Suppose it is the case that I have a reason to believe any proposition which, on the basis of the evidence before me, is probably true, and that this reason is not reducible to any desire, interest or end that I have, or any code, rule or norm. Could it be reducible to something else? Heathwood (2009) thinks that epistemic reasons are reducible to descriptive facts about the world, such as facts about probability.Footnote 10 He thinks it possible, in fact, that epistemic facts could be identical to descriptive facts (p. 85), and suggests an analytical equivalence, so that when we say that somebody has a reason to believe a particular proposition, all we mean is that, given that person’s evidence, that proposition is likely to be true (pp. 89–90; cf. Cuneo 2007, p. 121). If Heathwood is right then there seems nothing mysterious about epistemic reasons, given that there is nothing mysterious about the fact that some particular propositions are likely to be true. Could something analogous be the case in the moral domain?
As Heathwood points out (pp. 86–89), the Open Question Argument would seem to tell against such an analogy. Suppose that we were to say that my reason to help you is reducible to the fact that you desperately need help from me which I can give at no cost to myself; we might even say, for example, that the proposition ‘you desperately need help from me which I can give at no cost to myself’ entails the proposition ‘I have a reason to help you’, and that somebody who says ‘I have no reason to help you even though you desperately need help from me which I can give at no cost to myself’ is conceptually confused. The problem is that this just does not seem to be the case. It may well be the case that your pain is a reason for me to help you, but somebody who insists that your pain is a reason to celebrate would strike me as (at best) morally confused rather than conceptually confused. Here, then, is a disanalogy between the moral case and the epistemic case, since one does appear to be conceptually confused if one insists that what they accept as evidence for p is a reason to believe not-p.
Even if moral reasons do not reduce to descriptive facts about the world, this does not mean that there is nothing that moral reasons could reduce to. If epistemic reasons are reducible to the fact that the world is a certain way, or that the evidence points to it being a certain way, then I think the most plausible analogy in the moral domain would be to say that if there are moral reasons then they are reducible to the fact that the world or human nature should be or is meant to be a certain way. Things are such that if I go out in the rain without an umbrella I will get wet; things are meant to be such that if you are in pain and I can alleviate your pain at no cost to myself then I will alleviate your pain.Footnote 11
But now we can see where the apparent queerness of moral properties really lies: it lies in the fact that the world generally, or human nature specifically, is meant to be a certain way. It makes perfect sense to say that the world or human nature is a certain way, but there does seem to be something prima facie queer in the thought that the world or human nature is meant to be one way rather than another.Footnote 12 This means that if epistemic reasons are reducible to the way the world is and moral reasons are reducible to the way the world or human nature is meant to be, then epistemic reasons would be perfectly respectable but moral reasons would seem queer. Pace Olson, the problem seems unique to the moral domain.Footnote 13
I have just spoken as if the fact that the world or human nature is meant to be a certain way could potentially provide us with reasons to act in the appropriate way; but in fact, if there is something queer in the fact that the world or human nature is meant to be one way rather than another, then this fact would be queer whether or not it provides us with reasons. In other words, it is not that this fact is queer because it provides us with reasons, but simply that this fact is queer whether or not it provides us with such reasons. Brink, for example, thinks that moral facts need not provide reason for action; according to Brink, ‘at least on standard theories of reasons for action, whether recognition of these facts provides reason for action will depend upon contingent (even if deep) facts about the agent’s desires or interests’ (1984, p. 114). He does not deny that moral facts are requirements, however, but suggests that one can deny that it is ‘a condition of the application of moral requirement that it provide the agent to whom it applies with a reason for action. While moral requirements apply to us independently of our antecedent desires and interests, they give us reasons for action conditional on their promoting our interests or desires’ (1992, p. 7).Footnote 14 What I am proposing is that it is the fact that the universe requires things of us—in other words, is prescriptive—which seems queer, whether we see this as providing us with normative reasons or not.
Mackie clearly does not think that prescriptivity, in and of itself, entails reasons for action. He suggests that prescriptive imperatives expressed as ‘must’ (as opposed to ‘ought’) statements need not be accompanied by normative reasons; if we ask for a reason why we must do what is prescribed, the answer ‘because I say so’ seems perfectly possible, and (although Mackie doesn’t say this) the answer ‘you just must’ seems equally possible (1977, p. 76). These would be (subjective) prescriptive statements, or directions, which make requirements on us and direct us towards some action, even though there need be no reason to comply.
Of course, he does not have moral requirements in mind here. However, in discussing moral non-cognitivism, he appears to accept the possibility of prescriptivity even in the moral domain where there is no guarantee that all agents will have normative reason to live in accordance with the prescriptions. According to prescriptivism, for example, moral terms express ‘prescriptions or recommendations’ (p. 32), so that the sentence ‘stealing is wrong’ means something along the lines of ‘do not steal’; but in prescribing that you must not steal, I need not, at least if I adopt a broadly Humean theory of normative reasons, believe that you have a normative reason to refrain from stealing. I presumably would not retract my statement if it became clear to me that you had no normative reason to refrain from stealing.Footnote 15 So Mackie appears to accept the possibility of moral sentences being prescriptive without providing normative reasons.
Nevertheless, Mackie does think that ‘ought’ statements are accompanied by reasons. He suggests that ‘a ought to G’ is more or less equivalent to ‘there is a reason for a’s G-ing’ or ‘a has a reason to G’ (1977, pp. 73–4, 77).Footnote 16 It also seems natural that if we think some action is morally wrong then we will generally think that one ought to refrain from doing it.Footnote 17 But even Brink acknowledges that those who deny that there is necessarily a reason to do what is morally required can concede that there is a sense in which there might be such a reason; in this sense, he suggests that ‘for there to be a reason for me to do something is simply for there to exist the relevant sort of behavioural standard or norm’. But what is denied is that there is a ‘reason to behave in accordance with such a norm such that failure to behave in that way is ceteris paribus or pro tanto irrational’ (1992, p. 8). It is their denial that there is anything necessarily irrational in acting immorally which lies behind the claim by both Foot (1972, pp. 309–310) and Williams (1981, p. 110) that moral requirements need not provide us with reasons.
Even though Mackie does appear to believe that objective moral facts would provide us with reasons, it is not clear whether he is suggesting that ‘a ought to G’ is equivalent to ‘it would be irrational for a to not G’, in which case immorality would entail irrationality. Whatever his views on this, it certainly doesn’t follow that those who deny that requirements entail reasons must (as Mackie assumes they must) be using ‘words like “right” and “wrong” with no prescriptive force—to say, for example, “x is right and y is wrong, but of course it is entirely up to you whether you prefer what is right to what is wrong”.’ (Mackie 1980, pp. 54–55). Moral facts would still be prescriptive because they would require things of us, but prescriptivity need not in itself entail normative reasons.
I maintain then that Mackie’s argument is best understood as claiming that if there is objective prescriptivity then the world or human nature is meant to be one way rather than another. It would be as if a mindless universe was capable of making demands on us, or determining what our nature is meant to be like. This, I think, is primarily what it means to say that moral properties provide us with ‘a direction’. They direct us to be one way rather than another. Even if Mackie thinks that moral requirements entail normative reasons, the queerness problem is not resolved by simply denying this and insisting that there can be moral requirements without normative reasons. Even if Brink is right, and we don’t necessarily have reason to comply with moral requirements, the fact that we are somehow required to be a certain way in the first place seems queer. This means that the question of normative reasons is largely irrelevant to the queerness problem and I can therefore remain neutral on whether or not moral facts provide us with reasons for action.
I think the way I have described the queerness problem is faithful to the gist of Mackie’s argument, and indeed Mackie’s suggestion that theism might be able to resolve the queerness problem suggests that this interpretation is the best one. If the queerness problem is that we are meant to be one way rather than another then the apparent queerness seems to disappear if we suppose that theism is true, since there doesn’t seem anything queer about God creating us such as to be one way rather than another. Although Mackie himself did not think that theism could be defended, he thought that if it could be then this could provide a vindication of objective moral values.
Why might we think that theism would make objective moral values less queer? Mackie’s answer seems to be that, whilst it does not make sense to think of a mindless universe making demands on us, there is nothing queer about the universe making demands on us if there is a mind behind it. In The miracle of theism, Mackie suggests that there might be something to be said for a version of the moral argument for God’s existence, precisely because ‘intrinsically prescriptive objective values’ would be queer in the absence of God (1982, p. 115). He then explains why the existence of God might explain away the apparent queerness of such values, as follows (pp. 116–117):
We can understand a human thinker, either as an agent or as a critic, seeing things as to be done or not to be done, where this is a reflection or projection of his own purposiveness; hence if we are to explain an intrinsic to-be-done-ness or not-to-be-done-ness, which is not such a reflection or projection, it is natural to take this as an injection into reality made by a universal spirit, that is, something that has some analogue of human purposiveness.
The idea seems to be that there is something queer about an impersonal universe making demands on us but nothing queer about God, if he exists, making demands on us. As Garner (1990, p. 143) says, moral facts ‘are unusual in an unusual way—they demand’. Although Garner suggests in a footnote that it would be a mistake to think that theism could solve the queerness problem, he nevertheless continues: ‘It is hard to believe in objective prescriptivity because it is hard to make sense of a demand without a demander…. We know what it is for our friends, our job, and our projects to make demands on us, but we do not know what it is for reality to do so.’
In Ethics (1977, p. 45), Mackie acknowledges that his argument is not dissimilar to Anscombe’s argument that moral duty and obligation make little sense outside a divine law concept of ethics (Anscombe 1958). However, Mackie goes further than Anscombe. Anscombe thought that we should adopt an Aristotelian concept of ethics and abandon talk of moral obligation in favour of virtue ethics, but Mackie thinks that even this would be problematic without recourse to God. This is because such an Aristotelian concept of ethics seems to imply a goal or purpose for human life. But as Mackie points out (1977, pp. 46–47), the idea that human life has a purpose or goal can be understood in two ways: we could say that human beings, as a matter of fact, strive towards some goal, which is a descriptive statement, describing what human beings happen to be like but saying nothing about why it should be virtuous to pursue this purpose or goal; or we could say that there is some proper or right purpose or goal, which is a prescriptive statement which says that we ought to be striving towards this goal.Footnote 18 But if we take this second interpretation, so long as ‘ought’ is understood in an objective rather than subjective sense, then the queerness problem seems to arise again. Hence he concludes (1977, p. 48, italics his) that
To meet these difficulties, the objectivist may have recourse to the purposes of God: the true purpose of human life is fixed by what God intended (or, intends) men to do and to be. Actual human strivings and satisfactions have some relation to this true end because God made men for this end and made them such as to pursue it—but only some relation, because of the inevitable imperfection of created beings.
In Chapter 10 of Ethics, Mackie elaborates on this. There is nothing mysterious or queer in acknowledging that there may be a way of life which enables us to develop our natural capacities, or to find deepest satisfaction, but this is a purely descriptive fact about the world, and there is nothing objectively prescriptive about this; the fact that my life may go better for me if I live a certain way or cultivate certain character traits does not seem to entail any requirement for me to live this way or cultivate these character traits. However, he continues (pp. 230–231),
But, further, God might require men to live in this appropriate way, and might enjoin obedience to the related rules. This would add an objectively prescriptive element to what otherwise were hard, descriptive, truths, but in a quite non-mysterious way: these would be literally commands issued by an identifiable authority. ….
… The descriptive component of moral distinctions is logically independent of God’s will: God approves of this way of life because it is, in a purely descriptive sense, appropriate for men. But the prescriptive component of these distinctions is constituted by God’s will.
But why should commands issued by God be ‘objectively prescriptive’ in the appropriate sense? After all, Mackie himself points out that somebody who ‘uses the concept of objective moral value will suppose that there are requirements which simply are there, in the nature of things, without being the requirements of any person or body of persons, even God’ (1977, p. 59, emphasis mine). Does this sentence contradict what he says elsewhere in the same book and also in The miracle of theism?
I think that there are two things that could be said in response to this. Firstly, in this passage he is discussing a number of possibilities as to what we generally mean when we use moral language, and he refers to this as ‘a further possibility’—albeit one which, he thinks, ‘ethical uses are particularly likely to exemplify’. But even if he thinks this is in the region of what we mean in our pre-philosophical moral usage, it is not clear that he is insisting that this is precisely what we have to mean, and it certainly seems plausible to suppose that our (pre-philosophical) concept of objectivity might allow for objective moral values to derive from the requirements of God. Such requirements would still be objective in the sense that they would constitute some external standard against which our own subjective human values (whether the values of individuals, cultures or the whole human race) could, at least in principle, be measured. All human moral judgments would then be objectively right or wrong in accordance with whether they coincide with this objective standard.
But secondly, and more importantly, I do not think that Mackie is proposing that God’s requirements, however arbitrary they might be, would be morally relevant in and of themselves. In fact, he argues that God can only make an action obligatory by commanding it so long as we already have an obligation to obey his commands (1982, pp. 114–115). If moral properties were constituted solely by arbitrary commands of God, then moral properties would presumably not supervene on natural properties, which is something which Mackie thinks is an essential component of our concept of objective morality.
What is needed then, according to Mackie, is for God to create the supervenience relation between natural and moral properties. This ‘creation of supervenient value’, he says, is ‘quite different from the creation of obligation by command which has been rejected with good reason by Plato and his many followers’ (ibid., p. 115). Presumably Mackie’s idea is that the creation of the supervenience relation would ensure that an act is wrong directly in virtue of the natural features of the act, rather than in virtue of God’s command; the action would be wrong only indirectly in virtue of God’s purposes, since the supervenience relation would be ‘an injection into reality’ by God on the basis of his purposes. Moral requirements would therefore be part of the fabric of the world, ‘which simply are there, in the nature of things’ (1977, p. 59), even though they would have been injected into the nature of things by God.
Would the fact that there are moral requirements injected into reality by God entail that we have normative reason to comply with them? Well, if God has not only fixed the purpose of human life, but has also created us such that ‘actual human strivings and satisfaction have some relation to this’ purpose, then it would seem likely that, as a general rule, we will have relevant desires and may therefore have normative reason which are reducible to these desires. But if, as Mackie adds, there is ‘only some relation, because of the inevitable imperfection of created beings’, then we may not always have the relevant desires, and therefore may not always have the relevant reducible normative reasons. Any reason to act in accordance with moral demands in such a case would therefore presumably remain irreducibly normative in Olson’s sense.
If this is the case, then it looks as if theism can help to explain how it is that we are meant to be one way rather than another, even if it doesn’t necessarily provide us with the relevant normative reasons which are reducible to our desires, etc. Hence, since Mackie is proposing that theism could resolve the queerness problem, this seems to confirm my interpretation as to where the apparent queerness really lies. It must lie in the fact that we are meant to be one way rather than another, because it is this which Mackie suggests can be explained by theism.