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Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong Paperback – 30 Aug 1990
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About the Author
John Leslie Mackie (1917-1981) was a philosopher who made significant contributions to the fields of ethics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion. A professor of philosophy at the universities of Sydney, Otago, New Zealand, and York, he was elected a fellow of the University of Oxford in 1967 and to the British Academy in 1974.
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Skepticism has its limits and wielded by less than agile minds can be a very blunt tool. Here, however, Mackie presents a convincing (at least to me) argument against the entire fabric of moral precepts by elucidating not so much their contradictions as their incoherence from a philosophical viewpoint.
Yet this is not a crude argument for moral relativism. Rather, Mackie simply argues that if moral precepts won't do, we need to replace them with something that will. To fill this gap he proposes an ethics based on individual rights and obligations. There is nothing new in this idea for it goes back to the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, Mackie offers it in a clear form without arbitrary prescriptions for the societies in which moral actors live. Thereby he avoids the absurdities propounded by various American thinkers (notably the psychotic-libertarian school represented by Nozick) and that is this book's great strength.
Mackie left me admiring him for having the guts not to be radical but simply to admit that practical ethics does not work unless it has the pragmatism to make frequent sanity checks upon itself.
For its plain words and good sense I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
It is still a good read and I am less sure that he is wrong now. But the rest of the book does not improve upon or add much to the initial argument of chapter one. Rather it fills it out and gives suggestions as to what ought to be done ('ought' not here being a moral imperative) if his argument is correct.
The argument itself (there are two substantial ones but only one is characteristically his) remains reasonably straightforward. Mackie claims that there are no ethical facts or objective values. If there were then - he claims - they would constitute very queer entities indeed. But since the existence of such queer entities is implausible then it follows (since objective ethical values implies such entities) that the claim that there are objective ethical values is likewise implausible. If that does it for you you are on the way to endorsing Mackie's view.
Whether or not you do agree, Mackie is always worth reading for his cool reasonableness and great clarity of style.
This is not always the easiest of reads - not really for the philosophical content, but more because of MacKie's writing style.
Fortunately, these were ntirely justified; Mackie, as ever, presents well-balanced arguments and produces his own views with a degree of clarity and style which makes him stand out amongst the writers of philosophy. His Ethics is no different, presenting a clear refutation of objective morality and any view other than his own, Mackie demonstrates those same qualities which have made him so well renowned amongst modern readers. Whilst disagreeing with some of the points, mainly his principle point, that there can be no objective morality, the force and coherence of the views he espouses are stunning and a good read for those who agree as well as those who disagree. The objectivist will find reason to question their views and the subjectivist will find a wealth of opinions and arguments like their own to think on.
There is one major problem with this product, however, and that is the frankly shoddy printing. Whilst it is clearly a cheaper version, the penguin print is poor quality. The paper is of an unusual off-white hue and the typeset is unappealing. Furthermore, there are many faded areas and the text is oftentimes illegible due to the failure of the printing. It is possible that this fading is rare and that I have simply been unlucky, but even if this is the case the paper quality and typeset are still detrimental to what would otherwise be an incredibly impressive book.
Overall, therefore, the condition of the book is hardly justified, despite the quality of the work inside. I would still recommend picking up a copy, though the best option would be a second-hand copy; little would be lost.
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Some of you will laugh and think that this point is completely obvious. But, this book is not an easy read. Neither is it an enjoyable read.Read more