Ethical Realism

February 12, 2009

Chapter 3.5 “The Subjectivity of Values” by J. L. Mackie

This article by J. L. Mackie presents one of the most extreme views about moral realism: Ethical judgments are are all false. This is known as nihilism or “error theory.” For example, ethical judgments about “goodness” are metaphysical (a claim about reality), but we are mistaken to think that our idea of “goodness” approximates reality. Even though Mackie’s view is an extreme, I find it to be one of the most plausible anti-realist positions to have. (That isn’t to say that I agree with it.)

The most important contribution in Mackie’s essay is the Argument from Queerness. You can skip ahead to that argument if you like.

In “The Subjectivity of Values” Mackie first discusses relevant metaethical positions:

  • Subjectivism
  • The objectivity of values doesn’t matter
  • Noncognitivism
  • Categorical imperatives


Subjectivism is the view that moral judgments are reports of the speaker’s own feelings or attitudes (97). This view is similar to Mackie’s in that it claims that objective values don’t exist, but Mackie does not necessarily agree that moral judgments are intended to be reports of our feelings. I think Mackie would agree that we often intend to state an objective fact about whether something is good or bad and this is what he is talking about.

Subjectivism is at its core a theory about the linguistic meaning of moral statements, but Mackie’s theory is at its core a statement about metaphysics (reality.)

Whether or not objective values are real is a meaningless question

R.M. Hare argues that people will speak of the truth or falsity of moral judgments whether or not values are “objective,” so one might conclude that this kind of question is meaningless (99). Mackie compares this to a kind metaphysical agnosticism: whether or not the world is made of material atoms or is an illusion is meaningless as long as everyone’s experience and way of life stays the same. It is true that we might live life the same way whether or not our beliefs are true, but Mackie still wants to know which one of these theories is true (100).

It is the reality of objective values that can make moral judgments true, and it is the reality of an objective material world that can make our judgments true that concern the physical world.


Mackie discusses the noncognitivist position (evaluative judgments are not about truth or falsity). However, even the noncognitivist will agree that there are cognitive statements relevant to ethics. “For there are certain kinds of value statements which undoubtedly can be true or false, even if, in the sense I intend, there are no objective values” (102).  There are many experts, such as art critics, who evaluate a subject given various agreed upon standards. “Given any determinate standards, it will be an objective issue, a matter of truth and falsehood, how well any particular specimen measures up to those standards” (102). Additionally, we will see it as unjust if someone wins a prize for the best piece of art in an art contest when that piece of art doesn’t measure up to the objective standards as well as another.

Noncognitivists would agree that something can measure up to objective standards and be evaluated based on those standards. However, it is the standards themselves that would be seen as questionable. For a noncognitivist, there is no objective requirement for us to be just, but being just could relate to “what people generally desire” (103).

Mackie does not actually discuss whether or not noncognitivism is right. It is possible that it is right about much of our language, but it is irrelevant to metaethical discourse itself. When we discuss whether or not values are objective, we are certainly saying something cognitive. It is also quite possible that ethical discourse is often metaethical. Noncognitivists seem to deny that ethical discourse is often metaethical, but this is a sociological claim that would require a great deal of empirical evidence.

Categorical Imperatives

A categorical imperative is a rule that we ought follow whether or not we desire the outcome (103). For example, we ought not murder whether or not we desire it. In contrast, a hypothetical imperative is something we ought to do precisely to satisfy a desire (104). If we are hungry, we ought to eat. Mackie argues that the moral realist accepts something like a categorical imperative. The fact that we ought to do something in order to satisfy a desire is irrelevant to moral objective values. Eating is a merely instrumental value for satisfying a desire, and even noncognitivists accept that we “ought to eat if we don’t want to be hungry.” This statement isn’t meant to be a moral one.

A categorical imperative is not necessarily an “absolute rule.” Instead, all that Mackie is interested in is the fact that “moral rules” do not depend on our desires, and they do not merely state an instrumental “ought.” An instrumental “ought” is a nonmoral “ought.”

Mackie’s arguments against objective values

Mackie offers us two arguments to justify the belief that all moral judgments are probably false: the argument from relativity and argument from queerness.

The argument from relativity

  1. If objective values aren’t the cause of our moral beliefs, then we have no reason to believe in moral values.
  2. People disagree greatly about right and wrong in various cultures.
  3. This in itself doesn’t prove that objective values don’t exist, but it makes the following claim more plausible: Objective values aren’t the cause of our moral beliefs.
  4. We have made the following claim more plausible: We have no reason to believe in moral values (109-110).

Additionally, it is plausible that our moral values are passed down through culture. Although some people are “moral reformers,” their reformations generally point to the inconsistency within the cultural moral code. New values are not created unless it is justified within the pre-existing moral code (110).

Mackie considered an objection: Every society agrees to various general moral principles. (Perhaps that we should value happiness.) Mackie argues that moral principals cannot explain our moral behavior as well as some kind of an immediate emotional response, such as intuition or a moral sense (111). Mackie believes that such a response is “irrational” and in no way supports the existence of objective moral values.

The argument from queerness

  1. Objective values are strange, “utterly different from anything else in the universe” (111).
  2. Knowledge of objective values require “some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing anything else” (111).
  3. If we cannot account of the strangeness of objective values and our knowledge of them (with empiricist assumptions), then they probably don’t exist (112).
  4. We can’t account for the strangeness of objective values and our knowledge of them (with empiricist assumptions).
  5. Therefore, objective values probably don’t exist.

What are the ordinary methods of attaining knowledge? Sensory perception, introspection, framing and conforming of explanatory hypotheses, inferences, logical construction, and conceptual analysis (111).

Why are objective values strange? For one thing they are expected to provide us with motivation. The knowledge of “goodness” makes us want to promote it. Hume already argued that “reason” can’t provide us with motivation. “We are a slave of the passions.” So if objective values can provide us with motivation, that is quite unlike anything other than a passion.

Mackie considers the following objection: It is not just objective values that are strange, but also mathematical entities and “our ideas of identity, diversity, solidity, inertia, substance,” etc (111). What does this mean? I suggest that it might mean one of the following:

  • Premise 1 and 2 are false. Objective values are not utterly different from other entities.
  • We might simply not understand our faculty of knowledge very well.
  • Empiricist assumptions are false. (We can have knowledge without use of our perceptions.)

Mackie agrees that the objection above is worth further research, and hopes that someday empiricists will be able to explain our knowledge of these ideas. However, Mackie also states that any number of these “ideas” could be added to his argument of queerness. Perhaps mathematical entities are also queer and don’t exist.

Note: Kurt Godel and contemporary philosophers, such as my professor Richard Tieszen, defend the existence mathematical abstract entities (Platonic forms.) It might be implausible that empiricists can explain our knowledge of mathematical truths and the fact that we have no choice but to accept mathematical truths as absolutes. If mathematical truths are absolutes, then they do require a queer (non-empiricist) form of knowledge, and they might even give evidence for non-natural entities (Platonic forms.)

Rather than relying on “objective values” to explain our moral beliefs, Mackie believes that we can find some sort of psychological explanation. Perhaps we “internalize relevant demands” given to us by society” (115).

My Objections to the Argument from Queerness:

Objection 1: Mathematical truths constrain reality and our epistemology in such a way that a materialist worldview can’t account for. Empiricism has failed to account for this fact, and might be incapable of accounting for this fact. Therefore, we can justifiably believe in mathematical entities and accept non-empiricist “methods of knowing things,” such as intuition.

Objection 2: How do we know about objective value? How about our experience of pain? We experience it is “bad.” This in itself is not a “passion” and it motivates us to want to avoid feeling pain. Once we find out that others can feel pain just like us, we realize that it is “objectively bad” and we don’t want anyone to feel unnecessary pain.

Additionally, our experience of pain is a very important factor of our “motivation.” The psychological fact of pain being motivational may have nothing to do with the actual existence of objective values, but I find the following statement to be plausible: the experience of the badness of pain is what makes it motivational. If pain isn’t viewed as bad, then it won’t be motivational.

We can try to justify the fact that pain isn’t objectively bad because it’s just something we feel as bad within our own “subjective experience,” but this view requires us to accept that (a) subjective experience is an illusion and/or (b) subjective experience is an entirely different reality from “objective reality.”

It is implausible that pain is an illusion since it is nothing other than an experience. An “illusion of pain” is real pain! An illusion is actually a misperception: To experience something as x, when it is really y. For example, to see a person in front of you when you are really hallucinating is to wrongly identify a person in front of you. You never saw a person, you misidentified subjective states as being evidence of there being a person.

It is implausible that subjectivity isn’t “real.” Subjective experience is part of reality. If it isn’t part of reality, then it is an illusion, but an illusion of subjective experience is subjective experience. To deny that subjective experience is real is to claim that we don’t have minds. If we don’t have minds, then we can’t know anything. Then we can’t know whether or not minds are real, for example. This is a self-defeating position.

It is implausible that subjective states are different realities. We simply have no evidence that there is more than one reality. It seems much more plausible that subjective states are part of one reality than that they are different realities.


  1. “R.M. Hare argues that people will speak of the truth or falsity of moral judgments whether or not values are “objective,” so one might conclude that this kind of question is meaningless (99). Mackie compares this to a kind metaphysical agnosticism: whether or not the world is made of material atoms or is an illusion is meaningless as long as everyone’s experience and way of life stays the same.”

    This made me laugh because of its truth. And, I’ve often wondered the actual value to mathematical measurements like quantity and time, since we created their values. I feel like I just read a text book, haha.

    Comment by Tim Jenkins — February 12, 2009 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  2. I’m definitely going to have to read through your archives when I get a chance.

    Comment by Grady Locklear — February 12, 2009 @ 7:22 pm | Reply

  3. I was talking to my son about reality last night, he is 14. He said his idea of different realities is this. “There is a guy in Japan I do not know of therefore that guy in Japan does not exist in my reality. That same guy in Japan does not know me therefore I do not exist in his reality. It is not until we both meet that our realities become one and the same.” This is a paraphrase of course. Would this be an example of two subjective realities diverging into a single more complex objective reality? Perhaps objective and subjective realities lie side by side, when our personal realities–which would be subjective–brush against each other, we create an objective reality so that we are able to function in the same world with each other.

    Comment by zenobia33 — February 13, 2009 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

    • “Subjectivity” just refers to mental content. Thoughts, feelings, tickles, itches, how colors look to us, etc.

      I’m not sure what exactly it means to say that two people live in different realities. As far as we know everyone in the world is causally connected. Your son’s “idea” of the world doesn’t include certain people yet, so he might be talking about his idea or mental image of the world. I suppose it is possible to decide that somehow there is no such thing as an objective world and only our ideas of the world exist, like the dream world in the Matrix. Reality itself was only within the mind.

      Comment by James Gray — February 13, 2009 @ 7:16 pm | Reply

  4. I like how you responded to his interpretation of reality. For some reason it brought to mind the growth process of the human mind. In the beginning a child’s veiw of the world is limited to his own sphere. There is simply nothing else beyond his interpretation of the world, this would be completely subjective correct? My son is now a teenager. He can now conceive that there are people in Japan but they don’t really exist though intellectly he knows they do, this being a burgeoning objectivity. Next comes adulthood in which we become truly and completely aware of the existance of the world even when we are not there. It continues even after we die! With the acceptance of eventual death comes a fully developed objective awareness of the world.

    But how adult are we? Sometimes I will be driving down the road and suddenly become aware that all those people in all those different cars are going some place too, living lives, doing stuff and feeling stuff. Vertigo!

    Comment by zenobia33 — February 16, 2009 @ 1:21 am | Reply

  5. I doubt all children have a matrix-like view of the world. About 20 years ago many people struggled to even understand that kind of a concept, but now it seems to be part of our culture.

    Probably the most common belief about children’s perspective is that they have an egoistic one. I don’t agree. They care about their parents and teachers. I remember spending my lunch time picking flowers for my teacher in Kindergarten.

    However, I do find it easy to be self-centered. It is hard not to see yourself as the star of the world because we are so much more in touch with ourselves than other people. This is probably an important starting point to have, but it can lead to over-valuing ourselves above others.

    Comment by James Gray — February 16, 2009 @ 1:36 am | Reply

  6. I wouldn’t call it a matrix view, just self centered. Some people never grow beyond it. Some people, like Mother Theresa, Ghandi and Jimmy Carter let go of the self centeredness completely. Child development does progress gradually from complete lack of knowledge of the outer existance of people beyond their own sight to awareness that people and the world does indeed exist beyond them.

    The topic of the article you put up for discussion is so huge. I have chosen to bring out a small part of it–the validity of objective and subjective values. Oh heck. I have to stop here. I have to get ready for work! ACK! Can’t be late again! LOL So Short Version: I think objective reality and the values formed from knowledge of that reality is a sign of growing maturity. I need to re-read the article so that I can go the next step in my thinking process! 🙂

    Comment by zenobia33 — February 17, 2009 @ 4:59 pm | Reply

    • The topic is very large, but the topic is something that is going to be constantly discussed.

      Comment by James Gray — February 22, 2009 @ 6:02 am | Reply

  7. […] main argument against the irreducibility of morality is Mackie’s argument from queerness, which states that our moral experiences require us to accept substantial metaphysical claims […]

    Pingback by Objections to Moral Realism Part 3: Argument from Queerness « Ethical Realism — November 6, 2009 @ 10:04 am | Reply

  8. this was very helpful. I had hard time reading Mackie and have an assignment due on him. thanks a lot.

    Comment by zcosmos — April 26, 2011 @ 1:08 pm | Reply

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