Volume 24, 2019
The Objectivity of Ethics
A Response to J. L. Mackie's Error Theory
In 1977, the atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie published the book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. In it, he notably argued that objective ethical standards simply do not exist. He acknowledges that the existence of God would undermine moral skepticism, but assumes an atheistic position, and therefore concludes that objective morality is an intellectual incoherence. The debate, therefore, does not hinge on the existence of God, but rather on whether or not ethics are an objective reality without referring to God as their basis. From the standpoint of Catholic social teaching, the objectivity of ethics is a reality that should be defended over and against the claims of moral skepticism that Mackie argues are valid. In fact, the existence of objective ethics not only provides a defense of the system of Catholic social teaching, but illustrates its value to those who may be skeptical of its claims. With this defense of objective ethics as the goal, this paper claims that Mackie’s argument fails due to his deficient epistemological approach. Assuming the proper epistemic sense, natural law theory is a functional system of objective ethical truth, drawn out through a Thomistic understanding of the human pursuit of what is good.