On the Quora forum, there is a question called "Are Some People Better Than Others?" One answer contrasts an altruistic doctor with a selfish criminal, but concludes that there is no real reason to call one better than the other. Below are some excerpts I found especially interesting:

http://qr.ae/3nJEW: The point I was trying to make in the entire piece is that there's no rational grounds for truly objective ethics.

http://qr.ae/3nJV7: The truth is often not complicated at all. And this answer provides no truth. Only questions that can't be answered.
I believe that is the truth in this case. This question can't be answered, because it provides no context for "best," and "best" is a meaningless word without context.

http://qr.ae/3nV11: What does this have to do with some people being better than others? My claim is that there's no objective way to say that.

1. What's this kind of reasoning or philosophy or skill called?

2. How would I learn more about this on my own, because it revolutionized my thinking? Are there any apt books? In particular, I seek something written in this elementary, readable, simple format for lay amateurs like me, so nothing florid or ornate.

Before reading this, I would've wrongly justified my preference for the doctor with the narrator's exact false arguments (in regular font). The italics refer to Schmarcus, who prefers the criminal. This comment claims that the foregoing is 'like reading Epictetus' Discourses, but with fewer calls of "hang yourself". Is this true?

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    I am glad it was useful to you, but the argument presented is actually very weak. Its main form is argumentation through ignorance ("I win because you can't answer why!"), its conclusion would leave us baffled as to why people generally prefer doctors to thieves, and it incorrectly robs us of agency in either determining ourselves or influencing others. – Rex Kerr Jan 20 '15 at 20:51
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    (Just as an example, a counterargument to the opening: person X sees that you prefer the doctor to the thief and as, like most people, X likes being preferred, opts to go to med school instead of a life of breaking-and-entering. So it's not without consequence.) – Rex Kerr Jan 20 '15 at 20:54

I'll rewrite my answer;

Fist, a comment on the topic.

This question can't be answered, because it provides no context for "best"

Exactly; you can say something is best for something, but nothing is the best in absolute: not in only in ethics, but in every field.
I previously tried making a mathematical example, to make a point of ethics not being the only field in which this happens, but it ended up being nonsense so I'll try to make this point otherwise.
For example, you could say it's better to be healthy than being ill.
But what does that mean? That everyone would rather be healthy than being ill? Or, that being healthy is... just better? Ok, but better in what? If I'm given the choice between being healthy and being ill, are you saying that if I'm rational I'll always rather be healthy?
Well, that's not true; there are contexts in which being ill is better than being healthy, contexts in which my preference is guided by particular criteria that make being ill more desirable than being healthy.
For example, if I go to school and I catch a passing flu, I could be happy to stay at home for a few days. Certainly, I wouldn't be happy to stay at home forever, but I probably wouldn't be happy if I never ever got ill, not even once: for one, I could find difficulty in empathizing with ill people. Or, I could convince myself of being indestructible and do something stupid that could put my like at risk.
And this is not ethics, it's just semantics: nothing is "better" in absolute than anything else. There's no absolute because someone expressing his preference is immersed in some context anyway, so the preference is tied to that context.
This said, if we take "human life" in general as a context, we can still try to identify the subjective criteria upon which we call something good or evil;
For example, Kant would say that, to decide if an action is good or not, we can do this: imagine what the world would be if everyone did that thing. If that world would not be a desirable place to live in, that action is not good. So you shouldn't do it.
But one can find this answer not satisfactory, since it implies that lying is bad no matter what the situation, among other things, while there are plenty of circumstances when lying could be helpful or even save one's life.
The problem is that maybe "human life" is too large a context, and so, maybe there are no criteria that are better than others.
A skeptic would say this, but others would propose other arguments, trying to identify the nature of morality and criteria able to comment on every possible situation within "human life" in a satisfactory manner.
But this is another topic; about the original topic, I just have to say that nothing is better than anything else in absolute. And calling it "better" doesn't erase particular situations in which that something is not as desirable as other things, and doesn't make a situation in which there's only that something particularly desirable. Final example: let's say I like the color blue.
If I say it's better than any other color, in absolute, I would have to wear only blue, eat only blue things, paint my room blue, wear sunglasses that shade everything in blue, and so on. Because that's what "in absolute" means.
If I say it's better than any other color, according to my general preference, I'm just saying that when thinking about colors I like to think about the color blue. That's not saying "it's just better", and I still like a world filled with all the other colors and with people that prefer other colors.
Same way with people and their morals.

That said, your question asks about things to read and information about what that "reasoning or skill" is called; I don't feel I can answer those particular questions, because I'm not sure we're talking about a particular reasoning or skill to name, and I'm not knowledgeable enough to give recommendations that wouldn't make this answer flagged as spam (not that my confused writing doesn't help in that regard).
But I still tried to say something, since I feel that "there's no absolute better" is true in general just because semantics, even if there are philosophical standpoints that can resemble that statement.

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    Ok, thanks for the rewrite. It is much clearer now, I have upvoted it because it is useful although I think you could still condense it a bit, or at least use formatting more to your favor. In my understanding, what you are saying is basically that people need to examine what the context is when they are claiming one thing is better than another thing; nothing is inherently 'better' than something else, but rather it is better or worse based on context. You answer thus reasons against any sort of moral absolutism/universalism (in a sense). – stoicfury Jan 30 '15 at 21:58

This is Skepticism. Personally, I believe there are good arguments against it (and against the particular argument you reference), but since you didn't ask that, I won't outline any of them.

It's both one of the oldest and the most perennial philosophies, and elements of it are found in the work of many philosophers who aren't technically skeptics themselves, notably Socrates and Descartes. For instance, you might find Plato's Eurhyphro relevant, since it also deals with the question of moral surety.

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  • Another suggestion: look through the catalog of skeptical arguments that is Sextus Empiricus's Outlines of Pyrrhonism, then look at David Hume and A.J. Ayer for empiricist skepticisms, then look at a contemporary skeptic like Peter Unger (Ignorance). – ChristopherE Jan 20 '15 at 20:05

"Are some people better than others?" The question depends on the contextual usage of the word better. Better in what sense? I could, for example, say that Person P is better at singing than Person Q. Two reasons why someone would prima facie think that Person P's ability to sing better than Person Q. (1) It is enjoyable, and because it is enjoyable (2) society values better singing that Person P has. But Person P's ability to sing better than person Q bears no moral relevance whatsoever to Person Q, Person Q or Person N. To put it bluntly, it is morally irrelevant that Person P can sing better. The field of this question is moral philosophy. You might want to look at Rawls, Cohen and Dworkin. But more immediately you can look at Parfit and Nagel who address these kinds of questions more urgently.

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