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The Importance of Skepticism

You can't really understand the importance of skepticism if you don't first know what it is. Skepticism is an attitude rather than a belief about something. It is what you might call the willing suspension of belief, and requires us to apply reason to all ideas that we are presented with. You could probably best sum up the skeptic's position in two words: "prove it."

Ethically Speaking

Skepticism refers to both a philosophical stance and an everyday attitude of doubting—but not necessarily denying—the truth of commonly held beliefs. For instance, a skeptic might doubt that we can ever know with absolute certainty whether there is a world outside our mental perceptions of it.

Modern skeptics appeal to science and scientific method as ways of determining what is true: Basically, if a claim is supported by reliable scientific studies, and respectable scientists support it, then it is far more believable than a claim that is supported by quacks who practice pseudo-science. Still, a good skeptic will admit that even scientific claims are provisional and subject to challenge. This is because science is open-ended, so it is always possible that something we now think is true could some day be discovered to be false. Remember, Chris Columbus set out to determine whether the world was really flat! The idea that the earth was flat was just one of the many beliefs that has been corrected over time.

But what about skepticism where ethics is concerned? We can't very well appeal to science and scientific experts to determine when or whether ethical claims are valid. It's not like a scientist can test for the morality of eating meat the way that she can test for the existence of sub-atomic particles, is it? So you might think skepticism is useless when it comes to ethics.

I don't think so. If you think of skepticism as an attitude, and you can apply attitudes to all kinds of areas, then skepticism works in ethics. A skeptical attitude toward ethical claims would require the "prove it" mentality that I just mentioned.

As a skeptic, you would require that people provide good reasons, and strong arguments, for the moral claims they make. You would suspend belief, at least until you could mull over the issue and decide if the reasons are any good.

Do the Right Thing!

Don't accept any moral judgment at face value! Think of ethical questioning as a kind of legal proceeding, where nothing is accepted without supporting evidence. The evidence doesn't always have to be conclusive or provide certain knowledge. But it does have to provide enough supporting reasons to reach a verdict that can withstand reasonable doubt. Often, no single item of evidence will establish a sufficient reason to exonerate or convict, but all of the items taken together will. So take a tip from the legal profession: Don't accept the truth of any moral judgment unless it withstands the test of reasonable doubt!

An example might help here. Suppose you are talking to an acquaintance who says he thinks that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural. If this were a scientific claim you could run out, do some research, and then come up with your own conclusions. But this is a moral claim, not a scientific one: Homosexuality is "wrong" (bad, immoral) because it is unnatural. If you were to respond as a skeptic to this moral claim, what would you do?

Well, you would need to think critically about this claim, and resist the urge (if you had it!) to just accept it at face value. Getting back to reasons, your job would be to consider your acquaintance's claim and his reasons for making it. For example, you might try to determine if homosexual activity is present in the natural world—are animals doing it? If so, this leads you to reject the "unnatural" claim. So much for what is factually provable in ethics ... the rest comes back to reasoned judgment! All that skepticism in ethics requires is that you treat ethical claims with some doubt, avoiding the dogmatism that I mentioned earlier, and being open to all people's views and their reasons for holding those views. The key to skepticism is to suspend your belief in others' ethical judgments until you've had the chance to work out your own judgments through rational, impartial deliberation.

The point of skepticism is to avoid the kinds of traps you have read about in this chapter. A skeptical attitude will help you in the following ways:

  • You will demand a reasoned account of others' ethical claims.

  • You will avoid appeals to authority.

  • You will consider all points of view.

  • You will not be swayed by partial considerations (friendship, for example).

One last thing. Skepticism has been given a bad rap, and outside philosophy has been largely misunderstood. Some people think it means the same thing as cynicism—the view that we can never come to an appropriate understanding of what is right and wrong. This isn't what skepticism is about ... and if it were, I couldn't support it because there would be no point in doing ethics! If there will never be an appropriate understanding of what is right and wrong, then ethics is just a waste of time. No, skepticism isn't cynicism; and it isn't the refusal to accept beliefs that upset the status quo, either. Skeptics are always questioning, so they aren't hung up on the way things are, or holding on to the status quo.

Having this skeptical attitude is really important to doing ethics well; its importance is further emphasized in the next chapter, where we will consider the role that God and the Bible play in ethics.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Make sure you have reasons supporting your beliefs and actions.

  • Avoid appeals to authority in making your ethical judgments.

  • Have moral role models, but still think for yourself.

  • Don't be manipulated by others into their beliefs.

  • Take a skeptical attitude to ethical claims.

  • Be impartial, unless you have a good reason for treating people different.

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