Mackie’s queerness argument (QA), in its metaphysical part, goes something like this. Putative facts about our moral obligations supposedly involve objective values that carry normativity – they give us reason to do things. But any such facts would be metaphysically strange, so it’s hard to countenance the existence of such facts. (Epistemologically, knowing such facts would require some unlikely special moral intuition.)

But this argument’s place in the dialectic between realism and antirealism (about objective moral facts) is itself a bit strange, since it seems that proponents of QA are incoherent when they advance QA, and that a standard realist response to QA is also incoherent.

One way that realists respond to QA is to ally moral facts with other normative facts, e.g., epistemic facts: if we’re willing to say that some person ought to (for good reasons) believe that P, we might as well say that she ought to perform act A. This might seem compelling. However, in response the antirealist can just go global, and say that all normativity, of whatever sort, is metaphysically odd. Our physical world simply doesn’t contain anything that, of itself, gives us reasons, of any sort.

So the next step, made by for example, Shafer-Landau (Moral Realism, 207-208 [on one interpretation of what he’s saying]), is to point out that logic itself is normative. We say that if I am willing to grant that A>B and that A, then I should infer that B. Correlatively, if you are a global antirealist about normativity, then you have to deny the normativity of logic and argumentation. In which case you have to deny that QA gives you or anyone else, including realists, any reason to accept its conclusion. Call this the ‘normativity objection.’

So, Shafer-Landau concludes that QA “cannot rationally compel the allegiance of its detractors.” But that’s not the whole truth of the matter, and here’s where the real strangeness of QA comes in. It is true that for (global) antirealists, QA provides no reasons for believing anything about morality. But for realists about inferential norms and matters epistemic, arguments, like QA, do provide reasons to accept their conclusions. In this case, the realist’s commitment to normativity renders the normativity objection incoherent. There’s something of a paradox here: reasonably, the realist holds that moral normativity is no more odd than other kinds of normativity, but that very claim is inconsistent with the normativity objection’s insistence that QA gives us no reason to doubt the reality of moral facts.

Of course, Shafer-Landau is right that antirealists can’t claim that you should accept the inference. But the point under consideration now is that if you’re a normativity realist, you don’t need to be convinced of that claim anyway.

Now turn to the position of the global antirealist. If she truly denies all normativity (on grounds of its metaphysical oddness), then by her own lights she has no reason to put forth the QA in the first place, as Shafer-Landau points out. Put differently, at the end of a paper in which global antirealism is defended via some version of the QA, the honest author will claim: “But if I’m right, none of this gives you any reason to believe what I said.” Thus the antirealist’s commitment to the metaphysical nonsense of normativity pushes her away from advocating her position via argumentation. So the antirealist has no reason to put forth QA, or for that matter any argument, in the first place. (At least that’s true of the global antirealist, though it’s hard to see why one wouldn’t be a global antirealist if the motivation for one’s antirealism is QA.) Putting forth a queerness argument for antirealism seems incoherent.

If the foregoing is right, then there seems to be something of a paradox. Antirealists are incoherent in putting forth QA. Indeed, putting forth QA as a reason for belief about anything undermines QA itself. The other side of this coin is that realists should be concerned about QA (assuming its soundness), since they can’t argue against it by associating moral normativity with logical and epistemological normativity, for doing so pushes them towards accepting QA as a reason to doubt normativity…which then undermines QA’s own reasons for doubting normativity. So, again, it’s hard to see even the possibility of debate on this question, since both realist normativity objections to, and antirealist advocacy of, QA are incoherent. In which case, one would have to choose between realism and antirealism on some other grounds besides QA and the ubiquity of extra-moral normativity.

22 Replies to “The Strangeness of the Queerness Argument

  1. Josh,
    I wonder if you could say a bit more about the sort of incoherence you find in the global antirealist (with respect to normativity) putting forth arguments. Could we save the coherence of the position by stressing that such an antirealist, in presenting arguments, is simply appealing to realists and those who embrace such normativity? Exagerating somewhat, could the antirealist say “Now I don’t accept any of this strange nonsense about brute normativity. But you, the realist, do. So I will present what you ‘should’ take to be good arguments – ones that by your own (misguided) standards show normativity to be metaphysically problematic”? The antirealist need not be seen as sincerely embracing various arguments as providing genuine reasons; instead, she is merely trying to convince the realist using the realist’s own standards. Would this save the antirealist from the incoherence you have in mind?

  2. Jason,
    Yeah, something like that’s been bugging me, too. Here’s what seems clear enough: the antirealist is motivationally incoherent, in the sense that the antirealist should have no motivating reason to try and convince anyone (including herself) of QA, because she cannot believe that its premises jointly provide a reason to believe its conclusion. So, assuming the antirealist cares about the truth of our beliefs, she has no motivation for pushing the realist to consider the implications of realism.
    It’s less clear that there’s any logical incoherence. But let’s say that just for kicks, rather than to advocate the truth, the antirealist argues as you suggest, pointing out that the realist ‘should’ be moved by QA towards antirealism. Still, something funny happens here. As soon as the realist takes the global implications of QA seriously, she should abandon normativity and not take QA seriously. Thus even the insincere antirealist advancement of QA undermines QA itself. This doesn’t seem like incoherence, strictly speaking, but it’s still problematic, I think. It also speaks to the question of one’s basis for being an antirealist. If one is an antirealist because of QA, this would be incoherent. So, if the antirealist is going to be an argumentative player in the dialectic, it can’t be because of queerness considerations.

  3. “The other side of this coin is that realists should be concerned about QA (assuming its soundness), since they can’t argue against it by associating moral normativity with logical and epistemological normativity, for doing so pushes them towards accepting QA as a reason to doubt normativity…which then undermines QA’s own reasons for doubting normativity.”
    Why isn’t this just a reductio of the assumption, viz. the soundness of QA? I don’t think any realist ever “went global” with the intention of undermining logical/epistemological normativity. The undermining is supposed to go the other way!
    A complicating factor here is that logic/arguments are not normative. Logic provides us with knowledge of modal facts: what combinations of claims are im/possible. The normativity is in reasoning: we ought to believe the truth, not believe contradictions, and reason to the most compelling conclusion (no I don’t know how to spell that out). But any given argument is not in itself normatively instructive in any one way; you can accept the conclusion or reject a premise or deny validity. The realist looks at QA and opts to deny a premise or the validity of the argument.

  4. Heath,
    You’re right, I’ve been a little sloppy in the ways I’ve put these matters. First, regarding logic, we can just say that theoretical rationality is normative, and that logic provides the core set of norms for theoretical rationality. E.g., if you believe that A, and that A>B, then you should believe that B. (For the record, I’m not sure why we should say that the rules of logic are are anything but normative. When I teach modus ponens, I don’t take myself to be describing the world. Rather, I take myself to be teaching normative rules for reasoning. But that’s beside the point for our purposes, since we can just focus on theoretical rationality.)
    As for what gets undermined by the realist making the globalist move, I think there are two ways of understanding what happens. I’ve been interpreting this move as suggesting that if normativity is a sham, then there’s no reason to buy QA, or any argument. One could, though, make the move as you’re suggesting, which is to say that the global scope of normativity suggests that we should deny the premise of QA that moral normativity in particular is metaphysically strange. The problem is that this just pushes back the debate: should we now say that just because of the wide scope of normativity, we should accept it in the case of moral normativity in particular? The realist, obviously, says we should, but the antirealist, as suggested in the original post, can just deny normativity of all sorts. So now the question is: why not deny normativity writ large? As far as I can tell, the realist can’t say anything here to deny the truth of one of the premises. All she can do – as Shafer-Landau does – is suggest that the putatively illusory nature of all normativity defeats the idea that QA gives us any reason to be antirealists. But this is where the problem enters for realists: either accept global antirealism (and therefore deny the rational force of QA, but that’s now beside the point, since we’ve become antirealists anyway) or don’t, in which case we have to accept the normative force of QA. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

  5. Josh,
    I have to disagree on both counts.
    First, I don’t think logic is a set of norms. What modus ponens tells you is that the following is impossible: A, A>B, ~B. (Since it’s a modal claim, it doesn’t describe the actual world, as you note.) It does *not* tell you that if you believe A, and you believe A>B, you should believe B. Example: If you believe that the Japanese emperor is descended from the sun, and you believe that , then you should *not* go on to believe that the sun is not a big ball of hydrogen. What you should do is stop believing that the Japanese emperor is descended from the sun. In short, sometimes what you should do is abandon a premise, not accept a conclusion.
    Second, as I understand it the Queerness Argument is, basically: moral properties/facts are very wierd, therefore they don’t exist. Now, this is not a deductive argument. It is open to the realist simply to say, Yes moral (/normative) properties are very wierd, but they do too exist. It is also open to her to say, They are not wierd either, everybody assumes that they exist in epistemology and in the practice of science and philosophy too. In either case, I don’t see how the realist has adopted any specially paradoxical position.
    What I think you are quite right about is that the normativity issue is general; we should either accept it for both ethics and epistemology, or for neither. (At least, given the arguments advanced so far.) As for the reasons for taking the realist vs. the anti-realist option, it seems to me that realism preserves a lot more of our common-sense intuitions and practice, especially once you point out the nihilistic consequences of the anti-realist alternative. But whether you think common sense is compelling or not, this is just a familiar case of having to make a choice between two philosophical options, not a paradox.
    It may be that our main difference is over the strength of the QA; I myself don’t think it’s that compelling.

  6. Josh,
    Like Heath, I’m having troubling finding the alleged paradox. Let me propose the following: you are thinking perhaps that the realist, in putting forward what you call the “normativity objection,” must be putting forward the following argument:
    (N1) Global antirealism is true. That is, there are no good reasons for anything. (Established by the QA.)
    (N2) If there is no good reason for anything, then no argument can give us a good reason to believe its conclusion.
    (N3) Therefore the QA does not give us good reason to believe its conclusion.
    Now I would agree that if this is the form the realist’s objection to QA ends up taking, it’s an incoherent mess. But surely the realist’s objection can be put more sensibly—as a hypothetical argument, for instance:
    (H1) Either QA establishes its conclusion or it does not.
    (H2) If QA does not establish its conclusion, then it fails.
    (H3) If QA does establish its conclusion, then global antirealism, which states that there are no good reasons for anything, is true.
    (H4) So if QA establishes its conclusion, then no argument establishes its conclusion (since in order to establish its conclusion an argument must provide at least some good reason in favor of it); and in particular, QA does not establish its conclusion.
    (H5) So either QA fails to establish its conclusion; or else it succeeds in establishing its conclusion—in which case it fails to establish its conclusion. So either way, QA fails.
    The point can also be put a slightly different way, focusing on global antirealism rather than QA. Any position can be shown to be false by providing conclusive reasons against it. Global antirealism, however, is almost unique in that it can be shown to be false by providing a reason in favor of it. Indeed, it can be shown to be false by providing any reason whatsoever—whether conclusive or not, and whether against it, for it, or for an entirely different conclusion altogether. How many other positions can we think of that are such that they can be shown to be false simply by providing a reason to think them true?

  7. Troy,
    “How many other positions can we think of that are such that they can be shown to be false simply by providing a reason to think them true?”
    Descartes’ cogito perhaps?

  8. Troy,
    I like your way of putting the argument; it captures the problem for the antirealist. So far, so good. But that can’t be the end of the story for the realist, since the (global) realist believes that (H6) there is normativity. Then, we add this to your (H3) “If QA does establish its conclusion, then global antirealism, which states that there are no good reasons for anything, is true.” Absent other objections to QA besides the normativity objection, the realist must grant that because of (H6) the antecedent of (H3) is true, viz. (H3a) QA does establish its conclusion. So the combination of (H6), (H3) and, therefore, (H3a) would generate the conclusion that (H3b) global antirealism is true. So there’s where I’m locating the ‘paradox’: (absent other objections) the normativity objection implies (H3a), which implies (H3b): global antirealism is true. That is, a commitment to normativity (H6), combined with premises from the normativity objection (H3), seems to entail (H3b) the denial of normativity (absent other objections).
    Heath, again, I conceded, for the sake of argument, that logic is not a set of norms. I suggested, instead, that it provides a set of norms to theoretical rationality, on the assumption that it’s theoretically rational to abide by the rules of logic. You seem to agree with this in principle when you say “sometimes what you should do is abandon a premise, not accept a conclusion.” (As for the substantive point there: I think you’re just denying the hypothetical nature of what I was saying, viz., if you believe A, and if you believe A>B, then you should believe B. Of course, you might not like B, and so you might abandon A. But that’s to go against the hypothesis that you do believe A. So I don’t think we have any substantive disagreements here. I certainly hope you don’t think that I think we can’t avoid conclusions by denying premises!)
    As for where we’re missing each other with respect to the normativity objection, this objection holds a version of – a different version of – your “They are not wierd either, everybody assumes that they exist in epistemology and in the practice of science and philosophy too.” It can’t be that “everybody assumes” this, because that would be to beg the question against the global antirealist. Rather, it’s got to be a dilemma: either the antirealist accepts non-moral normativity and so might as well accept moral normativity; or, the antirealist is global, in which case the QA fails. I’ve suggested that since the antirealist couldn’t consistently take the first horn (i.e., as far as I can tell there’s no reason to think that non-moral normativity is any less strange than moral normativity), she’d bite on the second. And this is the point at which the paradoxical stuff begins to seep in, as I’ve tried to argue. (Which you seem to grant if you buy the “nihilistic” implications of QA.) Perhaps my reply to Troy’s comment might help clarify how that’s supposed to go.

  9. I wonder what people might think of the following. Troy suggests that the realist’s thinking be construed as hypothetical. Among the premisses:
    (H4) So if QA establishes its conclusion, then no argument establishes its conclusion (since in order to establish its conclusion an argument must provide at least some good reason in favor of it); and in particular, QA does not establish its conclusion.
    If we really are treating QA as establishing its conclusion (at least hypotheticallly), are we allowed to reason in accordance with conditionals like those in (H4)? That is, would we end up with an additional premiss like
    (H4*) If QA establishes its conclusion, then we cannot accept (H4) as valid as it relies on QA’s conclusion being false (insofar as it makes use of conditional reasoning).
    [Indeed we cannot even justifiably accept this premiss, H4*, as it too relies on an “if, then” conditional that, if QA is correct, is not a proper norm for reasoning. And strictly speaking, even the previous sentence says too much…]

  10. As regards premise (H4) in Troy’s formulation of the argument against QA, it might be worth pointing out that sentences of the form
    (1) If P, then not P
    are contingent — i.e., could be true, could be false — at least when read as material conditionals. On such a reading, (1) is equivalent to “Not P”. Thus, for example, the sentence
    (2) If the sky is blue, then the sky is not blue
    is false, but the sentence
    (3) If the sky is green, then the sky is not green
    is true (assuming of course that the sky is blue and not green). I guess that might raise a certain worry about the argument against QA as formulated by Troy. One of the premises, (H4), is equivalent to the conclusion (H5). Hence, it might be objected that the argument begs the question; unless we already accept the conclusion, we have no reason to accept the premise. That doesn’t really strike me as a good objection, but I’m a little hard pressed to say what’s wrong with it.
    It might be helpful to consider a simpler case: for example, the sentence
    (4) No sentence is true.
    One might be tempted to argue that (4) cannot be true as follows: either (4) is true or it isn’t true; but if (4) is true, then it isn’t true; therefore, (4) isn’t true. Seems like a fine argument; problem is that the second premise is equivalent to the conclusion. Weird, huh? Perhaps this is the strangeness that is bothering Josh?
    Anyway, I hope that’s helpful in some way.

  11. If I’m following Jason’s and Campbell’s comments correctly, I think what you’re pointing at is why I called the issue ‘paradoxical’, rather than ‘wrong’ or ‘false.’ I (following Rescher) take paradoxes to arise when seemingly plausible (by independent lights) premises lead to, or themselves become part of a set of, seemingly inconsistent statements, such as (H4) and (H4*).

  12. If the only problem with the argument is that it is question-begging (in virtue of H4), then presumably that problem can be solved by giving some independent argument for H4. I’m pretty sure there is one. Similarly, I’m pretty sure that there is an independent argument for Campbell’s if (4) is true, then it isn’t true. Conditional proof plus disquotation!
    In any case, I doubt that an argument can properly be called “question-begging” merely on the ground that it has a premise that is logically equivalent to its conclusion. If that were a sufficient condition, then, for instance, the standard proof of the Expected Utility Theorem would be question-begging (the Theorem entails all of the axioms).

  13. Troy, I don’t follow your argument here:
    [T]he (global) realist believes that (H6) there is normativity. Then, we add this to your (H3) “If QA does establish its conclusion, then global antirealism, which states that there are no good reasons for anything, is true.” Absent other objections to QA besides the normativity objection, the realist must grant that because of (H6) the antecedent of (H3) is true, viz. (H3a) QA does establish its conclusion.
    Why must the realist grant (H3a)? Clearly, (H6) doesn’t imply (H3a). And if the realist must give a reason for rejecting (H3a), why can’t she appeal to the normativity objection?

  14. Campbell,
    I think you’re actually referring to my comment. Here’s what I had in mind, for why the realist must grant (H3a).
    (H6) Arguments have normative force (or some such). That is, arguments can establish, or give sufficient reason for believing, their conclusions. Arguments do not establish their conclusions only when those arguments are internally faulty, and never because there is no normativity in theoretical rationality. [The global realist’s view.]
    (H6a) There are no internal faults with QA. I.e., there are no objections to it on its merits. [Assumption, to narrow our focus to the normativity objection. This puts off normativity objection for the moment…I’ll return to this shortly.]
    Thus, (H3a) QA does establish its conclusion.
    Okay, I hope that clarifies why I think the realist might have to buy (H3a), on the assumption that (H6a) there are no internal (“other”, in my previous comment) objections to QA. Now, why are we bracketing the normativity objection here? Because it is the normativity objection that leads to this problem. The normativity objection says we should accept global normativity. But this is just premise (H6).
    Now of course, that (H6) the premise of global normativity leads to (H3a) the acceptance that QA establishes its conclusion that we should not countenance global normativity, is odd. That’s the paradox (on the realist side of the coin), as I see it. In short, appealing to the normativity objection won’t help the problems with the normativity objection.

  15. Josh, sorry, I knew the comment was yours. Somehow I managed to type the wrong name. (It’s hard to keep track with so many PEA-brains in the Soup ;))
    Here’s a quick reply. You say “The normativity objection says we should accept global normativity.” But, on my understanding, it says something different: namely, that the QA gives us no reason to doubt the existence of moral facts — i.e., that the QA fails to establish its conclusion, in Troy’s terminology. As I was thinking of things, the normativity objection is the argument formulated by Troy in (H1) – (H5). Now, if that is what the normativity objection is, then I don’t see why the gobal realist cannot appeal to it in rejecting (H3a).

  16. Campbell,
    You’re right: the normativity objection, on its own, does not say that we should accept global normativity. So I was wrong to deny that, which makes much of what follows that denial erroneous. But, I’m still not sure that appeal to the normativity objection helps solve the more basic problem. The global realist, who puts forth the normativity objection, still does (of course) say that (H6) we should accept global normativity. And (H6a) is an assumption, so (H3a) would seem to follow.
    In fact, now that I think about it more carefully, I should restate what I think the problem is. (H3a) seems to follow from (H6) and (H6a). But, as you point out, ~(H3a) (or Troy’s (H5)) seems to follow from the normativity objection. If that’s right, then the problem of (H3a) colliding with ~(H3a) is neither with realism per se nor the normativity objection per se, but with the conjunction of realism (i.e., (H6)) and the normativity objection. Which gets us back to where this all began: the dialectic between the realist’s normativity objection and the antirealist’s QA is strangely impossible.
    Apologies if I seem to be dancing around a bit…I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I think about this stuff, which (to my mind) is a great benefit of the discussions that take place here at PEA Soup. At any rate, does that more modest construal of the problem seem acceptable?

  17. Jamie:
    You say that, on my view, the standard proof of the Expected Utility Theorem is question-begging. But I think you’re mistaken.
    Simplifying a little, the Expected Utility Therorem is this: A preference relation satisfies the axioms iff it can be represented by an expectational utility function. But clearly this does not entail the axioms. Notice that the Theorem is a biconditional. We might say that the right-hand side of the biconditional entails the axioms. But the Theorem is not the right-hand side; it’s the whole thing!
    Still, I think you’re on to something. Consider the following argument, regarding a particular preference relation R:
    R satisfies the axioms;
    So, R can be represented by an expectational utility function.
    Here the premise is equivalent to the conclusion. But I must confess that I’m reluctant to say that this argument is question-begging.

  18. Josh:
    Thanks for the clarification. But I’m still not convinced that there’s a paradox here. In particular, I don’t see why the global realist can’t deny (H6a). Why can’t she say that the normativity objection does reveal an internal fault in QA, viz. that it’s self-undermining? That seems to be a kind of internal fault.

  19. Oh, quite right.
    It’s the argument from the axioms to the existence of the utility funciton that has the characteristic in question (premises logically equivalent to conclusion).

  20. Campbell,
    I suppose that depends on what I mean by “internal” and what you mean by “self-undermining.” I take the normativity objection (henceforth: NO) to be external in the sense that it doesn’t directly attack the truth of one of the premises of QA or suggest that there’s a fallacy in the inference; rather, it (externally) attacks the whole strategy of NO: to provide a certain kind of reason to not believe in moral normativity.
    Of course, I don’t know what you had in mind by “self-undermining,” but one plausible interpretation is that this means “contradicts itself.” I don’t see NO suggesting that QA contradicts itself (indeed, I don’t think it does contain a self-contradiction). Rather, QA combined with the (external) premise that we should attribute all oddness of moral normativity to theoretical normativity, plus the (external) premise that QA itself requires theoretical normativity, is what generates the tension for the antirealist. (Further, if it were a simple case of self-contradiction, I think it would be more natural just to call the QA “invalid” rather than “paradoxical.” As I mentioned above somewhere, I take it to be paradoxical in the sense that independently plausible premises lead to an inconsistency. But it may be that not a whole lot hangs on the issue of what to call the problem.)

  21. Josh, we know that an argument can be sound — i.e., valid with all true premises — yet nonetheless be faulty. Here’s a simple example:
    Kiwis are flightless;
    Therefore, kiwis are flightless.
    It’s valid, and the premise is true. Yet it’s a bad argument. What’s wrong with it? It gives us no reason to accept the conclusion. A rational person’s credence in the conclusion will not budge one iota as a result of being confronted with the argument. (Would you call this an internal fault?)
    Now, my understanding of NO (and I don’t claim to understand it very well) is that it purports to find a similar kind of fault in QA. It doesn’t say that QA is circular. But it does say that, regardless of the soundness or otherwise of QA, it cannot provide any reason to accept its conclusion.
    I’m not entirely sure what I meant by self-undermining. But I didn’t mean self-contradictory. I guess my idea was roughly that being self-undermining is the analogue of being self-contradictory, but in the domain of reasons rather than truth. That is, just as a self-contradictory statement “prevents itself” from being true (as we might say), so a self-undermining statement prevents itself from being reason-giving. That’s all a bit vague, I know; but it’s roughly what I had in mind.
    I should say that I’m not convinced that NO is a good argument. As I understand NO, it can be stated as follows.
    The following four claims are inconsistent (at least one must be false):
    1. QA provides some reason to believe that there are no moral reasons.
    2. If QA provides such reason, then there are no moral reasons.
    3. If there are no moral reasons, then there are no epistemic reasons.
    4. If there are no epistemic reasons, then QA provides no reason to believe that there are moral reasons.
    But 2-4 are all true; so we must reject 1.
    If the proponent of QA wants to affirm 1, then she must reject one of the other three propositions. I see two possibilities. First, she might reject 2. Notice that 2 appears to presuppose that we can have reason to believe that P only if it’s true that P. But that doesn’t seem plausible. So one might well doubt 2; one might say that, even if there are some moral reasons, QA provides reason to believe that there are none. However, for obvious reasons, it’s doubtful that a proponent of QA would want to say that. But she has a second option: she might reject 3. In particular, she might point to some disanalogy between moral reasons and epistemic reasons with the aim of showing that the former would be queer but not the latter.

  22. Yeah, I recognize that, e.g., circularity is a problem. By ‘fallacy’ I meant to include both formal and informal fallacies (such as circularity). Maybe that ultimately will break down any distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ problems with arguments, in which case ‘self-undermining’ might be an independent problem after all. Frankly, it still seems to me like a distinct kind of problem, but I’m no longer so confident that that claim might be defended. (As for NO, I agree that there may be some relevant difference between moral and non-moral normativity; but, I’m not sure what it would be and, anyway, it’s worthwhile just to grant NO’s premises for the sake of argument and focus on the strangeness of the dialectic, if it is strange.)

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