Platonism and Queerness

by Ben Ryding

It appears to be the case that many philosophers secretly believe that Platonic forms exist. Plato thought that all abstract perfections of entities and concepts actually exist in our world as forms. For example, despite the fact that you have never seen a perfect circle, you can conceptualize a perfect circle and project it onto all the technically-imperfect circles in your geometry textbook.  Of course, there’s no real reason to suppose such entities exist in reality, so philosophers don’t ever talk about forms as if they actually exist.

They do something a bit sillier, I think.  They simultaneously disregard the existence of Platonic forms, then think and write as if something exactly like forms exist.  In particular, many philosophers take it for granted that morality consists of objective features in reality.  They have stopped calling these features ‘Forms’, however, and instead just appeal to our intuition and sense of the a priori to substantiate their existence.  But why is it just taken for granted that objective moral features exist?  Why believe Kant that categorical imperatives exist at all?  Did anyone stop to ask just what the hell Kant was using as evidence to substantiate the existence of categorical imperatives beyond our own internal sense of morality?

In J.L. Mackie’s “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong” he makes an argument coined the argument from queerness.  He has a discussion on Platonism and Forms and inquires about what moral features could actually be and what they could potentially consist of.  He argues that moral features would be a strange sort of entity indeed, unlike anything we observe in reality.

Now, I do not particularly think that an entity being very strange is cause to believe that it does not exist.  If I could expand upon what Mackie was saying a bit, I’d venture to say that the utterly strange nature of potential objective moral features should at least give us reason to pause and suspend belief about them. As I have stated many times before on this blog, if someone asserts the existence of some entity to me, I demand some kind of evidence for its existence, even if that entity is not even strange or extraordinary at all!  And I don’t mean evidence in some kind of logical positivist sense; I only mean to say that some amount of reasonable evidence needs to be available to me if I am to move away from an agnostic stance on the entity in question.

If we usually demand evidence even in the case of ordinary entities, then it seems like the intrinsically peculiar nature of objective moral features ought to demand more evidence than our intuition and common sense if they are to be believed in.  And the standard by which I use this ought is simple: if we are to have an epistemology that ascertains true beliefs with the highest degree of probability, then one ought to refrain from believing in something very strange that has insufficient evidence, lest you fall prey to a host of incorrect beliefs.

Herein lies the beginning of Moral Error Theory.  My primary goal of putting forth Mackie’s argument from queerness is to provide some motivation for moving forward in the discussion about whether or not moral features actually exist and placing a seed of doubt in your mind about moral objectivity.  For if we cannot find any reason to believe that objective moral features exist, then it appears to be the case that we have an error theory with respect to moral properties, but that is a topic for a later post.