Moral scepticism

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

2. The problem of justification

The first sort of moral sceptic holds that we lack moral knowledge because we lack adequate justification for the moral judgments in question. This inadequacy may be characterized in terms of one of the following: (1) A slim evidential basis for moral judgments, comprising, for instance, only empirical and logico-mathematical truths. (2) Limited kinds of inference admitted in moral reasoning, such as deduction and induction. (3) A strong characterization of moral judgments such that if there were any true moral judgments, they would have to be universal, necessary, and action-guiding. (4) Doctrines such as the ‘is/ought gap’, according to which no good inferences are possible, from the slim evidential basis to strongly characterized moral conclusions, via the limited kinds of inference admitted (see Logic of ethical discourse).

In antiquity, doubts about the adequacy of justification led some to total moral scepticism. Pyrrhonists such as Sextus and Philo argued that one and the same thing appears good to one set of people and bad to another, due to differences in their customs, laws, mythical beliefs, and so on (see Philo of Larissa; Pyrrhonism; Sextus Empiricus). These appearances are the only justification we have for the moral value of the things in question, but since a thing cannot be both good and bad simultaneously, and since we have no reason to trust one set of appearances over another, no moral judgment has more rational support than its contradictory, and the appropriate attitude toward all moral matters is suspension of belief.

In modern philosophy, doubts about justification have led some to partial moral scepticism. G.E. Moore, for example, held in Principia Ethica (1903) that we could have knowledge of the good, and that right actions were by definition those that produced the most good, but that we could not know which actions were right, because we could not know enough about their causal consequences in the distant future (see Moore, G.E. §1). Similarly, it has been argued by W.D. Ross (1930) that we could know the general principles of prima facie duty, but we could rarely, if ever, know in particular circumstances which action was our actual duty, because of the moral complexity of every particular set of circumstances (see Ross, W.D.). In both cases, these philosophers hold that we lack moral knowledge simply because we lack the factual or moral information needed to justify the moral judgments in question.

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

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