Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Are JL Mackie's Arguments Against Objective Moral Values Any Good?

In my ethics class, we talked about JL Mackie's short essay The Subjectivity of Values. My teacher, while not seeming to be impressed by the first argument I'll go over, did indicate that we could consider the other two as pretty good. I've found that my teacher and I differ pretty greatly on what constitutes a good argument. I'll go over the formulations my teacher presented and critique them here.

Argument from relativity


P1. Moral values vary from culture to culture, from time period to time period, and from class to class in the same society.
P2. Radical differences in normative values cast doubt on the objectivity of moral values.
C.  Therefore, there is good reason to think that moral values are subjective.

My first thought about this argument is that it's hard to see how it's even valid. Seems to me that the most we can say from these two premises is C' There is reason to think that moral values are subjective. Why should even radical differences give us good reason to doubt objective morality? It certainly doesn't follow from the premises in a strict literal sense.

Premise one seems to be subtly begging the question for subjectivism. The objectivist would say that moral values don't vary from these cultures, though cultural norms, which may or may not line up with whatever objective morality may exist, could vary in this way. It would be more correct to say that what cultures hold to be the correct moral values may vary from culture to culture, etc.

The objectivist could also say about premise one that it is blatantly false. Though some values may differ from culture to culture, there seem to be some that not only do transcend cultural lines, but are necessary for the survival of a culture (ie the culture would cease to exist in time if something like murder or lying were thought to be morally good). These would be the moral values. They could pass the others off as values of taste.

Premise 2 also seems to be very weak. Who says that differences of these sorts should cast doubt on objective morality? Just because people are behaving badly we ought not to think that they are actually behaving badly? That's ridiculous. Differences in moral behavior doesn't really seem to entail anything with regard to whether moral values are an ontological reality.

So, this argument not only doesn't seem to be sound, but also seems to be invalid, at least in the form given by my teacher. But he didn't really have much good to say about this one either.

Metaphysical argument from queerness


P1. If moral values were objective, then we would expect there to be moral properties out in the world.
P2. There are no moral properties out in the world (for such properties would be very queer and utterly unlike ordinary properties like heaviness, roundness, or numbers).
C. Therefore, moral values are not objective.

While I tend to agree with the first premise, there are objectivists who would classify objective morality in other ways, though I'm not entirely sure how that would work.

Premise two, I think, is really bad. First off, how does something being odd, strange, queer, weird, unlike something else, whatever you want to call it, entail its non existence? The quantum physical world is extremely strange. Does that mean we should doubt its existence?

Furthermore, Mackie is simply stacking the deck here by classifying things so that his argument goes through. Who says that moral properties are queer? Who says they are weirder and utterly unlike the other properties listed? Frankly, you can say that any property listed there is unlike the other. Roundness is not like heaviness in pretty profound ways. Likewise, numbers, as abstract objects, are also extremely strange in the minds of most philosophers. Unless one holds to some sort of reductionist materialism I don't see any reason to support the contention that one of these types of properties is queer to the point that we should start to question its existence.

Epistemological argument from queerness


P1. If there were moral properties in the world, then we would need a separate faculty from perception to detect them.
P2. We do not seem to have such a faculty.
P3. So, even if there are moral properties in the world, we can't know that.
C. Therefore, it is not reasonable to believe that moral values are objective.

I first off would begin by questioning the way premise one is worded. I assume when my prof. says "perception," being a product of latent positivism in the establishment philosophy departments, he means physical perception. What we perceive with our five senses. He needs to make that clear, since I would say there is moral forms or perception, similar to how there is a logical perception (perceiving the logical status of an argument for instance). But, if he means physical perception, then I would agree with premise one.

Premise two is ridiculous. I wonder if Mackie actually ever went outside his office. Moral perception is something that we encounter every day. You can't help but have a moral feeling/perception/sense about anything you hear about. You can simply sit there and think of a moral situation, say someone brutally beating a woman for trying to learn how to read, and immediately and irrepressibly you have a moral sense about that act. Somewhat like your physical senses, it forces itself upon you whether you like it or not. I think it's eminently clear that we have a faculty that picks up on the moral properties some act has. I think Mackie's materialism is undergirding this claim. Because our moral sense doesn't act on a strictly material level, it simply can't be true. But I think our moral sense is more obvious than our physical senses, because there doesn't have to be any sort of external stimuli to judge the moral status of an act, because you can imagine an act in a dark room and your moral sense will react to it. I have no more reason to question my moral sense than I do my physical senses.

Premise three relies on premise two.

My teacher seemed to think that both of the queerness arguments were pretty good here. But I don't think so at all. I honestly wonder where he's coming from, because these arguments, to me, rely on a vary large amount of unbacked assumptions and really are pretty poor. This makes me want to get into a philosophy department in a university or something even more, so I can give another perspective other than this latent assumed naturalism in university philosophy departments. If my Lord is willing, maybe I will!

Why anyone takes Mackie's subjectivism seriously is beyond me.

21 comments:

kinozashiwave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Havok said...

In my ethics class, we talked about JL Mackie's short essay The Subjectivity of Values.
Did you also read the essay, or did your teaching just introduce the concepts?
I'm asking because the essay (at least as it appears in "Ethics: An Anthology", where some parts are elided, as well as as the first chapter of "Ethics: Inventing Right And Wrong") does appear to go into detail which ought at least go some way towards answering your questions in this post.

Why anyone takes Mackie's subjectivism seriously is beyond me.
Perhaps investigating the argument in more depth, before dismissing it out of hand is in order?

bossmanham said...

Uhm, I read the selection the teacher provided where he argued for the three points I outline in the post. I'm pretty sure it was the whole essay.

Perhaps investigating the argument in more depth, before dismissing it out of hand is in order?

Lol. I just examined his arguments. If you want to challenge my examination, you're more than welcome.

Havok said...

Uhm, I read the selection the teacher provided where he argued for the three points I outline in the post. I'm pretty sure it was the whole essay.
It seems to me that in the actual article contains more detail than you're attributing to Mackie's argument (it doesn't contain the syllogisms you critique - or any syllogisms for that matter).
Perhaps you should compare the selection your teacher provided to that found in his "Ethics: Inventing Right And Wrong" book?

Lol. I just examined his arguments. If you want to challenge my examination, you're more than welcome.
I'll let Mackie speak for himself :-)

Havok said...

Premise one seems to be subtly begging the question for subjectivism.
...
It would be more correct to say that what cultures hold to be the correct moral values may vary from culture to culture, etc.

Mackie seems to begin from the position you've amended:
"The argument from relativity has as its premiss the well-known variation in moral codes from one society to another and from one period to another, and also the differences in moral beliefs between different groups and classes within a complex community. Such variation is in itself merely a truth of descriptive morality, a fact of anthropology which entails neither first order nor second order ethical views. Yet it may indirectly support second order subjectivism: radical differences between first order moral judgements make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths. But it is not the mere disagreements that tells against the objectivity of values. [...] Disagreements about moral codes seems to reflect people's adherence t and participation in different ways of life. The causal connection seems to be mainly that way around: it is that people approve of monogamy because they participate in a monogamous way of life rather than that they participate in a monogamous way of life because they approve of monogamy. [ . . . ]"

Though some values may differ from culture to culture, there seem to be some that not only do transcend cultural lines, but are necessary for the survival of a culture (ie the culture would cease to exist in time if something like murder or lying were thought to be morally good). These would be the moral values. They could pass the others off as values of taste.
"But there is a well-known counter to this argument from relativity, namely to say that the items for which objective validity is in the first place to be claimed are not specific moral rules or codes but very general basic principles which are recognized at least implicitly to some extent in all society [ . . . ] It is easy to show that such general principles, married with differing concrete circumstances, different existing social patterns or different preferences, will beget different specific moral rules; and there is some plausibility in the claim that the specific rules thus generated will vary from community to community or from group to group in close agreement with the actual variations in accepted codes.
The argument from relativity can only partly be countered this way. To take this line the moral objectivist has to say that is is only in these principles that the objective moral character attaches immediately to its descriptively specified ground or subject: other moral judgements are objectively value or true, but only derivitively and contingently - if things had been otherwise, quite different sorts of actions would have been right. [ . . . ] that is people judge that some things are good or right, and others are bad or wrong, not because - or at any rate, not only because - they exemplify some general principle for which widespread implicit acceptance could be claimed, but because something about those things arouses certain responses immediately in them, tough they would arouse radically and irresolvably different responses in others. [ . . . ] With regard to all these starting points of moral thinking the argument from relativity remains in full force."

Havok said...

Are those passages in your teachers handout?
Given your initial responses, I would guess they weren't

bossmanham said...

It seems to me that in the actual article contains more detail than you're attributing to Mackie's argument (it doesn't contain the syllogisms you critique - or any syllogisms for that matter).

Didn't I say that these are the syllogisms that the teacher provided? "I'll go over the formulations my teacher presented and critique them here"

Yep.

And no, Mackie doesn't present anything more than what's discussed. Sure there's more detail, but I'm not aiming to reproduce his article here, but rather deal with the arguments given.

These are more or less the famous versions of his argument, and these are the critiques that I present. You're the one claiming I haven't given enough information here. You've got the burden of proof to show that.

It doesn't really matter how much more Mackie would write on the issue, if he's just elaborating on the same tired arguments it doesn't make them any more valid.

bossmanham said...

Quote one: This was in the essay, and provides no new data for the argument, nor shows how differences in behavior entails a lack of objective morality. He's saying that this gives us some reason to question whether morality is objective. But that's ridiculsous. There's no reason to question objective morality because some people act immorally or because people have different tastes and forms of etiquitte, which are not morals.

The fact that we can look at other cultures and judge that they've acted immorally is support for objective morality.

Quote two:

This was in the essay, and it is begging the question. He's assuming that morals actually aren't objective and then explaining away this odd (assuming morals aren't objective) fact by saying that even though it looks like there are objective morals, there actually aren't because there subjective. Therefore they're actually subjective. Can you not see the problem there?

But, obviously, this isn't even the core of my refutation at all. It doesn't matter if no culture at all held to similar moral values. Differences in behavior, whether it's between cultures or individuals, wouldn't prove or disprove objective morality. Ethics seems to assume that some people will act against the established morals.

So, I stand by my dismissal of Mackie's silly arguments, and am happy to treat it as most philosophers do today; as a failed argument.

Havok said...

Sure there's more detail, but I'm not aiming to reproduce his article here, but rather deal with the arguments given.
The argument you're dealing with doesn't seem to be Mackie's, given the problems you cite which are explicitly addressed in the paper, as the quotes show.

These are more or less the famous versions of his argument, and these are the critiques that I present.
Less rather than more, it seems (and we haven't looked at the other 2 arguments).

You're the one claiming I haven't given enough information here. You've got the burden of proof to show that.
The quotes from Mackie's piece show that your objections were addressed. You may not think his argument succeeds, but the problems you picked out indicate you're presenting and refuting a very superficial "variant".

It doesn't really matter how much more Mackie would write on the issue,
The detail may clarify an objection you had (as the quotes above clarify the objections you had).

if he's just elaborating on the same tired arguments it doesn't make them any more valid.
How would you know whether or not he is elaborating the same tired arguments if you haven't read them?
How would you know his arguments are invalid if you haven't read them?

Havok said...

The fact that we can look at other cultures and judge that they've acted immorally is support for objective morality.
And other cultures can look at ours and judge that we've acted immorally by their cultural norms.
"Yet it may indirectly support second order subjectivism: radical differences between first order moral judgements make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths."
Mackie also goes into detail as to why it is that moral disagreements differ from scientific disagreements.

He's assuming that morals actually aren't objective and then explaining away this odd (assuming morals aren't objective) fact by saying that even though it looks like there are objective morals,
Seems to me he's agreeing, for the sake of argument, that there are some universal, underlying principles, and then explaining why this too fails to dislodge the argument from relativity.

Differences in behavior, whether it's between cultures or individuals, wouldn't prove or disprove objective morality.
And, conversely, similarities in behaviour don't prove or disprove objective morality.

So, I stand by my dismissal of Mackie's silly arguments, and am happy to treat it as most philosophers do today; as a failed argument.
Really? You realise Error Theory(s) are still a going concern?

bossmanham said...

The argument you're dealing with doesn't seem to be Mackie's, given the problems you cite which are explicitly addressed in the paper, as the quotes show.

I'm glad you put the quotes up, because it clearly shows the opposite of what you're claiming.

But please, I want to get this right so I'm not arguing a straw man. You show me where I've misrepresented his arguments, give the correct formulation, and then I'll deal with that. Criticism without correction doesn't do anyone any good.

The quotes from Mackie's piece show that your objections were addressed. You may not think his argument succeeds, but the problems you picked out indicate you're presenting and refuting a very superficial "variant".

Just because he says something about the objection doesn't mean it has been addressed. You seem to have an issue with recognizing something that is actually a defeater to an objection, and something that simply describes an objection.

The detail may clarify an objection you had (as the quotes above clarify the objections you had).

In other essays perhaps.

How would you know whether or not he is elaborating the same tired arguments if you haven't read them?
How would you know his arguments are invalid if you haven't read them?


I have read them. My word, you're a presumptuous fellow.

And other cultures can look at ours and judge that we've acted immorally by their cultural norms.

And?

"Yet it may indirectly support second order subjectivism: radical differences between first order moral judgements make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths."
Mackie also goes into detail as to why it is that moral disagreements differ from scientific disagreements.


That's like saying that radical differences in models interpreting quantum physics makes it difficult to think that any of them are apprehensions of objective truth. You need to argue that differences in interpretation or apprehension entail a lack of true objectivity, as I said in paragraph six of my original post.

Seems to me he's agreeing, for the sake of argument, that there are some universal, underlying principles, and then explaining why this too fails to dislodge the argument from relativity.

And, conversely, similarities in behaviour don't prove or disprove objective morality.

Correct. The reason one brings them up is to show the failure in the logic of the argument from relativity. What's good for the goose...

Really? You realise Error Theory(s) are still a going concern?

Not by many philosophers. Most are moral objectivists.

bossmanham said...

Not to mention that if you're using an error theory as an argument against objective morals, you're begging the question.

Havok said...

You show me where I've misrepresented his arguments,
Your formulation:
P1. Moral values vary from culture to culture, from time period to time period, and from class to class in the same society.
You: "It would be more correct to say that what cultures hold to be the correct moral values may vary from culture to culture, etc."
Mackie: "The argument from relativity has as its premiss the well-known variation in moral codes from one society to another and from one period to another, and also the differences in moral beliefs between different groups and classes within a complex community."
So what you claim as arguing against premise 1 is exactly what Mackie claims and accepts - you are either misunderstanding or misrepresenting Mackie's argument here.

give the correct formulation, and then I'll deal with that.
Not going to happen - then you'd be dealing with my understanding of Mackie's argument, rather than his argument more directly.

Criticism without correction doesn't do anyone any good.
My criticism was simply that you're not addressing Mackie's argument. You're not showing how the argument in his paper leads to your syllogism, and therefore why your problems with said syllogism apply to mackie's paper.
If you want to critique his argument, the least you could do is to actually read it and respond to it, rather than what looks to be more a straw man of your own devising.

Just because he says something about the objection doesn't mean it has been addressed. You seem to have an issue with recognizing something that is actually a defeater to an objection, and something that simply describes an objection.
Your initial post presents your points as if they've not even been thought of. The quotes I provided demonstrate this isn't the case. To demonstrate that YOUR objections defeat his argument, you'll have to apply them to his argument, not your syllogisms

I have read them. My word, you're a presumptuous fellow.
Well, perhaps you have problems with reading comprehension?

And?
Your claim that one culture critiquing another culture is evidence for objective morality is therefore flawed and most likely false.

Havok said...

That's like saying that radical differences in models interpreting quantum physics makes it difficult to think that any of them are apprehensions of objective truth.
Mackie discusses why he thinks moral disagreements are not like scientific disagreements.
For QM, the interpretations are just that - interpretations. It's the strange behaviour which we have trouble "visualising", but which is confirmed by experiment and can be modelled by maths which are "objective truth" if you like. The interpretations ALL agree on exactly what it is we'll see when conducting an experiment.

You need to argue that differences in interpretation or apprehension entail a lack of true objectivity, as I said in paragraph six of my original post.
the paragraph seems inconsistent. "Just because people are behaving badly we ought not to think that they are actually behaving badly?" implies that you know what the objective reality is (that your interpretation is correct), but the other culture, who you deem to be behaving badly are behaving morally by their own code, and can accuse you of behaving badly.
It is the seemingly fundamental disagreements which Mackie refers to " radical differences between first order moral judgements make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths"

You seem to want to give yourself a privileged position.

Correct. The reason one brings them up is to show the failure in the logic of the argument from relativity. What's good for the goose..
So you're arguing for a sceptical metaethic?

Not by many philosophers. Most are moral objectivists.
According to this survey realists don't have much of a majority.
If we're citing numbers, then most philosphers aren't DCT's either (~72% atheists, and none of the normative ethics has a clear majority (assuming you want to place your DCT into one of those buckets).

Not to mention that if you're using an error theory as an argument against objective morals, you're begging the question.
More evidence you didn't read Mackie?
First he argues for the subjectivity of values. Then, after having made his case, he goes on to describe what he thinks follows from that, and ends up with an "error theory".

And remember, if you're using DCT to argue against moral relativism, you're begging the question ;-p)

bossmanham said...

So what you claim as arguing against premise 1 is exactly what Mackie claims and accepts - you are either misunderstanding or misrepresenting Mackie's argument here.

This was really a very small point I was making. I was pointing out that the language used seems to start with the assumption that moral values aren't objective by saying that they vary from culture to culture. What I am saying is that what people hold to be the correct moral values may very well differ from culture to culture. That is a less question begging way to frame the argument.

Not going to happen - then you'd be dealing with my understanding of Mackie's argument, rather than his argument more directly.

Then I stand by the formulations here and the critique of them.

My criticism was simply that you're not addressing Mackie's argument.

And yet you refuse to show me how. Huh...

You're not showing how the argument in his paper leads to your syllogism, and therefore why your problems with said syllogism apply to mackie's paper.

You're not showing that the syllogisms I used here don't correctly frame his argument. Until I get some correction, I can't very well change the argument. I think my ethics professor formulated the syllogisms correctly and they present the argument as I read it.

If you want to critique his argument, the least you could do is to actually read it and respond to it, rather than what looks to be more a straw man of your own devising.

Funny, because that's precisely what I've done here.....

Your initial post presents your points as if they've not even been thought of. The quotes I provided demonstrate this isn't the case. To demonstrate that YOUR objections defeat his argument, you'll have to apply them to his argument, not your syllogisms

I think you may have issues with reading comprehension. You do realize that any argument can be broken down into a syllogism, right?

Well, perhaps you have problems with reading comprehension?

Well one of us does. It's glaring that you've not been able to show where my comprehension has failed.

bossmanham said...

For QM, the interpretations are just that - interpretations. It's the strange behaviour which we have trouble "visualising", but which is confirmed by experiment and can be modelled by maths which are "objective truth" if you like.

For meta-ethics, the interpretations are just that - interpretations. It's the strange behavior which we have trouble "visualizing", but which is confirmed by moral experience and can be modeled by logical arguments, which are objectively true or false.

But this is bunk anyway. You could apply the same reasoning to witness testimony. You talk to different people who witnessed the same thing and they give you differing accounts. Using the same logic, we should conclude nothing actually happened.

the paragraph seems inconsistent. "Just because people are behaving badly we ought not to think that they are actually behaving badly?" implies that you know what the objective reality is (that your interpretation is correct)

The crux of the argument seems lost on you. Differences in behavior entails nothing about the truth of what you think the behavior should adhere to.

but the other culture, who you deem to be behaving badly are behaving morally by their own code, and can accuse you of behaving badly

Yes, and one or both of you is wrong. That says nothing of whether there is actually an objective standard.

So you're arguing for a sceptical metaethic?

No, I'm showing that Mackie's conclusion doesn't follow.

If we're citing numbers, then most philosphers aren't DCT's either

Yet they still reject subjectivism. DCT's and those that are practicing a futile and ultimately subjective moral theory both at least want to affirm the objectivity of morality. Mackie doesn't, and his poor arguments haven't convinced many others.

More evidence you didn't read Mackie?

I didn't say HE did. I said if you are, you're begging the question.

Notice how this wasn't in the original post? This is more evidence that someone here has issues with comprehension.

Havok said...

I didn't comment to claim that Mackie's argument was successful. We could probably find a critique pointing out flaws and holes on the intertubes someplace (and probably responses to those critiques, etc).

I think I've shown that you haven't addressed the argument Mackie actually made, which was my aim in commenting.

I don't see much point in continuing the discussion. You seem determined to avoid reading and responding to Mackie's argument as he presented it, and I'm not going to present and defend Mackie's argument when you seem unwilling to fulfil that initial obligation.

bossmanham said...

I think I've shown that you haven't addressed the argument Mackie actually made, which was my aim in commenting.

Haha. Actually you didn't show that at all, in spite of my repeated requests for you to do so.

Havok said...

BMH: Haha. Actually you didn't show that at all, in spite of my repeated requests for you to do so.
Wow. Just wow.

Ok, lets see...
BMH: First off, how does something being odd, strange, queer, weird, unlike something else, whatever you want to call it, entail its non existence?
Mackie specifically addresses this. He discusses why, on his account, moral properties are "queer", and why other properties like "numbers, heaviness" etc are not quite so queer (though he doesn't go into detail, he does detail what he thinks would be required, and that he has started elsewhere).

BMH: I assume when my prof. says "perception," being a product of latent positivism in the establishment philosophy departments, he means physical perception.
Here you show that you're going from your Prof, and not from Mackie's argument. Mackie does mention that the "sense" of perception for morality would need to be different from whatever other senses we have.

Why, when you critique the particular premises of the syllogism don't you refer back to what Mackie actually wrote. Perhaps you have read the argument in detail. Perhaps your points against it stand, but the lack of engagement with Mackie's discussion, and only working from the syllogism as presented (ignoring the actual justification Mackie writes concerning the basis of the premises) clearly demonstrates to me that you're avoiding engaging Mackie's argument.

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