Moral scepticism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L060-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

4. Responses to moral scepticism

Thinking moral scepticism an encouragement to immorality, and an outrageous denial of obvious human experience, numerous philosophers have defended moral knowledge from sceptical criticisms of both types. Defences of the justification of moral judgments can be classified as responses to the four factors outlined in §2.

(1) Some have argued for an expansion of the evidential basis so as to include, for instance, moral intuitions or theological information. (Proponents of the method of ‘reflective equilibrium’ in ethics claim that moral intuitions should be admitted as the data for moral theorizing just as perceptual judgments are admitted as the data for scientific theorizing – see Moral justification §2.) (2) Some have argued for a richer view of the kinds of inference admissible in moral reasoning. (Stephen Toulmin (1970) has argued that the standards of reasoning appropriate for ethics and other areas of everyday life are different from those of the natural sciences.) (3) Others have tried to lessen the distance between premises and conclusion by reducing the content of the moral judgments in need of justification. (A utilitarian might try to meet Moore’s scepticism about right action by redefining ‘right’ in terms of ‘maximal expected utility’ instead of ‘maximal utility’ (see Rationality, practical).) (4) Still others, including many in the Aristotelian tradition, have argued against doctrines such as the ‘is/ought gap’, by providing examples of valid ‘is-to-ought’ inferences, or denying the sharp distinction between empirical and moral judgments which such doctrines appear to presuppose (see Logic of ethical discourse §3).

Similarly, defences of the truth of moral judgments can be classified as responses either to noncognitivism or to error theory. Critics of noncognitivism emphasize the similarity between moral judgments and other types of fact-stating judgment, minimize the tension between the fact-stating and action-guiding functions of moral judgments, or highlight the inadequacies of particular emotivist accounts. (Moral philosophers such as Peter Geach (1972) have criticized noncognitivism as unable to account for the meaning of judgments in unasserted contexts such as the antecedents of material conditionals [see Frege-Geach problem].) Certain philosophers who are widely thought of as noncognitivist, such as R.M. Hare, have worked to reconcile prescriptivism or emotivism with the possibility of true, hence knowable, moral judgments. In his essay ‘Objective Prescriptions’ (1993), Hare argues that any moral judgment that fully satisfies the requirements implicit in the logical meaning of moral words, and takes into account all the relevant empirical information, may be called ‘true’, even though prescriptions are not ordinarily thought of as ‘stating facts’. Realist critics of error theories, such as David Brink, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, and Nicholas Sturgeon, play down the differences between moral facts and properties on the one hand, and physical facts and properties on the other, arguing that the former have a legitimate role in the best explanation of moral and other phenomena. Other critics, such as Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel and John McDowell, reject explanatory potency as an appropriate criterion for existence of values. Still others, such as Crispin Wright, argue for minimalist or coherentist accounts of truth in ethics, which allow moral judgments to be true (hence in principle knowable) despite their failure according to more robust correspondence theories of truth (see Moral realism §6).

Citing this article:
Nelson, Mark T.. Responses to moral scepticism. Moral scepticism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L060-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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