The Arguments from Queerness and Relativity (Mackie Part 2)

Other Mackie Articles
Mackie on Subjectivity vs Objectivity

Mackie Intro and Second vs First Order Ethics 

Do objective moral values or principles exist?  Or are we dancer?  When someone says, “it’s wrong to do x” or “you ought not to do x” it seems as though they are referring to something objective about or in the act.  That is, we are referring to some real quality or property in the act.  Mackie says this is a quirk of language and that moral properties and values don’t exist in any real sense (i.e., the way we use language makes it seem like we are referring to something but actually we aren’t).   He gives two arguments for his position: the argument from relativity and the argument from queerness.

Argument from Relativity
This argument is fairly straight forward:
P1. It’s an empirical fact (that’s science!) that many cultures around the world both historically–and now–have very different moral concepts, many of them in genuine opposition to each other.

[P1*  However, disagreement alone isn’t enough to prove there are no objective moral values, so I’ll offer a further argument.]

P2.  (Argument from Arrow of causation and constructivist account of morality) One way to explain the difference in moral judgments is that a culture’s moral values arise out of how they live their lives.  The ways of living comes first, the moral judgments come after, not the other way around. For example, if a culture finds polygamy morally acceptable, it’s because that’s how they live.  A community doesn’t first decide what types of marriage are appropriate, then modify its behavior.  If we accept this interpretation, then moral values aren’t objective; instead they are a consequence of social structures. 

P3.  The moral realist has another way to explain moral differences which is to assume that there are objective moral facts.  The difference between moral values in cultures/moments in history arises because some cultures are (somehow) more aware of the true moral values than others.  Some cultures just have better perception of moral qualities than do others.

P4.  (Abductive Argument) However, if moral values are objective, giving an account of how entire cultures can fail to perceive them is not going to be easy (or plausible).  Instead we should adopt the constructivist explanation: i.e., we construct our values based on the normal behaviours and arrangements in our particular culture–rather than there being objective moral values that people somehow (mis)perceive.

Conclusion:  Because the constructivist account is a more plausible explanation for the wide variety of often conflicting moral positions we observe, we should say that there are no objective moral values.

Possible Objection 1: Moral Reformers Exist 
Moral judgments aren’t merely a matter of conforming to a social standard. There are cases of moral change and reform throughout history. For example, the abolition of slavery, the civil rights act, advance of women’s and, recently, gay etc…

Reply 1: Move Toward Consistency
There’s aren’t changes in the moral code, rather, they are moves toward consistency in the moral code. For example, the moral argument for the abolition of slavery was that slavery was inconsistent with the pre-existing ideals of all people being born free and equal before the law. 

Possible Objection 2: Instances of Universal Principles
The specific rules vary across cultures however they are instances of a more general universal rules. E.g., do whatever will bring about the greatest amount of good. So, of course what brings about the greatest amount of good will vary across different living circumstances. But this doesn’t undermine the fact that the general rule is universally true. And so, morality does have objectively true principles.

Mackie’s Reply: It’s Only a Partial Counter
Accepting the above line of argument means that the specific laws are only derivatively and contingently objectively true. That is, their objectivity relies on their being instances of universal laws. Since the specific laws are dependent on local circumstances that means that if the local circumstances change, the objective truth of the specific laws will change. But this doesn’t reflect what people think about their local moral rules. They think that their specific rules are objectively true and not merely derivative of universal rules or contingent on circumstance. 

For example, in some cultures they believe it’s wrong to eat pork. They don’t think this is wrong because it’s an instance or derivation of a more general universal rule. They just think it’s wrong to eat pork “period”. Also, they don’t think that if circumstances changed, it would be OK to eat pork. In other words, the specific rather than a general rule is considered to be objectively true. And it’s objective truth isn’t derivative of a more general rule, nor is it contingent on circumstance. 

Argument from Queerness
This argument has two parts, one metaphysical (to do with the nature of something’s existence) and one epistemological (how we come to know something).

Metaphysical ArgumentSuppose there were objective moral values: real qualities that were part of the world–in short, they exist.  What would they be made of?  Do they inhere in matter?  Can I taste them?  Touch them?  What colour are they?  How is it that we can sense them but not explain their properties?  It seems they would be queer entities or properties indeed! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that–some of my best friends have queer properties).  

Epistemological Argument: Setting the metaphysical issue aside and continuing with our supposition, by what faculty might we come to know these queer qualities?  If I can’t see, touch, taste, smell, or hear them, by what sense faculty do I come to know them?

It seems any theory that says moral values are objective must give us some sort of account of how it is we come to know them.  And to reply that ethical thinking occurs simply by sitting down and having an ‘intuition’ turns ethical thought into a travesty of a mockery of a sham.  What about application of reason?  conceptual analysis?  deliberation? 

The only possible good defense to this argument a realist can offer is to somehow show that these supposed moral qualities/properties can be known empirically.  

So, what might these real moral properties be like? According to Mackie, they’d have to be something like Plato’s Forms.  A quick and dirty explanation of Plato’s forms is that they are the perfect abstract notion of all qualities and things.  Well, not only are they abstract notions but they actually exist somewhere, in some sense.   Consider the Form of the Good.  This is the ideal goodness to which we all ought to strive; and although it is an ideal, it also somehow exists.  In what way do ideals objectively exist? 

The Problem of Motivating Force (Another metaphysical argument)
Anyhow, Mackie’s argument isn’t specific to Plato’s forms. He argues that any moral realist position would be susceptible to the following argument:  According to Mackie, for a moral realist the properties of the “goodness” or “badness” of an act must not only be sensible but must also motivate action

For example, recognizing an act as “good” is not simply a matter of perceiving that property in something and thinking, “huh, that thing has ‘goodness’ in it–cool,” it also necessarily provides the knower with a direction and motive for action.   So, when we recognize something as good, it should also incite us to action.  That is, knowing something is good should also motive us to pursue it.  And the same will apply for all moral values (if we perceive the property of ‘badness’ in something, it must also motivate us to avoid it).This meta-ethical position is called “existence internalism” (not to be confused with and not related to internalism in epistemology).  

But why should the realist accept this condition imposed by Mackie?  Why can’t the realist say that it is possible to recognize ‘goodness’ in something and not have it motivate action?  I suppose the realist could do that, but then the realist has to give up the claim that moral values/properties of an situation or act do motivate action toward the good, which is a move they probably don’t want to make.  It relegates moral properties to the same status as ‘red’ and ‘heavy’.

More Queerness… 
In a particular action/situation, what would be the relationship between an objective moral quality and the act’s/situation’s natural features?  

Take the example of an act of cruelty.  Why do cruel acts also have the property of ‘wrongness’?  The typical answer is that the act’s wrongness is a consequence of its cruelness: it is wrong because it’s cruel.  But the realist can’t use this explanation because their argument is that moral values are in the act as natural properties, so appealing to a causal relation (x is wrong because it’s cruel)  is off limits. Cruelness and wrongness have to exist independently of one another.

Furthermore, how do we rule out that judging a particular cruel act as wrong isn’t simply a consequence of our culture?  There is a wide range of cultural opinions on what constitutes, for example, ‘wrongness’ in regards to treatment of animals.  Isn’t an account of differing cultural values a better explanation for the diversity of views (rather than some groups’ moral faculty being more accurate than others’)?

The realist might reply the wrongness supervenes on the cruelty of an action; that is, the property of wrongness is a property that comes about wherever there is the property of cruelty.   But how do we explain the notion of properties having properties?  It seems a little…mmmm…queer!  Is it not a more likely account that our application of the term ‘wrong’ to cruel acts is a consequence of our subjective response to cruel acts–not that we are perceiving some additional natural property in the act.

The realist’s position in regards to supervenience of properties is actually quite defensible. In contemporary philosophy (especially of mind) the notion of supervening properties is almost unanimously accepted.  For example, the property of consciousness supervenes on the physical properties of the brain.  This notion can plausibly be extended to acts.

So, there you have it, the arguments from relativity and from queerness, both against moral realism.  Whaduyuthink?  Are you ready to give up the chimera of objective moral qualities?  I should add that giving up objective moral values doesn’t mean giving up morality, just objective morality.

13 thoughts on “The Arguments from Queerness and Relativity (Mackie Part 2)

  1. Thanks. I never understood why these arguments are arguments for non-realism. Maybe values are subjective in the epistemic sense (entities \”in\” our consciousness and not out there). Why should they not exist?


  2. yes, maybe. but I think that (1) moral realism is a philosophical thesis and not a thesis of \”common sense\”. Therefore (2) the burden of proof shifts to the anti-realist, since there is no reason that consciousness and entities of consciousness (evaluations) are not real in whatever ontological sense we as philosophers can imagine: cogito sum. (some philosophers say.) And my conclusion: (3) It is the confused ideas of ideologists of philosophical ontology of natural sciences, who cannot imagine that not only atoms are real.


  3. Thank you for your article. But can you talk more about the idea of Mackie thinks that it is also hard to understand what it means for something to have moral quality because it has certain natural features because I am confused with this part a bit. Thank you


  4. Hi, this is really helpful. But do you mind providing some sources of philosophers that say that disagreement arises because some cultures are more aware of moral values than others. thanks 🙂


  5. Hi, I do not know of any such article. A few notes about finding one. The only philosophers who could even begin to make this claim are going to be moral realists. If order to claim some are more aware than others, you're going to have to define what the 'correct' moral values are. Cuneo and Shafer-Landau have a research program called 'moral fixed points' where they argue for some of those objective values. Once you define the values you can study which cultures best meet these values. That would take a lot of work given the number of cultures there are in the world. There are also various utilitarian theories which claim to be the objective measure of truth. Again, someone would have to evaluate how well a variety of cultures score on this standard. If you're looking for a project, you might have found one!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s