I am looking for the best way to counter the Argument from Queerness by Mackie.

Does anyone have a "standard" way to counter Mackie's argument? Is there an example which

  • Could you be clearer about what you mean by 'standard'?
    – virmaior
    Jul 16, 2014 at 20:14
  • 1
    Is "Argument from queerness" not just another way to say "Reductio ad absurdum"? Jul 16, 2014 at 21:37
  • natural moral properties WOULD be awful queer. surely the point is that actually there's no imperative to objective etc. values. right ?
    – user6917
    Sep 15, 2014 at 18:49
  • Is there any chance you could explore this a little further??
    – Joseph Weissman
    Nov 15, 2014 at 17:47

2 Answers 2


I haven't seen this anywhere, but I would raise the specter of laws of nature with causal powers as 'queer' entities. We know that laws like F = ma are entirely descriptive; objects do not obey F = ma [to various approximations] because of F = ma. A compelling reason to believe this is that in certain regimes, F = ma is a very bad approximation: high gravity and relativistic speeds. Therefore, F = ma has no causal power; the causal power relies somewhere else. (I will ignore the Regularity Theory on the basis of Rom Harré's Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity.)

What is the nature of these causally potent laws of nature? They dictate how [physical] things must be and how they must change. But they don't lie in the things, as if they're another kind of 'thing-hood'. Indeed, they appear to be an entirely different ontological category than physical things. These laws of nature have to be kind of like God: timeless and omnipresent. Edward Feser makes this point:

First, when scientists like Carroll confidently proclaim that we can explain such-and-such in terms of the laws of physics rather than God, what they are saying, without realizing it, is: “The explanation isn’t God, it’s rather the laws of physics, where ‘law of physics’ originally meant ‘a decree of God’ and where I don’t have any worked-out alternative account of what it means.” Hence the “alternative” explanation, when unpacked, is really either a tacit appeal to God or a non-explanation. In short, either it isn’t alternative, or it’s not an explanation. The utter cluelessness of this stock naturalistic “alternative explanation” would make of it an object of ridicule if it were not so routinely and confidently put forward by otherwise highly intelligent, educated, and widely esteemed people.

So, unless a non-God-like formulation of the laws of nature can be provided†, where these causally potent laws aren't very, very different from the normal stuff of physicalism (or philosophical naturalism, I think), the defender of the queerness argument is engaged in special-pleading by refusing to let moral laws be 'queer', while giving the 'queerness' of natural laws a pass.

† There is much debate and uncertainty about what 'laws of nature' really are; see for example Evan Fales' Divine Intervention: Metaphysical and Epistemological Puzzles.


There is a counterargument to Mackie, albeit one that many philosophers wouldn't accept.

The argument from queerness is described by Mackie in "Ethical Theory: An Anthology", Second ed., edited by Russ Shafer-Landau, Chapter 3, especially pp. 28-29. On p.24 he describes what sort of values he denies:

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 – or more directly: ‘You ought to dance’, if the implied reason is just that you want to dance or like dancing, is still a hypothetical imperative. Now Kant himself held that moral judgements are categorical imperatives, or perhaps are all applications of one categorical imperative, and it can plausibly be maintained at least that many moral judgements contain a categorically imperative element. So far as ethics is concerned, my thesis that there are no objective values is specifically the denial that any such categorically imperative element is objectively valid. The objective values which I am denying would be action-directing absolutely, not contingently (in the way indicated) upon the agent’s desires and inclinations.


If I have succeeded in specifying precisely enough the moral values whose objectivity I am denying, my thesis may now seem to be trivially true.

So then what is the argument from queerness? On p. 28 he writes:

Even more important, however, and certainly more generally applicable, is the argument from queerness. This has two parts, one metaphysical, the other epistemological. 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 by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.

He then claims that the best way to counter this problem is to look for other similar knowledge that is just as queer and gives a list of examples. He then goes on to write:

The only adequate reply to it would be to show how, on empiricist foundations, we can construct an account of the ideas and beliefs and knowledge that we have of all these matters.

The emphasis is mine, not his.

No argument for anything can be constructed on empiricist foundations or on any other foundations. If you assess ideas using argument then the arguments have premises and rules of inference and the result of the argument may not be true (or probably true) if the premises and rules of inference are false. You might try to solve this by coming up with a new argument that proves the premises and rules of inference but then you have the same problem with those premises and rules of inference. You might say that some stuff is indubitably true (or probably true), and you can use that as a foundation. But that just means you have cut off a possible avenue of intellectual progress since the foundation can't be explained in terms of anything deeper. And in any case there is nothing that can fill that role. Sense experience won't work since you can misinterpret information from your sense organs, e.g. - optical illusions. Sense organs also fail to record lots of stuff that does exist, e.g. - neutrinos. Scientific instruments aren't infallible either since you can make mistakes in setting them up, in interpreting information from them and so on.

We don't create knowledge (useful or explanatory information) by showing stuff is true or probably true for reasons so how do we create knowledge? We can only create knowledge by finding mistakes in our current ideas and correcting them piecemeal. You notice a problem with your current ideas, propose solutions, criticise the solutions until only one is left and then find a new problem. We shouldn't say that a theory is false because it hasn't been proven because this applies to all theories. Rather, we should look at what problems it aims to solve and ask whether it solves them. We should look at whether it is compatible with other current knowledge and if not try to figure out the best solution. Should the new idea be discarded or the old idea or can some variant of both solve the problem?

In the light of this there is another problem with what Mackie is saying. He specifies that morality would tell an agent to do something that is not contingent on "any present desire". But any position can be undermined by proposing criticisms it can't answer and an alternative that solves the resulting problems. Present desires are no different from any other position in this respect.

But then how to we find moral knowledge? The answer is that you specify some goal and work out what sort of behaviour would be required to do it if you take it seriously as an explanation and apply it universally. And it turns out that no matter what goal you choose maximising the extent to which you can do it pushes you in the direction of doing some things and not others. And if you choose the wrong goal, that's all right too since the goal can be corrected by critical discussion in the light of other explanations. For more on this topic see


  • 2
    Again, your claims would be a lot better if you learned to tone down your universals (e.g. "No argument for anything can be constructed on empiricist foundations or on any other foundations"). A large swath of philosophers and others would disagree.
    – virmaior
    Jul 17, 2014 at 17:11
  • 1
    E.g. this appears to be a type of foundational claim: "We can only create knowledge by finding mistakes in our current ideas and correcting them piecemeal" (and one stated in universal terms)
    – virmaior
    Jul 17, 2014 at 17:12
  • 1
    There is apparently such a thing as arbitrary definitions...
    – virmaior
    Jul 18, 2014 at 13:58
  • 1
    A criticism of the "only route to knowledge is criticism of guesses" is that (a) It's evident from learning even a small amount of philosophy that pretty much any idea is criticised by those who disagree, and (b) it's by no means apparent that the most compelling criticism has been made. Thus by your definition there is (a) no knowledge and (b) no reason to suppose that a less-criticised guess is more accurate than another - demoocracy is a rather blunt instrument to determine truth!
    – AndrewC
    Sep 15, 2014 at 18:01
  • 1
    (+) To counter (a) you must appoint some arbiter between more valid and less valid criticism, and suddenly you have moved from empiricism to belief or authority. Furthermore your implication in comments that your theory of knowledge surpasses others because they lack criticism is as self referential as asserting that truth is defined as what I assert; it's true only by its own definition rather than external justification. Since I've now criticised this theory is it no longer knowledge, or does (+) apply?
    – AndrewC
    Sep 15, 2014 at 18:02

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .