Ethical Realism

November 6, 2009

Objections to Moral Realism Part 3: Argument from Queerness

If morality is irreducible to nonmoral facts, it might still be part of the materialist worldview like any other domain, but we would merely be unable to fully describe morality in nonmoral terms. (To say that moral facts are reducible is to say that we can find out that moral facts “are really something else.”) I have argued that morality must be irreducible, but this is a substantial metaphysical claim. Such a metaphysical claim must be especially justified due to Occam’s razor—We must not multiply entities beyond necessity.1 (Or, more specifically, we shouldn’t multiply irreducible domains of reality beyond necessity.) I will present three objections against the claim that morality is irreducible, then I will attempt to reply to those objections in order to show them to be unconvincing. In particular I want to show that morality’s irreducibility is just as justified as psychology’s irreducibility, that we have reason to believe psychology is irreducible, and that we have more reason to accept that morality is irreducible than to reject it.

This paper is divided into the following sections:

  1. I will explain J. L. Mackie’s argument from queerness.
  2. I will review relevant arguments I have made in the past. In particular, I will touch upon my argument for moral realism and my past arguments for the claim that morality is irreducible.
  3. I will relate my past arguments to the argument from queerness.
  4. I will discuss the ontological objections against morality being irreducible.

1. Mackie’s Argument from Queerness

The 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 without an appropriate justification. Therefore, we should think of our moral experiences as being delusional. It looks something like the following:

  1. Moral realism requires substantial metaphysical claims.
  2. Substantial metaphysical claims should be rejected unless they are appropriately justified.
  3. Ethical metaphysical claims are not appropriately justified.
  4. Therefore, we should reject ethical metaphysical claims.

An argument for queerness pretty much states that Occam’s razor forces us to reject moral realism, and the argument from queerness can be reformulated to apply whenever we make any unjustified substantial claim. It is more plausible that I forgot where I put my keys than the possibility that a ghost moved it; it is more plausible that a person has a hallucination than that a person sees a unicorn; and it is more plausible that I accidentally deleted a computer file than that someone broke into my house to delete it.

I agree that moral realism requires intrinsic values, and intrinsic values are part of an irreducible domain. We can’t reduce intrinsic values to nonmoral facts of psychology or physics. Mackie might argue that such an “irreducible domain” is an insufficiently justified substantial metaphysical claim. However, I will defend that such a metaphysical claim is sufficiently justified.

2. Review: My Past Arguments

In An Argument for Moral Realism I argue that we experience that pain is bad, and I argue that pain is bad no matter who experiences it, which leads us to the conclusion that pain has intrinsic disvalue. I then defend these premises from various objections. One objection to pain’s intrinsic disvalue is that our moral experience can’t be philosophically analyzed, but this objection would force us to admit that we can’t philosophically assess the existence of observation. We know we observe things by directly experiencing our observations.

I then spent some more time defending the view that introspection can be reliable by relating it to introspection involving philosophy of mind in my essay on The Is/Ought Gap. In particular, my argument can be found in the following two sections:

  1. How could a materialist reject the materialistic is/ought gap?
  2. The argument for a materialistic is/ought gap.

It is here that I argued that introspection is a reliable source of information concerning the philosophy of mind because we have direct experience of mental phenomena. This experience provides us with some reason to believe that mental phenomena is irreducible. It is impossible to understand the experience of green through non-mental descriptive facts. This kind of irreducibility is a substantial metaphysical claim, but it is justified. Additionally, this kind of irreducibility isn’t metaphysically illegitimate considering that it is compatible with materialism. Although psychology and morality may be irreducible metaphysical domains, they can still be part of the same reality as everything else.

3. The Problem: An Earlier Reply to Mackie

My defense of moral introspection implies an objection against the argument from queerness. In particular, premise 3 of the above version of the argument from queerness is implausible because we can justify our ethical metaphysical claims. Some metaphysical claims in ethics are justified, just like metaphysical claims in philosophy of mind are justified. Although I have given us some reason to reject the argument from queerness, there is much more to be said on the subject. Many people will still be unconvinced that we have good reason to believe that ethics is an irreducible metaphysical domain. I will consider the following three objections:

First, moral metaphysics might be disanalogous to psychological metaphysics. In particular, we experience some psychological facts directly. I will argue that this objection is unconvincing because we can experience some moral facts directly.

Second, it can be debated whether or not psychology is irreducible. Some philosophers are identity theorists and believe that brain activity is identical to mental states. I will argue that this objection is unconvincing because some mental states (probably) can’t be understood through a description non-psychological facts.

Third, it isn’t clear that we have more reason to accept morality’s irreducibility than reject it. In particular, we shouldn’t accept substantial metaphysical claims without substantial evidence, and perhaps we don’t have substantial evidence. I will argue that this objection is unconvincing because we can justify the fact that morality is irreducible in a very similar way to how we can justify other substantial metaphysical claims.

4. Ontological Objections to Intrinsic Values

Is ontological moral philosophy analogous with mental philosophy?

The objection: One could argue that metaphysical claims of psychology can easily be justified through introspection because we can examine our direct experience of psychology. For example, we know what it is like to experience the color green because we have actually done so. To experience it is to have direct access to part of reality. That part of reality is the psychological domain. We can say that the psychological domain is metaphysically irreducible in the sense that non-psychological descriptions can never fully describe our experiences of psychology. No matter how many non-psychological facts are cited, you will never know what “the experience of the color green” is. However, we do not have a direct access to the moral domain. Therefore, we can’t know that the moral domain is irreducible.

My reply: We do have direct access to some moral claims because some moral claims are part of our psychological experience. To experience pain is enough to decide that pain is bad, and we realize other people feel pain in the same way, which is enough for us to realize that it’s a good idea to give someone an aspirin when they have a headache. The “badness” of pain is part of our experience of pain.

If we have direct access to moral facts through our experiences, then there is a new worry: Isn’t the moral domain reducible to the psychological domain? It is quite possible that the moral domain is part of psychology, but if it is, then it is an irreducible domain of psychology. What I claim is that moral facts are irreducible to nonmoral facts. Whether or not moral facts could be psychological facts wouldn’t be enough to prove that moral facts aren’t irreducible to nonmoral facts. Psychological facts are not by definition non-moral.

Is psychology irreducible?

Objection: I claim that we know moral facts are irreducible the same way we know psychological facts are irreducible, but some will argue that psychological facts are reducible to non-psychological facts. If our experiences can’t prove that psychology is irreducible, then they might also fail to prove that morality is irreducible. Some philosophers are identity theorists of the mind. They believe that mental states are identical to various brain states. There can be various brain states that correspond to a single mental state. (This is to say that the mind is multiply realizable. A single mental state can exist from various brain states.)

We might find out that the mind is reducible to non-mental states just like water is reducible to H2O. When you touch and taste water, you don’t experience H2O. When H2O is described to you, you don’t know anything about experiencing water, but that just means that our experience of water is deceptive. Perhaps our experience of pain is deceptive in the same way. Pain is really a brain state (or disjunctive chain of possible brain states), but we experience it in a strange way.

My reply: John Searle, Thomas Negal, Saul Kripke, and Frank Jackson have done a good job at replying to this objection already.2 They argue that our experience of the world is often illusory, but consciousness in particular is something that can’t be an illusion. The actual experiences we have can’t be an illusion insofar as we describe nothing more than the experience itself. Pain, for example, is just an experience. To have a hallucination of pain is the same thing as a real pain. In a similar way we can’t accept that consciousness as a whole is a hallucination. If it was, who would be having it? Hallucinations require hallucinaters.

At this point I would like to provide two additional arguments for the reliability of our introspective evidence: One, we know our experiences exist because we have direct access to them. Introspection is reliable when it gives us direct access. Two, the feel (or qualia) of the experience includes real properties of something that exists, even if that something that exists is nothing other than our mental events.3 We have direct access to the properties of our experiences. The fact that some introspective evidence is reliable for these two arguments should give us reason to consider the possibility that it might also give us reliable evidence that some psychological facts are irreducible.

In conclusion, we should accept that a mental state, such as “the experience of pain,” is an ontologically real state, and we can’t intuitively understand the experience of pain to “really be something else,” but some overriding reason might be presented that forces us to accept pain as being reducible. In the same way the “badness of pain” is part of our pain experience and likewise must be accepted as a real state, can only be intuitively understand as being irreducible, but an overriding reason may someday be presented to force us to reject it as being irreducible. We currently have no overriding reason to reject the irreducibility of psychology or morality, so the burden of proof has been shifted to those who believe such domains to be reducible.

Do we have sufficient reason to accept morality to be irreducible?

Objection: It could be argued that we still don’t have better reason to accept that morality is irreducible than the opposite. Although we can justify the fact that morality is irreducible, it isn’t clear if the justification is sufficient. We shouldn’t accept a claim with more metaphysical implications than necessary, and it could be objected that “it isn’t necessary to accept that morality is irreducible.” Consider the following:

  1. My keys aren’t where I left them.
  2. I didn’t move my keys.
  3. No other human or animal moved my keys.
  4. Therefore, a ghost moved my keys.

Although this argument is absurd, it can be justified to some extent. We might then worry: Is the justification that morality is irreducible insufficient similar to how this argument for a ghost is insufficient? This argument provides a justification for the belief that a ghost moved my keys. All of the premises can be justified. Our memory is a pretty reliable source of knowledge and I remember leaving my keys somewhere. I also remember not moving them, and I can have good reason to believe that no humans or mammals were around. Perhaps I am the only person around for 10 minutes before I realize my keys aren’t where I left them. The problem is that we need a stronger justification in order to accept such a claim with so many metaphysical implications. We can’t accept new kinds of entities unless it is truly the most justified possibility. It is more likely that one of the premises is false than that the conclusion is true. In particular, our memory is not reliable enough to prove the existence of ghosts. Sometimes our mind plays tricks on itself and we put our keys somewhere other than where we remember putting them. Although it is also more likely that an illusionist is playing a trick on me than the possibility that ghosts exist, it is even more likely that my mind is playing a trick on itself. (Notice that we don’t have to know for sure which premise is false to know that the conclusion is unacceptable.4)

My reply: The objection is unconvincing because we have some reason to believe that the irreducibility of morality could be the best explanation of our moral experience. Consider these three arguments for substantial metaphysical claims:

Argument 1

  1. We have observations.
  2. Having observations are impossible without having psychological experiences.
  3. Therefore, psychological experiences exist.

Argument 2

  1. My experience of seeing a television is best explained by a television actually existing.
  2. Therefore, it is much more plausible that a television exists than otherwise.

Argument 3

  1. We experience the notion of “bad” through moral experience.
  2. It is impossible to understand the fact that something is bad given a description of nonmoral facts.
  3. Therefore, moral facts are irreducible.

Argument 1 and 2 are sufficiently justified, and the reason that they are sufficiently justified is that we have no overriding reason to reject them, and they reflect the best possible explanation for a phenomena. Argument 1 is about as justified as any metaphysical argument can be because the best explanation for being able to observe things is to have psychological experiences. Argument 2 is very plausible. It might be that I am hallucinating that a television exists, but this would be very unusual. The only reason to think someone is hallucinating is when there are overriding reasons to believe their experience to be deceptive. So, the best reason to think that someone is seeing a television is because there really is a television.

Argument 3 is sufficiently justified for the same reason Argument 1 and 2 are justified. It is also the best explanation of our experience, and we have no overriding reason to doubt it. How do we know it is the best explanation for our experience? Because we can’t intuitively accept that nonmoral facts could somehow give us moral facts. (Perhaps someday it will be proven that we can get moral facts from nonmoral facts, but we have no reason to believe it yet.)

What reasons do we have to doubt Argument 3?

  1. If it is possible to understand moral facts from a description of nonmoral facts.
  2. If introspective evidence is unreliable.
  3. If nothing could possibly be irreducible.

Is it possible to understand moral facts from a description of nonmoral facts?

I have already given some reason to believe we can’t understand moral facts from a description of nonmoral facts. In particular, it is very intuitive. We can’t see how important something is just by looking at atoms flying around, just by looking at the brain, or even by looking at nonmoral psychological states.

The possibility of understanding moral facts from a description of nonmoral facts is the best strategy to prove that moral facts are reducible, but no argument of this sort has been convincing. For example, it has been proposed that “maximizing pleasure” means the same thing as “good.” However, pleasure doesn’t seem to be good by definition. Why? Because there is a kind of importance involved with morality. “Maximizes pleasure” doesn’t impress upon us any sort of importance. It might be that maximizing pleasure is always important, but understanding the word “importance” doesn’t guarantee an understanding of the word “pleasure.” Additionally, there might be things that are important other than pleasure. (I already argued that pain is important.)

If “maximizing pleasure” did mean the same thing as “good,” then the reason we find maximizing pleasure to be important is because we desire it. However, there is something important about pain other than just the desire to avoid it. The desire to avoid pain isn’t something we can choose, and it isn’t something that happens just because of our instincts. We desire to avoid pain because of how it feels.

Is introspective evidence unreliable?

I have already discussed why introspective evidence is reliable. (For example, we can sufficiently justify the fact that we have observations through our psychological experiences.)

Is it impossible for something to be irreducible?

I see no reason to accept that “nothing could possibly be irreducible.” Someone could argue that we have good reason to believe nothing could be irreducible, but I have no idea what that reason would be.


I have argued here and elsewhere that moral facts are irreducible, and this possibility is more plausible than its alternative. We intuitively accept that no description of nonmoral facts will be sufficient to understand a moral fact. We can justify ethical metaphysics in the same way that we can justify psychological metaphysics. Even if we aren’t sure whether or not introspective evidence can sufficiently justify that moral facts are irreducible, we can be sure that introspective evidence can be reliable, and introspection is therefore worthy of consideration. Finally, there are no overriding reasons to reject that moral facts are irreducible.

1 Baker, Alan. “Simplicity.” Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 19 Jan. 2010. <>.

2 Searle, John. The Rediscovery of the Mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992. 116-118

3 “Qualia” refers to the subjective experience involved with various mental events from the first person perspective.

4 If a valid argument has true premises, then the conclusion must be true. Therefore, we must know that premise of a valid argument could be false in order to doubt the conclusion.


  1. […] The reason why it’s reasonable to speculate that morality is irreducible to nonmoral facts is because it’s reasonable to speculate that mental acivity isn’t irreducible to nonmental facts. I consider the objection that moral facts are too spooky in my essay, “Objections to Moral Realism Part 3: Argument from Queerness.” […]

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  2. […] I have given reason to think the word “bad” is irreducible, but I haven’t proven it. If someone could prove that pain isn’t important, and we can reduce pain to something else, then I will be proven wrong. I just don’t see any reason to agree with that position at this time. I discuss the badness of pain as irreducible in more detail in my essays “Objection to Moral Realism Part 1: Is/Ought Gap” and “Objections to Moral Realism Part 3: Argument from Queerness.” […]

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  4. […] theism is much like Mackie’s argument from queerness against moral realism, which I discussed here. This was my understanding of that […]

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