What is Moral Skepticism?


Moral Skepticism is a meta-Ethical theory that holds that human beings do not have moral knowledge. Some Moral Skeptics hold an even strong position that moral knowledge is not even possible. If we agree that knowledge is ‘justified true belief’, Moral Skeptics would claim knowledge about moral claims can never be justified, and would therefore be only beliefs. In other words, they would make a distinction between what is belief and what is knowledge in the same way that epistemologists do; however, they would also claim that knowledge of moral facts would always fall short because knowledge about morality is never justified.

To be sure, Moral Skepticism is not a theoretical position that reject moral claims tout court. It does not claim that all morality is fabrication, that moral propositions are always false, or that there is no morality as such – these positions can be vaguely attributed to Moral Nihilism or Error Theory. Instead, Moral Skepticism is a kind of Skepticism that is linked to the study of Epistemology and historically to the Pyrrhonian Skepticism. One of the common sources on Skepticism in Epistemology is Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.

Nevertheless, Moral Skepticism has been conflated with Moral Nihilism and forms of Non-Cognitivism because all of these positions essentially rely on doubt about whether moral claims are ‘truth-apt’ – i.e. whether moral propositions can be true or false. Additionally, all of these positions stand in direct opposition to variations of Ethical theories in the Moral Realism camp. Furthermore, the conflation of Moral Skepticism with Moral Nihilism and Non-Cognitivism is not without warrant. Critics find it particularly hard to accept that claims about such things as slavery, Holocaust, child abuse, etc. should require further justification. They thus find Moral Skepticism to be an extremely dangerous form of denial of responsibility towards one’s actions or actions of others. A particularly well-formed critique is the ubiquity of Moral Skepticism – critics claim that any moral theory, independent of its merit, is possible to refute by simply adopting a Skeptics position. Another common criticism is that Moral Skepticism would lead to immoral behaviour, reminding of Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov: “If God is dead, everything is permitted.”

Unlike commonly believed, there are very few actual Moral Skeptics in the philosophical canon and the term is used as an extreme example that is not likely to have been held by any philosopher. While many Analytic philosophers have pointed towards Friedrich Nietzsche as one such example, it is hard to see where in his published work Nietzsche adopts such an extremely Skeptical position about morality or moral propositions. Nevertheless, there have been proponents of Error Theory, such as John Leslie Mackie, or theorists who hold a less extreme form of Moral Skepticism and commit to Skepticism insofar moral propositions can be said to ‘truth-apt’, such as A. J. Ayer and Simon Blackburn.

Types of Moral Skepticism

As stated above, Moral Skepticism varies in degree between complete denial and doubt about moral facts, whether knowledge of these can be justified, and whether morality is a fabrication in its entirety. One can assign three types or categories of Moral Skepticism:

  • Pyrrhonian Moral Skepticism – a view that holds that moral knowledge is to be doubted. Pyrrhonian Skeptics doubt both sides of the matter, that moral knowledge can be known and that moral knowledge is impossible. In other words, their skepticism is to such a degree that they do not commit to either possibility or impossibility of moral knowledge.
  • Dogmatic Moral Skepticism – a view that holds that moral knowledge is not attainable and that no one can know any moral facts. In particular, the proponents of this view stress that on accounts of epistemology as ‘justified true belief’, no one is justified in holding their beliefs about moral knowledge.
  • Practical Moral Skepticism – a view that holds that moral knowledge is not always attainable and that on some occasions we fail to know moral facts. Practical Moral Skepticism is not as much concerned with knowledge as it is with acting morally. Because universal claims have become an anathema in philosophy, a claim to always acting morally or that moral action is necessarily moral in itself (rather than reliant on self-interest, pleasure, etc.), proponents of this view deny that such reasons for acting morally are always present.

Further Reading

Ayer, A. J. (1952). Language, Truth, and Logic, New York: Dover.

Blackburn, S. (1993). Essays in Quasi-Realism, New York: Oxford University Press.

Descartes, R. (1996). Meditations on First PhilosophyJohn Cottingham (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mackie, J. L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, New York: Penguin.

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