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Critical Notice on John McDowell’s “Values

and Secondary Qualities”
Yuichi Amitani


Dec. 10, 2004

1 University


of British Columbia. mailto: yuiami-at-gmail-dot-com All rights

McDowell briefly explains Mackie’s error theory. In the next section. in the first section. not that they are true independently of anyone’s sensibility (strong objectivism) as Mackie assumes. This seminal paper is a response from McDowell to Mackie’s error theory (Mackie 1977) of moral value and moral statements2 . It is also distinct from moral cognitivism. Therefore it is not compatible with error theory and moral relativism (Mackie is an anti-realist in this sense). His paper is divided into five sections. The third section criticizes Mackie’s account on the distinction between the primary and secondary qualities.1 Introduction The notice here is on John McDowell’s paper for the so-called moral realism1 . That is. 1 In this notice. contrary to Mackie’s account. (McDowell 1985). 1 . Then McDowell claims that. they are true independently of any particular person’s sensibility (weak objectivism). moral values are indispensable for explanation of moral phenomena and thereby can pass the explanatory test for reality (the fourth section). realism of moral values (properties) means the claim that ‘[t]here are moral facts and moral properties whose existence and nature are independent of people’s belief and attitudes about what is right and wrong’ (Audi 1999). he points out that Mackie assumes moral values are modeled as (something like) the primary qualities. and suggests that even the secondary qualities have objectivity and reality in a sense. 2 McDowell’s paper first appeared in a tribute to Mackie (Honderich 1985). In the last section he tries to show how it is to do moral explanations under the secondaryquality model of moral values and criticizes Simon Blackburn’s account of moral phenomena.

x does not exist. one of Mackie’s tenets is that moral values do not pass ‘the explanatory test for reality’.This critical notice focuses on the fourth and last sections in his paper. moral values do not exist. we very briefly outline his account for the reality of moral values. (d) Therefore. because there is another dimension of explanation in the cases of fearfulness and moral values (McDowell takes fearfulness as an example the explanation of which by projectivists appear more 2 . (b) Moral values do not appear in causal explanation of the phenomenology of moral judgments. In the rest of this section. ‘Merit talk’ as what is not explained by causal explanation According to McDowell. (a) If x does not appear in any explanation of the phenomena in question. However. It is important for McDowell’s account because he says that considering this way of talking about moral statements is what Mackie’s and Blackburn’s accounts of moral phenomena lack. In the next section it will be seen that McDowell’s analogy between fearfulness and moral values does not work and its failure makes his account of moral values look bleak. (c) Merely causal explanation is satisfying for the explanation of the phenomenology of moral judgments. The last section deals with the question of whether what is called ‘merit talk’ (to be explained later) in this notice is actually an explanation. McDowell denies (c).

for example. because this opens the possibility of rational discussion. For example.] (p.176)3 .).” etc. And this is the most important explanation for fearfulness and moral values. This is an argument for reason. [I]f what we engaged in is an ‘attempt to understand ourselves’.. They are clearly not causal explanations.plausible (but in fact not) than that of McDowell). 3 . Then B might show further explanations. Then B might reply to it (“It was Ken who kicked me first... 3 Pagination in this paper is from (Sayre-McCord 1985). when A hears B’s reply. then merely causal explanations of responses [... A: Why is the lightening fearful? B: Because it merits fear.. [. A: Why am I wrong to kick Ken? B (A’s father): Because it is wrong. McDowell (1985) says. A might further ask why.] will not be satisfying anyway.] [A] technique for giving satisfying explanations [. but seem to consist of our ordinary moral judgments. It is wrong to harm a friend without reason. McDowell thinks. Causal explanation does not have such a character. we make sense of fear [and moral phenomena] by seeing it as a response to objects that merit such a response [.] must allow for the possibility of criticism. This is an explanation like these (hereafter we call such an explanation ‘merit talk’)...

Some might say that these things are dangerous in some situations. almost everything would be dangerous and it is trivial to say that we fear of a dangerous thing. For example.Therefore. McDowell replaces (b) and (c) with (b’) and (c’): (b’) Moral values appear in the ‘merit talk. We cannot infer the inexistence of moral values from (a). This is one of McDowell’s accounts for moral values.175). But there is a difference between danger and fear.’ (c’) The ‘merit talk’ is the best or most important explanation of the phenomenology of moral judgments. etc. and (c’). (b’). Spiders are dangerous when they carry poison. Suppose that all people in one country do not feel fear of 4 . “Merit talk” in fearfulness is actually prediction How about fear? Take this example. Fear. some feel fear of something non-dangerous. It’s counterintuitive. But since almost everything is dangerous in one or another way (a mug is dangerous if one hits my head with it). Fear deals with feeling in an essential way in which danger does not. and Moral Values McDowell deals with danger and fearfulness in an equal way (p. agoraphobia. 2 Danger. Think about phobias (animal or insect phobia.).

What does the ’should’ in (iii) mean? One analysis would be like this. What does this ’merit fear’ mean? An analysis. (vi) They should avoid serious danger in order to preserve themselves. But this analysis has defects. confined space 5 .radioactive material. or the majority of) people should feel fear of a dangerous thing. it merits fearfulness. for those having claustrophobia. (ii) Radioactive material is dangerous in that it could have negative effects on one’s health. although they do not feel fear of radioactive material. all (or most. or the majority of) people should feel fear of a dangerous thing. (vii) They should feel fear of dangerous things in order to avoid serious danger. (iii) All (or most. Again. But something radioactive seems to merit fear . because what seems to merit fear is not always dangerous. (iii) Therefore. For instance. (i) The people in one country don’t fear of radioactive material. This analysis interprets ‘should’ as obligation. think of various kinds of phobias. In other words they ought to feel fear of a dangerous thing. (iv) Therefore. (v) They want to preserve themselves.

Accordingly. Then how about changing the phrase ‘avoid danger’ and looking for sufficient conditions of ‘eeling fear’ ? As the space is limited.merits fearfulness. feeling fear is not a necessary condition of avoiding danger. we have a reason to think those alternatives would not work successfully. It is that whether a given thing is fearful or not essentially depends on empirical fact that people actually feel fear of that thing on such and such situations. So (iii) will be: 6 . we cannot examine possible alternatives one by one. whatever condition we posit as necessary for feeling fear. In addition. Therefore. there is no reason to assume that all instances of feeling fear have or would have the same function like avoiding danger. And it is not appropriate to say that they have an obligation not to feel fear of them. From the past cases of feeling fear (or our neurological mechanisms). what meaning does ‘should’ in (iii) have? I believe this is prediction. it is reasonable to predict that they would feel fear of the dangerous thing. It is conceivable to recognize things completely intellectually and to avoid the danger with the help of one’s reason (at least in principle. One reason we think the case of radioactive material is plausible is that the people in the country (or most of them) would feel fear of radioactive material when we know the nature and negative health effects of it. However. it is always conceivable that some feel fear of things which is not under that condition. But we do not say that they ought to or have obligation to feel fear of confined space. contrary to (vii). again. Then. See Damasio (1994)).

after you recognize the ‘something’ as your black sock.. How about what seems ‘erroneous fear’ ? Is it a proof that fearfulness statement has truth value and fearfulness exists in this world? Suppose that you enter your room and find something black on the floor. or the majority of) people would feel fear of a dangerous thing. It would sound weird if you say “he (with phobia of confined space) has obligation to feel fear of a confined room. even though this involves justification.. True. this is not the case. From the past experiences of human beings it is not reasonable to predict that you would feel fear of your sock given that you know it is your sock.” but it would not if you say “he would feel fear of a confined room. justification for obligation). surviving) and it is a necessary condition to the goal.e. “It [your sock] does not merit my fear. because this seems to open rational discussion about his fearfulness which is shared by the cases of moral value. 7 . especially phobia cases. It is not the same as the one in moral philosophy (i.g. you find it is your black sock and think to yourself. not a roach. You thought of it as a roach and you feel fear of it. therefore it is within the framework of scientific explanation. your sock does not merit your fear.(iii∗ ) All (or most. If feeling fear is subordinate to some objective of human being (e. but as is seen before. the type of justification is that for prediction. we can say that one has obligation to feel fear. However. But after a while.” Is the fearfulness of your sock erroneous? No. This analysis is applicable to other instances of fearfulness.” It might be objected that this still involves justification.

Whether a given thing is fearful or not depends on the situation. fearfulness is a bad 8 . there is no reason to presuppose the reality of fearfulness. Your ‘erroneous’ fear comes form your erroneous cognition. a confined room is fearful for those who are claustrophobia. For instance. but it is not for most people. the ‘merit talk’ does not have power which McDowell expects it to have and it can be accounted within the framework of scientific explanation. whether a prediction works partly depends on conditions of our mind and body. how does it affect McDowell’s account? What if McDowell says like this? “Oh sorry.But this does not mean that even if you did not know it. It is reasonable to predict that you would feel fear of your sock if you mistook it for a roach. As color like yellow looks green under a green light. Argument from queerness remains If the ‘merit talk’ in the case of fearfulness is actually about prediction. As is seen before. In other words. being a disposition is not sufficient for existing. given that your response itself is not an error. but not for the other. It might be objected that this is compatible with the dispositional nature of fearfulness. But according to McDowell’s account. your fear was mistaken if you understand the situation thoroughly. and. Therefore. your sock does not merit fearfulness. But as is already seen. the same thing looks fearful or not according to a situation. but it is not if you do not. The same thing in the world is fearful for one person. It is here that the ‘merit talk’ matters.

175).178). In this sense. say in its priscriptiveness. That is what I wanted to do. and color is secondary quality. Fearfulness and moral values are not secondary qualities but much more similar to secondary qualities than primary qualities4 . fearfulness. and moral values. The disanalogy between fearfulness and moral values disconnects this chain and thereby sheds light again on the queerness of moral values. fearfulness constitutes a chain starting from color apprehension to moral values and it plays a role to make moral values look less queer or not very different from other qualities. moral values are so different from other qualities. shape. that it is weird to posit its objective reality). In his paper. and this argument is applicable to the case of moral values. Given that one of McDowell’s motivations is to make a counterargument to Mackie’s argument from queerness (that is. and the argument in the previous sections does not affect it. McDowell mentions four kinds of properties. does it?” To answer this question. He also notes “Fearfulness is not a secondary quality” (p. Shape is primary quality. They also share ‘merit talk’ which is the major difference between the last two and secondary qualities. color. fearfulness places itself between color and moral values. It is true that if one admits the analogy of secondary qualities and moral values (this 4 McDowell refers to a disanalogy between color and moral values (p. But that fearfulness and moral values have a particular dimension which causal explanations cannot account for is explained by this example (even if it is not true in fearfulness). it is good to see what role the example of fearfulness plays in McDowell’s account.example. 9 .

is admitted here for the sake of argument) in McDowell’s account then moral values look less queer. 7 This sentence could read that this apple is white despite the general fact about apples. 10 . sacrificing one’s life to the king in one’s country) is seen to be act of the brave or the barbarian. Given those disanalogies. under which light we see an object (or whether one is color-blind) could be qualification when attributing a color to it. Another difference is the extent to which qualities vary according to the situation. but not as much as moral evaluation of an act. it is white with no qualification 8 . i.e. For example.” But we would not say that this apple is white qua an apple7 . the distance between moral values and other qualities is even larger (p. whereas the same object rarely looks pink in one situation and blue in another situation. that they are not white. This is not the usage which I want to pay attention to here. but this is not the subject here.. But as long as they still have unique characteristics such as the merit talk (which fearfulness does not share in spite of McDowell’s intention) and its prescriptive power. 6 Citations in this paragraph are all from Blackburn (1985).14). evaluative predicates attribute to a subject (p. 5 This does not mean that McDowell does not notice that there are disanalogies between the two. As Simon Blackburn (1985) points out. moral values are still quite unique from other qualities. there are disanalogies between secondary qualities and moral values5 . Color can change. we say. When we use evaluative predicates. If it is white. And some disanalogies between secondary qualities and moral values pull away further the two and make the peculiarity of moral values stand out more. The same act (for example. 8 Of course.15)6 . “A’s doing B is good qua a father.

A question here is this.Therefore despite McDowell’s intention. That is why McDowell thinks moral 11 . A: Why am I wrong to kick Ken? B (A’s father): Because it is wrong. because the secondary quality model of moral properties seems closer to the case (if McDowell is right). Is B’s reply really an explanation? It is true that B’s reply opens the possibility of rational discussion. opening a series of rational explanations/discussions. Things are better than Mackie thinks. McDowell thinks this is what causal explanations do not capture. But most of the queerness which Mackie mentions remains even in McDowell’s model. And it is only McDowell’s realism that can explain this moral phenomenon. In this sense B’s reply has a distinct characteristic different from causal explanations. merit talk in moral values shows one character of moral values. 3 Is the merit talk a genuine explanation? As is seen before. But a question arises here. moral qualities are quite different from other kinds of qualities. Is the merit talk itself an explanation? Take this dialogue again. It is rational explanation of why A’s conduct is wrong that B needs here. because A can keep asking “why is it wrong?” and then B cannot make the same answer (or repeat the same answer forever). Only moral qualities can approve the special usage of the word ‘merit’ and prescriptivity.

not saying hi to a friend when we meet is wrong. It is hard to make sense of an information which can explain itself.174) despite of Mackie’s argument. The fact that in the first case one tends to say with hitting (kicking. Suppose that A is at the age sufficient to understand kicking a friend is wrong.g. And the point is that. one can expect similar responses. In both cases.17). A’s question can be 12 . you should not kick a friend)..) that it is wrong supports this. because it does not have any propositional content. It is true that A can infer (or conjecture) some propositions from B’s hitting (e. as Blackburn implies (see p. But A might not understand how wrong it is. it is because the first dialogue looks like this ‘conversation’. Secondly. that this is an explanation corresponding to A’s interest (say) in how much confidence B has on his moral position about A’s conduct. B adds hardly any information to A’s utterance. etc. is there any reason to think B’s first utterance as an explanation? One might object. First. And if B’s hitting is not an explanation. But there are reasons to doubt that this constitutes a genuine explanation.value can pass the explanatory test for reality (p. B’s first response seems to function in the same way as B’s hitting. A: Why am I wrong to kick Ken? (B hits A’s head without saying anything) Is B’s hitting an explanation? At least it is doubtful. striking a table. For example. but it is not the same as that it has some propositional content. but it is not as wrong as kicking a friend without reason.

A. might feel as if his father says you should not kick a friend (Of course. Again. But this account is the one of why B’s utterance is an interest-relative (if any) explanation. Then what is the reason not to think B’s hitting of abbreviation of that statement? Implication for McDowell’s account The fact that B’s utterance (the moral-value version of “merit talk”) is not actually an explanation could have serious implications for McDowell’s account. hit by his father. B’s hitting gets in the way of this objection. A might ask the question in order to know how wrong B think it is to kick a friend. this interpretation might be wrong. but not the one of why it is an explanation in the first place (and Blackburn does not seem to explain why this is an explanation). It is true that even just because B’s utterance is not an explanation does not mean that McDowell’s account as a whole collapses. because this “merit talk” is what causal explanation lacks. And B’s utterance is an explanation along with A’s interest. As is seen in the previous citation. he sees the peculiarity of moral statements as allowing for 13 . because B’s utterance does not necessarily remind A of that statement). It might also be objected that B’s utterance is an abbreviation (in the first case. It is a sign of the phenomenology of moral judgments (remember the citation from McDowell in the first section). it might be a statement that you should not kick a friend). because B’s hitting seems to (be able to) play the same (or very similar) function. but this is also true of B’s utterance.understood in this perspective.

and the merit talk seems to open this “space of rational criticism.rational criticism. If this is not actually a genuine explanation. 14 .” Although Humeans would argue that those discussions are ultimately based on emotion (therefore they are not rational discussions). therefore his attempt against Mackie’s anti-realism does not work well. a sentence like B’s utterance is a very ‘pure’ form of such discussions and it is hard to understand as a genuine explanation without making committment to realism of moral properties. this is the only type of explanation which McDowell mentions in his paper needs the existence of moral values. After all. then (c’) in his counterargument to Mackie’s criticism (a-d) (see section 2) is not true. However. we cannot presuppose this here to criticize McDowell.

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