–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

The Special Standing of Moral Skepticism

by | Jun 13, 2024

I want to describe a kind of moral skepticism that I believe enjoys special standing. It is skeptical, insofar as it denies that there are good reasons for believing that moral properties are real (in the realist’s sense of the term). It has special standing, because unlike general skepticism – by which I mean, skepticism about the external world – the doubts it describes are real, not hypothetical, and derive not from the exploitation of formal gaps in the logic of justification or the mere contemplation of human fallibility, but from reflection upon the substance of actual moral practice. Certainly, there are moral experiences and moral performances (or at least, there are experiences and performances that we call “moral”) that represent the basis for any theorizing that we care to do on the subject. But whether there is anything beyond those experiences and performances – some independent “moral reality” – is something about which there is good reason to doubt.  

Consider the following two statements, uttered or written on a particular occasion:

(a)  I want you to do such and such.  

(b)  You ought to do such and such.

When confronted with a person who has just said or written (b), what reason do we have to believe that he isn’t really thinking (a); that is, that his real motivation isn’t desire, rather than the belief that a moral obligation is at stake?

I can think of two good reasons for wondering about this.  

First, a person can more readily obtain what he or she wants from another person by attributing some sort of necessity to it, and to suggest that something is a moral obligation conveys just such a sense of necessity. The advantage that comes from telling me that I ought to do such and such, rather than simply saying that you’d like me to do such and such, is similar to the advantage that comes from telling someone that you need something rather than saying that you want it.

The necessity conveyed by the language of obligation, like that conveyed by the language of need, lends our writing and speech an aura of urgency that the language of mere wanting lacks. It accomplishes this in two steps: first, by suggesting (sometimes explicitly, sometimes obliquely) that the reason one “ought” or “needs” to supply the desideratum is in order to satisfy some way that things are supposed to be; second, by trading on the common instinct that opposition to this carries with it some sanction; whether divine punishment, physical or psychological penalties (including the pangs of conscience that we experience), or social ostracisation of one kind or another.  

Philosophers have tended to paint these sanctions in more abstract strokes, whether in terms of a kind of diminished personhood — thinkers ranging from Aristotle, to Locke, to Kant have maintained that moral obedience is constitutive of the very idea of being a person — or even less tangibly, in terms of suffering “a less valuable existence,” as Robert Nozick described it in Philosophical Explanations (1981), because, as he put it, “it is better and lovelier to be moral.” But regardless of whether you think that the punishment for violating the Way Things are Supposed to Be involves damnation, mental or physical distress, being shunned by others, or some sense of personal diminishment, an implicit (and sometimes explicit) threat of punishment always accompanies invocations and intimations of moral necessity, and this largely explains the sense of urgency that they convey. Even where there is little or no explicit belief in the reality of punishment, there remains a kind of racial memory, from the days when everyone believed in the reality of some sanction or other, and this alone is sufficient to imbue the language of moral obligation with the desired force. So we have a very clear reason for wondering whether a person, in uttering (b), really means it: it is to this person’s advantage to pretend that what he wants me to do is a matter of moral obligation, since if he can convince me of this, he is more likely to get me to do it.

A second reason for wondering whether a person who utters (b) really means it is that it is common for people to misrepresent their motives, not out of a conscious intention to mislead others, but as a result of having already successfully lied to themselves. One’s fraudulent moral posture, in such circumstances, is not a product of scheming, but of self-deception.

It may have been Nietzsche who first made us aware of the degree to which our ostensible morality — the words and actions that we offer on behalf of benevolence, charity, selflessness, etc. — may be motivated, in fact, by a contradictory set of deeper feelings and desires, though in truth, it was probably St. Paul who first introduced this idea into the Western consciousness. But the weird class- and race-based conspiracies that Nietzsche posited as being responsible for this moral/psychic dissonance render his account unsuitable as a basis for sound moral skepticism. It is Freud and his theory of the unconscious and its relationship to our conscious thoughts and behaviors that provides us with a powerful and comprehensive framework with which to make sense of the idea of moral self-deception.

One can also usefully employ Marx along these lines, and it was Paul Ricoeur who, in his 1970 book, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, first identified a “school of suspicion,” led by the triumvirate of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, each of whom was devoted, in his own way, to exposing the “illusions and lies of consciousness.” And though Ricoeur rightly points out that the sort of unmasking promoted by these “masters of suspicion” was not ultimately intended as a basis for skepticism — since each also provided a hermeneutics, by way of which we might decode our misleading utterances and behaviors — it certainly lends support to a moral skepticism the roots of which lie in an analysis of common human behavior, and which focuses on the reasons for doubting the sincerity of peoples’ professed moral motives, postures, and other moral performances, including, importantly, our own.

Freud maintained that we adopt a moral posture as an act of repression, specifically, of our core desires — desires that are largely unconscious — because acting on them is alleged to be incompatible with social and civic life. The pressure to be morally obedient, then, is ultimately social: In Freudian parlance, the Ego confronts the Id with the demands of social and civic life (the so-called “Reality Principle”), while the Superego confronts it with the moral ideals of the local culture, as manifested to children in adult authority figures. In a very literal sense, then, when a person professes a moral reason for an action or a request for one, he is always misrepresenting his underlying motives and is largely unaware of doing so. Significantly, Freud depicts this repression as strenuous and difficult (in his 1917 Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, he describes it as an “unstable arrangement”), one that is often, even routinely, prone to failure. Not only, then, does the profession of a moral motive never reliably indicate that a person is really thusly motivated, it in no way insures that he will act in accordance with it, a fact that is amply demonstrated in everyday life, by everything from the ubiquitous, low-level moral inconsistency to which we are all prone to the most stunning displays of moral hypocrisy, in which it seems that the stronger, more insistent the moral postures and performances, the greater the fraud lurking beneath.

Some may want to resist these conclusions, on the grounds that Freud and psychoanalysis have been discredited, but one need not buy into any of the specific details of the Freudian story — the existence of faculties named ‘Ego’, ‘Superego’, or ‘Id’, for example — in order to sustain the substantive points, which have become a part of our common wisdom: that we are mysteries to ourselves as well as to others; that we are complex and conflicted; that we are much more selfish than we let on or are even aware of ourselves; and that we pose and posture for our own as well as popular consumption. Consequently, our public behavior and speech, as well as our internal conversations with our own alter-egos and consciences, are as likely to mislead as they are to provide a real picture of our actual motives.

At this point, I can imagine a moral philosopher protesting that nothing that I have said provides the slightest argument for moral skepticism. That we don’t always mean what we say doesn’t mean that we never do, and even if we never tell the truth in reporting moral motives, it doesn’t follow that moral properties do not exist. 

This is a standard move in philosophy and stems from our subject’s deep and longstanding commitment to abstraction, generality, and rationality, as well as its discomfort with particularity and contextuality and dislike for impulse and inconsistency. Someone who wouldn’t go back to a car dealership after being cheated just once by one of its salesmen, even though it “doesn’t follow” that all the other salesmen are crooks, will insist, without irony, that there are moral truths and that people rationally apprehend and act on them, even while being bombarded with examples of people who clearly are doing no such thing and in the face of modern psychology which undermines the sort of naïve treatment of human behavior that the typical moral philosophy requires.  

This attitudinal lurch is unsurprising once one realizes that for most moral philosophers, the fascination has always been with the theorizing itself and not with the practices that the theorizing is alleged to be about. For these people, Ethics is about the existence and nature of rightness and wrongness, goodness and badness, idealized actors, beneficiaries, and victims, justification, and other such abstractions, not actual people, their actual behavior, or their actual reasons for acting, so when that behavior and those reasons are revealed for what they are, as modern psychology tries to do, it is easy to simply ignore them or to point out that “nothing follows” with respect to ethical theory.

This is why it is essential that we understand that ethical theorizing is itself a human practice — a form of human behavior — with its own “genealogy,” by which I mean its own historically and psychologically grounded raisons d’êtres. Here, again, Nietzsche is crucial (though once again, the specific account he offers is bizarre and histrionic), for he made the point that our reasons for engaging in ethical theorizing may be as conflicted and contradictory as our reasons for making first-order moral claims and engaging in ostensibly moral behavior. Once we adopt a psychological model in accounting for this dissonance, as we have already done in our analysis of moral acts and utterances, we see immediately that there can be no refuge for the theorist from the disconfirming practical realities of daily human life in the tidy, comfortable back-rooms of ethical theory, since his own theorizing is as much a part of those practical realities as the moral speeches and behaviors, the implications of which he is trying to escape.

Nevertheless, philosophers have continued to insist on drawing this distinction between ethical theorizing and moral practice — Mary Mothersill did it in a particularly interesting way decades ago, in her essay “Moral Knowledge” (1959)  — and it is worth taking it at face value, if only as an exercise, because we will discover that our skeptic is still able to maintain his doubts about moral properties. Moreover, in seeing why, we will be afforded an important opportunity to discuss the ways in which moral skepticism differs from general skepticism.


The moral skepticism that I am describing proceeds on the basis of two points: First, as just discussed, we have tangible, realistic reasons to doubt our own and others’ sincerity when we profess moral motives, adopt moral postures, and engage in moral performances, and this includes when we engage in moral theorizing; Second — and the point to which I turn now — these professions, postures, and performances are the only reasons for thinking that there are any moral properties in the first place. Put another way, the belief that there are moral properties is exclusively the product of our collective behaviors and testimonies, which are convoluted, conflicted, and ultimately unreliable, for all the reasons we have discussed.

This second point is obvious in the kind of way that often causes things to escape peoples’ notice, so consider: Moral properties are not discovered via the sensory modalities or the affective sensibility — certainly, I can feel disgusted or amorous, find something appealing, moving, indifferent, etc., but these natural affective states will arise irrespective of whether we ever adopt moral frameworks or ways of speaking – and there has yet to be any convincing account of morals, in which moral truths are deduced in the manner that we deduce truths in mathematics or logic. The only reason that we believe that there are moral truths and that moral properties are real is because people talk and act as if there are. As a result, our ability to believe in their — and our own — sincerity, is crucial to the case for there being moral properties, and this ability is precisely what has been called into question, on grounds that derive both from our common, daily experience and from modern psychology.

When we consider general skepticism, by which I mean doubts about the existence of the external world and the various iterations of those doubts, we find something entirely different. Unlike the specific, substantial suspicions that lead to moral skepticism, the sources from which general skepticism derives are entirely abstract. The general skeptic notes that both our senses and our powers of reasoning could be mistaken and are, therefore, a potential source of error, and that every justificatory inference, in taking something as playing the role of a premise, begs the question as to why we should believe that something is true. Any belief that we might justify, then, can be doubted, not just because the grounds on which the belief is based might be mistaken, but because the logic by which we justify one thing A, by appealing to another thing, B, has built into it a structural regress.   

General skepticism is general, then, because of the abstractness, generality, and ubiquity of these sources of doubt, but these qualities also render it incapable of sustaining any real grip on our consciousness. As a result, general skepticism is suitable for little more than epistemological calisthenics – Thomas Reid famously pointed out that while there are many generally skeptical hypotheses, there are no actual general skeptics – since in the face of all the vivid experiences of everyday life, no one will ever believe that the world doesn’t exist on the basis of nothing more than a logically possible story according to which one is a solitary consciousness living in a perpetual dream. And it is important to remember that with respect to general skepticism, these sorts of contrivances of the imagination are the sole reason for the relevant skeptical doubts. I may, on a particular occasion, have tangible reasons to believe that my eyes or other senses are tricking me — say that I am intoxicated or have had my eyes dilated after a visit to the optometrist — but such cases raise no general suspicions about the reliability of the modalities by which we acquire beliefs about the external world. The doubts that characterize general skepticism are exclusively the products of abstract speculation into various logical possibilities and recognition of the inherently question-begging structure of the logic of inference.

It is for this reason that the best solution to general skepticism has always been the philosophy of common sense, the proponents of which understand that the search for justification follows — because it presumes — belief and action, and does not precede it. This is why, as Hume tells us in the Enquiries, we must be people before we can be philosophers, a stance that precludes commitment to any sort of generally skeptical position, because a condition of being people is that we have the kind of trust in our faculties and the basic things that they tell us that is required in order for it to be possible to believe and to act. As Wittgenstein explained in On Certainty, in his own version of a common-sense philosophical response to general skepticism, our belief in these basic things are not themselves tested in any way, but rather, comprise the frame of reference within which testing and thus, believing and acting, take place.  

In defending the reality of moral properties from skepticism, some would like to claim that there is a moral common sense that plays a similar role with respect to our moral beliefs and behaviors to that which our common sense about the external world plays with respect to our beliefs and behaviors more generally. Mothersill would have us believe, for example, that “the robust practical wisdom which restores us to the world of backgammon and sociability is as impatient with moral skepticism as with any other philosophical doubts”; that “the mood in which we know for sure that chairs and tables are real and that the sun will rise tomorrow is the mood in which we know for sure that cruelty and deceit are wrong and that we must fulfill our obligations”; and that “one can’t claim the advantages of common sense when it comes to scientific knowledge and at the same time claim the advantages of a superior insight when it comes to moral knowledge.”

Alas, these points are wrong in every detail, for there simply is no analogy to the story I have just told about general skepticism in the case of moral skepticism. As we’ve seen, moral skepticism is not the result of speculating about abstract possibilities or recognizing structural gaps in the logic of inference, but is the product of tangible, realistic, psychologically-grounded suspicions regarding peoples’ professed motives when they speak and act. It is not the sort of skepticism, then, for which a philosophy of common sense is suitable, since its main point is that our basic moral beliefs — our moral common sense, if you like — cannot be trusted. Even worse, we have every reason to be dubious of the very practices for which these beliefs are supposed to provide the frame.

One of the consequences of the psychological story we have been telling is that our moral practices cannot be taken face-value, as phenomena to be explained straightforwardly by way of a moral theory. The phenomena themselves – the moral speeches, postures, and performances – must first be decoded, before they can be explained, which means that we must have a moral hermeneutics before we can even think about having a moral theory. And it is only so much the worse for the prospects of moral theorizing, when our hermeneutics tell us — as the Nietzschean, Freudian, and Marxian hermeneutics all do — that our moral practices are essentially rhetorical and are designed to misrepresent our motives, both to others and to ourselves.

Mothersill’s examples, then, are obscuring, rather than revealing of the true status of moral knowledge. Of course there is no trouble in knowing trivial analytic truths like “cruelty is wrong” and “deceit is wrong,” wrongness being semantically contained within the concepts of cruelty and deceit, as Mothersill is using these terms. The trouble is with knowing what makes something — or anything — count as cruel or deceitful. My point has been that our only reason for thinking that something is cruel or deceitful is because people (including ourselves) call it cruel or deceitful and act as if it is. So, there is no epistemic resemblance whatsoever between the claim that someone is sitting on a chair and the claim that some action is cruel, deceitful, etc. Barring some specific evidence to the contrary, I have no reason to think that either the chair-sitter or my eyes are telling anything other the truth, but, as we have seen, there are any number of good, concrete reasons for thinking that the person who says that doing such and such is cruel, deceitful, etc., is misrepresenting both himself and the relevant facts. 

In the case of the belief in the existence of the external world, the principle of induction, the existence of other minds, etc., the beliefs in question enjoy an evidence-base that remains essentially untainted, save for a small number of highly abstract, purely theoretical doubts, and the result is that only a hypothetical skepticism, suitable for epistemological theorizing, is sustainable. By contrast, with respect to our belief in moral properties, the only evidence to which anyone can appeal is decidedly tainted, which means that a substantive, real skepticism regarding the existence of moral properties is warranted. Hence, moral skepticism’s “special standing.”