A2 Moral Skepticism

Arguments Listed:

  • Value Assignment (Ross)
  • Risk Analysis
  • Inference to Best Explanation Epistemology (Sayre-McCord)


Value Assignment (Ross)

Skepticism makes no difference - it's impossible to be 100% confident that nothing matters because there are always reasons on both sides, so they have some value. But since nihilistic theories can’t assign value, ethical theories are still the most rational option.

Jacob Ross – July 2006. “Rejecting Ethical Deflationism,” Ethics 116.

Another kind of nondiscriminating theory is ethical nihilism. This is the view that the notions of good and bad and of right and wrong are illusions and that, objectively speaking, no option or state of affairs is better than any other, nor are any two options or states of affairs equally good. Thus, while uniform theories assign the same value to all of our options, [N]ihilistic theories don’t assign values to any of our options. Now suppose once again that I have a degree of credence of [1% credence] .01 in [an ethical theory] TL from the previous example, but this time I have a degree of credence of .99[%] in a nihilistic theory, TN. And again suppose that I must decide between sending the trolley to the right and sending it to the left. In this case we could reason as follows. According to [the ethical theory] TL, it would be better for me to send the trolley to the left than to send it to the right. And so my credence in TL gives me pro tanto subjective reason to send the trolley to the left. The only way this could fail to be the most rational option would be if my credence in [nihilism] TN gave me a sufficiently strong countervailing subjective reason to send the trolley to the right. But [nihilism] TN implies that there would be nothing valuable or disvaluable about either alternative. And so my credence in TN [it] gives me no subjective reason to favor either alternative. Hence the pro tanto subjective reason to send the trolley to the left is unopposed, and so this is the rational option. I would choose this same option if I were to deliberate on the basis of TL alone. Thus, taking into account TN has no effect on what I ultimately choose, and so TN can harmlessly be excluded from consideration in deciding how to act. That is, I can harmlessly reject the nihilistic theory and deliberate on the supposition that the [ethical] nondeflationary theory, T, is true.


Risk Analysis

The strength of ethical claims is measured by risk analysis – the probability of the theory being true multiplied by the impact that the action being discussed would have under that theory. Skepticism says that there is no impact to an ethical framework so whatever action happens under skepticism has no impact because nothing is good or bad. Thus, the impact of the action under skep is zero, so even if you’re 100% positive that skep is true, when you multiply that by zero the result of the risk analysis is still zero. However, I’m still extending part of my framework so there is a slight risk that the affirmative ethical theory is true. On top of that, the impact of negating is really bad under my ethical theory. Thus, the risk of the affirmative ethical theory is always greater than that of skepticism because the impact of skepticism is always zero. Even if there is only a fractional chance that my theory is true, that fraction will always be greater than zero so you always prefer the affirmative theory over skep.


Inference to Best Explanation Epistemology (Sayre-McCord)

NECESSARY LINK: see page Inference to Best Explanation True (Epistemology)

An epistemology consistent with inference to best explanation means that we reject moral skepticism.

Geoffrey Sayre-McCord [UNC/Chapel Hill “MORAL THEORY AND EXPLANATORY IMPOTENCE” Midwest Studies in Philosophy. 1988.]

As the Explanatory Criterion would have it, which hypotheses are justified, and which are not, will depend crucially on our standards of explanation, since it is by figuring in the best available explanations that a hypothesis finds justification. No argument that depends on the Explanatory Criterion will get off the ground unless some explanations are better than others. This poses a dilemma for those who suppose that the Explanatory Criterion will support the wholesale rejection of evaluative facts. Either there is a fact of the matter about which explanations are best, or there is not. If there is, then there are at least some evaluative facts (as to which explanations are better than others); if not, then the criterion will never find an application, and so will support no argument against moral theory. If we say that astronomers, and not astrologers, make the appropriate inferences from what is seen of the constellations, or that evolutionary theorists, and not creationists, have the best explanation of the origin of our species, we will be making value judgments. In trying to legitimize these judgments by appealing to our standards of explanation, a reliance on values becomes inescapable (even if the values appealed to are not themselves mentioned in our explanations). The obvious response to this point is to embrace some account of explanatory quality in terms, say, of simplicity, generality, elegance, predictive power, and so on. One explanation is better that another, we could then maintain, in virtue of the way it combines these properties. When offering the list of properties that are taken to be the measures of explanatory quality, however, it is important to avoid the mistake of thinking the list wipes values out of the picture. It is important to avoid thinking of the list as eliminating explanatory quality in favor of some evaluatively neutral properties. If one explanation is better than another in virtue of being simpler, more general, more elegant, and so on, then simplicity, generality, and elegance cannot themselves be evaluatively neutral. Were these properties evaluatively neutral, they could not account for one explanation being better than another. If we are to use the Explanatory Criterion, we must hold that some explanations really are better than others, and not just that they have some evaluatively neutral properties that others do not. Any attempt to wash evaluative claims out as psychological or sociological reports, for instance, will fail -- we will not be saying what we want, that one explanation is better than another, but only (for example) that we happen to like one explanation more, or that our society approves of one more. What the Explanatory Criterion presupposes is that there are evaluative facts, at least concerning which explanations are better than others -- regardless of whether these facts explain any of our observations. Even assuming that the Explanatory Criterion presupposes the existence of some evaluative facts, the question remains whether we have any good reason for thinking there are moral facts as well. We might be convinced that some explanations really are better than others, but still deny that some actions, or characters, or institutions, are better than others. Significantly, though, once it has been granted that some explanations are better than others, many obstacles to a defense of moral values disappear. In fact, all general objections to the existence of value must be rejected as too strong. Moreover, whatever ontological niche and epistemological credentials we find for explanatory values will presumably serve equally well for moral values. 25 22 Without actually making the argument, I shall briefly sketch one of the ways one might defend the view that there are moral values. The aim of such an argument would be to show that some actions, characters, or institutions are better than others -- just as some explanations are better than others. This defense of moral values rests on recognizing and stressing the similarities between the evaluation of actions, and so on, and the evaluation of explanations. The crucial similarity is that in defending our evaluations (whether of actions, institutions, or explanations) we must inevitably rely on a theory that purports to justify our standards of evaluation as over against other sets of (moral or explanatory) standards. In both cases, we will be engaged in the process of justifying our judgments, not of explaining our experiences. The analogy to keep in mind here is not that between moral theory and scientific theory, but that between moral theory and scientific epistemology. 26 Since we must regard certain evaluative claims (those concerning which explanations are better than others) as true, we will be justified in believing those parts of value theory that support our standards of explanatory value. Just as we take the explanatory role of certain hypotheses as grounds for believing the hypotheses, we must, I suggest, take the justificatory role of certain evaluative principles as grounds for believing the principles. If the principles are themselves not reasonably believed, they cannot support our particular evaluations of explanations; and if we can have no grounds for thinking one explanation better than another, the Explanatory Criterion will be toothless. Thus, if evaluative facts are indispensable (because they are presupposed by the Explanatory Criterion), we can invoke what might be called inference to the best justification to argue for abstract value claims on the grounds that they justify (and at the same time, explain the truth of) our lower-level epistemological judgments. And these very same abstract evaluative principles might well imply lower-level, distinctly moral, principles and particular moral judgments. If so, then in defending moral values, we might begin with evaluations of explanations, move up (in generality and abstraction) to principles justifying these evaluations, then move back down, along a different justificatory path, to recognizably moral evaluations of actions, characters, institutions, and so on. That is, to argue for a given moral judgment (for example, that it is better to be honest than duplicitous), we might show that the judgment is justified by some abstract evaluative principle that is itself justified by its relation to our standards of explanatory quality (which are indispensable to our application of the Explanatory Criterion). In this way, particular moral judgments and more general moral principles might find their legitimacy through their connection with the indispensable part of value theory that serves to justify our judgments of explanatory quality.