Thursday, January 22, 2009

On the Queerness of Morality

Perhaps one way of making sense of the "queerness" argument is this. Suppose you are a materialist. That is, what you believe is that everything that is real has a particular location in space and time, and that if a state is real it is a state of physical particles or a conglomeration of physical particles. Thus although the word "planet" does not occur in basic physics, it is a bunch of physical particles put together, and given some arrangement of physical particles, you can't deny that you have a planet there. But what about a "morally wrong act." It looks as if nothing about the physical world can entail that something, even a sadistic, cold-blooded Jeffrey Dahmer killing, is really wrong. Wrongness can't be added up from basic physical particles the way planethood can. Therefore, if materialism is true, there can't be any moral facts.

This of course can run in two directions.

1. If physicalism is true, then there can be no moral facts.
2. Physicalism is true.
3. Therefore, there are no moral facts.


1. If physicalism is true, then there can be no moral facts.
2. There are moral facts.
3. Therefore physicalism is false.


Gordon Knight said...

I think this is the weakest aspect of the queerness argument. A better point made by Mackie is that morallly objective qualities would be strange in that they are intrinsically motivating. I personally have no problem with the intrinsic motivational power of the Good, but it does single out a distinctive characteristic of objective moral qualities.

Kurt said...

Hmm. I suppose one argument might be that planethood is just as arbitrary and constructed as morality, but yet it is something that we agree on all the same.

In the same way that, over time, people have gradually refined and come to agree on the specific characteristics of what makes up a planet, they have also come to agree (but also, let's be honest, to also disagree) on those characteristics that help make for a society in which people can experience relatively more pleasure and relatively less pain by following a particular set of rules around the way that they live.

Gordon Knight said...


If society x agrees that genital mutilation is the acceptable practice of the time, or agrees to slavery, then, on your view, is there any rational ground for disagreement?

Consensus of a group is no less arbitrary then personal whim.

Steve said...

I'm very much in agreement with GK on this one. The best way to structure the argument is to say:

(1) Morality involves "objective prescriptivity"
(2) Objectivity seems to require mind independence
(3) Prescriptivity seems to require mind dependence
(4) Therefore morality seems to be an incoherent notion or at least very "queer".

The "prescriptivity" of morality here here can be understood as it's intrinisically motivating character or in terms of it's intrinsically reason-giving character. I prefer to express it on the second (reason-giving) model as I think reasons are more "basic" than motives.


Anonymous said...

(P1) Physicali$m is the view that "that everything that is real has a particular location in space and time" (Reppert)
(P2) The universe is physical.
.: (C) The universe has "a particular location in space and time"

But, the universe is the whole of $pacetime. Therefore, by reductio, your characterization of physicali$m is false.

Confer with:

Q. $mith, "Time, $pace, and Physical Object$ - A Reply to Ned Marko$ian" in The Importance of Time edited by N. Oaklander (2001) pp. 243-245.

(note: the '$' stops certain words from showing up in search engines for research sake)