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John Leslie Mackie
Full name John Leslie Mackie
Born 24 August 1917(1917-08-24)
Died 12 December 1981 (aged 64)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Australian Realism
Main interests Ethics, metaphysics
Notable ideas Argument from queerness

John Leslie Mackie (28 August 1917–12 December 1981) was an Australian philosopher, originally from Sydney. He is perhaps best known for his views on meta-ethics, especially his defence of moral skepticism. However, he has also made significant contributions to philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophy of language.





Character and family

Mackie is said[2] 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. This personal style is exemplified by the following words from the preface to Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977, p. 3):

...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.

One of Mackie's daughters, Dr. Penelope Mackie, also became a philosopher. She was a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham from 1994 to 2004, and is now at the University of Nottingham.


Mackie was most well known for his contributions to the fields of meta-ethics, philosophy of religion, and metaphysics. In meta-ethics, he took a position that he called moral skepticism (though, arguably, it would be better termed "moral nihilism"), arguing against the objective existence of right and wrong as intrinsically normative entities on fundamental grounds unsure what kinds of things such entities would be, if they existed.

In the first part of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, he uses several arguments to support his claim that objective values are false. 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).

Concerning religion, he was well known for vigorously defending atheism, and also arguing that the problem of evil made untenable the main monotheistic religions (see, for example, Mackie 1982). 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. Thus, Mackie's critique of free will theodicies was based on his support for compatibilism. 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.

Selected publications

  • 1973, Truth, Probability, and Paradox, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824402-9.
  • 1974, The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824642-0.
  • 1976, Problems from Locke, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824555-6.
  • 1977, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Viking Press, ISBN 0-14-013558-8.
  • 1977, "The Third Theory of Law", Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 7, No. 1.
  • 1980, Hume's Moral Theory, Routledge Keegan & Paul, ISBN 0-7100-0525-3.
  • 1982, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824682-X.
  • 1985, Logic and Knowledge: Selected Papers, Volume I, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824679-X.
  • 1985, Persons and Values: Selected Papers, Volume II, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-824678-1.

References and further reading

  1. ^ a b Obituary, The Times, December 15, 1981
  2. ^ Obituary notice, University College Record, 1982
  • Franklin, James. (2003) Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia, Macleay Press, ISBN 1-876492-08-2.
  • Honderich, Ted (ed). (1985) Morality and Objectivity: A Tribute to J. L. Mackie, Routledge Kegan & Paul, ISBN 0-7100-9991-6.
  • Stegmüller, Wolfgang. (1989) Hauptströmungen der Gegenwartsphilosophie (Bd. IV, Kapitel II, Teil A. Moralphilosophie ohne Metaphysik; Teil B. Mackies Wunder des Theismus), Alfred Kröner Verlag, ISBN 3-520-41501-1.


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