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Meta-Ethical Significance of Disagreements

Meta-Ethical Significance of Disagreements
There is disagreement about bullfighting. It is popular in Spain, Portugal, southern France, the
Philippines, and in some countries in Hispanic America, including Mexico, but it is viewed by
many people elsewhere as involving wrongful cruelty to animals and even as barbaric. The
English philosopher Bertrand Russell once said: “Suppose … that someone were to advocate the
introduction of bullfighting in this country. In opposing the proposal, I should feel, not only that
I was expressing my desires, but that my desires in the matter are right.” J.L. Mackie would say
that Russell’s judgment that bullfighting is wrong commits him to the thought that bullfighting
would be wrong even if he had different desires and even if he did not disapprove of
bullfighting. This is a way of expressing Mackie’s view that morality is “categorical.”
There are at least three views about the meta-ethical significance of disagreements of this kind.
A) Mackie holds that the nature of these disagreements is better explained by “the hypothesis
that they reflect [different] ways of life than by the hypothesis that they express
perceptions, most of them seriously inadequate and badly distorted, of objective values”
(95). He takes this to be a good reason to think that there are no “objective values.” His
view is a kind of nihilism or error theory.
B) A relativist might contend instead that apparent moral disagreements are not always genuine
disagreements in belief.
B1) A psychological relativist might argue that the best account of apparent moral
disagreement proposes that rightness and wrongness are properties that relate types of
action (such as bullfighting) to the approving or disapproving attitudes of the relevant
person – typically the speaker.
B2) A cultural relativist might argue that the best account of apparent moral
disagreement proposes that rightness and wrongness are properties that relate types of
action (such as bullfighting) to approving and disapproving attitudes that are
characteristic of the relevant moral culture.
Mackie’s nihilism or error theory implies that people who believe that bullfighting is wrong as
well as those who think bullfighting is good are making a mistake since it is not true that
bullfighting is wrong and it is not true that it is good. This is why his theory is called the “error
theory.” Relativism does not imply that such people are mistaken in this way, but it implies that
they do not genuinely disagree, so it implies that they are mistaken (in at least some cases) to
think that they disagree with each others’ beliefs. In other words, relativism implies that people
have a mistaken view about the logical relations their beliefs stand in to the beliefs of other
In your paper, do three things.
(1) Say which of these three theories is the more plausible in your view, and explain why you
think this. If you think that the theories are equally plausible or that none of these theories is at
all plausible, explain why you think this.
(2) Explain clearly how Mackie’s idea that morality is categorical might seem to pose an
objection to both forms of relativism.
(3) Discuss and evaluate Mackie’s idea that morality is categorical. Is it plausible in your view,
or not? Why or why not?

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