SKEPTICISM ABOUT BASIC MORAL PRINCIPLES

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  • METAPHILOSOPHY Vol. 2, No. 2, April 1971

    SKEPTICISM ABOUT BASIC MORAL PRINCIPLES

    THOMAS MCCLINTOCK

    In a recent number of this journal, I defended the thesis that the basic varieties of [ethical] skepticism are mutually independent in that they do not support one another (p. 43). I was concerned particularly to point out that skepticism about the possibility of justifying basic moral principles-which I call for short skepticism about basic moral pnciples-does not lend any credence to ethical relativism, ethical noncognitivism or what I call ethical nonmeaningfulism-these being the four basic varieties of ethical skepticism. The reason I gave was that skepticism about basic moral principles-being the nontrivial denial that it is possible to justify basic moral principles-is compatible with the impossibility of there being, as well as with the possibility of there being, basic moral principles; whereas relativism, noncognitivism and nonmeaningfulism are each tantamount to a denial that it is possible for there to be any such principles, since basic moral principles are the means by which we are to know which of any pair of opposed particular moral judgments is true (and which is false). But I did not describe any of the issues concerning the possibility of justifying basic moral principles over and above those concerning the possibility of there being such principles. I did not, in other words, describe the distinctive issues constituting the problem of skepticism about basic moral principles : those issues distinguishing it from the problems of ethical relativism, non- cognitivism, and nonmeaningfulism. The aim of this paper is to fill this gap in my earlier account of the basic varieties of ethical skepticism.2

    I It will facilitate matters to have before us at the outset a

    summary of the relevant particulars from this earlier account. I shall confine myself, as I did in that account, to skepticism about (judgments of) right and wrong conduct, right conduct being understood to be simply conduct which is not wrong. This account and the subsequent points I want to make about

    1The Basic Varieties of Ethical Skepticism, Metophilosophy (January, 1971),

    2For detailed exploration of the problem of ethical relativism, see my Relativism pp. 29-43.

    and Affective Reaction Theories, The Journal of Value Znquiry (Fall, 1971).

    150

  • SKEPTICISM ABOUT BASIC MORAL PRINCIPLES 151 skepticism about basic moral principles do not depend in any way on the distinguishing features of the concepts of right and wrong conduct and thus apply to any form of ethical skepticism.

    The fundamental idea to which the skeptic is opposed is: (1) Rationality about (judgments of) right and wrong con-

    duct: It is possible (in principle on conceptual grounds relating specifically to ethics) to know which of any possible pair of opposite judgments as to the rightness (rather than wrongness) or the wrongness (rather than rightness) of any particular action is true (and which is false).

    (1) has embedded in it, and consequently entails, in logical order :

    ( 3 ) Absolutism about (judgments of) right and wrong conduct: It is impossible for both of any possible pair of opposed judgments as to the rightness of wrongness of any par- ticular action to be true;

    (4) Cognitivism about (judgments of) right and wrong con- duct: Judgments as to the rightness or wrongness of particular actions are true-or-false; and

    (5) Meaningfulism about (judgments of) right and wrong con- duct: Judgments as to the rightness or wrongness of particular actions are meaningful.

    Moreover, on the supposition-now very widely held by philosophers-that it is impossible to intuit, or apprehend im- mediately, the rightness or the wrongness of particular actions, coming to know whether a particular action is right (rather than wrong) or wrong (rather than right) consists of deriving a judg- ment as to its rightness or as to its wrongness from the requisite empirical knowledge about it and an adequate set of basic principles of right and wrong conduct, which are known to be true. Thus on this analysis of knowledge of right and wrong conduct-which I believe to be the correct one-(1) also entails :

    (6) It is possible (in principle) to acquire the empirical knowledge required to know about any particular action whether it is right (rather than wrong) or wrong (rather than right);

    (7) It is possible (in principle) to derive a judgment as to the rightness (rather than wrongness) or the wrongness (rather than rightness) of any particular action from (an adequate set of) basic principles of right and wrong con- duct and the requisite empirical knowledge; and

    (2) It is possible (in principle on conceptual grounds relating

  • 152 THOMAS MCCLINTOCK specifically to ethics) to know (an adequate set of) basic principles of right and wrong conduct to be true.

    Now (6) and (7bthough they do concern conceptual rather than empirical issues-do not concern issues pertaining specifi- cally to ethics, and therefore are not varieties of skepticism about right and wrong conduct; whereas (2) does concern con- ceptual issues pertaining specificaIIy to ethics, and therefore is a variety of skepticism about right and wrong conduct. It can be shortened to read:

    (2) Rationality about (basic principles of) right and wrong conduct: It is possible (in principle on conceptual grounds relating specifically to ethics) to know basic principles of right and wrong conduct to be true.

    Furthermore, a basic principle of right and wrong conduct, in the sense relevant for an analysis of skepticism, by definition is a basic principle for determining which of any possible pair of opposed judgments as to the rightness (rather than wrongness) or wrongness (rather than rightness) of any particular action is true (and which is false). Thus (2) entails:

    (8) Absolutism about basic principles of right and wrong conduct: It is impossible for both of any possible pair of opposed putative basic principles of right and wrong conduct to be true;

    (9) Cognitivism about basic principles of right and wrong conduct: Putative basic principles of right and wrong conduct are true-or-false; and

    (10) Meaningfulism about basic principles of right and wrong conduct: Putative basic principles of right and wrong conduct are meaningful.

    Now (8), (9) and (10) are logically equivalent, respectively, to (3), (4) and (5); and the conjunction of (8), (9) and (10) is logically equivalent to :

    (11) It is possible (in principle on conceptual grounds relating specifically to ethics) for their to be basic principles of right and wrong conduct.

    Thus the conjunction of (3), (4) and ( 5 ) also is logically equivalent to (11).

    Furthermore, (2) through (5) entail all of their numerical successors but none of their numerical predecessors; so that a denial of one of them is trivial when it results from a denial of one of its numerical successors, and is nontrivial when it does not so result. The basic varieties of skepticism about right and

  • SKEPTICISM ABOUT BASIC MORAL PRINCIPLES 153

    wrong conduct are to be construed, of course, as nontrivial denials of (2) through (5), respectively.

    We have then, as skepticism about right and wrong conduct and its basic varieties :

    (A) Skepticism about (judgments of) right and wrong conduct: It is impossible (in principle on conceptual grounds relating specifically to ethics) to know which of any possible pair of opposed judgments as to the rightness (rather than wrongness) or the wrongness (rather than rightness) of any particular action is true (and which is false);

    (B) Skepticism about basic principles of right and wrong conduct: It is impossible (in principle on conceptual grounds relating specifically to ethics) to know basic principles of right and wrong conduct to be true;

    (C) Relativism about (judgments of) right and wrong conduct: It is possible for both of some possible pair of opposed judgments as to the rightness or wrongness of any par- ticular action to be true;

    (D) Noncognitivism about (judgments of) right and wrong conduct: Judgments as to the rightness or wrongness of particular actions are not true-or-false; and

    (E) Nonmeaningfulisrn about (judgments of) right and wrong conduct: Judgments as to the rightness or wrongness of particular actions are not meaningful.

    Now, (B) denies nontrivi'ally the possibiIity of knowing basic principles of right and wrong conduct to be true, and thus asserts-to spell out its nontrivial character :

    (B,) It is impossible (in principle on conceptual grounds relating specifically to ethics) to know basic principles of right and wrong conduct to be true, whether or not it is possible for there to be such principles.

    (B) is thus compatible with the possibility of there being, as well as with the impossibility of there being, basic principles of right and wrong conduct. Consequently (B) is neutral with respect to (3), (4) and (5) on the one hand and (C), (D) and (E) on the other hand; since, as we have seen, the conjunction of (3), (4) and (5) is equivalent to asserting the possibility of there being basic principles of right and wrong conduct, so that the dis- junction of (C), (D) and (E) is equivalent to asserting the im- possibility of there being basic principles of right and wrong conduct. Thus justification skepticism, or skepticism about basic principles of right and wrong conduct does not in any way

  • 154 THOMAS MCCLINTOCK

    logically support relativism, noncognitivism or nonmeaningfulism about right and wrong conduct.

    I1 What, then, are the distinctive issues constituting the prob-

    lem of skepticism about basic principles of right and wrong

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