16

In this question, I will make a slippery slope argument. It's probably fallacious, but your task is the identify the point where one step does not inevitablly lead to the next step and explain why not. Here are the steps to the argument:

  1. Skepticism asserts that "knowledge is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by any stronger reason." (Via Descartes.)

  2. All ethical principles are based on convictions that specific actions are either morally good or morally evil.

  3. Different people hold different ethical principles such that one might say a particular action is morally good and another will say that the same action is morally evil. Therefore, each has some reason (however slight) to suspect that their own principle is wrong.

  4. People hold their particular set of ethical principles largely because they learn these principles from outside influences such as parents, culture, religion, friends, etc. Even people who claim to hold absolute ethical principles acknowledge that the reason they hold them is external, generally inaccessible, and accepted on faith by necessity.

  5. Unless skepticism is able to show that a legitimate source of ethical principles exists, we can not know absolutely whether an action is morally good, morally evil, or morally neutral.

  6. Absent the knowledge of morally good and morally evil actions, the best a skeptical ethical system can achieve is some form of moral relativism whether:

    a. Descriptive

    b. Meta-ethical

    c. Normative

    d. Or some other scheme based on observation of human behavior.

It seems that Descartes himself halted the slide at point #5:

I recognize that it would be impossible for me to exist with the kind of nature I have — that is, having within me the idea of God — were it not the case that God really existed. By ‘God’ I mean the very being the idea of whom is within me, that is, the possessor of all the perfections which I cannot grasp, but can somehow reach in my thought, who is subject to no defects whatsoever. It is clear enough from this that he cannot be a deceiver, since it is manifest by the natural light that all fraud and deception depend on some defect. (Med. 3, AT 7:51f)

  • What a great question! – Joseph Weissman Dec 6 '11 at 18:58
  • It seems like the initial assertion is that once you believe in something, better information can't change your mind. That's poor reasoning. – Hack Saw Dec 7 '11 at 17:57
  • 2
    Point four is also problematic. Ethical principles might be taught and taken on faith as a child, but that doesn't mean it remains that way for the rest of one's life. Some portion of the population has spent time examining these principles, and tying them to experience, perhaps weakening or strengthening the principle as a result. The key is figuring out why we want ethics. – Hack Saw Dec 7 '11 at 18:13
  • 1
    @Hack Saw: Yes. I said it was (likely) an invalid slippery slope argument. Your task is to identify the point where we can stop the slide. If you submit a full answer, perhaps I can understand your objection to point 4. (It sounds like a valid criticism, but it should be fleshed out in a space that facilitates it better than the comments to the question.) – Jon Ericson Dec 7 '11 at 20:25
  • Rational ethics based on skepticism can reproduce moral God, so there is no problem. Moral God is an emergent phenomenon in game-playing, and it is neither mysterious, or certain a-priori, or obvious, or magical, or supernatural. – Ron Maimon Apr 16 '12 at 5:33
6

No fallacy; the reasoning is relatively sound, although the manner in which the issue is framed is a bit confused (from a traditional philosophical perspective.)

Skepticism is generally used in an epistemological context, not in an ethical one. This is not necessarily a problem, since most ethical theories have some reliance on knowledge.

For the purposes of this discussion, I think we can safely say that a non-relativist ethical system would have to be foundationalist; put another way, if we wish to avoid ethical relativism, we are required to have some privileged foundation for our ethics.

So, the challenge then would be to come up with some kind of ethical foundation which would rise to the skeptical challenge.

Naturally, if you side with the skeptics, this effort is going to come up short, and one is then left with some form of moral relativism.

It is worth noting, of course, that "moral relativism" in this context does not mean "everyone is free to do what they want to", any more than skepticism means that we are completely without knowledge.

  • 2
    Your final paragraph would be a interesting followup question. ;-) (My question was inspired by an article that suggests that without a traditional ethical philosophy, people will not be able to make moral judgments at all.) – Jon Ericson Dec 6 '11 at 21:08
  • @JonEricson: If you ask the follow-up, I'll be happy to answer it. – Michael Dorfman Dec 7 '11 at 9:58
  • Ok. (Its a longer question and more tenuous, but perhaps it will generate some good answers.) – Jon Ericson Dec 7 '11 at 20:26
4

People hold their particular set of ethical principles largely because they learn these principles from outside influences such as parents, culture, religion, friends, etc. Even people who claim to hold absolute ethical principles acknowledge that the reason they hold them is external, generally inaccessible, and accepted on faith by necessity.

This is a generalization. It sets up a strawman. That some people live unexamined lives doesn't mean everyone does.

All ethical principles are based on convictions that specific actions are either morally good or morally evil.

This, your point 2, is problematic for the same reason. Ethical principles might be based on the agreement of a particular set of goals, and not about convictions regard any specific action.

Unless skepticism is able to show that a legitimate source of ethical principles exists, we can not know absolutely whether an action is morally good, morally evil, or morally neutral.

Point 5 simply isn't an argument. It's an appeal for research. Its veracity depends on information not presented.

[added]

Different people hold different ethical principles such that one might say a particular action is morally good and another will say that the same action is morally evil. Therefore, each has some reason (however slight) to suspect that their own principle is wrong.

Your point 3. The conclusion doesn't come from the premise. That people disagree about a point doesn't naturally make one distrustful of one's own stance.

  • 1
    "Ethical principles might be based on the agreement of a particular set of goals, and not about convictions regard any specific action." This sounds like a restatement of moral relativism. If I understand correctly, you are saying that people can agree on goals and therefore actions are declared good or evil depending on whether they accomplish those goals. If so, that's not so much an objection to the argument as a short-circuit. But +1 for the other suggestions as they are worth pondering. – Jon Ericson Dec 9 '11 at 22:12
1

Yes (but does it matter?)

Full disclosure here: I am at best a descriptive moral relativist, and at worst a meta-ethical relativist.

I’d say that the argument is basically correct, but it combines various kinds of relativism, and the consequences aren’t nearly as dire as they seem.

  1. Skepticism will very likely lead to descriptive relativism, simply because that seems to be the world we live in. I’m not convinced that any of points 1-5 are relevant to this, because descriptive relativism simply is the recognition that different people have different opinions on morality. Assuming that a skeptic is convinced of the approximate validity of their perceptual information, they are almost certainly a descriptive relativist.

    • Skepticism will not lead to descriptive relativism if the skeptic is skeptical of the validity of their external perception. Perhaps they are unwilling to believe that they are not being deceived by some omnipotent demon. In such cases, the skeptic may entertain the possibility that whatever the real moral opinions of people are, they’re all the same.

    • Skepticism will not lead to descriptive relativism if the skeptic is a solipsist, since they can be no disagreement when only a single “individual” (however defined) exists.

  2. Skepticism will probably lead to meta-ethical relativism, because the skeptic will recognize that there exists no objective, physical basis on which to found their morality. As such, they will view morality as merely their opinion.

    enter image description here

But will it lead to normative relativism? Or relativism in a practical sense? That is, will it lead to all the ideas associated with moral relativism in the popular imagination: pursuing hedonism without regard for others, mandating that any action must be legal, and so forth?

No.

The skeptic will likely recognize their moral position (whatever it may be) as objectively arbitrary, but hold it nonetheless. If this seems incredible, consider how the average skeptical person views more minor preferences: say, for ice cream. They’ll accept there’s no objective reason to want ice cream (which, just as with morality, is not the same as saying there’s no scientific explanation for why people want ice cream), but you know what, they still want that ice cream!

Nor does skepticism prohibit moral reasoning. If we accept that a skeptic can hold an entirely arbitrary moral belief, while recognizing it as arbitrary, than surely they can combine that arbitrary belief with their knowledge of objective external reality to reach moral conclusions. Which again, they will acknowledge as arbitrary.

Further, skepticism does not, at its heart, change the nature of ethical reasoning. If an all-knowing God does indeed exist, a skeptic might well be convinced of that fact. But would that necessarily convince them to obey that deity’s dictates? Of course not. Morality isn’t necessarily made less arbitrary by the presence of an external source. There are plenty of non-divine external arbiters of morality that virtually all people accept as existing, but that won’t convince the average moral relativist that they represent, in some sense, “objective” sources of moral truth. I doubt even the most well-documented deity would, either.

Or, as another example, consider a roleplaying game like D&D. There exist objective moral planes, corresponding to peoples beliefs and actions, that are objectively eternal embodiments of certain moralities. But the mere existence of an eternal source of good doesn’t convince evil characters to change their ways. It’s just an objective fact of the universe. No matter how deeply woven into the universe morality turns out to be, a proper meta-ethical relativist won’t view that as making the idea of “should” or “ought” objective.

  • I think there is a categorical difference between ice cream preference (to take your example) and ethical stances. For one thing, we don't tend to fault people for different taste, but we do think people who habitually lie lack character (or however you want to phrase it). For that matter, when we fall short of the ethical standards we hold for ourselves, we often create justifications. I don't think many people do that when they discover they've outgrown tutti frutti ice cream. I think we tend to treat ethics as absolute if not objective. – Jon Ericson Jan 10 '18 at 8:22
  • @JonEricson - Or maybe people just don't take ice cream seriously enough. ;) – Obie 2.0 Jan 10 '18 at 19:27
0
+50

I'd say all your points come into question, for one need not suspect one's principle is wrong due of the sheer existence of others, since a moral stance can be dogmatic or deontological.

A rationalistic bias is revealed with the cited Cartesian assumption that arguments are based on rational premises rather than are reasoned from given premises, whether inherited or inferred.

The conclusion about moral relativism does not make the further distinction between a relativism and a particularism, wherein the latter allows for the repudiation of differing principles even if appreciating their rationales.

Furthermore, consequentialism may be applied in a deontological manner where it involves a consistent ritual or calculus for evaluating situations and disallows attempts at suasion.

  • 1
    To be honest, I don't understand this answer in the least. Concentrating on just the first sentence/paragraph, it seems like you are arguing that we are free to be skeptical of the moral stance of others, but are under no obligation to question our own assumptions. If we feel some action is a duty and someone else says that it is not, shouldn't we at least verify that we have reason on our side? Otherwise, why bother pretending to be a skeptic? – Jon Ericson Feb 3 '12 at 21:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.