Sam Harris Misunderstands J. L. Mackie

On page twenty nine of The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris makes a distinction between ontological and epistemic subjectivity, where the former pertains to the dependence on subjective states for certain things to exist, such as the deliciousness of a porterhouse steak, and the latter has to do with subjective elements biasing the process of evaluating reasons and/or evidence for some proposition(s), which means objective reasoning involves a lack of such biases. The distinction is odd, since the notion of subjectivity is used colloquially in the latter case, but not necessarily in the former. I am unaware of any serious philosopher who theorizes about morality conflating these two alleged senses of “subjectivity”.

Harris goes on in note four of chapter one to accuse the Australian philosopher, J. L. Mackie of conflating the epistemic sense of objectivity/subjectivity with the ontological one. Mackie is quoted as saying,

“If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else” (Mackie 38).

Harris then proclaims, “Clearly, Mackie has conflated two senses of the term “objective” (Harris 198). However, if one includes the sentence immediately prior to the one with which Harris begins his quotation of Mackie, it becomes obvious that no such conflation has taken place. The previous sentence reads, “This has two parts, one metaphysical, the other epistemological” (Mackie 38). Mackie is referring to the argument from queerness, which is made clear in the sentence before the one just quoted here (Mackie 38). The argument Mackie is setting up has two parts, one metaphysical and the other epistemic, as he said in the quotation above. The argument from queerness has to do with the ontological/metaphysical queerness of the allegedly non-negotiable commitments of moral discourse. The sorts of entities that must correspond to the queer ontological commitments of moral discourse are such that they cannot be known through the normal methods of sensory perception, as they aren’t the sorts of properties that can be observed (e.g. physical properties). Mackie’s point is that we would need to posit a special faculty of moral intuition to account for our knowledge of these allegedly queer entities to which moral discourse commits us. Contra Harris, Mackie is not conflating two senses of the term “objective.” Mackie is merely pointing out that, given the allegedly non-negotiable ontological commitments of moral discourse, we need to posit a special faculty of moral intuition or perception that is, “. . . utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else” (Mackie 38).

Harris then claims that,

“We need not discuss “entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe” in order to speak about moral truth. We need only admit that the experiences of conscious creatures are lawfully dependent upon states of the universe—and, therefore, that actions can cause more harm than good, more good than harm, or be morally neutral. Good and evil need only consist in this, and it makes no sense whatsoever to claim that an action that harms everyone affected by it (even its perpetrator) might still be “good”” (Harris 198).

The problem with this line of reasoning in reply to Mackie (and other error theorists) is that it fails to interact with their actual point. Harris does not take into account the semantic component of the error theory, which says that moral discourse non-negotiably commits us to queer sorts of entities. Mackie’s reply to Harris’s passage quoted passage would mention the fact that Harris’s conception of moral goodness/badness does not take into account the non-negotiable elements of moral discourse that commit us to queer entities, so Mackie would claim that Harris has merely changed the subject, and is no longer speaking about moral truth as ordinarily conceived by competent moral concept users. Rather, Harris is engaged in a revisionist project that seeks to redefine “moral goodness/badness”, leaving out the non-negotiable elements mentioned above. Harris has basically said that he views moral goodness as ontologically subjective but objectively knowable, which means we can engage in non-biased reasoning to reach moral truths. However, Mackie and other error theorists will doubt whether Harris’s conception of moral goodness is true to how we ordinarily conceive of moral goodness, as it fails to include the sort of categorical prescriptivity or “to-be-pursuedness” that error theorists (and non-naturalist moral realists) see as an essential element of genuine moral discourse.

In short, Harris has failed to engage with Mackie’s actual argument, and instead chose to accuse him of conflating two senses of “objectivity”, which misses the mark. Mackie’s error theory surely has some issues, but the howler that Harris accuses him of is not one of them.


Works Cited:  

Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free, 2010. Print.

Mackie, J. L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977. Print.