A major obstacle in engaging the culture and the today is the problem of Atheistic relativism. In the academy, fields like Philosophy and Ethics are marginalized and often dominated by traditions that reject the possibility of objective moral standards. In this post, I’m critiquing a short argument from contemporary ethics that is often used against the objective account morality that Catholicism is founded on.
J.L Mackie’s work, The Subjectivity of Values, sets out to develop an argument against the objectivity of value claims. He establishes from the start that his project is a wholly negative one, aiming mainly at showing what isn’t true without making claims about what follows from his critiques. The groundwork of his case relies on supplemented versions of what he calls the “the argument from queerness”. This argument existed prior to Mackie’s work in different forms, but his versions contain notable distinctions from claims made before him.
The argument from queerness stated plainly is that objective values, if they existed, would have to be something very outlandish in order to truly motivate our actions. Mackie writes that “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”. His definition of a moral value is an entity that is undeniable and wholly self-evident to individuals who posses it. Something that unique could not be reasonably thought to exist by his naturalist account. He continues by stating that in order to be aware of something as otherworldly as objective values, human beings would have to possess some kind of special intuitive powers (which would be equally ridiculous).
First and foremost, the logical structure of Mackie’s argument takes a kind of reductio ad absurdum approach, which is itself a weak argument inasmuch as it depends on the reader’s agreement that such a conclusion would in fact be absurd to consider. Typically, this method of argumentation is most effective when it is able to demonstrate a true contradiction in the line of reasoning that it is evaluating. By taking for granted that the presuppositions of an argument are true, it can sometimes be made clear that the conclusions are obviously false, but I would not consider that to be the case for Mackie’s approach. The chain of reasoning in his argument is basically: if something is morally objective, then it would have to be able to motivate our actions; for an objective value to be motivating it would have to be categorical or unnatural, and a motivating-objective-unnatural entity would be something really bizarre, therefore, such things could not exist and there is no moral objectivity. My main point in addressing the structure of his approach is that the problem with making a reductio ad absurdum argument in this situation is that an equally persuasive claim could be made for a reductio on the contrary. Because many would see it as an equally ridiculous conclusion that morality is wholly non-objective.
The crux of his argument rests on the presupposition of a wholly naturalistic account of reality. By establishing that only a non-natural entity could be the foundation for objective account of morality in Ethics, Mackie only succeeds in establishing that one couldn’t be both a naturalist and a moral realist. This is the main point of his argument that must be evaluated. Is anything but a strictly naturalistic account of reality absurd? Most Theists (with the majority of human tradition in their behind them) would say no.
An interesting element in Mackie’s claim is his assumption that moral objectivity must be defended by either some kind of categorical imperative or an intuitionalist account of reality. His argument against both is probably the most effective element of The Subjectivity of values. He establishes earlier in the text that “Moral sense or “intuition” is an initially more plausible description of what supplies many of our basic moral judgments than reason”. Thereby, discounting the idea of a truly foundational categorical imperative. Then he goes on to show that intuitionalism is not valid because it has no means of being evaluated due to its purely individualist nature. So in this sense Mackie successfully establishes that these accounts of morality are indeed queer (specifically the Kantian and Humean constructs in Ethics) but ultimately fails because of his inability to recognize the possibility of a basis for objective morality that relies on neither of these systems.