Morality and the Human Condition, #6–Moral Skepticism.
By Robert Hanna
Table of Contents
II. The Standard Conception of Morality
II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question
II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality
II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality
III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality
III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality
III.3 Moral Skepticism
III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism
IV. Morality and Religion
IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory
IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?
IV.3 Religion and Morality
V. Three Classical Moral Theories
V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics
V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition
V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics
V.2 Millian Utilitarianism
V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism
V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles
V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas
V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics
V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section
VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism
VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About the Meaning of Life
VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About the Meaning of Life
VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?
VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation
VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism
VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd
VII.3 Camus and Affirmation
VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity
VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity
VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?
VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom
VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers
VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics
VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity
IX. The Nature of Death
IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”
IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death
IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death
X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality
X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality
X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing
X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality
X.4 Human Life Without Immortality
This installment contains section III.3.
But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.
III.3 Moral Skepticism
Moral skepticism challenges the very idea of absolutely universal and objective moral principles and values.
One way of being a moral skeptic would be to deny that there are any absolutely universal moral principles or values.
Another way of being a moral skeptic would be to deny that there are any objective moral principles or values.
And a third way of being a moral skeptic would be simply to claim that morality according to the standard conception is bad and bogus.
Nietzsche, especially in his exceptionally influential 1886 book, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, is a moral skeptic of the third kind.
The exceptional influence of that book and of Nietzsche’s writings more generally, largely flows from the fact that he was a brilliant literary philosopher who wrote polemical essays, brief striking remarks, and poetry rather than logically-organized essays or treatises, and therefore his work was being read by all kinds of philosophers and non-philosophers alike, not just by professional academic philosophers.
He’s not only brilliant, he’s also highly controversial — definitely a philosophical bad-ass — and as a consequence he’s often regarded as intellectually and morally “highly dangerous”; hence it’s also not entirely irrelevant that he went mad and died from the effects of syphilis.
Nietzsche’s version of moral skepticism says
(i) that morality according to the standard conception is bad and bogus because it is life-denying or nihilistic, psychologically unhealthy, uncreative, and weak (or otherwise put: it’s slavish), and
(ii) that whatever the life-affirming or vital, psychologically healthy, creative, and powerful person says is right, is right (or otherwise put: it’s masterly).
Here’s Nietzsche’s basic argument for these two “highly dangerous” theses.
(1) God does not exist and physical nature is universally driven and governed by “the will to power,” which, in human animals, is the purely natural urge to satisfy basic desires, experience lots of pleasure, survive and be healthy, reproduce, be creative by expressing oneself as fully as possible, and above all, be powerful.
(Notice the parallels between Nietzsche’s view and 19th century Romanticism, Darwinian evolutionary theory — especially social Darwinism, and Freudian psychology.)
(2) Morality according to the standard conception — as represented historically by, e.g., Socrates, Christianity, or Kant — says that we ought to repress or suppress the will to power in us (whether by having a virtuous character, or by obeying God’s divine commands, or just by thinking, choosing, and acting according to our “human, all-too-human” capacty for rationality), and choose or do the right thing instead.
(3) So morality according to the standard conception is life-denying or nihilistic, psychologically unhealthy, uncreative, and weak: or otherwise put, acceptance of it is slavish.
(4) So morality according to the standard conception is bad and bogus.
(5) In order for us to be life-affirming, psychologically healthy, creative, and powerful human animals, we should reject morality according to the standard conception: or otherwise put, we should be masters, not slaves.
(6) Therefore, not only is morality according to the standard conception bad and bogus, but also whatever the life-affirming or vital, psychologically healthy, creative, and powerful (or: masterly) person says is right, is right.
But is Nietzsche right about morality?
In at least one respect, his version of moral skepticism is quite difficult to argue against, since it rejects logical and moral rationality itself.
But one line of argument that a defender of the standard conception of morality can pursue, for the purposes of a reductio ad absurdum argument, is to grant to Nietzsche, as a supposition, his own starting-point, namely his naturalism and the Will-to-Power, and then point out that physical nature is driven and governed every bit as much as or even more than by forces of chaos, destruction, organismic death, and entropy or heat-death (as it were, Dark Side nihilistic forces), as it is by life-affirming or vital, psychologically healthy, creative, and powerful forces.
And in fact Schopenhauer, who originally developed the idea of a Wille zum Leben, or Will-to-Live, on which Nietzsche based his own notion of the Will-to-Power, and whose work I’ll discuss later in this course, thought of nature as essentially chaotic, destructive, and deadly.
So by Nietzsche’s own Schopenhauer-inspired line of reasoning, then, it’s the master morality that’s doomed to self-destruction and failure, and the slave morality that’s vastly more likely to survive and be successful in the long run.
Therefore, Nietzsche’s view is self-stultifyingly inconsistent and false by reductio.
I mentioned at the beginning of this section that according to the first two kinds of moral skepticism, one can either deny that there are any absolutely universal moral principles or values, or else deny that there are any objective moral principles or values.
It’s this specifically anti-objectivist tack that John Mackie takes in his influential book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.
Of course, it also follows from the rejection of all objective moral principles or values, that there are no absolutely universal and objective moral principles or values.
But notice that it would not follow from the assertion that there are no absolutely universal and objective moral principles or values, that there are no objective moral principles or values.
As we saw above, there could still be some fairly universal and objective moral principles, and of course, correspondingly, there could also still be some fairly universal and objective moral values.
Now Mackie offers three basic reasons for denying the objectivity of all moral beliefs, claims, or judgments.
First, he appeals to the fact of individual and cultural/communitarian differences in moral beliefs/claims/judgments, and how they contradict one another.
This of course is similar to the first two steps of the classical argument for moral relativism.
Second, he says that if there really were objective moral truths or values, then they would have to be metaphysically and epistemologically “queer” because they would not be natural facts, hence they would be neither knowable in ordinary ways through sense perception or the sciences, nor explicable in the ways we normally do in the sciences.
And third, he says that the commonsense belief in objective moral truths or values can be explained away by appealing to an “error theory” of how such a belief came to be.
An error theory of the belief in some supposed fact X says
not only (i) that X is actually bogus and a myth,
but also (ii) that we can offer a scientifically acceptable explanation — via, e.g., evolutionary psychology — of how a belief in the bogus and mythical X came to be widely held.
The basic idea here is that we can use the psychological fact of “unconscious projection” together with, e.g., a theory about evolutionary mechanisms, in order to explain how our own desires, needs, and wishes to have objective moral truths and values, have unconsciously led us to project them onto the world, even though they do not actually exist there.
Is Mackie’s version of moral skepticism correct?
On the one hand, he has formulated his claims and arguments very carefully, so (although for diametrically different reasons than the ones that made refuting Nietzsche somewhat difficult, i.e., Nietzsche’s rejection of logical and moral rationality) it is not at all easy to find decisive, simple objections to Mackie’s basic reasons for skepticism.
E.g., refuting the “queerness” argument would require an all-out critique of scientific naturalism; and refuting the “error theory” argument would require an all-out critique of philosophical debunking strategies.
To be sure, there’s no a priori reason whatsoever to think that both critiques could not be successfully carried out,[i] but they would of necessity be fairly long-winded and rationally strenuous, and “too much like hard work” for a short course.
On the other hand, however, one way of decisively and simply demonstrating that Mackie is incorrect would be to provide a crisp, compelling, positive argument for the existence of at least some absolutely universal and objective moral principles and values
So here’s my best shot at that.
(1) There are at least some moral rules that every individual and every culture or community whatsoever must believe and hold in common, at least implicitly, hence even if not self-consciously. I’ll call such rules strictly common moral rules. One such strictly common moral rule is this one, which (with ironic allusion to the so-called Golden Rule) I’ll call The Platinum Rule:
“It’s impermissible to kill any or all arbitrarily-chosen innocent people for no good reason whatsoever.”
Another such strictly common moral rule is this one, which I’ll call The Platinum-Plus Rule:
“It’s impermissible to treat any or all arbitrarily-chosen innocent people either as mere means to others’ ends or as mere things, like garbage or offal, for no good reason whatsoever.”
(2) That these moral rules — namely, The Platinum Rule and The Platinum-Plus Rule — are indeed strictly common is shown by the following.
Any individual who, or any culture/community that, attempted to disbelieve or disobey one of these moral rules would also have to believe that it is morally permissible to kill herself or anyone or everyone else in their own culture, even though they are innocent, as the result of an arbitrary choice, for no good reason at all, and also that it’s morally permissible to treat herself or anyone or everyone else in their own culture/community, even though they are innocent, either as a mere means or as a mere thing, like garbage or offal, as the result of an arbitrary choice, for no good reason at all.
But, clearly and distinctly, the very idea of the innocence of a person entails, at the very least, that she doesn’t morally deserve in any way to be killed or treated either as mere means or as mere things, like garbage or offal, as the result of an arbitrary choice, for no good reason whatsoever.
So violating The Platinum Rule and The Platinum-Plus Rule would imply that it is morally permissible to treat oneself or anyone or everyone else, insofar as they are innocent people, in ways that are not morally deserved in any way, or on the basis of any good reasons whatsoever, as the result of an arbitrary choice.
But that is absurd and the moral equivalent of “1=0.”
Therefore, The Platinum Rule and The Platinum-Plus Rule must be believed or obeyed, at least implicitly and even if not self-consciously, by every individual and every culture whatsoever.
So they are strictly common moral rules.
Moreover, the moral and rational force of these strictly common moral rules should be directly compared to the logical force of Minimal Non-Contradiction.
(3) The best overall explanation for these strictly common moral rules is that they express absolutely universal and objective moral principles and values.
(4) Therefore, there are at least some absolutely universal and objective moral principles and values.
Correspondingly, Mackie’s version of moral skepticism must be incorrect.
[i] And in fact I’ve tried to do that: see, e.g., R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015) (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 5), ch. 7, also available online in preview, HERE.
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