J. L. Mackie’s error theory: Why is Sisyphus still pushing that stone?

I would like to start this writing with note that it will not be an essay in a classical academic sense one might expect but rather in the core of the word, essai, to attempt/ to try/ to experiment. What I would like to try here in upcoming pages is to put J.L. Mackie’s analytic Error theory in a continental context of Sartre’s and Camus’s existentialism as, to me, it seems at the moment, that these are two sides of the same coin. The idea of this paper is always first to show the core concepts, as simple as possible, of Mackie’s theory and then further on put them on ideas and maybe even examples that existentialist might support. With that being said, without further ado, I would like to start.



The error theory is a claim that our moral practice has been built on a fundamental error, the belief in categorical reasons. Thinking in categories has become to the world quite usual and if one is not questioning this much it is hard to notice that morality might not be the easiest thing to put in some category.

In simple terms, we can put a categorical label on colours, quantity, actions, substances etc. because these are stable and hardly changeable categories (objective). Because they do not differ and their difference doesn’t make a significant difference to subjects/world. For example, I might claim that 10-degree Celsius is for me warm and somebody else would say it is cold but the number stays the same. Same goes, more or less for other categories, subjectivity might interfere but there is some factual (objective) value we can put on categorical claims. This can’t really be said for morality.

We might on first all agree that stealing is morally wrong, but if someone steals a loaf of bread as they have nothing to eat and are trying to survive, would we really condemn that someone for being morally wrong? Or what about the other extreme, what if landlord who is wealthy/ who can afford anything they want, comes and takes away the roof under other person head, evicts someone who has lately been on a bad streak of luck, has lost job etc. Why is one more or less morally wrong/right than the other, and where is there this so-called objectivity?

Surely we can argue in-depth about the paths of living and reasoning that lead to situations we are talking about, but at the end of the day, in my opinion, we still end up with the same results, morality is too broad and too subjective and open to be put/ perceived as a category.

Here I don’t defend any moral action done by any individual/ group, because surely majority today would agree that slavery was bad, nacism is bad etc. I am just claiming here that I don’t believe in categorical morality, but rather in the world of free actions, were every action/non-action that is produced freely builts subjective individual set of values and identity for every single one of us. In simple terms, this aligns with what Mackie thinks and says and that is:

  1. There are no moral features in this world
  2. No moral judgments are true
  3. Our moral judgments try and fail to describe the moral features of things
  4. Therefore there are no moral judgments


To prove his thesis Mackie further puts 2 arguments that I will further on present, exemplify and try to connect/ think in a sense of existentialist moral in regards to the value of life. These two arguments are:

  1. The Argument from Relativity (Disagreement)
  2. The Argument from Weirdness (Queerness)


  1. The Argument from Relativity (Disagreement)

So Mackie starts his Argument from Relativity with a simple empirical observation. He claims that in this world there is a significant amount of variations in morality, plenty of views and disagreements. As he believes this comes from the cultural differences, the ways of life, and build-up of oneself by participation in the certain (different) way of life. I would like to add to this that numerous choices, made from one’s earliest age is what built one’s identity and with it the moral. This is also the place that I would like to put a question upon myself: If who we are is built from our earliest choices, and those ones are actually the choices that our families, neighbours, schools, society in general pushes upon us, how much should we blame wrongdoing of somebody, if the whole society, that was making choices for that individual, actually shaped that person.

Anyways for Mackie, and his argument, in the context of, for example, the morality of killing someone, means following: Almost all cultures may argue that killing a human is wrong. Some of those cultures might say, it is ok to kill a human if he killed somebody prior to that (which for me makes no sense because the lineage of murder is just being prolonged). We already here have a disagreement that we can touch upon, but I would rather like to go even further and dwell into two really nice extremes: euthanasia and abortion.

Euthanasia and abortion in its essence are killing the humans but some societies, usually a bit more liberal ones, agree (or are still trying to agree) upon the thesis that euthanasia and abortion are not morally wrong. These societies mostly in its core are trying to embrace the basis of utilitarian approach, the least pain inflicted on the least amount of subjects. In this sense, if somebody’s life is in such a pain, and their chances of survival are low euthanasia seems like a good option. Similarly, we can argue about abortion. If a woman got pregnant and she (and potentially her partner) is not ready to have a child for any reason (endanger their future, education, careers, risky and potentially deathly labour because of the bad health, intercourse was not consensual etc.) in liberal societies she is permitted to do the abortion, and end the life of the fetus (here we can also argue at what stage fetus can and should be considered human being but then again no need to go so much in-depth here). On the other hand, a bit more religiously oriented, so-called conservative societies often put life in front of everything else, and argue that life is life, no matter its quality and potential risks.

What I’m trying to make out of all this is that Mackie would look at this situation of abortion/ euthanasia and say that neither society is right or wrong and that the respective moral views emerged as a result of being in certain culture/society. I would like to add a simple and maybe a bit subjective example here that aligns with existentialism. As it is all about making choices, and there is no such thing as objective morality with right/wrong, in my opinion, one’s moral preferences might change.

I would like to start this example by saying that I am here now, by the moral play of chance. My mother wanted to abort me. Back in the day, when she got pregnant, she taught there is the way better and more important thing for her to do in life and having a child would slow her down, lower her chances in this educational and career sense. The only reason she didn’t go and have the abortion is because of societal pressure, that abortion is morally wrong. Therefore I’m here. This society is still conservative as it was, and over my early years, I would probably agree with these views that every life matters and should be cherished and kept. But then again, the choices I had to make in my life, the knowledge I gained, the world that opened up to me and my belief that came out of it, the belief that we should all seek the life of the most pleasure possible with producing the least amount of pain/bad (if possible avoiding it) I am today arguing that every single woman should have a choice to decide for herself does she want to keep the child/ abort it, and as long as they are well informed and aware of consequences of having a child/ aborting it all is fine.

In a sense, this is also the answer to the question I imposed onto myself a bit earlier in this chapter. What is good/bad might have been, in our early age, put upon us, but our own choices and our own independent rational thinking can break the chains of this morality, to embrace the different one, or just to overgrow completely these notions of objectified and categories moral right/ wrong. As Sartre argues, the worst kind of action is no action at all, so the bad faith, in my opinion, that comes upon those that were shaped in menace by the society that raised them, are the once that should just accept the penalties for their wrongdoing.

Then again, once more, I note that this opinion is based by the choices I made in my life, from all the situations, judgments (subjective moral ones as well as any other kind) and actions I inquired on the way.


  1. The Argument from Weirdness (Queerness)

When it comes to the Argument of Weirdness, there are two lines/ ways Mackie approaches it, one of them being metaphysical and the other one epistemological. In the first sense, Mackie thinks that if there are moral properties, they are weird qualities and relations that are completely different from anything else in existence.  Before going down to his epistemological reasoning I would like to stay on this metaphysical level for a few following paragraphs.

 This is the place I would like to go back to the myth of Sisyphus and the approach Camus had towards it. In simple terms, Sisyphus was this admirable cleaver, egoistical tyrant that managed to avoid death and outsmart Greek gods multiple times. But his final resting place, to me is kind of absurdly unsatisfying. Why did he keep on pushing that stone again and again? For Camus, Sisyphus is struggling eternally and without hope of success, as every single person in life does. But what Camus further thinks it that we should simply accept that there is nothing more to life than an absurd struggle. With taking Camus’s reading into the myth we might be onto something.

Choices that we make in life, either we or others perceive it as morally right/ wrong, in the end, bring us all to the same place, to more struggles that we can do nothing about. In a sense, sure Sisyphus has made Greek gods fools several times, and he avoided death twice, and with that whole character development, it is still to believe that in the end he would get bored of this outsmarting and accept the faith of pushing the stone up the hill by his own will. The only possible explanation, to Sisyphus accepting the punishment, is that he actually never accepted it by his own will but was rather pushed upon him by these „morally objective“ and „completely different from anything else“ figures known as Greek Gods. If Sisyphus had a free will, he would probably find a way to give that stone to get pushed around to somebody else, or would just in a certain point stop pushing and go do something else, as by mythology it never says he was in shackles or something like that (He managed to avoid those earlier on). I want to be a bit cynical, so I’ll say, by his smarts, Sisyphus would even find a way to die when already death just not to push the stone around.

In terms of reality, I would say that the only way that moral objectivity exists is if there is Mackie’s queer being that presupposes everything and pushes rules to everyone and everything, and we don’t have a free will in common sense. If this is the case our will would be free just in a sense how much do we enjoy or dislike doing predetermined and predestined things that are morally right/ wrong, which, once again brings the absurdity of morality to the forefront. Why would moral objectivity exist in the world without freedom of choice?

This brings me back to the epistemological side of Mackie’s argument. As he states, the only way to track these weird moral properties different from anything else is by some special faculty of moral perception/ intuition that is completely out of ordinary ways of knowing everything else. So what would these „objective prescriptions/ perceptions“ be? This brings me back to the opening of this essay where I stated that the common world we live in where we perceive categories isn’t the world where we could have moral as a category because it is too subjective.

Let me explain this a bit more. By Mackie, if there is objective moral, we would perceive it in a certain sense. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that we all have this gut feeling, this inner voice, the morally objective intuition. This means that when we would examine any moral case we would have this strange sensation deep within, I guess our body, that would tell us: „Yup buddy, you should do it“/ „Please don’t do this, it is so wrong, how can’t you see that!“.

If we once again consider euthanasia and abortion, with this morally objective gut feeling that is apriori in us (our soul I guess?) and was imposed to us by this unperceivable queer different from anything being what would we get? Well Elif Safak, a Turkish author describes it quite nicely in her book „The Bastard of Istanbul“. Of course, the only problem for moral objectivists is the presupposition of the cultural aspect:

“So there I am lying anaesthetized with a doctor and a nurse on each side. In a few minutes, the operation will begin and the baby will be gone. Forever! But then just when I am about to go unconscious on that operating table, I hear the afternoon prayer from a nearby mosque… The prayer is soft, like a piece of velvet. It envelops my whole body. Then, as soon as the prayer is over, I hear a murmur as ifs somebody is whispering in my ear:’Thou shall not kill this child!'”


This is exactly what J.L. Mackie suggested in the Argument from Relativity, which is, I guess a nice place to close this discussion, the moral depends purely on the choice made by an individual, whether that choice is presupposed by the society, its rules and obligations, or by the choices that one already made before. So I think it’s time that someone finally says to Sisyphus he should stop pushing that stone.


Literature used:

▪ Mackie, JL (1977) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, New York: Penguin;

▪ Sartre, Jean-Paul (2007,) Existentialism is Humanism, Yale University Press: New Haven & London;

▪ Camus, Albert (1975) The Myth of Sisyphus, London: Penguin

▪  Safak, Elif (2008) The Myth of Sisyphus, London: Penguin