethics and morality: what is right and what is wrong, what is right and wrong, what is fair and unfair, what is worthy or unworthy and what is considered permissible and what is not.

Since antiquity, morality has been the object of philosophical discussion and with time of scientific research from fields such as psychology or sociology, there being multiple positions, perspectives and theories on the subject. One of them is Mackie’s theory of error , of which we are going to speak throughout this article.

Mackie’s theory of error: basic description

Mackie’s so-called theory of error is an approach made by the author himself according to which each and every one of our moral judgments are erroneous and false, based on the consideration that morality does not exist as an objective element , not existing moral properties in reality as such but that morality is built on the basis of subjective beliefs. Technically, this theory would enter within a cognitivist perspective of what comes to be called anti-subjectivist realism.

The theory of error was elaborated by John Leslie Mackie in 1977, based on the premises of cognitivism and indicating that if true moral judgments existed, they would be principles that guide behavior in a direct way and of which it would not be possible to doubt.

He considers that moral judgement is a cognitive act that has the capacity of falsification, but given that moral judgement only exists insofar as there is really an always moral property as such, invariable and without possibility of interpretation .

However, since there is no such property at an absolute level but what is or is not moral is decided by the community to which it belongs, no moral judgment can be true either. Therefore, while it may be considered socially true for a given group to fully share such judgments, moral judgment always makes the mistake of believing itself to be objective.

The author’s intention is not to eliminate or consider the moral act useless (that is, he does not want to stop doing things considered just or good), but to reform the way of understanding ethics and morality as something relative and not as a universal absolute. Moreover, proposes that ethics and morality should be continually reinvented , not being something fixed to be studied but rather that it should be modified according to how humanity evolves.

Two basic arguments

In developing his theory, John Mackie considers and uses two different types of arguments. The first of them is the argument of the relativity of moral judgments , arguing that what we consider moral may not be so for another person without being wrong.

The second argument is that of singularity. According to this argument, if objective properties or values exist they should be different entities from anything that exists , in addition to requiring a special faculty to be able to capture such property or value. And yet another property would be necessary, that of being able to interpret the facts observed with the objective value.

Instead, Mackie considers that what we really experience is a reaction to the vision of a fact that is derived from what we have learned culturally or from the link with our own experiences. For example, that one animal hunts another for food is a behavior that is visible to us, and that will generate different subjective impressions for each of those affected.

Morality as a subjective perception: a comparison with color

Mackie’s theory of error establishes, then, that all moral judgment is false or erroneous since it assumes that the moral property that we grant to an act or phenomenon is universal.

By way of analogy to make his theory more easily understandable, the author himself used the example of colour perception in his theory. It is possible that we see a red, blue, green or white object, as well as a great majority of people do too.

However, the object in question does not have that or those colors per se , since in reality when we see colors what we see is the refraction in our eyes of the wavelengths of light that the object has not been able to absorb.

Colour would not be a property of the object but a biological reaction of ours to the reflection of light: it would not be something objective but subjective. Thus, sea water is not blue or the leaf of the tree green, but we perceive them as such. And in fact, not everyone will see the same colour , as can happen in the case of a colour-blind person.

The same can be said of moral properties: there would be nothing good or bad, moral or amoral in itself but we perceive it as such according to its adjustment to our perception of the world. And just as a colour-blind person might not perceive the colour red (even if he identifies a certain tone as such), another person might judge that an act that for us has a certain moral connotation has for him the directly opposite one.

Although the fact that morality is something subjective nowadays may seem logical to assume, the truth is that morality has been throughout history taken by a great number of people as something objective and invariable, being often also a reason for discrimination towards groups (for example people of different race, religion or sexuality from the typical one) or practices that we consider usual nowadays.

Bibliographic references:

  • Mackie, J. (2000). Ethics: the invention of good and bad. Barcelona: Gedisa.
  • Moreso, J.J. (2005.). The kingdom of rights and the objectivity of morality. Cartapacio, 4. Pompeu Fabra University.
  • Almeida, S. (2012). The problem of the semantics of moral language in the contemporary metaethical discussion. National University of Colombia. Department of Philosophy.
  • Villoria, M. and Izquierdo, A. (2015). Ética pública y buen gobierno. INAP.