J. L. Mackie

John Leslie Mackie FBA (1917–1981) was an Australian philosopher. He made significant contributions to the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language, and is perhaps best known for his views on meta-ethics, especially his defence of moral scepticism. He authored six books. His most widely known, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977), opens by boldly stating that "There are no objective values." It goes on to argue that because of this ethics must be invented, rather than discovered.

J. L. Mackie

John Leslie Mackie
John Leslie Mackie

25 August 1917
Died12 December 1981 (aged 64)
Oxford, England
Alma mater
Joan Meredith (m. 1947)
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Main interests
Notable ideas
Argument from queerness


Mackie was born 25 August 1917 in Killara, Sydney.[1] His mother, Annie Burnett Duncan, was a schoolteacher,[2] and his father, Alexander Mackie, was professor of education at the University of Sydney as well as the principal of the Sydney Teachers College, and was influential in the educational system of New South Wales.[3] He graduated from the University of Sydney in 1938 after studying under John Anderson, sharing the medal in philosophy with eminent jurist Harold Glass. Mackie received the Wentworth Travelling Fellowship to study greats at Oriel College, Oxford, where he graduated with first-class honours in 1940.[1]

During the Second World War Mackie served with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in the Middle East and Italy, and was mentioned in dispatches.[1] He was professor of philosophy at the University of Otago in New Zealand from 1955 to 1959 and succeeded Anderson as the Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1959 to 1963. In 1963, he moved to the United Kingdom, becoming the inaugural holder of the chair of philosophy in the University of York, a position he held until 1967 when he was instead elected a fellow of University College, Oxford, where he served as praelector. In 1969, he gave a lecture entitled "What's Really Wrong with Phenomenalism?" at the British Academy as part of its annual Philosophical Lectures series.[4] In 1974, he became a fellow of the British Academy.[3]

He died in Oxford on 12 December 1981.[3]

Character and family

Mackie is said to have been capable of expressing total disagreement in such a genial way that the person being addressed might mistake the comment for a compliment.[5] This personal style is exemplified by the following words from the preface to Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong:

I am nowhere mainly concerned to refute any individual writer. I believe that all those to whom I have referred, even those with whom I disagree most strongly, have contributed significantly to our understanding of ethics: where I have quoted their actual words, it is because they have presented views or arguments more clearly or more forcefully than I could put them myself.[6]

Mackie married Joan Meredith in 1947. One of Mackie's three daughters, Penelope Mackie, also became a philosopher. She lectured in philosophy at the University of Birmingham from 1994 to 2004, and was appointed Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham in 2007. Mackie's younger son, David, is also a philosopher and graduated from Oxford University where he held lectureships at Exeter College, Corpus Christi College, and Christ Church before being appointed a Fellow and Tutor at Oriel College. He is currently Head of Philosophy at D'Overbroeck's College, Oxford.[7] Mackie's other daughter, Hilary, is a classicist at Rice University.[8]

Philosophical work

Mackie is best known for his contributions to the fields of meta-ethics, philosophy of religion, and metaphysics. In meta-ethics, he took a position called moral scepticism, arguing against the objective existence of right and wrong as intrinsically normative entities on fundamental grounds as unsure about what kinds of things such entities would be, if they existed.[9]

His perhaps most widely known work,[2] Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, bluntly begins with the opening sentence "There are no objective values". He uses several arguments to support this claim that objective values do not exist. He argues that some aspects of moral thought are relative, and that objective morals require an absurd intrinsic action-guiding feature. Most of all, he thinks it is very unclear how objective values could supervene on features of the natural world (see the Argument from queerness). Fourth, he thinks it would be difficult to justify our knowledge of "value entities" or account for any links or consequences they would have. And, finally, he thinks it is possible to show that even without any objective values, people would still have reason to firmly believe in them (hence, he claims that it is possible for people to be mistaken or fooled into believing that objective values exist). The Times called the book "a lucid discussion of moral theory which, although aimed at the general reader, has attracted a good deal of professional attention."[3]

Mackie was a supporter of the compatibilistic interpretation of free will.

Concerning religion, he was well known for vigorously defending atheism, and also arguing that the problem of evil made untenable the main monotheistic religions.[10] His criticisms of the free will defence are particularly significant. He argued that the idea of human free will is no defense for those who wish to believe in an omnicompetent being in the face of evil and suffering, as such a being could have given us both free will and moral perfection, thus resulting in us choosing the good in every situation. In 1955 he published one of his [11] "Evil and Omnipotence", summarizing his view that the simultaneous existence of evil and an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God was "positively irrational".[12] Mackie's views on this so-called logical problem of evil prompted Alvin Plantinga to respond with his version of the free will defense to which Mackie later responded in his The Miracle of Theism.

In metaphysics, Mackie made significant contributions relating to the nature of causal relationships, especially regarding conditional statements describing them (see, for example, Mackie 1974) and the notion of an INUS condition.

Upon being given a copy of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene as a Christmas present,[2] he in 1978 wrote an article in the journal Philosophy praising the book and discussing how its ideas might be applied to moral philosophy.[13] The philosopher Mary Midgley responded in 1979 with "Gene-Juggling", an article arguing that The Selfish Gene was about psychological egoism, rather than evolution.[14] This started a dispute between Mackie, Midgley, and Dawkins that was still ongoing at the time of Mackie's death.



  • Truth, Probability, and Paradox (1973), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824402-9.
  • The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation (1980 [1974]), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824642-0.
  • Problems from Locke (1976), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824555-6.
  • Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977), Viking Press, ISBN 0-14-013558-8.
  • Hume's Moral Theory (1980), Routledge Keegan & Paul, ISBN 0-7100-0525-3.
  • The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God (1982), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824682-X.


  • Logic and Knowledge: Selected Papers, Volume I (1985), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824679-X.
  • Persons and Values: Selected Papers, Volume II (1985), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824678-1.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Menzies, Peter. "Mackie, John Leslie (1917–1981)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 7 March 2017.
  2. ^ a b c McDowell, John. "Mackie, John Leslie (1917–1981)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/65648. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ a b c d Obituary, The Times, 15 December 1981
  4. ^ "Philosophical Lectures". www.britac.ac.uk/. British Academy. Retrieved 7 March 2017.
  5. ^ Obituary notice, University College Record, 1982
  6. ^ Mackie, J. L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. p. 3.
  7. ^ D'Overbroeck's College Teaching Staff at official website. Accessed 12 June 2015
  8. ^ [1] Faculty website. Accessed 26 December 2016
  9. ^ See, for example, Mackie 1977: Argument from Queerness. The Argument from Queerness also suggests that the only way to know of such entities would be through an intuition or another faculty different from how we know everything else. He conjoined moral scepticism with error theory, holding that moral judgments, while cognitive, are all false since there are no moral properties about which our moral judgments could be correct.
  10. ^ See, for example, Mackie 1982.
  11. ^ http://www.ditext.com/mackie/evil.html
  12. ^ Mackie, J. L. (April 1955). "Evil and Omnipotence". Mind. 64 (254): 200–212. doi:10.1093/mind/LXIV.254.200. JSTOR 2251467.
  13. ^ Mackie, J. L. (October 1978). "The Law of the Jungle". Philosophy. 53 (206): 455–464. doi:10.1017/S0031819100026322. JSTOR 3749875.
  14. ^ Midgley, Mary (October 1979). "Gene-Juggling". Philosophy. 54 (210): 439–458. doi:10.1017/S0031819100063488. JSTOR 3751039.

Further reading

1917 in philosophy

1917 in philosophy

1981 in philosophy

1981 in philosophy

1982 in philosophy

1982 in philosophy

Agnostic existentialism

Agnostic existentialism is a type of existentialism which makes no claim to know whether there is a "greater picture"; rather, it simply asserts that the greatest truth is that which the individual chooses to act upon. It feels that to know the greater picture, whether there is one or not, is impossible, or impossible so far, or of little value. Like the Christian existentialist, the agnostic existentialist believes existence is subjective.

Alvin Plantinga's free-will defense

Alvin Plantinga's free-will defense is a logical argument developed by the American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga and published in its final version in his 1977 book God, Freedom, and Evil. Plantinga's argument is a defense against the logical problem of evil as formulated by the philosopher J. L. Mackie beginning in 1955. Mackie's formulation of the logical problem of evil argued that three attributes of God, omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence, in orthodox Christian theism are logically incompatible with the existence of evil. In 1982, Mackie conceded that Plantinga's defense successfully refuted his argument in The Miracle of Theism, though he did not claim that the problem of evil had been put to rest.

Argument from morality

The argument from morality is an argument for the existence of God. Arguments from morality tend to be based on moral normativity or moral order. Arguments from moral normativity observe some aspect of morality and argue that God is the best or only explanation for this, concluding that God must exist. Arguments from moral order are based on the asserted need for moral order to exist in the universe. They claim that, for this moral order to exist, God must exist to support it. The argument from morality is noteworthy in that one cannot evaluate the soundness of the argument without attending to almost every important philosophical issue in meta-ethics.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant devised an argument from morality based on practical reason. Kant argued that the goal of humanity is to achieve perfect happiness and virtue (the summum bonum) and believed that an afterlife must exist in order for this to be possible, and that God must exist to provide this. In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis argued that "conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver." Lewis argued that accepting the validity of human reason as a given must include accepting the validity of practical reason, which could not be valid without reference to a higher cosmic moral order which could not exist without a God to create and/or establish it. A related argument is from conscience; John Henry Newman argued that the conscience supports the claim that objective moral truths exist because it drives people to act morally even when it is not in their own interest. Newman argued that, because the conscience suggests the existence of objective moral truths, God must exist to give authority to these truths.

Contemporary defenders of the argument from morality are Graham Ward, Alister McGrath and William Lane Craig.

Australian realism

Australian realism, also called Australian materialism, is a school of philosophy that flourished in the first half of the 20th century in several universities in Australia including the Australian National University, the University of Adelaide, and the University of Sydney, and whose central claim, as stated by leading theorist John Anderson, was that "whatever exists … is real, that is to say it is a spatial and temporal situation or occurrence that is on the same level of reality as anything else that exists". Coupled with this was Anderson's idea that "every fact (which includes every “object”) is a complex situation: there are no simples, no atomic facts, no objects which cannot be, as it were, expanded into facts." Prominent players included Anderson, David Malet Armstrong, J. L. Mackie, Ullin Place, J. J. C. Smart, and David Stove. The label "Australian realist" was conferred on acolytes of Anderson by A. J. Baker in 1986, to mixed approval from those realist philosophers who happened to be Australian. David Malet Armstrong "suggested, half-seriously, that 'the strong sunlight and harsh brown landscape of Australia force reality upon us'".

Gerhard Streminger

Gerhard Streminger is an Austrian Philosopher and author, born in Graz in 1952 . From 1970, he studied philosophy and mathematics in Graz, Goettingen, Edinburgh with G.E.Davie and Oxford with J. L. Mackie. He gained his PhD in 1978 at the University of Graz, where he held posts from 1975 until 1997. In 1981 he was Visiting Professor at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Streminger was appointed Assistant Professor at the University of Graz in 1988 and received the title of University Professor in 1995.

He received several awards and prizes: 1974 a scholarship of the Deutsche Akademische Auslandsdienst; 1978 one of the British Council; and he was awarded the 1991/92 Humboldt Scholarship. In 2006 he gained the David Hume Award of the Kellmann Society for Humanism and Enlightenment.Streminger is generally considered as an engaged agnostic/agnosticism. He is a member of the Giordano Bruno Stiftung, a society to promote evolutionary humanism.

Streminger is widely known as editor and translator of works of David Hume. His biographies and commentaries on Hume and Adam Smith are seen as the standard of research on the Scottish Enlightenment in the German-speaking world. Besides, he published many articles on this subject and the Philosophy of Religion. His philosophically most important work Gottes Guete und die Uebel der Welt deals comprehensively with Theodicy (the Problem of evil).

Inconsistent triad

An inconsistent triad consists of three propositions of which at most two can be true. For example:

Alice loves me.

If Alice loves me, then she would have sent flowers.

Alice has not sent flowers.If one finds oneself believing all three propositions of an inconsistent triad, then (in order to be rational) one must give up or modify at least one of those beliefs. Maybe Alice doesn't love me, or maybe she wouldn't send flowers to me if she did, or maybe she actually has sent flowers.

Any inconsistent triad {A, B, C} gives rise to a trilemma {{A, B}, {B, C}, {C, A}}.

John Mackie

John Mackie may refer to:

John C. Mackie (1920–2008), U.S. Representative from Michigan

John Duncan Mackie (1887–1978), Scottish historian

J. L. Mackie (1917–1981), Australian-born philosopher, best known for his views on meta-ethics

John Mackie, Baron John-Mackie (1909–1994), British Labour Member of Parliament 1959–1974

John Mackie (Scottish Unionist politician) (1898–1958), Scottish Unionist Member of Parliament for Galloway 1931–1958

John F. Mackie (1835–1910), first United States Marine to receive the Medal of Honor

John Milton Mackie (1813–1894), American writer

John Mackie (Kirkcudbright MP) (died 1858), MP for Kirkcudbright Stewartry

John Mackie (born 1961), bassist for Scottish post-punk band Scars

Kalam cosmological argument

The Kalām cosmological argument is a modern formulation of the cosmological argument for the existence of God; named for the kalam (medieval Islamic scholasticism), it was popularized by William Lane Craig in his The Kalām Cosmological Argument (1979).

The argument is similar to the unmoved mover in Aristotelianism due to its basis in the nature of causality and argument against the possibility of an infinite regress. However, Aristotle himself did not believe in a temporally finite universe and his argument is concerned with simultaneously existing causes (meaning the age of the universe is irrelevant). The Kalām argument is named after the Arabic word for "speech" because Craig, arguing against the possibility of the existence of actual infinities in time, traced the idea to 11th-century Muslim Scholastic philosopher Al-Ghazali. The implication of the name is that God spoke (or, to be more precise, willed) the universe into existence.

Since Craig's original publication, the Kalam cosmological argument has elicited public debate between Craig and Graham Oppy, Adolf Grünbaum, J. L. Mackie and Quentin Smith, and has been used in Christian apologetics.

According to Michael Martin, the cosmological arguments presented by Craig, Bruce Reichenbach, and Richard Swinburne are "among the most sophisticated and well argued in contemporary theological philosophy", while also noting that, in reference to Craig's argument specifically, "there may have been trillions of personal agents involved in the creation".The Kalam argument's underpinning is the impossibility of an actual infinite and/or the traversing of infinite time, which is what distinguishes it from other cosmological arguments (as was mentioned) such as that of Thomas Aquinas, which rests on the impossibility of an essentially ordered infinite regress, and that of Leibniz and Clark, which uses the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

Metaphysical necessity

In philosophy, metaphysical necessity, sometimes called broad logical necessity, is one of many different kinds of necessity, which sits between logical necessity and nomological (or physical) necessity, in the sense that logical necessity entails metaphysical necessity, but not vice versa, and metaphysical necessity entails physical necessity, but not vice versa. A proposition is said to be necessary if it could not have failed to be the case. Nomological necessity is necessity according to the laws of physics and logical necessity is necessity according to the laws of logic, while metaphysical necessities are necessary in the sense that the world could not possibly have been otherwise. What facts are metaphysically necessary, and on what basis we might view certain facts as metaphysically but not logically necessary are subjects of substantial discussion in contemporary philosophy.

The concept of a metaphysically necessary being plays an important role in certain arguments for the existence of God, especially the ontological argument, but metaphysical necessity is also one of the central concepts in late 20th century analytic philosophy. Metaphysical necessity has proved a controversial concept, and criticized by David Hume, Immanuel Kant, J. L. Mackie, and Richard Swinburne, among others.

Metaphysical necessity is contrasted with other types of necessity. For example, the philosophers of religion John Hick and William L. Rowe distinguished the following three:

factual necessity (existential necessity): a factually necessary being is not causally dependent on any other being, while any other being is causally dependent on it.

causal necessity (subsumed by Hicks under the former type): a causally necessary being is such that it is logically impossible for it to be causally dependent on any other being, and it is logically impossible for any other being to be causally independent of it.

logical necessity: a logically necessary being is a being whose non-existence is a logical impossibility, and which therefore exists either timeless or eternally in all possible worlds.While many theologians (e.g. Anselm of Canterbury, René Descartes, and Gottfried Leibniz) considered God to be a logically or metaphysically necessary being, Richard Swinburne argued for factual necessity, and Alvin Plantinga argues that God is a causally necessary being. Because a factually or causally necessary being does not exist by logical necessity, it does not exist in all logically possible worlds. Therefore, Swinburne used the term "ultimate brute fact" for the existence of God.

Moral nihilism

Moral nihilism (also known as ethical nihilism) is the meta-ethical view that nothing is morally right or wrong.

Moral nihilism is distinct from moral relativism, which allows for actions wrong relative to a particular culture or individual. It is also distinct from expressivism, according to which when we make moral claims, "We are not making an effort to describe the way the world is ... we are venting our emotions, commanding others to act in certain ways, or revealing a plan of action" (Shafer-Landau 2010, pp. 292–293).

Nihilism does not imply that we should give up using moral or ethical language; some nihilists contend that it remains a useful tool.

Moral skepticism

Moral skepticism (or moral scepticism) is a class of metaethical theories all members of which entail that no one has any moral knowledge. Many moral skeptics also make the stronger, modal claim that moral knowledge is impossible. Moral skepticism is particularly opposed to moral realism: the view that there are knowable and objective moral truths.

Some defenders of moral skepticism include Pyrrho, Aenesidemus, Sextus Empiricus, David Hume, J. L. Mackie (1977), Max Stirner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Joyce (2001), Michael Ruse, Joshua Greene, Richard Garner, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2006b), and the psychologist James Flynn. Strictly speaking, Gilbert Harman (1975) argues in favor of a kind of moral relativism, not moral skepticism. However, he has influenced some contemporary moral skeptics.

Natural-law argument

Natural-law argument for the existence of God was especially popular in the eighteenth century as a result of the influence of Sir Isaac Newton. As Bertrand Russell pointed out much later, many of the things we consider to be laws of nature, in fact, are human conventions. Indeed, Albert Einstein has shown that Newton's law of universal gravitation was such a convention, and though elegant and useful, one that did not describe the universe precisely. Most true laws are rather trivial, such as mathematical laws, laws of probability, and so forth, and much less impressive than those that were envisioned by Newton and his followers. Russell wrote:

"If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others -- the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it -- if there was a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary. You really have a law outside and anterior to the divine edicts, and God does not serve your purpose, because he is not the ultimate law-giver. In short, this whole argument from natural law no longer has anything like the strength that it used to have."The argument of natural laws as a basis for God was changed by Christian figures such as Thomas Aquinas, in order to fit biblical scripture and establish a Judeo-Christian teleological law.

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff (born January 21, 1932) is an American philosopher and a liturgical theologian. He is currently Noah Porter Professor Emeritus Philosophical Theology at Yale University. A prolific writer with wide-ranging philosophical and theological interests, he has written books on aesthetics, epistemology, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophy of education. In Faith and Rationality, Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, and William Alston developed and expanded upon a view of religious epistemology that has come to be known as Reformed epistemology. He also helped to establish the journal Faith and Philosophy and the Society of Christian Philosophers.

Penelope Mackie

Penelope Mackie () is a philosopher and Associate Professor and Reader in the department of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, and was the Head of Department from 2007 until 2010 Mackie has also held positions at the University of Birmingham (1994–2004), as lecturer; a fixed-term fellowship at New College, Oxford, (1990–1994); Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University (1987–1990); a visiting lecturer at the University of Maryland (1986–1987); and, has lectured at various Oxford colleges. Research interests are from a variety of topics including metaphysics and the philosophy of causation. Prof. Mackie is the daughter of philosopher J. L. Mackie.

Theological noncognitivism

Theological noncognitivism is the position that religious language – specifically, words such as "God" – are not cognitively meaningful. It is sometimes considered synonymous with ignosticism.

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