What are objective moral values? If moral values are objective there should be some way that we can come to agreement on what kinds of things that they are. Are they sui generis, non-natural properties with which we can somehow get into contact? If so, do such things exist? Alternatively, are objective moral values to be explained in terms of the natural, physical world rather than something non-natural, and if so, how do we explain their strange qualities?
In this paper I will examine J. L. Mackie’s argument from queerness, which is an argument against the existence of objective moral values. I will agree with Mackie that objective moral values as Mackie describes them, if they exist, are quite strange and unlike other properties in the universe. The peculiar qualities of objective moral values present a strange problem. If they are as Mackie terms them, ‘queer properties’, one’s approach to them turns on one’s acceptance of naturalism. That is to say, that if one embraces naturalism one will reject the existence of objective moral values, whereas one who embraces objective moral values will reject naturalism. So my conclusion will be that the argument from queerness is on suspect ground because it is dependent on an assumption of naturalism, but if objective moral values exist, this assumption is ungrounded.
Along the way, I will also look at attempts to argue that objective moral values are not queer properties but can be explained in terms of natural properties. In particular, I will examine David Brink’s response to Mackie’s argument from queerness, but conclude that it does not successfully avoid Mackie’s argument.
I. Mackie’s Argument From Queerness
J. L. Mackie contends that there are no objective moral properties. Mackie contends that if moral values are objective, they are categorical in nature. He states that if there are objective moral values that such values are categorical imperatives like those described by Kant, and are distinguishable from hypothetical imperatives. He explains:
A categorical imperative, then, would express a reason for acting which was unconditional in the sense of not being contingent upon any present desire of the agent to whose satisfaction the recommended action would contribute as a means.
What does Mackie mean by objective? Alexander Miller has argued that Mackie says many different things about what he means by objectivity. I think that examining Mackie’s argument from relativity provides us with a clue concerning what Mackie means by objective. In the argument from relativity he argues that because moral values and practices vary so much from society to society, this is good evidence for rejecting the existence of underlying moral values that are “recognized at least implicitly to some extent in all society.” So, he is rejecting the existence of objective moral principles that are recognized by all persons and societies. Therefore, in this paper, I will consider that necessary conditions of objective moral properties are that, if they exist, they are recognized by all in some way and are categorical.
Some may quibble with this definition of objective moral values, but this is the common sense view of morality, and I take Mackie’s point to be that if naturalism is correct then this common sense view of morality is mistaken – hence an error theory. On the other hand, if this common sense view of morality is correct it presents a stiff challenge to naturalism. So, my definition of objective moral values will not include thick concepts such as ‘courage’, which although evaluative and action-guiding, they are also parochial. In fact, objective values as defined in this paper would be considered thin concepts.
Because of his position that there are no objective moral values Mackie adopts an error theory, which means that even though people act as if they are making decisions according to objective moral values, there are in fact no moral values.
He uses two arguments against the existence of objective moral values: (a) the argument from queerness argument (“AQ”) (b) the argument from relativity. In this paper I will concentrate on the argument from queerness. I will argue that the queerness argument, as set out by Mackie, both the metaphysical and epistemological parts, is dependent on the assumption of naturalism because if one does not assume naturalism the existence of objective moral values can be used to reject naturalism. Here I define naturalism as “reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing ‘supernatural’, and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including the ‘human spirit’.”
Mackie breaks the argument from queerness down into two parts – one metaphysical and one epistemological. The metaphysical part states that if there are such things as objective moral values then there are strange entities in that they are categorical and thus action guiding. The epistemological part states that if there were objective moral values we would need a strange faculty or intuition to become aware of them. He writes:
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. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be some special faculty of moral perception of intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.
A. The Metaphysical Argument From Queerness
Mackie’s metaphysical argument from queerness relies on the fact that objective moral values would be something like Plato’s Forms or Moore’s non-natural qualities. The metaphysical branch of Mackie’s argument from queerness could be set out as follows in AQ1:
1. If objective moral values exist there are non-natural properties that are categorical.
2. There are no non-natural properties that are categorical.
3. Therefore, there are no objective moral values.
Obviously, the work being done here is by premise 2 which rules out non-natural categorical properties. But, is there are an argument for this provided by Mackie? The metaphysical portion of the argument from queerness assumes that naturalism is true. So, there seems to be a missing or assumed premise about the truth of naturalism. So, the metaphysical branch of Mackie’s argument from queerness could be set out more fully as follows in AQ2:
1. If objective moral values exist there are non-natural properties that are categorical.
2. If naturalism is true there are no non-natural properties that are categorical.
3. Naturalism is true.
4. Therefore, there are no non-natural properties that are categorical.
5. Therefore, there are no objective moral values.
It can be seen just how much Mackie’s argument from queerness relies on the presumption of naturalism if one asserts the existence of objective moral values and one does not assume naturalism. So, modifying Mackie’s argument from queerness by asserting the existence of objective moral values one could formulate an argument AQ3 in the following form:
1. If objective moral values exist there are non-natural properties that are categorical.
2. If there are non-natural properties that are categorical then naturalism is not true.
3. There are non-natural properties that are categorical.
4. Therefore, naturalism is not true
From AQ3 it can be seen that if objective moral values are queer properties, it is a double-edged sword for Mackie because if one assumes their existence, then naturalism is false. In fact, the appeal to the special nature of objective moral facts is often appealed to as an argument for theism, a fact that Mackie acknowledges. He recognizes that theism could provide a response to his argument from queerness and that in fact theists could use his argument from queerness for their own purposes. Mackie concedes “that if the requisite theological doctrine could be defended, a kind of objective ethical prescriptivity could be thus introduced.” Mackie contends that there are no good arguments for theism. So, it seems that in his argument from queerness Mackie has the additional burden of proving that theism is not true. And, he has to do so without the help of the argument from queerness, which is itself dependent on naturalism, and which can be used as a part of an argument against non-naturalism.
So what is Mackie’s argument against theism? Well at least in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, he does not present an argument so much as list reasons why he thinks that theism is not a viable option. He writes:
I can only state my convictions that there is no cogent positive argument for the existence of a God, the problem of evil constitutes an insuperable difficulty for an orthodox theism, that the advance of scientific knowledge renders a theistic view of the sort sketched above superfluous as an explanatory thesis and utterly implausible, and that no specific revelation – such as would be needed to make the proposed view morally significant – has reliable credentials.
So the metaphysical portion of Mackie’s argument from queerness depends on an assumption of naturalism. But, the interesting thing is that the queerness of objective moral values has been used to argue against naturalism, as I will discuss in more detail in the next section.
B. The Epistemological Argument From Queerness
Now let us examine the epistemological branch of Mackie’s argument. The epistemological part of the argument from queerness asserts that if there were such things as metaphysically queer objective moral values, how would we ever come to know them? We would need some kind of faculty that could intuitively know these objective moral values and Mackie holds that this is just not plausible. Again, this seems to be beyond the naturalistic pale, and so Mackie rejects the existence of such a faculty as implausible. I contend, however, that the epistemological part of the argument from queerness adds no particular force to his argument, no matter your position on the existence or non-existence of objective moral values.
If the metaphysical part of the argument from queerness is defeated, the epistemological part of the argument from queerness becomes toothless or at least not as problematic. Richard Joyce has argued, and I tend to agree with him, that Mackie’s epistemological argument from queerness is dependent on the metaphysical argument from queerness. That is to say that if there is no metaphysically queer properties then there is no need for epistemologically queer faculties for somehow connecting with this metaphysically queer properties. So, if one rejects the metaphysical part of the argument from queerness, one does not have to deal with the epistemological part – it becomes a moot point. Joyce writes:
These are not independent arguments, since we are forced to posit weird epistemological equipment only if it has already been established that the properties in question are weird. Thus really it is the metaphysical strand of the Argument from Queerness that is load bearing.
However, I would contend that even if one were to embrace the metaphysical part of the argument from queerness, and accept metaphysically queer moral properties in one’s ontology that the epistemological part of the argument from queerness becomes much less troublesome. Take the case of someone like Mark Linville (whose position is set out in the section below) who is willing to embrace objective moral values as metaphysically queer properties, and who has used the existence of such properties to reject naturalism; the epistemological part of Mackie’s argument for queerness should not be too hard to defeat. If naturalism has been abandoned and metaphysically queer moral properties are part of one’s ontology, why stop there? It does not seem a much bigger step to embrace a special faculty that can somehow know these properties once naturalism has been set aside.
So, whether or not one accepts or rejects the metaphysical portion of the argument from queerness, the epistemological part of the argument from queerness seems to play little role. Moreover, again when it comes to argument from queerness, the assumption of naturalism plays an important part not just in the metaphysical part of the argument, but also in the epistemological part of it also. In the next section, I will set out a position that has been taken that embraces objective moral values as queer properties in an argument to reject naturalism.
II. The Argument From Queerness Used Against Itself
As I mentioned above, the queerness of objective moral values has been used part of an argument against naturalism. An example of such an argument is Mark Linville’s argument against evolutionary naturalism. Linville defines evolutionary naturalism as “the combination of naturalism and an overall Darwinian account of the origin of species.” A central premise of Linville’s argument is the existence of objective moral values. He argues that evolutionary naturalism cannot accommodate objective moral values, which he asserts exist. And from this he concludes that evolutionary naturalism is false. Of course, the argument as I set it out above may not be wedded to evolutionary naturalism but the point is that if objective moral values are queer properties, they can be used by the non-naturalism as to contend against naturalism. Linville sets out this argument as follows:
1. If Evolutionary Naturalism (“EN”) is true, then human morality is a by-product of natural selection.
2. If human morality is a by-product of natural selection, then there are no objective moral facts.
3. There are objective moral facts.
4. Therefore, EN is false.
Linville’s recognizes that there is significant opposition to his first premise, but holds that he has presented sufficient evidence to support it. His argument for his second premise is that natural selection is fitness-aimed rather than truth aimed, and so if human morality is a by-product of natural selection our moral beliefs appear to be fitness-aimed rather than truth-aimed. This is therefore an argument for moral skepticism for objective moral values if such moral values are a by-product of natural selection. For my purposes I am content to present an example of AQ3 above showing that the alleged queerness of objective moral values has been said to motivate arguments against naturalism.
A few points can be remarked upon at this point. First, if one accepts that moral values if they exist are queer in Mackie’s sense, then whether one holds that such objective moral values can exist depends on one’s underlying philosophical presuppositions. What does this do to the argument from queerness? Does it just become a test of one’s presuppositions?
How does an account like Linville’s fare with regard to the epistemological part of Mackie’s argument from queerness? It seems that if non-naturalism can be established and if there are metaphysically queer objective moral values, positing an additional special moral faculty by which one can discern these objective values, would not be a massive leap. Therefore, as I mentioned in Section I.B above for someone willing to embrace the metaphysical queerness of moral properties, the epistemological part of the argument does not pose particular problems.
It seems that without a prior defense of naturalism, Mackie’s argument from queerness does not succeed. The argument from queerness further cannot be used as an argument in favor of naturalism as that would be question begging, and as we have seen, philosophers have appealed to the queerness of objective moral values in an effort to attack and defeat naturalism. So, the argument from queerness does not seem able to bear the heavy burden of showing that there are no objective moral values on its own. So, must one accept that objective moral values exist and are by nature queer because they are non-natural and categorical? David Brink has a possible way to defend objective moral values without appealing to non-naturalism.
III. Natural Objective Moral Values
David Brink has evaluated Mackie’s argument from queerness and argued that it does not affect moral realism. Here we must be careful to define what Brink means by moral realism. So, the first port of call in this section will be to define Brink’s moral realism.
Brink defines moral realism as follows: “(a) there are moral facts, and (b) these facts are logically independent of our evidence, i.e., those belief which are our evidence, for them.” He asserts that moral realism claims that there are objective moral facts and implies that there are true moral propositions. Brink defines Mackie as a moral skeptic of a particular kind; a moral skeptic who denies the existence of moral values but who is not a skeptic about most other disciplines. That is to say, that Mackie thinks there are special metaphysical and epistemological problems about realism in ethics that do not for example affect the physical sciences. Brink’s strategy is to try to show that the metaphysical and epistemological claims and commitments of ethics are just as plausible as those of physical sciences.
Brink points out that treating moral values as objective has the backing of common sense moral practice and casts aspersions in the direction of Mackie’s counter-intuitive error theory. This is a point that I will return to later in this paper. But, then Brink draws a distinction between his definition of objective moral values and Mackie’s definition. To do this Brink references an assumption that he claims underlies Mackie’s argument from queerness – internalism.
Brink points out that Mackie assumes internalism about objective moral values. Internalism is the thesis that moral values motivate action a priori, that in Mackie’s terms, they are prescriptive and categorical. Brink breaks internalism into two distinct camps – motivational internalism and reasons internalism. He writes:
Internalism is the a priori thesis that the recognition of moral facts itself either necessarily motivates or necessarily provides reasons for acting…We can distinguish motivational internalism (MI) and reasons internalism (RI): MI holds that it is a priori that the recognition of moral facts itself necessarily motivates the agent to perform the moral action, while RI claims that it is a priori that the recognition of moral facts itself necessarily provides the agent with reason to perform the moral action. Externalism, by contrast, denies both MI and RI.
Brink contends that much of the reason why Mackie thinks objective moral values to be queer properties is because Mackie thinks that objective moral values entail internalism. However, Brink states that he sees no reason why objective moral values should entail internalism. Brink contends that internalism is false. He argues that whether or not moral facts motivate one to act or give one reasons to act depends on what those moral facts are and also depends on one’s desires or interests.
Apart from his argument against internalism, Brink also argues that Mackie’s argument from queerness is based on the assumption that if objective moral values exist that they must be sui generis and independent of natural properties. Obviously such a definition of objective moral values conflicts with naturalism, so Brink contends that if one could explain objective moral values not as sui generis but as explainable in terms of natural properties, Mackie’s argument from queerness would be disarmed. So he proposes an account of objective moral values that is consistent with materialism or naturalism. He argues that one can accept objective moral values and materialism by either reducing moral values to natural properties, i.e., by showing that they are identical to natural properties, or take the route that Brink does and claim that objective moral values supervene on physical properties.
Brink holds that objective moral values supervene upon physical properties. He rejects reductionism on the grounds that because moral properties could be realized in non-physical as well as physical ways this means that not all moral properties are therefore reducible to physical properties. But this leads to another queerness debate between Mackie and Brink. Mackie holds that the supervenience relation between the physical base property and the moral supervenient property is mysterious or queer. And so Brink’s brand of supervenience does not escape Mackie’s criticism.
Brink states that “a supervenient relation obtains between two properties or sets of properties just in case the one property or set of properties is causally realized by the other set of properties; the former property or set of properties is the supervening property or set of properties, and the latter property or set of properties is the base property or set of properties.” So, according to Brink when a natural state of affairs such as the torturing of a cat for sport occurs the moral property of being wrong supervenes on that natural state of affairs. Mackie states that such a supervenience relation is still mysterious. He states:
What is the connection between the natural fact that an action is a case of deliberate cruelty – say, causing pain just for fun – and the moral fact that it is wrong?...The wrongness must somehow be ‘consequential’ or ‘supervenient’; it is wrong because it is a piece of deliberate cruelty. But just what in the world is signified by this ‘because’?
Brink offers a defense of the supervenience of moral properties by arguing that there are many other types of supervenience that we do not consider mysterious or queer. Brink’s strategy is to adopt Mackie’s suggestion to find ‘partners in guilt’, i.e., other examples of supervenience that are not considered metaphysically queer, and argue that moral supervenience should be treated in the same way as these other forms of supervenience.
However, I do not think that Brink’s defense is very successful. Brink points to the supervenience, for example, of mental states upon physical states. He states that few think that mental states are queer. However, the queerness comes about in the supervenience relation not in the supervening property itself. So while it may be true that not many consider mental states to be metaphysically queer, this is not the same thing as saying that the fact that mental states supervene upon physical states is not considered mysterious or queer. A materialist who does not wish to offer a reductionist solution to the mind/body problem is similar to a materialist like Brink who does not want to offer a reductionist account of morality. Both do not wish everything to the physical level but they do so at the expense of positing a supervenience relation that just is, and which as Mackie points out is very difficult to explain.
To be fair, Brink offers some more examples of supervenience other than the supervenience of mental states on physical states. But these examples doe not further his cause. He states that certain social facts such as unemployment, inflation, and exploitation supervene on physical facts but no one considers them metaphysically queer. However, social facts such as unemployment and inflation seem to be very different things than moral properties. (I leave aside exploitation, because to my mind that is a moral fact, or perhaps a natural state of affairs upon which the moral property of being wrong supervenes.) Social facts like unemployment are reducible to the ‘base’ physical properties. So unemployment is completely reducible to x number of people in a certain area do not have jobs. Similarly, the social fact of inflation is reducible to the fact that the prices of certain products in a certain region have risen above a certain level. Since Brink’s project is to explain objective moral properties in terms of supervenience upon a natural base rather than to reduce objective moral values to a physical base, these types of examples do not further his cause.
Brink also presents examples taken from the physical sciences – biological states supervening upon physical states, and macroscopic physical objects like tables supervening upon microscopic physical particles. But here again a straight reductionist account would do the trick. That is to say the relation between what Brink wants to label the base property and the supervening property is not like that of moral properties supervening on natural facts such as torturing cats for fun. If we could straightforwardly reduce the moral property of wrongness to natural facts such as torturing cats for fun that would be a different story. But, whatever the merits of reducing moral properties to natural facts, it is not a project that Brink thinks can be successful.
Brink recognizes that if supervenience does not work that a case could be made for sui generis moral properties:
If and only if moral facts were queer kinds of entities would we need some special faculty for cognitive access to them. But the realist denies that moral facts are sui generis; moral facts supervene on natural facts.
But, I do not find his account of supervenience convincing. The supervenience relation is mysterious and none of the examples he provides help to make it less so. The one helpful case is the supervenience of mental states on physical states, but that supervenience relation is held by many to be mysterious.
Therefore, I contend that Brink’s attempt to avoid Mackie’s argument from queerness by outlining a theory whereby objective moral values are not queer but explainable in terms of natural properties, does not succeed because his is still saddled with the mysterious supervenience relation of moral properties up on natural properties.
IV. Final Analysis
So far we have examined Mackie’s argument from queerness and found that it depends on an assumption of naturalism because if one embraces the metaphysical queerness of objective moral properties, one can use this phenomenon to argue against naturalism. We have also seen Brink’s attempt to ‘dequeer’ objective moral values fail as the supervenience of moral properties on natural properties remains a mystery. Given this background that we have worked through the above, where do we now stand? I think that the field can be narrowed to those who hold that if objective moral values do exist that they are queer properties, i.e., something very different from anything else in the universe. So we would be left with two opposing views – Mackie’s view and then the view of someone like Mark Linville. What are the consequences of their views?
Mackie’s view avoids expanding one’s ontology to include such metaphysically queer items as objective moral values, but at a high expense. I mentioned Mackie’s error theory earlier. He asserts that since common sense morality asserts that objective moral values exist when they do not, we must adopt an error theory.
The denial of objective values will have to be put forward not as the result of an analytic approach, but as an ‘error theory’, a theory that although most people in making moral judgments implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false.
This is a very high price to pay. So while in everyday life we act as if there are objective prescriptive standards, we know that in reality, no such things exist. Mackie recognizes that since his error theory goes against common sense morality he bears the burden of explaining why it is the correct view and why there are no objective moral values. He states that his view needs ‘very solid support’. However, as we have seen, his argument from queerness does not stand on its own too feet, but is undergirded by a presumption of naturalism. Linville’s view, which accepts that objective moral values exist and are queer, leads to the abandonment of naturalism, which is a price many will not be willing to pay either.
So if bullets have to be bitten, is there any way of deciding between these two alternatives? Is it just down to one’s position on naturalism or is there something stronger that one can hang one’s hat on? Well if naturalism is true then one must I think bite Mackie’s bullet and accept his error theory, no matter how contrary it seems to common moral practice, that there are no objective, prescriptive moral values. However, naturalism must first be shown to be true, and in doing so, the challenge of explaining objective moral values without appealing to non-naturalistic properties must be met.
Brink, David O., “Moral realism and the sceptical Arguments from Disagreement and Queerness,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62 (1984): 111.
Joyce, Richard, "Moral Anti-Realism," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
Linville, Mark, “The Moral Argument,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. William Lane Craig & J. P. Moreland (Blackwell Publishing Ltd.: Malden, MA, 2012): 391.
Mackie, J.L., Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1978).
Miller, Alexander, Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction (2nd Ed.) (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013).
Papineau, David, "Naturalism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
 J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1978), 29.
 Miller, Alexander, Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction (2nd Ed.) (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013), 108-109.
 Mackie, Ethics, 37.
 The argument from relativity contends that moral codes and practices vary widely from society to society, and argues that this phenomenon is better explained by these variations being different ways of life rather than direct perceptions of objective moral values. That is to say, that it does not seem likely there are objective moral values given the fact that moral codes and practices vary so much from society to society and from group to group.
David Papineau, "Naturalism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
(Krikorian 1944, Kim 2003).
 Mackie, Ethics, 38.
 Ibid. 48.
 Ibid. 232.
 Joyce, Richard, "Moral Anti-Realism," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
 Mark Linville, “The Moral Argument,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. William Lane Craig & J. P. Moreland (Blackwell Publishing Ltd.: Malden, MA, 2012): 391.
 Ibid. 394.
 Note that Linville explains that he argues against evolutionary naturalism as that is the kind of naturalism that is taken to be the ‘only game in town’ when it comes to naturalism.
 Brink, David O. Brink, “Moral realism and the sceptical Arguments from Disagreement and Queerness,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62 (1984): 111.
 Ibid. 111.
 Ibid. 113.
 I agree with Brink here, and so I will not spend more time explaining why a reductionist account of objective moral values, as defined in this paper, cannot be successful.
 Ibid. 119.
 Mackie, Ethics, 41.
 Brink, Moral Realism, 123
 Mackie, Ethics, 35.