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 conduct: those issues distinguishing it from the problems of relativism, noncognitivism and nonmeaningfulism about right and wrong conduct?

    The general problem turns on three main subsidiary issues: (i) the implications of the conception of a basic principle of right and wrong conduct, (ii) whether basic principles of right and wrong conduct can be justified by definitions of the terms right and wrong, and (iii) whether basic principles of right and wrong conduct can be cogently derived from extra-moral premises other than definitions of the terms right and wrong. I am assuming, of course, that basic principles of right and wrong conduct cannot be known intuitively to be true.

    I shall now simply describe the skeptics position on these subsidiary issues and explain how it is neutral with respect to whether or not there can be any basic principles of right and wrong conduct, that is, with respect to relativism, non- cognitivism, and nonmeaningfulism.

    (i) As we have seen, a basic principle of right and wrong conduct by definition is the moral basis, or an essential element of the moral basis, of all sound reasoning about the rightness (rather than wrongness) or the wrongness (rather than rightness) of conduct. Consequently such principles cannot be justified, or be shown to be true-with or without the aid of extra-moral premises-by means of other general or particular judgments of right and wrong conduct; that is, they cannot be derived noncircularly or without begging the question from any set of premises containing general or particular judgments of right and wrong conduct. This means that an epistemologically cogent argument for a basic principle of right and wrong conduct must contain only extra-moral premises-assuming, of course, that such principles are not derivable from other types of moral principles such as principles of good and evil.

    I t is plain, however, that the definition in question does not rule out the epistemological, or therefore the logical, cogency of arguments for basic principles of right and wrong conduct whose premises are composed exclusively of extra-moral statements. So the justification skeptic cannot rest his case entirely on the

  • SKEPTICISM ABOUT BASIC MORAL PRINCIPLES 155 conception of a basic principle of right and wrong conduct (as a basic moral principle). Nevertheless, this phase of his case does rest entirely on this conception, and this conception does not determine, one way or the other, whether or not it is an empty one, that is, whether or not it is possible for there to be basic principles of right and wrong conduct.

    (ii) The second main subsidiary issue concerns the possibility of justifying basic principles of right and wrong conduct by means of that range of extra-moral statements which define the terms right and wrong-wholly or in part-in terms of (absolutea) putative right-and-wrong-making characteristics of actions. This issue divides into two.

    (iia) First, there is the issue of whether or not it is possible in principle for any such definitions to be correct; that is of whether or not the meanings of the terms right and wrong are specific as to what are the fundamental right- and wrong-making characteristics of actions (and-given that they are-whether the relevant characteristics are absolute or relative-see note 3 infra). Skeptics about basic moral principles well may, and usually do, deny that their meanings are thus specific. But skeptics can (like some intuitionists) deny this-and must deny this if they are to avoid trivializing their position-without appealing to any positive theory as to the meaning of right and wrong which makes it impossible for there to be any basic principles of right and wrong conduct, that is, without appealing to some form of relativist or non-cognitivist analysis of these terms. So this phase of the skeptics position also has nothing essentially to do with whether or not it is possible for there to be basic principles of right and wrong conduct.

    (iib) Secondly, there is the issue of whether or not reportive definitions of the terms right and wrong in terms of (absolute) putative right- and wrong-making characteristics, entail corres- ponding (absolute) putative principles of right and wrong con- duct. Skeptics about basic moral principles well may, but usually do not, deny that such entailments hold. Again, however, the logical issue here is quite independent of the issue of whether or not it is possible for there to be basic principles of right and wrong conduct. For the issue is whether or not reportive defini- tions of the terms right and wrong in terms of (absolute) putative right- and wrong-making characteristics-when con- sidered hypotheticaZZg to be correct-entail corresponding

    3AbsoZute right- and wrong-making characteristics are ones which cannot, while relatior right- and wrong-making characteristics are ones which can, make a par- ticular action both right and wrong.

  • 156 THOMAS MCCLINTOCK (absolute) putative principles of right and wrong conduct-when these principles are considered hypothetically to be true; and this issue quite evidently depends only on the more general issue of whether or not a reportive definition of a term, as specific as the ones in question, entails a criterion for the correct application of that term. So this phase of the justification skeptics position as well, has nothing at all to do with whether or not basic principles of right and wrong conduct are possible.

    A skeptic about basic moral principles must either deny that there can be a correct reportive definition of right and wrong of the requisite sort or else deny that such definitions entail corresponding putative principles of right and wrong conduct. He may, of course, deny both.

    (iii) The third and final main subsidiary issue concerns the possibility of cogently deriving basic principles of right and wrong conduct from extra-moral statements of some range other than definitions of the terms right and wrong : e.g., from those of biology, psychology,4 anthropology or sociology,6 theology or religion, or metaethics. Notice that such extra-moral statements must be contingently, and not conceptually or formally, true or false; since, when basic principles of right and wrong conduct are based on premises other than definitions of the terms right and wrong-as they are in the kind of case in question-they are treated as contingently, and not conceptually or formally, true or false, so that the premises on which they are based will also have to be contingently, and not conceptually or formally, true or false. Thus this third (omnibus) issue, as contrasted with the second, has only one aspect, namely, whether or not any possible putative basic principles of right and wrong conduct -when considered hypothetically to be true-can, in any con- ceivable cogent way, be logically derived from any possible extra-moral statements of the subrange in question-when these also are considered hypothetically to be true. For the justification skeptic must deny that cogent derivation is possible in cases of contingently true or false extra-moral premises; since otherwise his contention is that it is contingently, or materially, impossible, and nut that it is impossible in principle, to justify basic principles of right and wrong conduct, that is, that they lack

    4FOr an analysis and defense of the form of one such mode of justification of basic normative principles, see my The Egoists Psychological Argument, forthcoming in the American Philosophical Quarterlu.

    6F0r an analysis and criticism of one such mode of justification of basic normative principles, see my The Argument for Ethical Relativism from the Diversity of Morals, The Monist (Summer, 1963).

  • SKEPTICISM ABOUT BASIC MORAL PRINCIPLES 157 justification owing only to the material falsity of premises from which they are in fact cogently derivable. Now, all of the par- ticular logical and conceptual issues concerned with particular justificatory arguments of the sort in question-by parity with (iib) above-are of a general kind, having nothing whatever to do with whether or not it is possible for there to be basic principles of right and wrong conduct. So this final phase of the skeptics position also is independent of whether or not it is possible for there to be such principles. TEMPLE UNIVERSITY