Sunday, February 3, 2013

Mackie's Argument from Queerness

**This is from guest blogger Erik V.** 

In J.L. Mackie’s essay The Subjectivity of Values, Mackie claims that "if there were objective values, then they would be of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe" (Ethical Theory, 2007, 31). This is the basis from which Mackie constructs his argument from queerness. Mackie believes that if objective values exist, they would possess such weird and bizarre properties that they would be like nothing else commonly discussed. Furthermore, how we go about coming to know about these objective values would be even stranger, because, according to Mackie, we seem to have no good capacity for understanding them.

The crux of the argument from queerness can be seen in this passage from The Subjectivity of Values:
How we can be aware of this authoritative prescriptivity, of the truth of these distinctively ethical premises or of the cogency of this distinctively ethical pattern of reasoning, none of our ordinary accounts of sensory perception or introspection or the framing and confirming of explanatory hypotheses or inference or logical construction or conceptual analysis, or any combination of these, will provide a satisfactory answer; a ‘special sort of intuition’ is a lame answer (Ethical Theory, 2007, 32).
I believe Mackie is trying to support the argument from queerness by a arguing in a reductio ad absurdum style against the view that there are objective values.  How I interpret his argument is something like this:

(1)  If objective moral values exist, then they can be obtained through sensory perception, introspection, framing and confirming explanatory hypotheses, etc.
(2)  Sensory perception, introspection, framing and confirming explanatory hypotheses, etc. cannot be used to obtain objective moral values.
(3)  If regular human faculties cannot be used to obtain objective moral knowledge, then humans must possess a special intuition about objective moral knowledge.
(4)  Having a special intuition about objective moral knowledge has no real basis in anything.
(5)  Therefore, we know nothing about morality.

If this is how Mackie intended to frame the argument, I do not completely buy premise (4). I do agree that having a special intuition about morality is a ‘lame’ answer, but I think it has some plausibility. We use intuition all the time. We usually don’t justify an entire claim on a gut feeling, but intuitions act as a starting point for justification in a belief. I’m going to try and justify this in a very convoluted example.

Let’s say I have a really big box and a really small box made of the same material. I push the big box very slowly towards a wall until it hits, then I push the small box incredibly fast towards the same wall until it hits. I then ask you which box hit the wall with more force. Some people might say the big box, some might say the small box. Assuming they have no knowledge about physics, their answer is solely based on intuition. If they then find out that force equals mass times acceleration and find appropriate masses and accelerations of the boxes, they can then go about using mental faculties to justify or disprove their intuition. The point of this example is to try and demonstrate that intuition is a starting point for knowledge, whether the intuition was true or false, and how higher-level mental faculties can be used to justify the intuition. I believe the same type of intuition used in this example can be extended to morality, given an objective view of morality.

I also have a gripe with Mackie's reliance on claims about the strangeness of objective values. Simply because something seems out of the ordinary does not necessarily mean associating with it is futile. At any given point in time, any facet of anything can seem strange to someone. Evolution seems ludicrous to some people, but that doesn’t invalidate the theory. Similarly, objective values may not appeal to Mackie because of their inherit strangeness to him, but that is not enough to convince others. It’s a very subjective view of objectivity.

11 comments:

Jesse Steinberg said...

Thanks for this post, Erik.

I'm hoping other folks will weigh in on what you say about moral intuition and the denial of premise (4). I found your example of the boxes very interesting. What do other people think about this? Does the example show that intuition is an acceptable source of knowledge, if only as a sort of staring place or foundation?

Erik's interpretation of the argument from queerness is that it's an argument about moral epistemology, whether we can have moral knowledge. Mackie does seem to offer this as part of his discussion of "the" argument from queerness. However, as many have noted, Mackie actually offers a few different arguments involving queerness. The Erik mentions is one for moral skepticism. Mackie's got others that are supposed to prove that error theory (the metaethical/metaphysical view) is true.

Here's how we might put such an argument (Mackie's pretty quick about it, so I'm following his lead here):

(1)"If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe."
(2) But no such strange entities exist.
(3) Therefore, there are no objective values.

It would seem that Erik's reply to the epistemological version of the argument does not apply to this version. I assume that Erik would deny premise (2) above, but why exactly?

There's surely a more powerful way to put the argument than I've sketched here. Any thoughts about how to make this argument more robust (especially with premise (2) in mind)?

We'll chat in class tomorrow about an additional version of the argument from queerness involving supervenience. If anyone from my class is interested in writing a post about this version of the argument, I'd be really interested in having a discussion about it on this blog. Feel free to email me your post any time this week.

Nathan said...

Erik, I enjoyed your post and I think I sympathize with what you’re saying. Here are a few of my thoughts on what you wrote.

First, I was a little unsure if you meant that intuition is a necessary condition for knowledge, or simply a viable manner of obtaining (or beginning to obtain) knowledge. While I think one might argue that intuition is in some sense necessary for knowledge (perhaps considering the propositional attitude of “belief” to be somehow intuitive), I take you to be claiming the more plausible second sense of intuition.

Secondly, I agree with your statement that Mackie’s rejection of “special intuition” is suspect. However, I think that instead of making a positive case for why intuition is an acceptable method of obtaining knowledge, I would attack his position by denying that Mackie’s notions of empirical observation are really different than this other sense of intuition. For instance, I think one could tell a story about how sense data is not somehow inherently more definite or informative than intuition. When you consider looking at a color, like blue, we’ve been taught to classify a certain kind of visual experience as having this property “blue.” This seems more basic than considering some action to be (intuitively) wrong. However, isn’t the experience of color, in its simplest form, just a sort of “gut feeling,” or brute experience of a sensation? We’ve learned to apply certain concepts to these sensations, such as “blue,” “navy,” or “turquoise,” and these ascribed concepts are what give these brute sensations meaning. Likewise, I believe a similar story could be told for other sense data and empirical observation. The problem, then, is not that intuition is an unreliable starting point for knowledge, but that we simply don’t have as robust a conceptual vocabulary to describe moral thoughts with the same rigor as empirical observations. Perhaps this is more plausible considering the relative complexity of moral thought in comparison to mere sense data.

Nathan said...

Professor Steinberg, I had a few thoughts on your comment.

Firstly, in the proposed argument from queerness you sketch out, it seems like Premise (2) assumes the conclusion, in that if “the entities [objective values] don’t exist, then objective values don’t exist.” If the argument is supposed to work through Modus Tollens, then I suppose Premise (2) would read something like, “no thing with these queer properties exists.” I don’t know whether this is either valid or relevant, but the initial formulation of the argument just seemed a bit suspect to me.

Secondly, perhaps Mackie understands Premise 2 to have two parts: if something is “queer” (in his sense), then it is unknowable; if it is unknowable, it does not exist. This resonates with the Ayers’ Verificationist Theory, and bridges the gap between moral skepticism to error theory. Also, all Mackie needs to do is prove moral skepticism and this new Premise (2) to justify error theory. However, I don’t think that this makes his argument much more plausible, because there are several things that are incomprehensible or bizarre (such as quarks, or the Higgs-Bosun particle) that I still think I have good reason to believe exist. If Mackie wants to shore up (2), I don’t think he should resort to this strategy.

Jesse Steinberg said...

Thanks for your insightful comments, Nathan.

Yes, I suspect Mackie intended a sort of modus tollens argument. He was rather quick about it, however. It's up to us to try to unpack the argument as best we can. Perhaps something more robust is needed to avoid your charge of circularity. I plan to discuss this in class. But it would be interesting to see what folks reading this blog think about how best to formulate this argument for the error theory. Why think that the queerness of moral values is a sign that moral values do not exist?

Related to your second suggestion (about Mackie using the verifiability theory of meaning), Mackie wasn't a logical positivist and thought that moral claims were meaningful--even if false. So I doubt he'd be tempted to take the route you suggest. However, it's open to other error theorists, I suppose, and so it's a line worth considering.

Erik V said...

Sorry I had a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head when I wrote this so I'll just try to clarify some things. But yeah, Nathan hit it right on the head on the intuition part. I think intuition is a decent way for one to start to obtain knowledge. I tried to demonstrate this with the box example. When I was writing this I was kind of thinking about the scientific method. Someone starts off with a hypothesis, tests it a bunch, and see if they're right or not. Granted, there's usually a good amount of prior knowledge/experience when developing an experiment but I think they're kind of similar. I've taken a lot of science classes (because I'm a Biochemistry major too) and there are a surprising amount of instances where things are just intuitive (especially in physics and biology, not so much chemistry.) Given that they're objective fields, and I think morality is objective, I don't see why the same thought processes I use in science classes can't be extended to how I think about morality.

I also really like the color example. The only thing I can see wrong with it is that someone could say "Nope. Blue is a photon around with a wavelength around 500nm. Turqoise would be more around 520 nm and navy around 480 nm.". People I know don't talk like this but I think this is how someone could attack it. Then we could get into a whole definition of color argument but I get, and agree, with what you're saying so I won't go there.

To respond in a very quick, underdeveloped fashion to Professor Steinberg's comment, I'd probably say something to the effect of "How do we know they don't exist?". If morality is objective, it may not just be dangling out there in the open. Objectivity does not mean its obvious. There are tons of objective truths that haven't been discovered in math or science, that's the whole point of research. Objectivity takes time. Democritus had an idea of atoms 2000 years ago but they weren't objectively confirmed until a few hundred years ago. I'm not sure how long objectivity and subjectivity have been discussed, but morality could kind of be like atoms in that sense. Before class today I was thinking about morality and how it may tie in with evolution, which we briefly discussed today, and some people hit on some of the ideas I had but I haven't really given it much thought since, but maybe this is an avenue that can be explored... My mind is starting to scatter and I think I lost the point I was trying to make. Oh well, if it comes back to me I'll post it.

Danny Witt said...


I don’t think you can make metaphysical conclusions by just saying that queerness is a sufficient condition for “no objective values”. I thought hard about trying to rework this argument and make it more robust. As I think about it, I keep thinking that at its core it is an argument to answer the epistemological question of whether we can KNOW objective values. I feel like a variety of his argument could go like this…

1. if there are objective values, then they would be of a non-natural variety.
2. If something is non-natural, we cannot know about it by way of sense perception, reason, or other reliable epistemic means.
3. Therefore, we cannot know about objective values by way of sense perception, reason, or other reliable epistemic means.

That being said, I don’t know how he goes from that to his claim that there exist moral values which all happen to be just false. I still am having difficulty making sense of this. How does he reject objective values (in an ontological sense) if he posits that there is truth aptness (despite it being false)? I realize I’m spinning my wheels (and perhaps stuck on really understanding the argument), but I find Ayer’s doctrine to be at least more logical (regardless of the conclusions) than what Mackie is saying here. Very simply, if we don’t have the epistemic means to know truth/falsity, how can we assign falsity to all moral values (in a metaphysical sense)? Could anyone help clarify these things, or am I not holding accurately to Mackie’s claims (which may be very possible)?

Danny Witt said...

Eric, I felt a great deal of empathy for your thoughts seeing as I’ve come up in a science background. It got me thinking about a few things. I don’t mean to stray too far from our attempts to elucidate Mackie’s Argument from Queerness, but I think this has ties to how Mackie views the human epistemic limits concerning morality.

Regarding your above examples, I’m curious which concepts in your science studies are ‘just intuitive.’ I wonder if there ‘being intuitive’ could be written off by the empiricist as being closely tied to past experiences with nature or other observations/scientific concepts you’ve developed along the way. This might be similar to someone making objective claims about moral values based on instinct, when this is really a conditioned response to similar events/experiences which had been socially assigned some moral value. So instead of purely intuiting (real word, I checked!) what you are actually doing is applying empirically-derived relationships and analogs—though not necessarily in a conscious manner. I’m not really sure, and I am trying to go back and think about things that I thought might have been “intuitive” in the sciences for example. All I’m saying is that Mackie (or Ayer) might say that your intuition is some psychological phenomenon that occurs due to institutional shaping (i.e., experiences with scientific concepts similar to those that might seem intuitive). Say it is intuition at work (whatever that is), I’m not sure that saying “morality is objective” (highly contested) and “science is objective” would logically allow you to use “intuition” as your epistemic tool in both cases. Just a thought, but maybe I missed your idea.

Also, as we addressed in class with the “black swan argument”, the theories we have in science are based off of data and finite sample sizes, and attempt to piece together trends from what we garner empirically. Now, in the case of science, we get close to (perhaps) objective facts because we have the empirical capabilities to do so. We develop quantitative measurement systems and so forth, and use inference and reasoning to shape the empirical results into theories with truth value. So, before I ramble on, I agree with your statements about the scientific method, but do not agree that you can apply the same results to morality/ethics. We don’t necessarily have means of observing moral principles and we don’t communally agree on ‘ways of knowing’ that have substantial epistemic relevance—in contrast to the scientific community’s reliance on measuring physical/natural features observable by human sense perception or calibrated measurement systems. Let me know your thoughts!

Erik V said...

Danny, you actually hit on a point I was thinking about but didn't want to really say because it would make my point weaker, but I was also thinking that some of the things I've probably thought of as intuitive in some science classes are probably based on some past experience. I guess some examples I was thinking of in physics were things related to force, mass, kinetic and potential energy, sort of basic Newtonian stuff, and this might be because we deal with it every day. In biology, I was thinking of stuff related to ecology, like carrying capacity, or anatomy, but this too might be tied to experience.

As for the scientific method part of morality, I guess it was kind of like an abductive solution to where I put myself. I can't think of a way to empirically test morality, but maybe there is a way I could justify these gut feelings I have when I see "happiness is good". What I was trying to say is I think about subjective things all in the same sort of way, so why can't I think of objective things in the same sort of way? Not necessarily as methodical as the scientific method, but sort of in the same way.

Larry D said...

Erik, I thought I understood what you were saying but I lost you on that last part about thinking "about subjective things all in the same way." Did you mean to reverse that and say that you think about all objective things the same way? I feel like personally I often do not think about subjective things the same way, I might even think about the same thing in different ways throughout a single day. Sometimes I might have as you call it a 'gut feeling,' where I just know it is how i feel, but other times I might be flooded with various and conflicting thoughts and I have to reason out the way I feel. Maybe this is still line with what you are trying to say but I'm not sure. Thinking about subjective things in a single methodical manner may not be reasonable, or even possible, simply because of the way we experience them. Let me know what you think about this.

Claire Stein said...

Erik V.,

I think what you said about the value of intuitions as a starting point for knowledge is very interesting. I agree that it does seem true that when you have some intuition about something like the laws of physics that govern the movement of the boxes, this does provide a starting point to try to use empirical observation to show whether your intuition was true or false. I think this is something similar to what Ayer had in mind with his verifiability thesis because there are some statements that can be meaningful, not because we know yet whether they are true or false, but because they have the potential to be empirically tested and their truth-value verified. And the potential to be verified, even if we currently lack that technology, is sort of like intuition. For example, someone 1000 years ago could have had the intuition that the earth revolves around the sun. Even though that person could not show then that their intuition was true because they lack the technology to do so, had they uttered the sentence, "the earth revolves around the sun", what they said would still be meaningful because the phenomenon can potentially be tested/verified. In this way, I see cases like the above that Ayer had in mind to share a lot in common with what you're saying about intuitions - it does seem that they are starting points for going about testing occurrence in order to verify it. Now, of course to this I think Mackie would respond something along the lines of, but statements about morality just can't be empirically tested, so these intuitions are false.

Anyway, thanks for sharing, I found your paragraph about intuitions to be very interesting and valuable to the discussion.

Heirron said...

I find the notion of the testability of moral principles quite fascinating and I have been really enjoying the discussion. To continue the Ayer thread, he thought that moral claims could be "tested" in terms of sociology and psychology. Hence, we might formulate and test hypotheses about morality in terms of what people do. For instance, we might formulate the thesis that principles x,y, and z explain set A of actions commonly performed by people in culture C. But of course, what we want to test is the wrongness (or rightness) of actions, and it seems that, in order to do this, we would need to test the categorical prescriptivity of moral principles. The question would be, are they entities with sufficient authority to determine what people ought to do and not do, regardless of the opinions of those under their prescription? It is certainly not clear to me how one might test whether or not a given entity has authority, and it seems especially difficult to test the authority to provide categorical prescriptions. To some extent, it would seem that the authority to prescribe (in the sense of providing a command) is something that, at the very least, non-living entities do not have, and perhaps that most living things do not have. Thus, we might we might formulate Mackie's argument as follows:

1. If moral principles exist, then they are categorically prescriptive.
2. Principles are the kind of thing that cannot be prescriptive.
3. Therefore moral principles are prescriptive (and thus not categorically prescriptive).
4. Therefore moral principles do not exist.