'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' (Mackie). Discuss.

This is J.L. Mackie's "argument from queerness" for the non-existence of moral values (although in his work Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, he tends to use as synonyms of moral value both properties and relations).  Mackie argued that if moral values (such as "goodness", "rightness", etc.) did exist, they would have to be different from the usual kind of entity in the world.  Mackie's argument is that moral values appear to have no discernible effect on the world -- they do not appear to be amenable to empirical investigation.  He suggests that there is therefore no evidence that there is a value (property, quality, or relation) of "rightness" that morally right acts have.  Most cognitivists argue that the attitudes we have when we consider moral actions and choices are sufficient evidence of the existence of the relevant moral values.  But Mackie is a non-cognitivist and explains these feelings without saying that a moral value was their cause.  Mackie presents a two-threaded argument for his position.  One thread is metaphysical (about the nature of moral values) and the other epistemological (about how we learn about moral values).  But since the epistemological argument is all about how we could come to know anything about the queer metaphysical entities, we can ignore it if we can show that objective moral values are not as queer as Mackie suggests.

According to Mackie, moral discourse appears, and is clearly intended by those involved in the discourse, to refer to intrinsically prescriptive values (properties, qualities, or relations), moral entities that are supposed to motivate us and provide suitable reasons for action independent of our desires.  Moral values are authoritatively prescriptive -- the morally good and the morally right have to-be-pursuedness and to-be-doneness built into them.  If moral values were objective, then there would be some entities in the world that possessed this property of authoritative prescriptiveness -- independently of how or whether we think of them.  But just what this property would look like is mysterious, and there is no evidence of it when we look at the natural facts of the matter.  Mackie also argues, if this authoritative prescriptiveness of moral values supervenes on natural properties (or relations), the relation between moral values and the natural properties is equally metaphysically mysterious.  He suggests that any supervenient relationship required by a supervenience theory of moral values would not be susceptible of further explanation or empirical investigation and are thus sui generis.  If he is right, that would make them quite different from the usual run-of-the-mill supervenience relationship -- like that of chemistry on physics, for example.  It would render moral values "queer" in the sense that they are not amenable to empirical investigation the way that other more familiar supervenient properties are.

Mackie's point intentionally echoes Hume's -- objective facts are never a motive for action.  Of course, what we do depends on the facts, but we only do things with the addition of a prior desire (or passion, using Hume's word).  The existence of such objective moral values is not consistent with the kind of empirical naturalism that accepts only the natural physical world that science investigates.  To-be-pursuedness and to-be-doneness are "queer" properties in that nothing else in the world has them, and they matter (or are discernible) only to moral persons.

It is, however, unclear just what Mackie thinks that these moral values might be, if he dismisses the idea that they can be part of the natural physical world.  On the one hand, he suggests that objective moral values would have to be something like Plato's Forms -- ideal existences on an ideal plane.  But on the other hand, he admits that the ideas of Platonic Forms, G.E. Moore's non-natural properties, and the Intuitionist's self-evident relations of properness are "among the wilder products of philosophical fancy".  Mackie seems to want moral values to be intuitively grasped independently of any grasp of the underlying physical world.  But Mackie's "argument from queerness" actually begs the question and is vulnerable to a positive explanation of the supposedly queer features.  It requires as a prerequisite, the assumption either of Platonic realism, or of sui generis supervenient entities, or some other such already classed as "queer" entity. 

Taken at face value, there is nothing at all "queer" about moral values if they are understood as standard supervenient relations on the natural physical world.  Consider a concept like "profitability".  An action can be profitable if it contributes to a person's welfare, unprofitable otherwise.  This is clearly a supervenient property on the objective facts of the matter.  Whether some action in some circumstance is profitable or not for the acting agent can be determined independent of how or whether anyone (including the agent) thinks of the matter.  This not-at-all-queer property is the basis of the science of economics, and the basis of the concept of economic value.

There are any number of moral theories available in the literature that would interpret moral value along the lines of the "profitability" example by providing a particular definition equivalent to the economic welfare that grounds profitability.  Two specific examples are worth considering -- Bentham/Mill hedonistic Utilitarianism, and Evolutionary Ethics.  Each answers Hume's challenge by beginning with the posit of a pre-existing desire that it assumes combines with the objective facts of the matter to produce a desire/passion/motivation to pursue or do that which is determined ought to be pursued or done.  Hedonistic Utilitarianism begins with the premise that all people want to and therefore will pursue their own happiness, given the choice.  Evolutionary Ethics begins with the premise that we are evolved to, and therefore will pursue our own inclusive fitness, given the choice.  Each of these theories renders moral value into a non-queer supervenient property supervening on the objective facts of the matter.  Each of these examples demonstrating that Mackie was quite wrong in his argument - objective values are not entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.  They are supervenient properties of actions, circumstances, or things that are based on how the objective facts of the world interact with a pre-existing motivation inherent in our nature.

 

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