Mackie, John Leslie (1917–1981)

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John Leslie Mackie was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated under John Anderson at the University of Sydney, and at Oxford, where he graduated with a First in Literae Humaniores in 1940. After the war, he returned to an academic position in the University of Sydney, and in 1955 he took up the Chair in Philosophy at the University of Otago, in Dunedin, New Zealand. In 1959 he returned to the University of Sydney to replace Anderson in the Challis Chair. After five years he left for Great Britain, going first to fill the foundation Chair of Philosophy at the new University in York. In 1967 he became Fellow of University College, Oxford, and University Reader in 1978. He remained at Oxford until his death in 1981.

Mackie's work is characterized by an acute, unwearied, and always dispassionate analysis of alternative solutions to specific philosophical problems. Striving first for full clarity in the statement of the problem, he proceeds by careful exploration and appraisal of the arguments available in support of alternative proposed solutions. Mackie applied this analytic style of reasoning across a broad range of issues. He made contributions to, among other topics, logicand particularly the understanding of logical paradoxes; to the nature of conditionals and the theory of causality; to the interpretation of counterfactual conditionals; to the theory of space and time; to the theological problem of evil; to the theory of ethics; to the relations between reason, morality, and law; to the philosophy of mind; to the philosophy of biology; and to the interpretation of Locke's epistemology and metaphysics, and of Hume's ethics.

For many years, Mackie published a succession of important articles, but no books. This pattern of publication was transformed in 1973 with the appearance of Truth, Probability, and Paradox, a collection of essays on logical themes. This was followed in rapid succession by The Cement of the Universe (1974), which presents his views on causation, and Problems from Locke (1976). In this work Mackie takes up a group of characteristically Lockean themes, including primary and secondary qualities, perception, substance, universals, identity, and innate ideas, and relates them to contemporary discussion of the same issues. In Ethics, Inventing Right and Wrong (1977) he presents a sustained argument for a distinctive error-projection account of human moral thinking, which was provided with some additional support in his extended discussion of Hume's moral theory, which appeared in a book of that name in 1980. Lastly, posthumously, The Miracle of Theism was published in 1982. Its subtitleFor and Against the Existence of God sufficiently indicates its contents. Though scrupulously fair, Mackie himself was firmly convinced by the case for atheism. This burst of productivity propelled Mackie to the forefront among British philosophers of his generation, and his relatively early death, while still at the height of his powers, was keenly felt.

Mackie's Theses

Although contributing to many debates in the course of his career, Mackie is principally celebrated for four distinctive theses. The first, in philosophical theology, is his insistence, patiently argued over many years, that all the attempts to reconcile the existence of evil with the classical Christian conception of God as omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent are failures, and that any plausible variations on them will fail also.

The second is in philosophical logic, in which Mackie argues that despite appearances, counterfactual conditionals are not actually propositions at all, but rather condensed and elliptically expressed arguments. The conditional's antecedent is the argument's premise, and its consequent is the conclusion. The counterfactual conditional is to be accepted if the argument is good as it stands, or can be made good by the supply of plausible understood additional premises.

The third thesis pertains to metaphysics, specifically causation. Recognizing that in almost every case the whole cause of an event involves multiple factors, Mackie proposed an account of causal factors. These, he held, are INUS conditionsthat is: insufficient but necessary parts of unnecessary but sufficient conditions for the occurrence of the effect.

In ethics, the area of Mackie's fourth distinctive thesis, he argues that although the semantics of ordinary indicative moral discourse apparently require that there be moral facts in virtue of which human moral claims are true or false, there are no such moral facts. Moral discourse must therefore be explicated as arising from widespread error. The denial of objective moral facts is the aspect of his thought that most clearly shows the influence of his Andersonian education. Mackie argued that people's attitudes and feelings when considering their behavior and its effects lead them to assume, falsely, the existence of objective features of right or wrong, good or bad, in human situations, which correspond to, and validate, those attitudes and feelings. As there are no such validating properties, people must take on themselves the responsibility for the judgments they make.

In the years since his death, Mackie's philosophy has continued to be influential. In particular, his controversial views in ethics and philosophical theology continue to attract critical but respectful discussion.

See also Anderson, John; Causation: Metaphysical Issues; Conditionals; Counterfactuals; Evil, The Problem of; Hume, David; Locke, John; Logical Paradoxes; Noncognitivism; Philosophy of Biology; Philosophy of Mind; Space; Theism, Arguments For and Against; Time.


works by mackie

Truth, Probability and Paradox: Studies in Philosophical Logic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.

The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

Problems from Locke. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1977.

Hume's Moral Theory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

collections of mackie's articles

Mackie, J., and P. Mackie, eds. Logic and Knowledge: Selected Papers. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

Mackie, J, and P. Mackie, eds. Persons and Values; Selected Papers. Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

works about mackie

Honderich, T., ed. Morality and Objectivity; a Tribute to J. L. Mackie. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985. Contains a comprehensive Mackie bibliography.

Keith Campbell (1996, 2005)

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Mackie, John Leslie (1917–1981)

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