The Special Standing of Moral Skepticism

by Daniel A. Kaufman

I want to describe a kind of moral skepticism that I believe enjoys special standing.  It is skeptical, insofar as it denies that there are good reasons for believing in moral properties.   It has special standing, because unlike general skepticism – by which I mean, skepticism about the external world – the doubts it describes are real, not hypothetical, and derive not from the exploitation of formal gaps in the logic of justification or the mere contemplation of human fallibility, but from reflection upon the substance of actual moral practice.

This does not mean that I myself am a moral skeptic.  The jury’s still out on that one, though I do seem to vacillate between a moral intuitionism and moral skepticism that might very well be two sides of the same coin.  Certainly, there are moral experiences and moral performances, or at least, there are experiences and performances that we call “moral,” and these represent the basis – the starting point – for any theorizing that we care to do on the subject.  But whether there is anything really there, beyond those experiences and performances – whether there is some further moral reality to them – seems to me something about which there is good reason to doubt.

By ‘moral properties’ I mean everything from “thin” moral characteristics, like rightness and wrongness, to “thick” moral characteristics, like deceitfulness, cruelty, courage, etc.  To the extent that this skepticism extends to the latter sorts of properties, it is because of their moral, not than their descriptive components .  (I do not mean to suggest that such words do not have non-moral uses.)  Being deceitful is engaging in a certain kind of wrongful untruthfulness, and since my moral skeptic is doubtful that there is any such thing as wrongfulness, he is skeptical of there being such a thing as deceitfulness, though untruthfulness is obviously common and plentiful, and people dislike it for all sorts of reasons.  Similarly, being courageous is taking risks in the manner that one ought to (morally speaking), and since my moral skeptic doesn’t think that there are such things as moral obligations, he doesn’t think there is such a thing as courage, though obviously, there exists all kinds of risk taking, some of which people applaud. Obviously, my moral skeptic is inclined to reject any distinction between moral  and “ethical” properties, at least if the distinction is intended in such a way as to suggest that the former are problematic and the latter are not, as it is in Bernard Williams’ influential Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.  (Williams 1985, p. 6.)


Now, consider the following two statements, uttered or written on a particular occasion:

(a)  I want you to do such and such.

(b)  You ought to do such and such.

When confronted with a person who has just said or written (b), what reason have do we have to believe that he isn’t really thinking (a); that is, that his real motivation isn’t desire, rather than the belief that a moral obligation is at stake?

I can think of two good reasons for wondering about this.

First, a person can more readily obtain what he or she wants from another person by attributing some sort of necessity to it, and to suggest that something is a moral obligation conveys just such a sense of necessity.  The advantage that comes from telling me that I ought to do such and such, rather than simply saying that you’d like me to do such and such, is similar to the advantage that comes from telling someone that you need something rather than saying that you want it.

The necessity conveyed by the language of obligation, like that conveyed by the language of need, lends our writing and speech an aura of urgency that the language of mere wanting lacks.  It accomplishes this in two interrelated steps: first, by suggesting (sometimes explicitly, sometimes obliquely) that the reason one “ought” or “needs” to supply the desideratum is in order to satisfy some teleologically characterizable “Order” (some way that things are supposed to be) — most commonly a thickly rendered nature or divine creation — and that to refuse to supply it is to frustrate this Order in some way; second, by trading on the common instinct that frustrating the Order carries with it some sanction, whether divine punishment, physical or psychological penalties (in which I would include the pangs we experience in our socially inflected consciences), or social ostracisation of one kind or another.

Philosophers have tended to paint these sanctions in more abstract strokes, whether in terms of a kind of diminished personhood — thinkers ranging from Aristotle, to Locke, to Kant have maintained that moral obedience is constitutive of the very idea of being a person — or even less tangibly, in terms of suffering “a less valuable existence,” as Robert Nozick once described it, because, as he put it, “it is better and lovelier to be moral.”  (Nozick 1981, pp. 409-410.)  But regardless of whether you think that the punishment for violating the Order involves damnation, mental or physical distress, being shunned by others, or some sense of personal diminishment, an implicit (and sometimes explicit) threat of punishment always accompanies invocations and intimations of moral necessity, and this largely explains the sense of urgency that they convey.  Even where there is little or no explicit belief in the reality of punishment, there remains a kind of racial memory, from the days when everyone believed in the reality of some sanction or other, and this alone is sufficient to imbue the language of moral obligation with the desired force.  We have here, then, one very clear reason for wondering whether a person, in uttering (b), really means it:  it is to this person’s advantage to pretend that what he wants me to do is a matter of moral obligation, since if he can convince me of this, he is more likely to get me to do it.

A second reason for wondering whether a person who utters (b) really means it is that it is common for people to misrepresent their motives, not out of a conscious intention to mislead others, but as a result of having already successfully lied to themselves about them.  One’s fraudulent moral posture, in such circumstances, is not a product of conscious scheming, but of self-deception.

It may have been Nietzsche who first made us aware of the degree to which our ostensible morality — the words and actions that we offer on behalf of benevolence, charity, selflessness, etc. — may be motivated, in fact, by a completely contradictory set of deeper feelings and desires (though in truth, it was probably St. Paul who first introduced this idea into the Western consciousness), but the weird class- and race-based conspiracies that he posited as being responsible for this moral/psychic dissonance render his account ultimately unsuitable as a basis for sound moral skepticism.  (Nietzsche 1956, pp. 165-173)  It is Freud and his theory of the unconscious and its relationship to our conscious thoughts and behaviors that really provides us with a powerful and comprehensive framework with which to make sense of the idea of moral self-deception.  One can also usefully employ Marx along these lines, and it was Paul Ricoeur who first identified a “school of suspicion,” led by the triumvirate of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, each of whom was devoted, in his own way, to exposing the “illusions and lies of consciousness.” (Ricoeur 1970, p. 32)  And though Ricoeur rightly points out that the sort of unmasking promoted by these “masters of suspicion” was not ultimately intended as a basis for skepticism — since each also provided a hermeneutics, by way of which we might decode our misleading utterances and behaviors — it certainly lends support to a moral skepticism the roots of which lie in an analysis of common human behavior, and which focuses on the reasons for doubting the sincerity of peoples’ professed moral motives, postures, and other moral performances, including, importantly, our own.

Freud maintained that we adopt a moral posture as an act of repression, specifically, of our core desires — desires that are largely unconscious — because acting on them is alleged to be incompatible with social and civic life.  The pressure to be morally obedient, then, is ultimately social: In Freudian parlance, the Ego confronts the Id with the actual demands of social and civic life (the so-called “Reality Principle”), while the Superego confronts it with the constructed moral ideals of the local culture (as manifested to children in adult authority figures).   In a very literal sense, then, when a person professes a moral reason for an action or a request for one, he is always misrepresenting his underlying motives and is largely unaware of doing so.  Significantly, Freud depicts this repression as strenuous and difficult (he describes it as an “unstable arrangement”), one that is often, even routinely, prone to failure.  (Freud 1966, pp. 26-7.)  Not only, then, does the profession of a moral motive never reliably indicate that a person is really thusly motivated, it in no way insures that he will act in accordance with it, a fact that is amply demonstrated in everyday life, by everything from the ubiquitous, low-level moral inconsistency to which we are all witness — and prone — to the most stunning displays of moral hypocrisy, in which it seems that the stronger, more insistent the moral postures and performances, the greater the fraud lurking beneath.

Some may want to resist these conclusions, on the grounds that Freud and psychoanalysis have been wholly discredited (something that I do not believe), but one need not buy into any of the specific details of the Freudian story — the existence of faculties named ‘Ego’, ‘Superego’, or ‘Id’, for example — in order to sustain the substantive points, which have become a part of our common wisdom: that we are mysteries to ourselves as well as to others; that we are complex and conflicted; that we are much more selfish than we let on or are even aware of ourselves; and that we pose and posture, for popular as well as for our own consumption.  Consequently, our public behavior and speech, as well as our internal conversations with our own alter-egos and consciences, are as likely to mislead as they are to provide a real picture of our actual motives.

At this point, I can imagine a moral philosopher protesting that nothing that I have said provides the slightest argument for moral skepticism.  That we don’t always mean what we say doesn’t mean that we never do, and even if we never tell the truth in reporting moral motives, it doesn’t follow that moral properties do not exist.

This is a standard move in philosophy (and especially analytic philosophy) and stems from our subject’s deep and longstanding commitment to abstraction, generality, and rationality, as well as its discomfort with particularity and contextuality and commensurate dislike for impulse and inconsistency.  Someone who wouldn’t go back to a car dealership, after being cheated by one of its salesmen, even though it  “doesn’t follow” that all the other salesmen are crooks, will insist, without irony, that there are moral truths and that people rationally apprehend and act on them, even while he is being bombarded with example after example of people who clearly are doing no such thing and in the face of modern psychology which, regardless of whether one takes it in its psychodynamic or behaviorist forms, renders impossible the sort of naïve treatment of human behavior that traditional moral philosophy requires.

This attitudinal lurch, though certainly odd, is unsurprising once one realizes that for most moral philosophers, the fascination has always been with the theorizing itself and not with the practices that the theorizing is alleged to be about.  Ethics, for these people, is about the existence and nature of rightness and wrongness, goodness and badness, idealized actors, beneficiaries, and victims, justification, and other such abstractions, not actual people, their actual behavior, or their actual reasons for acting, so when that behavior and those reasons are revealed for what they are, as modern psychology tries to do, it is easy to simply ignore them or to point out that strictly speaking, “nothing follows” with respect to ethical theory.

This is why it is absolutely essential that we understand that ethical theorizing is itself a human practice — a form of human behavior — with its own “genealogy,” by which I mean its own historically and psychologically grounded raisons d’être.   Here, again, Nietzsche is absolutely essential (though once again, the specific account he offers is bizarre and histrionic), for he made the crucial point that our reasons for engaging in ethical theorizing may be as conflicted and contradictory as our reasons for making first-order moral claims and engaging in ostensibly moral behavior.  (Nietzsche 1956, pp. 158-159.)  Once we adopt the psychodynamic model in accounting for this dissonance, as we have already done in our analysis of moral acts and utterances, we see immediately that there can be no refuge for the theorist from the disconfirming practical realities of daily human life, in the tidy, comfortable back-rooms of ethical theory, since his own theorizing is as much a part of those practical realities as the moral speeches and behaviors, the implications of which he is trying to escape.

Nevertheless, philosophers have continued to insist on drawing this distinction between ethical theorizing and moral practice — Mary Mothersill did it in a particularly interesting way decades ago, in her essay “Moral Knowledge” (Mothersill 1959, p. 757) — and it is worth taking it at face value, if only as an exercise, because  we will discover that our skeptic is still able to maintain his doubts about moral properties. Moreover, in seeing why, we will be afforded an important opportunity to discuss the ways in which moral skepticism differs from general skepticism.


The moral skepticism that I am describing proceeds on the basis of two points: First, as just discussed, we have tangible, realistic reasons to doubt our own and others’ sincerity when we profess moral motives, adopt moral postures, and engage in moral performances, and this includes when we engage in moral theorizing; Second — and the point to which I turn now — these professions, postures, and performances are the only reasons for thinking that there are any moral properties in the first place.  Put another way, the belief that there are moral properties is exclusively the product of our collective testimonies; testimonies that are convoluted, conflicted, and ultimately unreliable, for all the reasons we have discussed.

This second point is obvious in the kind of way that often causes things to escape peoples’ notice, so consider:  Moral properties are not discovered via the sensory modalities or the affective sensibility — certainly, I can feel disgusted or amorous, find something appealing, moving, indifferent, etc., but these natural affective states will arise irrespective of whether we ever adopt moral frameworks or ways of speaking – and there has yet to be any convincing account of morals, in which moral truths are deduced in the manner that we deduce truths in mathematics or logic.  The only reason that we believe that there are moral truths and that moral properties are real, then, is because people talk and act as if there are; it is solely because of the stances, speeches, and performances of others, and because of the voices of our own consciences, the latter of which, as already mentioned, are heavily inflected by the society we have made with others.  As a result, our ability to believe in their — and our own — sincerity, is crucial to the case for there being moral properties, and this ability is precisely what has been called into question, on grounds that derive both from our common, daily experience and from modern theoretical and clinical psychology.

However, when we consider general skepticism, by which I mean doubts about the existence of the external world and the various iterations of those doubts, we find something entirely different.  Unlike the specific, substantial suspicions that lead to moral skepticism, the sources from which general skepticism derives — the inherent fallibility of our senses and reason, and the question-begging character of the logic of justification — are entirely abstract: the general skeptic notes that both our senses and our powers of reasoning can be mistaken and are, therefore, a potential source of error,  and that every justificatory inference, in taking something as playing the role of a premise, begs the question as to why we should believe that something is true.  Any belief that we might justify, then, can be doubted, not just because the grounds on which the belief is based might be mistaken, but because the logic by which we justify one thing A, by appeal to another thing, B, has built into it a structural regress.

General skepticism is general, then, because of the abstractness, generality, and ubiquity of these sources of doubt, but these qualities also render it incapable of sustaining any real grip on our consciousness.  As a result, general skepticism is suitable for little more than epistemological calisthenics  (Thomas Reid famously pointed out that while there are many generally skeptical hypotheses, there are no actual general skeptics. (Reid 1969, p. 115)), since in the face of all the vivid experiences of everyday life, no one will ever really believe that the external world doesn’t exist, even if one can imagine a logically possible story, in which one is nothing more than a solitary consciousness living in a perpetual dream. (Hume 1978, p. 269; Hume 1975, pp. 8-9.)  And it is important to remember that with respect to general skepticism, these sorts of contrivances of the imagination are the sole reason for the relevant skeptical doubts.  I may, on a particular occasion, have tangible reasons to believe that my eyes or other senses are tricking me — say that I am intoxicated or have had my eyes dilated after a visit to the optometrist — but such cases raise no general suspicions about the reliability of the modalities by which we acquire beliefs about the external world.  The doubts that characterize general skepticism are exclusively the products of abstract speculation into various logical possibilities and recognition of the inherently question-begging structure of the logic of inference.

It is for this reason that the best solution to general skepticism has always been the philosophy of common sense, the proponents of which understand that the search for justification follows —because it presumes —belief and action, and does not precede it.  This is why, as Hume tells us, we must be men and women, before we can be philosophers (Hume 1975, p. 9), a stance that precludes commitment to any sort of generally skeptical position, because a condition of being men and women is that we have the kind of trust in our faculties and the basic things that they tell us that is required in order for it to be possible to believe and to act.  As Wittgenstein explained in his own version of a common sense philosophical response to general skepticism, our belief in these basic things are not themselves tested in any way, but rather, comprise the frame of reference within which testing and thus, believing and acting, take place.  (Wittgenstein 1972, pp. 12 & 15.)

In defending the reality of moral properties from skepticism, some would like to claim that there is a moral common sense that plays a similar role with respect to our moral beliefs and behaviors to that which our common sense about the external world plays with respect to our beliefs and behaviors more generally.  Mothersill  would have us believe, for example, that “the robust practical wisdom which restores us to the world of backgammon and sociability is as impatient with moral skepticism as with any other philosophical doubts”; that “the mood in which we know for sure that chairs and tables are real and that the sun will rise tomorrow is the mood in which we know for sure that cruelty and deceit are wrong and that we must fulfil our obligations”; and that “one can’t claim the advantages of common sense when it comes to scientific knowledge and at the same time claim the advantages of a superior insight when it comes to moral knowledge.” (Mothersill 1959, pp. 759-760.)

Alas, these points are wrong in every detail, for there simply is no analogy to the story I have just told about general skepticism, in the case of moral skepticism.  As we’ve seen, moral skepticism is not the result of speculating about abstract possibilities or recognizing structural gaps in the logic of inference, but is the product of tangible, realistic, psychologically-grounded suspicions regarding peoples’ professed motives when they speak and act.  It is not the sort of skepticism, then, for which a philosophy of common sense is suitable, since its main point is that our basic moral beliefs — our moral common sense, if you like — cannot be trusted.  Even worse, we have every reason to be dubious of the very practices for which these beliefs are supposed to provide the frame.

One of the consequences of the psychological story we have been telling is that our moral practices cannot be taken face-value, as phenomena to be explained, straightforwardly, by way of a moral theory.  The phenomena themselves – the moral speeches, postures, and performances – must first be decoded, before they can be explained, which means that we must have a moral hermeneutics, before we can even think about having a moral theory.  And it is only so much the worse for the prospects of moral theorizing, when our hermeneutics tell us — as the Nietzschean, Freudian, and Marxian hermeneutics all do — that our moral practices are essentially rhetorical and are designed, ultimately, to misrepresent our motives, both to others and to ourselves.

Mothersill’s examples, then, are obscuring, rather than revealing of the true status of moral knowledge.  Of course there is no trouble in knowing trivial analytic truths like “cruelty is wrong” and “deceit is wrong,” wrongness being semantically contained within the concepts of cruelty and deceit, as Mothersill is using these terms.  The trouble is with knowing whether something — or anything — counts as cruel or deceitful, in the moral senses of these terms.  My point has been that our only reason for thinking that something is cruel or deceitful is because people (including ourselves) call it cruel or deceitful and act as it if is.  So, there is no epistemic resemblance whatsoever between the claim that that someone is sitting on a chair and the claim that some action is cruel, deceitful, etc.  Barring some specific evidence to the contrary, I have no reason to think that either the chair-sitter or my eyes are telling anything other the truth, but, as we have seen, there are any number of good, concrete reasons for thinking that the person who says that doing such and such is cruel, deceitful, etc., is misrepresenting both himself and the facts.

In the case of the belief in the existence of the external world, the principle of induction, the existence of other minds, etc., the beliefs in question enjoy an evidence-base that remains essentially untainted, save for a small number of highly abstract, purely theoretical doubts, and the result is that only a hypothetical skepticism, suitable for epistemological theorizing, is sustainable.  By contrast, with respect to our belief in moral properties, the only evidence to which anyone can appeal is decidedly tainted, which means that a substantive, real skepticism regarding the existence of moral properties is warranted.  Hence, moral skepticism’s “special standing.”


Freud, Sigmund.  1996.  Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.  New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Hume, David.  1975.   Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals.  L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch, eds.  Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Hume, David.  1978.  A Treatise on Human Nature.  L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch, eds.  Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Mothersill, Mary.  1959.   “Moral Knowledge.” The Journal of Philosophy 56: 755-763.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  1956.  The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals.  Francis Golfling, tr.  New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Nozick, Robert. 1981.  Philosophical Explanations.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reid, Thomas.  1969.   Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Ricoeur, Paul.  1970.  Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation.  Denis Savage, tr.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Williams, Bernard.  1985.  Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1972.  On Certainty.  Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe, trs. G.E.M.  Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, eds.  New York: Harper & Row.


77 responses to “The Special Standing of Moral Skepticism”

  1. For the self, recognition is the virtue.

  2. Daniel, i must thank you. i have been unable to make sense of why i can’t engage with people any longer in discussions on current issues & politics. i think i have become a moral skeptic. The sheer volume of tainted ideas & people’s ego to defend the little they learn from assault, is just not trust worthy & i have decided to disengage from it. But this essay has really helped me make sense of why i have made that choice. So thank you. Truly. i actually feel better for my choice.

  3. In The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, Cozolino summarizes the psychology that indicates that moral behavior is rooted in the cooperative act of learning to nurse at a mother’s breast. Those that trust in that impulse evolve social centers of the brain that DON’T EXIST AT BIRTH, eventually culminating with a the neural process responsible for altruistic thinking.

    On the opposite end of the scale of moral development lie those that never receive love. They operate morally as lizards, seeking only to consume others. As a method of denying their own disability, they argue that morality does not exist. Of course, to them it doesn’t, because their brains haven’t evolved to receive it.

    Cozolino, in his private therapy, takes those suffering from the psychopathic deficiency through practices that encourage the development of the centers of moral behavior. His patients are tired of being miserable. Fortunately, the brain is plastic, and continues to evolve long after childhood. Cozolino summarizes those mechanisms as well.

  4. Dan

    This is a really important topic, so I’m particularly glad that we agree on it. And the way you have put the issues helps to clarify them, I think. I won’t say any more now, for fear of muddying the waters.

  5. labnut

    I find this a most disturbing essay and I need to read it again before attempting any substantive comments. I find it disturbing because many people do in fact report experiencing sincere moral intuitions. It is an experience of such a nature, that once experienced, leaves no doubt that moral intuitions are real. And such a person, once having had these experiences, can only wonder about the person who denies these experiences.

    What does this mean?

    I think the answer can be found in the second paragraph where you say
    [you] seem to vacillate between a moral intuitionism and moral skepticism that might very well be two sides of the same coin. “.

    I suggest this vacillation is our natural state. We possess real moral intuitions that are often in conflict with self interest and are even often overwhelmed by self-interest. We are the coin with two sides. Which side that wins out is a product of environment, circumstances, education and character. The cynic will, as you do, look at one side of the coin and see only insincerity and self-interest. The naive will look at the other side of the coin and see only sincere, moral, well-intentioned people. Both are wrong. My parish priest, who daily hears the confessions of his flock, will tell you that all of us have both sides to our nature. His struggle is to guide his flock and tilt the balance so that their sincere moral intuitions are stronger than their cynical, hypocritical, self-serving desires. It is a struggle and he can only report mixed success. But there is enough success to give us hope and faith in a better future.

  6. labnut

    the way you have put the issues helps to clarify them, I think. I won’t say any more now, for fear of muddying the waters.

    Please do say more, regardless of the mud in the water. You can rely on my cognitive filters to strain out the muck. 🙂 Unkind people call these filters cognitive bias but I know you are not an unkind person 🙂

  7. Dan.
    Kinda wish this had been posted before my essay on rhetoric from last month, since such issues as you discuss form much of the backdrop to the arguments I made.

    In order to engage a discussion of ethics on the basis of moral realism (the presumption that there just are moral properties), one has to assume that doing so does not engage in rhetoric. To assume that, however, is also to assume that the discussion is not intended to persuade anyone to act morally. But if this is the case, why bother engaging in such a discussion at all? Clarity is no issue here, unless such clarity helps guide behavior. In which case of course the discussion really is intended to persuade us to action. In which case it functions rhetorically.

    It should be noted that this problem surfaces in an era when it is is no longer generally believed that we have a received text on moral reality, such as the bible. In a culture with such an accepted text, there is no need to distinguish between rhetoric and logic, and it is presumed that guidance to behavior is just what clarity is for. The truth is given, and it is just a matter of finding ways to effect behavior in accordance with it.

    Unfortunately, as the history of any religion shows, even given truth is open to interpretation. In the West, the contests between interpretations ultimately led to a general loss of faith in the text itself, although also reactive commitments to it despite any evidence to the contrary of its presumed efficacy. Do people like Mike Pence worry much about whether they are engaged in reasoning or rhetoric in advocating homophobia or denial of a woman’s rights? I doubt it.

    And that raises an important issue. One reason moral skepticism may be healthy is because many people clearly prioritize their moral beliefs. So it’s okay to lie to unbelievers or cause harm to those with different points of view, if one’s own beliefs or point of view is unquestioned. That shouldn’t be the case. Yet everyone seems to find someway to justify their own behavior, while persuading others to behaviors they themselves may not actually practice.

    But I see that now I’m beginning to simply re-iterate points you made clear, so I’ll only affirm my agreement, and close.

  8. Thomas Jones

    Dan, excellent piece. I have some reservations about your two statements [ (a) I want you to do such and such.(b) You ought to do such and such].that taken at face value seem rather unrealistically limited without some explanatory context, but you cover this matter–context–as well in your discussion. I’m curious, though, about your thoughts in the larger context of organizations that stipulate ethical standards for practitioners such as in medicine, including eugenics, or journalism, for example. Surely, these are not naively framed upon an assumption that ipso facto membership assures compliance in all cases.

    Btw, I don’t know if you’ve been following Missouri State in the college baseball playoffs. But congrats to the Bears on reaching the Super Regionals.

  9. labnut

    In order to engage a discussion of ethics on the basis of moral realism (the presumption that there just are moral properties), one has to assume that doing so does not engage in rhetoric. To assume that, however, is also to assume that the discussion is not intended to persuade anyone to act morally. But if this is the case, why bother engaging in such a discussion at all?

    I can think of some reasons why we should engage in such a discussion:
    1) curiosity
    2) inquiry
    3) elucidation
    4) teaching
    These can all be done without endeavouring to persuade anyone to act morally.

    And that raises an important issue. One reason moral skepticism may be healthy is because many people clearly prioritize their moral beliefs.

    Please explain how moral scepticism solves this problem? In what sense can moral scepticism be better or more healthy? It seems to me you are opening the door to moral relativism or consequentialism. This may work if we have the ideal, intelligent, unbiased and well informed moral agent. But is there anyone like this, besides yourself?

  10. labnut,
    I don’t see how one can undertake such a discussion that does not imply action to be taken. We can certainly discuss ‘what is moral realism,’ and such questions, and do, with detachment; but once we begin by assuming a moral reality I don’t see how such a discussion can avoid advocacy with an intent to persuade. (This is not to say there isn’t an objective reality, if we mean by this the values shared in a given culture.)

    “Please explain how moral scepticism solves this problem?” I didn’t say it would; I suggest that it is a healthy attitude to take toward the problem.

    In the modern cultures and the issues raised in them that Dan addresses, a certain degree of moral relativism is inevitable; a certain degree of consequentialism is unavoidable.

    And thank you for the compliments! I am far too humble to assume such qualities of myself, but never tire of others asserting them of me.

  11. Dan. You should really do a Sophia podcast on Bernard Williams moral philosophy. It’d be lovely.

  12. I’d need to get a different partner for that one. Not Massimo’s area.

  13. I would have thought that it is common for people to say “You ought to do such-and-such” when they *don’t* want them to do such-and-such. It certainly has been for me throughout my life.

    I might mention Malcolm Muggeridge who said: “Fornication. I love it so”. For this reason when people say “You ought to do such-and-such” I don’t think they necessarily mean “I want you to do such-and-such”.

    That doesn’t imply that the existence of moral properties, merely that people think that there are.

    In fact I don’t know why the moral skepticism of the kind you are talking about is not the default position these days.

  14. For example – “I ought to give this $500 dollar bonus to charity” and “I want to spend this $500 bonus on a new camera”. This seems to me a quite common dilemma.

  15. davidlduffy

    Bambrough (1979):

    “The contemporary philosophers who both accept Moore’s proof of an external world and reject the claim that we have moral knowledge defend common sense in one field and attack common sense in another field. They hold fast to common sense
    when they speak of our knowledge of the external world, and depart from common sense when they speak of morality…
    We speak as naturally of a child’s not knowing the difference between right and wrong as we do of his not knowing the difference between right and left…The moral sceptic is even more inclined to exaggerate the amount of disagreement that there is about methods of moral argument than he is inclined to exaggerate the amount of disagreement in moral belief as such.”

    After reading MacIntyre’s jibes about rights, I was interested to read about the philosophers were involved in the early UN projects such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though I had never heard of them eg Charles Malik, who was a member of the Security Council.

    Glendon (1998):

    “The UNESCO Committee on the Theoretical Bases of Human Rights… recorded their conclusion that it was indeed possible to achieve agreement across cultures concerning certain rights that ‘may be viewed as implicit in man’s nature as an individual and as
    a member of society’…[Malik added the article that] ‘Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised.’ …Anticipating the incoherence critique mounted by Villey and
    others, [Richard] McKeon tried to put the paradoxes of human rights in a positive light. ‘[They] are not ambiguities resulting from confusion or contradiction;’ he argued, ‘they are productive ambiguities which embody the knowledge and experience men have acquired in the long history of rights, and which provide the beginning points for further advances.’ The history of human rights is paradoxical because ‘it embodies concretely all the great antitheses and paralogisms explored by philosophers – the problems of the whole and the part, the universal and the particular, the internal and the external, the apparent and the real.’”

    ISTM that a contractualism consonant with creating and signing such a declaration can be moral realist or non-realist, but we can still hold that everyone could agree that a certain set of moral rules will allow everything to go as well as it could do.

  16. Robin Herbert.
    “That doesn’t imply that the existence of moral properties, merely that people think that there are.”

    Yes, that’s the problem. To discuss practical ethics at all, we use the language of moral realism. But this merely misleads us into believing that something exists which cannot exist, given the animal we are.

    We are always chasing our tails. It’s a necessary and inevitable trick of language. And (replying also to labnut here) it makes us believe certain things and feel certain intuitions that are merely the desiderata of acculturation.

  17. Robin,
    Your other comments concern sarcasm and satire; and that’s a different issue.

  18. alandtapper1950

    Hi Dan:

    Your essay raises some interesting and contentious points. Too many to respond to briefly. I’ll start where you start.

    If someone tells me I ought to do X, my first reaction is to ask why. The mere assertion has no force. I don’t even see it as a moral claim until they give me a moral reason — the word “ought” can be used to indicate various types of reason or motive. Once they do give me a moral reason, even then I don’t have to accept it as having moral validity. I can contest its validity. I can make up my own mind about whether they are using pseudo-moral reasons to manipulate me for their own purposes. I can do so not arbitrarily but by drawing on the intersubjective force that morality captures. The language of morality, as I see it, is the language we use to manage cooperation. If I am told I ought to do X because X is my share in some cooperative practice from which I and the other participants benefit — a practice sustained by the contributions of each of us — then I have been given a reason that draws upon our mutual interests. When this is so, I have been given a good reason which is also a moral reason. I am not being manipulated.

    The same applies of course to how others can react to my claims against them.

    I can, if I wish, withdraw from all cooperation with others, but if I do so my prospects will be nasty, brutish and short. Doing so would not be immoral, but it would be irrational.


  19. Hi Dan, this was excellent all over the place.

    It immediately raises two questions that are more curiosity than anything else:

    1) Is this going to be, or has this already been, in an academic article? I’m curious how academics receive it.

    2) By comparing metaphysical and moral (anti)realism, you highlighted the grounds on which I consider myself a metaphysical realist and moral anti-realist. We’ve discussed this before, where you stated you were a metaphysical anti-realist, but this essay almost sounds as if you are open to at least common sense realism, and wonder if you are changing at all toward that… and perhaps further toward a philosophical metaphysical realism (or at least agnosticism on that question).

    Now for the essay…

    This was not just interesting, but helpful for me. You pointed to two figures that helped shape my own skeptical position, but I had never considered Freud or Marx before… perhaps because I saw them as quickly arguing for (or presupposing) a specific form of moral outlook.

    It’s funny, though his arguments were influential to me, I can’t remember what Nietzsche argued as historical background for moral belief, beyond religious instruction/culture, and unfortunately lost my copy of Genealogy a few years back. Could you expand on what it was, and so why you found it problematic?

    Finally, while I understand (and can accept) the way you dealt with “thick” moral terms (deceitful, cruel, etc) this is not how I view them, and think Ethics (as a field) would benefit from stripping the moral loading from such terms, when examining them. Take deceitful for example, it seems easy enough to define it in a neutral fashion (intentionally giving false impressions/information), such that it can be used to judge/label actions, without an assumed moral value. Yes, many people in modern society will automatically give it a value (bad), but I believe that is because they are importing *common* cultural assumptions and usage. Basically, they would be asking themselves do I want someone deceiving *me* about something important? Through that lens, it may be thought that deceiving others would more often than not be a negative activity, though most would also recognize there are times and places where being deceitful is not just warranted, but expected as a matter of course (the norm).

  20. Hi ej

    The article suggested that when people say “you ought to” they might mean “I want you to”. I was only saying that, whatever we might mean by “ought” it is not the same as “want” because it seems to make perfect sense to say “I often do not want to do what I ought to do and want to do what I ought not to do” and that it is quite common for people to feel this way.

  21. Dwayne: I’ve always been a metaphysical anti-realist and a common sense realist.

    Re: Nietzsche, he blames it all on the Christianity and ultimately, the Jews.

    I don’t understand your disagreement towards the end. I explicitly said that the thick moral terms can be given an entirely descriptive characterization, to which the moral skepticism I’m describing does not apply.

    I should also reiterate, if it was not clear, that the moral skepticism described is not necessarily my own view. My main interest here was to make the observation that moral skepticism is not like other varieties of skepticism, in that it is grounded in real and substantial doubts, as opposed to purely theoretical ones.

  22. I never suggested that the two mean the same thing. Indeed, the entire essay is premised on the idea that they do not.

  23. Hi ej

    Your other comments concern sarcasm and satire; and that’s a different issue

    I am puzzled as to why you think so.

    Indeed I am sure that when someone says “You ought to go back to your husband but I don’t want you to go back to him, I want you to stay here with me” then he would be about as far ftom sarcasm or satire as it is possibly to get.

  24. Robin Herbert,
    “I would have thought that it is common for people to say “You ought to do such-and-such” when they *don’t* want them to do such-and-such. It certainly has been for me throughout my life.” I see I misread this, apologies.

    Also, I withdraw my commit on what “cannot exist,” since this needs considerable unpacking and might distract from the discussion on Dan’s article. I do hold that much of what we believe about moral verities is a construction of language – an inevitable construction, given our social nature, but a construction none the less.

  25. Hi Dan,

    “I’ve always been a metaphysical anti-realist and a common sense realist.”

    Ok, for some reason while I remembered you as being a metaphysical anti-realist, I thought you were only sympathetic toward but not necessarily committed to common sense realism.

    “Nietzsche, he blames it all on the Christianity and ultimately, the Jews.”

    Then I remembered right. Yeah, I was never happy with his intense focus on religion.

    “I don’t understand your disagreement towards the end. I explicitly said that the thick moral terms can be given an entirely descriptive characterization, to which the moral skepticism I’m describing does not apply.”

    It was only a minor issue, and not really a disagreement with you. Early on you mentioned the terms could be given a descriptive characterization. I agreed with this, and was only suggesting that I believe this is the proper use of such terms and (expanded on why I personally) reject the morally loaded versions.

    “I should also reiterate, if it was not clear, that the moral skepticism described is not necessarily my own view…”

    Yes, this was clear.

    It is not my exact position either, though as I said your essay nicely highlighted grounds on which I have come to hold a moral anti-realist position. I think the arguments given can be expanded/strengthened, for example based on the existence of multiple, competing and non-objectively rankable categories of interest.

    The novelty for me was bringing in Freud and Marx, and then the direct comparison with metaphysics to set up a relative “special standing”.

  26. Thomas Jones

    Interesting interview in 3:AM Magazine between Richard Marshall and Davis Wong who describes himself as pluralistic relativist in ethic. Here’s an extract, with the link below:

    I think that all moralities adequately serving the function of fostering social cooperation must contain a norm of reciprocity—a norm of returning good for good received. Such a norm is a necessity, I argue, because it helps relieve the strains on motivation of contributing to social cooperation when it comes into conflict with self-interest. I also identify a constraint I called “justifiability to the governed,” which implies that justifications for subordinating people’s interests must not rely on falsehoods such as the natural inferiority of racial or ethnic groups or the natural incapacities of women. This follows, I argue, from the way that morality culturally evolved to become a distinctive way of fostering social cooperation on a largely voluntary basis, something that can be accepted on the basis of non-coerced and non-deceived belief. Finally, I identify “accommodation” as a value that must be acknowledged within all adequate moralities because of the ubiquity of disagreement over how to interpret values that might even be shared among people or how to prioritize shared values in case of conflict. Accommodation is a willingness to maintain constructive relationship with others with whom one is in serious and even intractable disagreement. Social cooperation would come under impossible pressure if it always depended on strict agreement.

    Moral disagreement has a number of sources. People come to have different moral beliefs because they have different non-moral beliefs about relevant facts. People are disposed to believe whatever justifies the practices and institutions that benefit them. But I argue that not all moral differences can be explained away in such a fashion. Some of the most profound disagreements come from differences in priority assigned to values such as relationship and community on the one hand, and individual rights and personal autonomy for the individual, on the other hand. The differences are more subtle than is often supposed. An ethic that emphasizes relationship and community can be concerned with protecting the individual’s interests, but always with an eye to trying to reconcile those interests with those of others. An ethic emphasizing rights and autonomy should be concerned with promoting enough community to foster a motivating concern for everyone’s rights, not just one’s own.

    At the end of the day I hold there are disagreements that don’t bottom out in some set of facts that would make one side right and the other wrong. Getting straight on relevant nonmoral facts, removing biases of interest, and applying universal constraints (such as reciprocity, justifiability to the governed, and accommodation) reduces but does not narrow down to just one the ways that human culture has found to adequately fulfill the functions of morality. There is no single coherent morality fulfilling these functions that provides optimal expression of all the things human beings value.

  27. 1970scholar

    I have a quite a few responses to your post on morality.
    You are following in the tradition more of Bernard Williams than Elizabeth Anscombe. I say this not only because you don’t appear to be coming out of a kind of traditional approach to ethical inquiry as you would find in Thomism, or Alisdair MacIntyre. I say this because you have written a great deal on Anscombe, including a full post on her work, yet your STYLE of writing seems to owe more to Williams. You have his clarity and accessibility. I would love to see a substantive debate between, say, you and Sam Harris, say on his podcast. He would find in you a quite challenging interlocutor since you make clear that it is not a question of there being facts or not, or rather the conception of the existence of a fact or not is not the whole story. Sam Harris gets stuck on facts such human pain or pleasure and feels these facts, like natural kinds or facts in the real world. can do if not most of the work, maybe all the work (or it would appear in Harris’ boosterism) of some kind of moral theory, thus conflating the process of natural science and philosophic inquiry, which, of course is to replace philosophy with science. The problem, as you point out in a different setting with your critique of Mothersil, is not whether there are facts of bodily, psychological, or spiritual pain or pleasure but of constructing, tout court, an entire theory out of such facts, such that the gap between intention, will and action is completely, seamlessly erased. Yet such theories are notoriously problematic. The skepticism you describe is not a skepticism of indifference to human action in the world; it is a skepticism borne of a need that we might need a great deal more information than daily common sense life gives us.

  28. labnut

    This is a debate that matters deeply.

    It has just been revealed that German bankers(and others) are involved in a taxation scheme that may have defrauded the state of 36 billion dollars. See

    This follows hard on the heels of the Volkswagen exhaust scandal. Then there was the Barclays libor fixing scheme. And these are only some of the incidents. They range from the small, such as the German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen plagiarising her thesis, widespread student cheating, all the way up to the giants. My own poor benighted country has, in the last twenty years, rapidly climbed the corruption ladder, to become world leaders, an achievement to be deeply mourned. Banks, once synonymous with honest, sober, careful business dealings are now some of the biggest culprits. We even murder unborn infants on an industrial scale.

    The prevailing climate of moral scepticism enables this conduct. To call moral scepticism healthy, as EJ does, is to ignore all the potential consequences that flow from such an attitude.

  29. Dan,
    “Nietzsche, he blames it all on the Christianity and ultimately, the Jews.”

    Well, actually, that’s quite complicated. Nietzsche not only later became disenchanted with antisemitism, but became a strong critic of it – so strong that British Zionists of the 1890s actually drew on his texts to support their cause.

    His criticism of Christianity, as a “slave Morality.” remained strong to the end.

    The waters on his views about the Jews were considerably muddied (and with some intent) by Wagner’s wife, and by his own anti-Semitic sister, who manufactured the Nazi-accepted edition of “Will to Power” (which Heidegger railed against in his self-proclaimed “confrontation” with Nazism) and helped established a racist community of German purists in South America.

    History is always about people, not ideas. That’s the take-away here.

  30. ejwinnner: I was not suggesting that Nietzsche was an anti-Semite. My point was the more mundane one that ultimately the Jews are to blame for Christianity.

  31. labnut: Perhaps, in a “healthy” person, the skepticism always gives way to the Intuitionism and then back again. Hence the two sides of the same coin. But what seems clearly (!) ruled out is a kind of neat trip from experience into theory. Therein seems to lie nothing but problems.

  32. 1970s: In a way, I feel as if your comment is smarter than the essay I wrote. Certainly you are right about Anscombe. My admiration for her work is entirely in its negative or destructive aspect. I have no personal use whatsoever for her orthodoxies. And I share your enthusiasm for Williams whom I’ve elsewhere said was the greatest ethicist since the Second World War. One thing people don’t mention about him is his courage — he was calling out sanctimonious, self-important assess like Peter Singer, even going so far as saying he was doing harm to the discipline, even though the man was being lionized by the overwhelming majority of the profession.

    I would do what you suggest in a second, if Harris would deign to have me. I am afraid however that I am not nearly famous enough — or famous at all — for him to give me the time of day.

  33. labnut

    ultimately the Jews are to blame for Christianity.

    They are greatly to be honoured for this fact!

  34. The comments here are so good that I keep feeling myself compelled to say more.

    The essay was motivated by two simple ideas: (1) That our sole reason for thinking there is a moral universe is our collective experiences of it and performances within it; (2) That we have good, tangible reasons for thinking this experience is manufactured and our performances are fraudulent.

    Superficially, this would seem like the garden variety skeptical situation: (1a) We have experiences of and act within an external world; (2) We have reasons to doubt the existence of and performances in that world.

    And yet, I found that while a deference to common sense — Hume’s willingness to step outside the study, play a game of backgammon, walk out into the world — was sufficient to, as Hume puts it, “dispel” those doubts, to chase them from my mind, the same was not the case with the ethical. There I found such deference unsatisfactory.

    The essay only scratches the surface of why. I feel as if there is a lot more there. Something deeper. But it eludes me. Or at least, it eludes me sufficiently at this point to fully articulate.

    I actually think that there is more to be mined in that used car salesman example. A lot more. Indeed, everything may lie in that example.

    There is something about deliberate human fraud that legitimates a kind of doubt that resists even statistical comfort. I am struck by the idea — in my view clearly correct — that not only is it not unreasonable never to return to the used car dealership or even perhaps, any other, even if statistically there is no reason to think it likely that future salesmen will be crooks, but that you’d be an utter fool if you did. And yet, if your eyes tricked you once into thinking that something was there that wasn’t, you’d be equally foolish never to trust them again because of it.

    What started me down this road actually wasn’t Nietzsche or Freud. It was Ted Haggard. There’s something about the fact that the biggest moralizers so often to turn out to be complete, utter moral frauds that seems to invoke doubt in a way that the sort of fallibility and error that Descartes points out — even if it does so systematically — does not.

  35. In Nietzsche, silly! It’s not my view!

  36. Incidentally, Labnut, the reason I’m up and responding to you in real time is because I had a pretty terrifying nightmare and am forcing myself to stay up a bit, so I won’t slide back into it!

  37. labnut

    I would do what you suggest in a second, if Harris would deign to have me.

    Please don’t give that idiot another platform for his bigotry.

  38. labnut

    I had a pretty terrifying nightmare and am forcing myself to stay up a bit, so I won’t slide back into it!

    I am so terribly sorry to hear this and hope you recover your equanimity. I had assume you were in Europe, perhaps attending a seminar.

  39. Oh, it’s OK! In fact, it will probably serve as the basis for a short story. Bad dreams often do!

  40. labnut

    Perhaps, in a “healthy” person, the skepticism always gives way to the Intuitionism and then back again. Hence the two sides of the same coin. But what seems clearly (!) ruled out is a kind of neat trip from experience into theory.

    I agree completely with what you say and this was the point of my first comment when I said that that each of us, in our behaviour reflected the two sides of the same coin. We vacillate, or oscillate between these two modes of behaviour. Scepticism is healthy when it is practised as an excursion, followed by a trip back to reality. It is toxic when scepticism becomes the normal mode.

  41. Indeed, I don’t think the skepticism is sustainable in a healthy person. That said, I don’t think said healthy person can be entirely satisfied with the return to intuition, in the manner that one is with external world skepticism.

    Put another way, in a healthy person, external world skepticism remains forever a background consideration, while ethical skepticism perennially pushes its way back to the proverbial front.

  42. Hi Thomas, while the link you provided was interesting, and I agreed with many of the ideas expressed in the excerpted quotes, I ended up not agreeing with “pluralistic relativism” for the very fact he still maintains there *are* moral truths, defines a standard/goal that morality *is* about (which I don’t agree), and then sets out rules (even if general) which will be part of it (yet there is no reason they’d have to be).


    Hi Labnut,

    “The prevailing climate of moral scepticism enables this conduct. To call moral scepticism healthy, as EJ does, is to ignore all the potential consequences that flow from such an attitude.”

    Doesn’t this confuse moral skepticism with moral nihilism?

    I may doubt there are universal moral truths, I may doubt whether someone is truly advocating a moral position they actually believe in, and may even doubt whether I can be certain of all my underlying motives. But that does not generate a positive argument that anything can, much less should go.

    I can look at the very cases you mention and say, well I don’t like that for such and such a reason and try to fight it. And I can argue that they shouldn’t do it for X, Y, and Z. As a moral sceptic, I will still have my desires and concepts about how I’d like myself and others to act. All it stops me from saying is “don’t do it because it *is* bad.”

    And you miss the flipside. While there is no denying that many problems have come from people acting in a selfish manner, some deliberately against moral/social considerations, the largest problems we face today, globally, are from extreme moral realists (often absolutists).

  43. Hi Dan,

    While moral hypocrisy and lack of absolute self-knowledge helped ground doubts about moral claims, those were not the clinchers for me. And I don’t view people (including myself) as mostly acting as frauds or without relevant self-knowledge. I don’t *want” to view the world that way.

    The clincher for me was that even if we assume a solid interest in not being hypocritical, and perfect self-knowledge, we are still faced with limited decision making capacities in a multi-demand world. It is impossible in many situations to serve all so-called “moral” goals, and so one is forced to make decisions that are not optimal.

    I mean right off the bat, (and this gets to the quote Thomas gave) one is usually faced with a choice between serving individual or community interests. There is no objective or definitive answer for which should be served, but the choice must be made.

  44. Hi Dan, I forgot to add this bit from Hume about moral sceptics (from Enquiry)…

    “Those who have denied the reality of moral distinctions, may be ranked among the disingenuous disputants; nor is it conceivable, that any human creature could ever seriously believe, that all characters and actions were alike entitled to the affection and regard of everyone. The difference, which nature has placed between one man and another, is so wide, and this difference is still so much farther widened, by education, example, and habit, that, where the opposite extremes come at once under our apprehension, there is no scepticism so scrupulous, and scarce any assurance so determined, as absolutely to deny all distinction between them. Let a man’s insensibility be ever so great, he must often be touched with the images of Right and Wrong; and let his prejudices be ever so obstinate, he must observe, that others are susceptible of like impressions. The only way, therefore, of converting an antagonist of this kind, is to leave him to himself. For, finding that nobody keeps up the controversy with him, it is probable he will, at last, of himself, from mere weariness, come over to the side of common sense and reason.”

  45. labnut

    Put another way, in a healthy person, external world skepticism remains forever a background consideration, while ethical skepticism perennially pushes its way back to the proverbial front.

    There are two varieties. One is the gentler, milder, more thoughtful one called scepticism.
    Then we have the uglier, more aggressive version called skepticism

    Practitioners of the first are called sceptics while practitioners of the second are call skepticks.

  46. Yeah, except he’s an anti-realist. He thinks moral properties are simply positive and negative responses that we call “moral.” He doesn’t think there is a special faculty of moral sense.

  47. And I don’t view people (including myself) as mostly acting as frauds or without relevant self-knowledge. I don’t *want” to view the world that way.

    = = =

    Well, I do. And what I want has nothing to do with what’s true or false.

  48. Right now, America seems to have a President who lacks empathy and functions amorally, in such a way to suggest that he doesn’t think anyone actually believes what they say about ethics. That’s not moral skepticism, that’s moral nihilism.

    I think it’s important to recognize that moral skepticism does not necessitate moral nihilism or amoral behavior. I think the fear that it might has fueled much of the discussion on such matters over the past two centuries; but there’s no real logic to this.

    And moral skepticism can be occasionally quite useful. I was burned by a used car dealer once, and have never gone back there. On the other hand, one needs a car. So I’ve always gone into a used car deal since, remembering that the dealer has motivations I can’t fully trust – and don’t need to, as long as I am allowed to read the history of the vehicle in question and allowed to take it to an independent mechanic. (How did I learn to trust my mechanic? He doesn’t overcharge by much, and will sometimes do something off bill.)

    “Banks, once synonymous with honest, sober, careful business dealings” – they were? When was that?

  49. labnut

    Put another way, in a healthy person, external world skepticism remains forever a background consideration, while ethical skepticism perennially pushes its way back to the proverbial front.

    There is another way to look at it. Noah Hariri, in his book, Homo Sapiens, provided the simple, but penetrating insight, that all of culture and human ideas are a fiction. They have no real existence outside our brain. Thus money is a fiction, underpinned by agreement and tagged with a symbol.

    These fictions are vital fictions because they have enabled our species to work together for our mutual benefit, in a way that no other species can. As long as we agree to these fictions our society can function productively. As long as we agree on the fiction called money it has the power to enable trade. Damage the agreement in the fiction and trust collapses, with it trade and our well being. But fictions are fragile and impermanent because they only reside in our mind. They need to be kept alive and passed forward through generation to generation. They are like the balls of a juggler that must constantly be kept aloft and in ordered motion. Disturb the juggler or the ordered motion and the balls collapse to the floor. We have found ways to keep the fictions alive, giving them persistence and acceptance. We do this through tangible symbols, rituals and formalism. These representations of the fictions in our mind are what enable their persistence and our agreement on what they mean.

    Skepticism is so dangerous because it attacks these fictions, eroding their foundation by questioning their very existence. When that happens our trust in our fictions evaporates. Society cannot survive loss of trust in our fictions because it is our mutual belief in these fictions that holds us together.

    The disaster that was the Soviet Union and Maoist China happened because they destroyed the formalism, symbols and rituals that represented the fictions that held together their societies. They failed to replace the destroyed fictions and symbols with new, believable fictions and their associated symbols. The result was disintegration of their societies. Their response was to use force to replace cohesion. It did not work.

    Moral skepticism is right in the sense that our moral beliefs, like all others, are just another fiction. But they are a vital fiction for trust based cooperative functioning of society. Attack this fiction, call it into doubt, and you destroy trust. When you destroy trust you dissolve social cohesion and mutually beneficial behaviour. But we can’t call on force to replace social cohesion(at least not yet).

    That ugly thing called New Atheism, in an orgy of schadendreude, attacked and set out to utterly destroy one of the fictions that underpin moral behaviour, that is religion. But they failed completely to provide any alternative. If you destroy one fiction and fail to replace it with another useful fiction then you fall into the disastrous trap that was the Soviet Union and Maoist China.

    This is the fundamental dilemma that skepticks face. We need fictions. If you destroy one fiction you must replace it with another fiction. But skepticks cannot do that without being fundamentally hypocritical, since, after all, they are opposed to all fictions.

  50. labnut

    “Banks, once synonymous with honest, sober, careful business dealings” – they were? When was that?

    My very first, ever, job when I left school was with Barclays Bank. There I performed many functions in different parts of the company and there I encountered a strong culture of “honest, sober, careful business dealings“. This culture thoroughly permeated the company and left an indelible impression on me.

  51. labnut

    I think it’s important to recognize that moral skepticism does not necessitate moral nihilism or amoral behavior.

    No, it does not necessitate it, but it certainly enables it.

  52. Hi Dan, I agree that what one wants has nothing to do with what is true or false. But I gotta admit… I don’t want to view hypocrisy and lack of self-knowledge to be that extreme.

    If you do view it that way, doesn’t it make communication or trust not just hard, but something to be avoided?

  53. Dwayne: Only moral communication. My BS meter immediately starts ringing when people make moralistic arguments.

  54. Hi Labnut, your distinction between sceptic and skeptick is interesting. Is this your own idea, or have you seen it elsewhere?

    “No, it does not necessitate it, but it certainly enables it.”

    I’m still not clear how it enables it. You can criticize things you don’t like.

    More importantly, graft and corruption can run right through the most ardent moralist environments. The example Dan gave of what motivated his thinking was a good example. The people like that who were caught were moralists right up to, and even after, their being caught.

    Most enablement I have seen has not come from moral scepticism, but rather equally “moral” people people (usually friends and family) looking the other way or even helping, out of a sense of loyalty or duty (patriotism) to a person/organization/system.

  55. Hi Dan, ok that makes sense.

    How does this affect (or does it) more descriptive accounts or analyses?… here I am thinking of people like Aristotle. Obviously you would have issues with any teleological concepts underlying his position, but I’m just wondering if his kind of account also seems like someone trying to put one over on others or confused in some way.

  56. I don’t think it affects them at all. As I said, in the descriptive sense, deceitfulness occurs all the time and people dislike it for all sorts of reasons.

  57. Hi Labnut, in case I wasn’t clear in my last reply, I am arguing that moral scepticism offers less *enablement* because it offers less justification, rather than appeals to other “moral” categories/qualities. I believe, outside of admitting moral failure, this is commonly what I see going on. I can do X because good thing Y justifies it, and friends/family assist using the same justification.

  58. Hi Dan, and (I’ll make this the last one for the day) what of movements like Stoicism? That certainly is ending up with moralistic tones, though they seem to be trying to get at it via somewhat descriptive-style assumptions about human nature (which you know I disagree with). Eudaimonia sets of my BS detector, though I am willing to give some people the benefit of the doubt and consider them mistaken/confused, rather than hypocritical.

  59. Great essay Dan, and really good comments as well. The distinction between the grounds for moral theorizing and abstract theorizing was very helpful.

    This prompted me to do some targeted reading. I started with the Stanford encyclopedia entry on ethical intuitionism, and then a couple of David Wongs papers ( thanks Thomas ), and a review of his book ‘Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism’.

    I am able to grasp Wongs concepts more quickly then those from most analytical philosophical papers as I have some background in Taoism ( less in Confucianism, Mohism & Mencius). His general approach seems pretty reasonable to me, although he leans more heavily to the Confucianism aspects ( tradition & ritual ) than I would . It does make sense as a counterbalance to what he sees as an overemphasis in our culture on the individual which I think most of agree is a problem.

    One thing that confused me in the ethical intuitionism entry was the commitment that moral intuitions would have a universal quality ( assuming the person experiencing the situation had a proper knowledge base to interpret the situation correctly ). I am going by memory off one reading a few days ago, but I had a hard time accepting the case for universality.

    I agree with Dan that moralizing sends up red flags. I think this is due to the inevitable self deception that follows when one aligns oneself with fixed rules regarding right and wrong. This of course feeds the intuitions to respond as a repeating reflex to the broad category of the situation lacking responsiveness to the more subtle context sensitive aspects. The fixed commitments then only grow stronger over time and this also makes it continually more difficult to reflect on the motives behind ones posturing. Labnuts skep-tick was a good counterpoint to this. We can also go too far in the other direction with reflex like questioning. I think this suggests that it is useful to regularly look at where we tend to apply our skepticism. Hopefully it is at least equally to the things we want to believe compared to those we are motivated to dismiss.

  60. labnut,
    “‘I think it’s important to recognize that moral skepticism does not necessitate moral nihilism or amoral behavior.’ No, it does not necessitate it, but it certainly enables it.”

    Oh, come on. Contraceptives certainly ‘enable’ sexual promiscuity, but are certainly not reducible to this. If we allow others to have any agency, we must allow them a choice – otherwise we are no better than the Stalinist/Maoist autocrats of which you complain.

    And I do not accept that fetuses are human beings, so I discount your rants against abortion. Until a fetus becomes viable, it is a part of the woman’s body, and her rights supersede its. I’ll argue that and fight for it to my dying breath. The state has no right to cause harm to women who make that choice – not in the world I wish to live in.

  61. alandtapper1950

    Dan’s essay had two parts: a case for ontological scepticism about moral reality, and a case for (what I will call) cultural scepticism about morality. The cultural scepticism is fueled by observation that we often use morality for ends other than what it purports to be for. The ontological scepticism arises from our apparent inability to square moral claims with the “robust sense of reality” (Russell’s phrase) that science has imbued in us.

    (Is that a summary you’d accept Dan?)

    A counter-argument to the cultural scepticism is to contend that a thing can only be said to be misused if it is first agreed that it has a proper use. The cultural sceptic assumes that there is a proper use, and then contrasts the actual use with the proper use. This implies, I think, that the cultural sceptic can’t also be an ontological sceptic, since presumbly a thing can’t have a proper use if it has no actual existence.

    Paradoxically the ontological sceptic often tries to argue that the denial of moral reality has no real-world implications. The ontological sceptic (Hume for example) does not think that people are at all likely to cheat at backgammon. On this view morality has no ontological foundations but that lack has no cultural consequences. We all just behave as if morality were ontologically secure.

    These twists and turns in the argument are hard to keep track of.

    A different view (which I hold) is that actual real-world morality is necessary for social life. And since social life is real, so too is morality. This line of argument crosses the other two. It can allow that morality often gets misused, just as free-riders can exploit others’ willingness to trust and cooperate. But there are limits to this. We can’t all be free-riders.

    My view also needs to answer the ontological challenge. As I see it, this involves distinguishing between conceptual questions and real-world questions. Dan posed this point at the end of the essay: ‘Of course there is no trouble in knowing trivial analytic truths like “cruelty is wrong” and “deceit is wrong,” wrongness being semantically contained within the concepts of cruelty and deceit, as Mothersill is using these terms. The trouble is with knowing whether something — or anything — counts as cruel or deceitful, in the moral senses of these terms.’ He didn’t say enough on this for me to see his position clearly. What if we can reliably recognise that X is cruel and Y is deceitful?

    My view is that is that “moral properties” are real but they are complex. For example, the concept of murder can be used to correctly describe a certain action. The complex properties would be something like this: (a) a killing by (b) a competent human being of (c) another human being with (d) intent to kill or something like that but (e) not in self-defence or (f) in protection of others. Etc. You get the idea. Similar to how evidence is used in a court of law.

    Does this answer the robust sense of reality objection of the ontological sceptic? I think it does. But it leads into a further debate about the relation between concepts and their instantiation.

  62. Also, as to banks; labnut’s report is not consistent with the American experience, as first established in the 1930s, and re-enforced in 2008. And – perhaps unfortunately – our banks are far more influential than those of South Africa.

    My grandfather, who needed to take out a mortgage on his farm in order to survive the ’29 crash, put it simply: “Bankers are thieves.” Who am I to refute inherited wisdom of the kind on which labnut depends?

  63. In ethics, it is always possible to produce personal experience that contradicts theory. Unfortunately, it is equally possible to produce personal experience that not only supports theory, but which contradicts others’ experiences. It follow that experience informs theory, but theory is not reducible to experience. That’s a problem; but it is not resolvable by either experience or theory, but only through criticism.

  64. labnut

    Oh, come on.

    That kind of dismissive put-down has no place in thoughtful discussion. You should be ashamed.

  65. labnut

    Who am I to refute inherited wisdom of the kind on which labnut depends?

    Please watch the tone of your comments. They do not contribute anything useful. And report me accurately. Slanted distortion of my words degrade the conversation. Far from being ‘inherited wisdom’ this was my direct experience from working inside a very large bank, a branch of a UK bank, working in an identical manner but tailored, of course, to local law.

    ‘Inherited wisdom’ is decidedly not the same thing as direct experience. Discounting my argument by misrepresenting my words is not we expect in thoughtful discussion.

    Every company has its own implicit ethos, an internal company culture that drives the way it behaves. I was directly exposed to and imbibed this ethos. It made a deep impression on me and for that reason I decided to accurately report it.

    Rather than trying to deny an insider’s experience, by misrepresenting him, because it contradicts the your narrative, you should try to understand it and update your world-view accordingly.

  66. labnut

    Contraceptives certainly ‘enable’ sexual promiscuity

    That is a fatally flawed analogy and I am surprised you use such a defective analogy. Contraceptives have no kind of agency whereas we are talking about two different kinds of agency, moral realism and moral scepticism that feedback to each other.

  67. labnut

    And I do not accept that fetuses are human beings, so I discount your rants against abortion…. …

    Once again, your language is inappropriate. Please watch it.

    I won’t engage with your ‘assertions’ because I don’t think they are, in the slightest bit, realistic arguments, and because it will take us too far afield from the purpose of Dan-K’s essay. I will just note that there are very good answers to your objections, which we could examine on a more suitable occasion. To that I want to add that we need more of the philosopher’s attitude, ‘on the one hand this, on the other hand thus‘, tempered with a good dollop of goodwill.

  68. All right, everyone I think we’ve had enough of that. Chill.

  69. labnut

    With apologies to Dan-K, but I want to address the phenomenon more generally. The tone of the replies to my comments is the one we would ordinarily use to dismiss points of view that are impermissible. We do that because examination and discussion might legitimise or otherwise validate viewpoints that are generally agreed to be egregiously wrong. That is all very well and good but we should be aware of the danger of making the impermissible overly broad.

    The tone of the replies to my comments suggests that my claim, that abortion is a grievous moral wrong, is so impermissible that this viewpoint should be squashed.

    But is it impermissible to claim the grievous moral wrongs of abortion? It is now well agreed that it is impermissible to advocate, for example, for racism, sexism, pedophilia, genocide, etc. But these are clear moral wrongs where no moral arguments can be made for them and the moral arguments against them are well accepted.

    However the position is reversed when we consider abortion. There is a large proportion of thoughtful, sincere, well intentioned people who do make strong moral arguments that abortion is a grievous moral wrong, whereas the arguments for abortion are not so much moral but are based on practical considerations. So it cannot be considered to be impermissible for me to make that claim, even when you question the supporting arguments.

    It is possible and legitimate to differ on matters of moral judgement. The right reaction to these differences is to subject them to careful consideration, not to declare them out of bounds, in the manner of our reply. On the one hand this, on the other hand that.

  70. labnut,
    I certainly did not intend to come across as dismissive, and I’m sorry if I did. But I did want to remark the highly problematic relationship between experience and theoretical discussions where ethics are concerned. I have no doubt as to your experiences working in a bank; but I also have no doubt as to my grandfather’s experience dealing with banks. Both these experiences can inform philosophy of ethics, neither can be determinant for it. That’s one reason why philosophy of ethics trends toward the meta-ethical, and one of the reasons why a certain amount of moral relativism is inevitable.

    As to the abortion issue, you wrote: ” We even murder unborn infants on an industrial scale.” I decided not to let such loaded language pass without strong disagreement. Pro-choice is a moral stance, and a positive one, in my view. Here we have a conflict, not between the moral and the immoral/amoral (as you seemed to present it), but between two differing understandings of the moral.

    This moment should remind us that public discussion of ethics does not simply resolve itself in personal behavior, but in politics and law. If it were simply a matter of what the individual is to do, then only the individual need reflect on it. But in fact it is a matter of what the individual wants others to do (which of course resurrects the necessity and usefulness of rhetoric)..

    I value your input on morality, even though I often disagree with it. Personal experience does have important, and non-reducible, weight in discussions of ethics. And I have considerable sympathy with the way religious communities help provide means to deal with the perplexity and problems of the world. My personal ethics derive heavily from my Buddhist experience and commitments.

    But because public discussion of ethics resolves politically, I would think it wiser, philosophically, to consider and account for experiences other than my own, and respect interests other than my own.

    If I came across as not respecting yours, again I apologize. And the contraceptives analogy was not a good one, I agree; however, the point was that, while human invention or seemingly deviant thinking seems to contribute to a world more difficult or complex than those before us may have experienced, there are just some doors that, once opened, cannot be closed. The question is how to live with it.

    However I won’t back down from support for a woman’s right to choose; I owe that to the women I have known who have had to face that choice (regardless of the choice they ultimately made).

  71. labnut,
    I posted my reply before reading yours; I hope I have at least made clear my respect for your position although I disagree with it. However, I would ask the same in return; so one last note on tone: Implying that hundreds of thousands of women and the medical personnel assisting them are murderers strikes me as going a bit too far. You don’t like your remark to be considered ‘ranting,’ fair enough; but I don’t like to be referred to as a murderer, however obliquely. Believe it or not, “There is a large proportion of thoughtful, sincere, well intentioned people who do make strong moral arguments that abortion” is *not* a “grievous moral wrong,” but that denying a woman the right to choose over her own body and future would be.

    “Until a fetus becomes viable, it is a part of the woman’s body, and her rights supersede its. (…) The state has no right to cause harm to women who make that choice.” Despite your dismissal, this is a reasonable and realistic position to take, and a moral one, not a matter of “practical considerations.” It may in the end prove mistaken; but it stands on solid ground.

    At any rate, I consider myself under ethical obligation to maintain and defend that position, as remarked in my previous comment.

    You are right that further direct discussion on that would draw us too far afield from Dan’s essay. What is pertinent here is to recognize that the debate is between two different moral visions, not between a moral vision and something not. That we can have two very different moral visions develop within a single culture itself reveals the difficulties in philosophically adjudicating issues of moral realism or moral skepticism.

  72. labnut

    You are right that further direct discussion on that would draw us too far afield from Dan’s essay.

    Yup, it will and so I will leave you with the last word(quite unusually 🙂 )

    But I will go with just one general pointer. A long time ago I made some remark to Massimo about the sacredness of human life. He shot back with a sniffy reply that life was definitely not sacred. Huh?? And then I thought about it(good idea, hey?). This represents a fundamental gulf between the Christian and the secular world where we regard human life as sacred and the secular world does not. And this really represents the gulf between you and I. If you understood the reasons why I regard human life as sacred then you might understand my revulsion at the taking of the lives of unborn infants. But I suspect you really don’t understand why we regard human life as sacred. To bridge the gap between you and I this needs to be explained.

    But this should be left for a better occasion. Until then, may we continue to enjoy the delightful stimulus of philosophical sparring 🙂 I always learn something valuable from it.


    Wonderful essay, on a subject that has recently strongly engaged my interest (as I am about to embark on a Philosophy PhD program at 71). Every time ask myself, “I wonder if anybody has written on X subject, e.g. the relationship between moral philosophy and the state of actual “moral” behavior in the world,” someone has. No surprise, of course; philosophizing has been going on (in the western world) for over 2500 years…Regardless, really enjoyed the essay, which I found very compelling. Thanks.

    Sent from my iPad


  74. labnut

    Interestingly enough, Massimo has just posted an essay titled “is compassion possible, or advisable, for a Stoic?

    He makes the point
    Her response could have come straight from Epictetus: you practice, every day, a combination of inner detachment and outward empathy

    and continues by saying
    This may sounds superficially like hypocrisy, but it is actually compassion.

    What a strange sleight of hand he practises! Something that is not felt as compassion but presents itself as compassion is most assuredly hypocrisy. This is directly relevant to the debate about moral skepticism because only moral skeptics could justify such moral contortions.

    He is talking about doctors, who admittedly face very trying circumstances in this regard. We demand of the medical profession that they show compassion, and for good reason. This compassion is instrumental to the healing process. Nevertheless their compassion must not overwhelm their capacity for delivering effective treatment. Good doctors learn to control and direct their compassion towards delivering better treatment. Doctors who remain detached but merely pretend compassion cannot reliably maintain this masquerade. The strain is too great and thus we have the all too common spectacle of doctors who lose patience with their patients, treating them dismissively, informing them poorly, failing to listen to them and thus ultimately compromising their care. Compassion cannot be reliably feigned. It must be felt. This illustrates the distance between moral skepticism and moral realism.

  75. Hi Labnut,

    “This is directly relevant to the debate about moral skepticism because only moral skeptics could justify such moral contortions.”

    First, stoics are not necessarily moral skeptics, and Massimo has gone back and forth as to whether he is a realist. Not sure where he is now. Second, I am an anti-realist and nothing you said is required by, or only makes sense within a skeptical or anti-realist framework. Where would you get a skeptic demanding anything (theory-wise) about having to stay detached?

    “Compassion cannot be reliably feigned. It must be felt. This illustrates the distance between moral skepticism and moral realism.”

    That first sentence makes sense to me. The last one does not. Not only can a moral skeptic hold that view, a moral realist can demand action without compassion. Kant comes to mind.

  76. There is a pretty in-depth discussion on Owen Flanagan’s new book ‘The Geography of Morals’ at this link:

    Flanagan and other philosophers are among the discussants, and the issue of judging moralities of different cultures is in the forefront of the discussion. Thought some here would be interested.