Moral scepticism

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

1. Types of moral scepticism

Moral scepticism is the view that we can have little or no knowledge about ethics, about right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice (see Moral knowledge §3). It is one of a cluster of views that would challenge or limit traditional philosophical accounts of ethics. Moral relativism claims that moral truth is relative to cultural convention or personal commitment (see Moral relativism); moral subjectivism claims that moral truth is determined by the preferences, feelings, and other subjective states of persons; moral egoism is the claim that it is always obligatory to advance one’s own interests (see Egoism and altruism). These positions are motivated by some of the same problems about morality that motivate moral scepticism, but they are not properly speaking sceptical positions, since they are all consistent with the claim that we have extensive knowledge of right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice.

Theoretically, at least, sceptics about morality can be divided into global sceptics and specifically moral sceptics. That is, some philosophers are sceptical about morality because they are sceptical about everything, claiming that no one has knowledge of morals because no one has knowledge about anything (see Scepticism). Other philosophers claim that we can and do have knowledge of many things, but not of morality in particular. Global scepticism is not of interest here, and in any event has been comparatively rare in the history of philosophy. Specifically moral scepticism has been more common, mainly because of the intractability of some moral disagreements, the difficulty in providing any plausible account of how we could be causally related to the objects of moral knowledge, and the perception that morality suffers badly when compared with natural science, widely accepted as the paradigm of knowledge. Moral sceptics can be divided into total moral sceptics, who claim that we can have no moral knowledge, and partial moral sceptics who claim that we can have knowledge of some aspects of ethics, but not of others (for example, of good and bad, but not of right and wrong).

Moral sceptics may differ in their accounts of why we fail to have moral knowledge, and these differences can be explained in terms of the traditional analysis of knowledge (see Knowledge, concept of). Traditionally, a judgment has been counted knowledge only when it is both true and justified. Thus, moral sceptics generally argue that in ethics (or some aspect of ethics) one or the other of these conditions is unsatisfiable. Some find fault with the justification of moral judgments; others find fault with their truth.

Citing this article:
Nelson, Mark T.. Types of 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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