Moral scepticism

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

3. The problem of truth

The second, and more radical, sort of total moral sceptic holds that we lack moral knowledge because in matters of morality there are no truths to be known. Some, often called ‘noncognitivists’, argue that moral judgments have no truth-value, because they do not express cognitively meaningful propositions (see Analytic ethics; Moral judgment §1). Others, often called ‘error theorists’, hold that moral judgments have a truth-value, but are in fact all false. Noncognitivism and error theory are often classified as ‘anti-realist’ theories of ethics, since they reject the realist’s claim that some moral judgments are literally true, independently of anyone’s beliefs or attitudes about them (see Expressivism). It should be noted, however, that they are not the only possible anti-realist positions in ethics, and that anti-realism in ethics need not entail scepticism in ethics.

Noncognitivism was perhaps first suggested by David Hume, who argued that morality was the object of feeling not of reason, and that ‘when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it’ (1739/40: 469) (see Hume, D. §4). Following Hume, early emotivists such as A.J. Ayer (1936) argued that moral judgments such as ‘Stealing is wrong’ cannot be literally true or false, since they express emotions, as in ‘Stealing! Boo!’, instead of cognitively meaningful propositions (see Ayer, A.J. §5; Emotivism). Later emotivists, such as C.L. Stevenson (1944), argued that moral judgments serve to express the speaker’s attitudes and evoke similar attitudes in the hearer, and prescriptivists such as the early R.M. Hare (1952) argued that they are prescriptions, rather than statements of fact (see Stevenson, C.L.; Hare, R.M. §1; Prescriptivism).

Error theory is the claim that all moral judgments are false, because they aim to state facts about good and bad or right and wrong, but that these facts do not obtain because the objective value entities they presuppose do not exist. J.L. Mackie (1977) argues against objective moral values on the grounds that, if they were to exist, they would be utterly unlike any other sort of entity with which we are familiar. Similarly, Gilbert Harman (1977) argues against objective moral facts and properties on the grounds that they play no role in the best explanation of any observations (see Naturalism in ethics §3; Moral realism).

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

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