Moral Skepticisms

Moral Skepticisms

Moral Skepticisms

Moral Skepticisms


All contentious moral issues--from gay marriage to abortion and affirmative action--raise difficult questions about the justification of moral beliefs. How can we be justified in holding on to our own moral beliefs while recognizing that other intelligent people feel quite differently and that many moral beliefs are distorted by self-interest and by corrupt cultures? Even when almost everyone agrees--e.g. that experimental surgery without consent is immoral--can we know that such beliefsare true? If so, how? These profound questions lead to fundamental issues about the nature of morality, language, metaphysics, justification, and knowledge. They also have tremendous practical importance in handling controversial moral questions in health care ethics, politics, law, and education. Sinnott-Armstrong here provides an extensive overview of these difficult subjects, looking at a wide variety of questions, including: Are any moral beliefs true? Are any justified? What is justified belief? The second half of the book explores various moral theories that have grappled with these issues, such as naturalism, normativism, intuitionism, and coherentism, all of which are attempts to answer moral skepticism. Sinnott-Armstrong argues that all these approaches fail to rule out moral nihilism--the view that nothing is really morally wrong or right, bad or good. Then he develops his own novel theory,--"moderate Pyrrhonian moral skepticism"--which concludes that some moral beliefscan be justified out of a modest contrast class but no moral beliefs can be justified out of an extreme contrast class. While explaining this original position and criticizing alternatives, Sinnott-Armstrong provides a wide-ranging survey of the epistemology of moral beliefs.


I have always held strong moral beliefs. Growing up in Memphis, I discovered early on that other people held their moral beliefs just as strongly as I held mine, even when we disagreed. Some of these people were then and remain now my close friends. These conflicts made me wonder whether they or I (or both or neither) were justified in our respective moral beliefs. That wonder led to this book.

When I first came to philosophy, I hoped to rule out moral nihilism and to prove my own moral beliefs. I thought that I succeeded in my undergraduate thesis on Kant’s ethics. That was long ago. In this book, I argue that moral nihilism cannot be ruled out by any method and that moral beliefs can be justified only in limited ways.

Some readers will find my conclusions disappointing or threatening. They still want to establish their moral beliefs thoroughly, conclusively, and objectively. At least they want to refute moral nihilism. In contrast with scientists who feel free to ignore or make fun of skeptical hypotheses like Descartes’ deceiving demon, most moral believers and theorists feel driven to fight moral nihilism. They are not satisfied by merely setting aside moral nihilism as irrelevant. That ploy strikes them as too arbitrary.

I respect their endeavor. Sometimes I share the urge to refute moral nihilism and moral skepticism. However, when I work through the details of moral epistemology carefully and consider extreme positions charitably, I don’t see how to rule out moral nihilism. This inability leads to another: Many people cannot obtain the kind of justified moral belief that they long for. This is an important limit on the epistemic status of our moral beliefs. We ought to face that limit honestly.

Facing our epistemic limits need not lead us to accept moral nihilism. I am not a moral nihilist. I believe that some acts are morally wrong. I even feel confident in specifying some of the acts that are morally wrong. None of this changes when I admit that I cannot disprove moral nihilism or when I adopt my moderate moral skepticism.

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