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Essays on scepticism and morals


To: Erica A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on scepticism and morals
Date: 11 February 2002 13:05

Dear Erica,

Thank you for your e-mail of 30 January, with your essay for Possible World Machine in response to the question, 'Assess the significance of philosophical scepticism', and also for your e-mail of 5 February on the question of morals.


'Somewhere we have to strike a balance between poisoning ourselves and starving.'

This is a nicely judged essay. You have set yourself the limited aim of explaining the practical value of moderate scepticism.

According to you:

1. We learn from experience the value of moderate scepticism. Some lessons, however, are best not left to experience, as when we take special precautions to protect against the dangers of the child's innocent credulity.

2. From a practical viewpoint, the accuracy of information that we require depends on the task at hand: you don't need a spectrophotometer to judge whether a tomato is ripe enough to eat.

3. Again, from a practical perspective, the philosopher's question, 'Is this world real or only a coherent dream from which I will never wake up?' has no value, because all the judgements that we make, in the face of experience, ought to be the same on either hypothesis.

But this leaves the reader with a puzzle. Why on earth have philosophers taken scepticism to such impractical extremes? What motivated Pyrrho in his refusal to believe anything? Why did Descartes go to such lengths to put the sceptic's case and then find a way to justify our claims to knowledge?

Even if you do not feel this temptation yourself, it is a question that one would like to answer. The philosopher G.E. Moore, famous for his argument against the sceptic 'Here is one hand, here is another hand...' (in his paper 'Refutation of Idealism') used to say that what motivated him to philosophize was only the writings of other philosophers.

Is it just that philosophers are just naturally tempted to extremism? Aristotle, in the words that you quote is not advocating a 'golden mean' for empirical evidence (not too little, not too much) but pointing out what he sees as a logical flaw in the sceptic's case. That suggests that the sceptic has, or thinks they have, a case based on reason and logic, which should be answered in the same terms.

In case you haven't seen it, I give four examples of sceptical arguments in my notebook page 130 at:

I have changed my views since writing the unit. I am more inclined now to say that at least some of the sceptical arguments do show something, namely, that there is something funny or wrong about the concept 'know'.


You seem to be conflating the idea of moral judgements as such, with the 'deontological' view of ethics, according to which actions are judged right or wrong by reference to a universally binding law, for example, 'Do not steal' or 'Do not tell a lie'.

It would be possible to hold that there is an objectively right answer what I should do in any particular situation, without holding that I discover this by consulting a book of 'moral laws'. In other words, the right action in a given situation might be to tell a lie, or steal. By 'right', one means here, all things considered the best of all the alternatives.

The idea, then, would be that there is one general rule of respect for the other, which would in the normal course of events prohibit such things as lying or stealing. Some philosophers have tried to do a 'patch' here, arguing that 'do not lie', 'do not steal' are only prima facie duties. The problem with that compromise position, is that it leaves the idea of 'law of duty' with very little work to do.

We should always strive to see things from the other person's perspective. It is possible, to take your example, that what strikes me as an 'unpleasant remark' might be genuinely seen by the other person as helpful. (E.g. the Sainsbury's TV advert for their 'healthy foods' line.) This is not an example of different moral views, however, but merely different views of the facts. A clash of moral views would be more like someone remarking how terrible it was of X to have an abortion, when you firmly believe in a woman's right to choose. In the moral philosophy program, I consider such cases from the point of view of an 'ethics of dialogue'. The rule of respect for the other is not a formula for resolving such clashes. But we still have a moral choice as to how to behave in the face of such irresolvable disagreements.

No-one would seriously argue that punishment would still be punishment if the recipient did not know why they were being punished. It certainly does not follow from this that the only purpose for punishment is to condition the recipient into more acceptable behaviour. This is, however, a good way to distinguish the concept of punishment from the concept of revenge. You can take secret revenge on someone who has done you wrong (I'm not saying it's OK to do this, I am saying we understand what this means) but you can't, in the true sense of 'punish', secretly punish someone.

Of course, there are cases of morally culpable negligence. However, I don't think that the correct way to categorize these cases is in terms of 'doing something' or 'not doing something'. The man who gets into the car after downing a dozen pints is doing something wrong, even though he does not set out deliberately to hurt someone. (It is interesting, however, how drunk driving receives a far greater punishment if it results in death or injury, even though this is just a question of bad luck so far as the driver is concerned.) On the other hand, the fare dodger who fails to buy a ticket has set out deliberately to do an action which they know to be wrong.

All the best,