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Everything?

One of the things that proud or “movement” skeptics like to say is “you have to be skeptical of everything.” No sacred cows!

But I don’t think even proud or “movement” skeptics really believe that, apart from a few psychopaths. I can think of lots of things I think no one should be skeptical of, and I’d be surprised to get much disagreement.

  • you must not push small children in front of speeding cars
  • you must not punch a child in the face
  • you must not kill all the Jews
  • you must not commit genocide
  • you  must not kidnap and imprison women
  • you must not force a woman to abort a pregnancy by first starving her and then repeatedly punching her in the abdomen as hard as you can
  • you must not set fire to people’s houses
  • you must not enslave anyone

That observation could be a route to linking skepticism with feminism. One could argue that systematic inequality is much more likely to foster violations of the rights of the subordinated groups than egalitarian arrangements are. It helps that history offers an abundance of examples where that is exactly what does happen. You’re still left with the fact that commitment to universal human rights is still a commitment as opposed to a fact, but you could perhaps argue that human brutality is a reason to be extra skeptical of anti-egalitarian arrangements.

Comments

  1. says

    I think there is merit in the argument you are trying to make however I really don’t think that list applies well to the skeptics you are talking about. In terms of the skepticism they do they already start by limiting “skepticism” to their “scientific skepticism” and then use the 2 terms interchangeably (this equivocation is common much to my frustration). So when they say you must be skeptical of everything and have no sacred cows they are often referring more specifically to applying scientific skepticism to all empirical claims and not issues of philosophy ethics or values which they deem beyond skepticism as they define it.

    Although more broadly there is nothing saying you can’t apply a broader skepticism to ethical ideas. You can see such skepticism when people discuss something like same sex marriage either in examining the arguments of their opponents or in changing their minds.

  2. says

    Listen, I can either push the kid into traffic or punch him in the face… Those are my only options!!!

    I might be a horrible parent…;(

  3. robert79 says

    It might be just a bit of wordplay here, but I disagree. Skepticism, to me, is not simply doubting stuff until the evidence is shown, but always asking the question: “why?” and the situations you list are not immune to that.

    Of course, the short answer would be: “don’t be an idiot, it’s just plain wrong!”

    The long answer would involve a longwinded ethical discussion about equality, the effects of your actions, treating people as you wish yourself to be treated, expectations from society, or whatever your moral framework of choice is.

    However, asking a question, if honestly posed, should never be considered wrong though. Asking why these actions are just plain wrong gives us insight as to how our sense of right and wrong works. People wondering about these questions is exactly what led to certain “common-sense” moral judgments (race issues, women’s rights, gay marriage, euthanasia, etc..) to be overturned (okay, perhaps not yet in the US and the rest of the third world…) during the last century.

  4. says

    Michael – Hmm – you may be right. If so, they really need to say that! The slogan I keep seeing definitely is just “question everything” – not question all the factual claims.

    You’d think skeptics would realize the importance of precision.

  5. says

    At some point in my life, I have applied the skeptical toolkit to all those claims. My skepticism lead me to believe I should support every last one of them, at least not without improbable caveats (such as, I would burn down the neighbor’s house if it were filled with zombies, but I can think of no probable reason I would do so in my actual life).

    Where I support you is that I agree we shouldn’t keep ruminating over these claims as if there were still somehow wide room for error about them. The evidence to support their validity is vast and easily accessible to most people. Someone who continues to deny these claims, and demands that all conversation stop until hir doubts are assuaged, can rightfully be accused of derailing reasonable social progress.

  6. says

    By “question everything” they certainly don’t mean “question Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, or other Very Important Leader Thinkers.” It is real skepticism to assume that all women are lying about rape, sexual assault, and harassment, and also to take every man’s word for it when they say that they don’t do it. It is freethinking to allow other people to be abusive to you whenever you do something that they disapprove of, and dogmatic ideological tyranny to ask them to stop being abusive to you or even to attempt to keep them out of your personal space.

    Yeah, we totally need to have lots of lots of dialogues with these Giants of Skeptical Thinking.

  7. John Kruger says

    We need not simply unthinkingly accept a proposition like “you must not push small children in front of speeding cars”. We can consider it in the realm of a number of moral values, like “take efforts not to cause pain to others”, “give extra consideration to the well being of relatively powerless people (like small children)”, “do not cause injury”,”have respect for and preserve life”, and “do not cause property damage”. We can even consider actions under even broader terms of how they effect society as a whole, or implications for individuals of various positions in the society.

    It is correct to assert that this process is not a skeptical one, but we can still challenge such things for discussion, can we not? I have little difficulty defending a statement like “you must not push small children in front of speeding cars”, even if not in the evidence driven methods of scientific skepticism. Eventually we get to axioms like “respect the well being of others” or “attempt to have empathy when interacting with people”, but we don’t need to stop such conversations before that point.

  8. says

    @ 4, 7, 9 – yes, it is possible to discuss meta-ethics, of course. But that’s not really what I was talking about. I think a person who really questions the first item, for instance, is worrying.

    Think of Angel Cordero and Charles Ramsey for example. They heard anguished screams and they ran. They didn’t pause to ask why run when you hear screams. They didn’t ask why help someone who isn’t you. They just ran.

    It’s better to have built-in revulsion from violence and cruelty.

  9. Ulysses says

    No pushing small children in front of speeding cars? Damn, now I’ll have to get another hobby.

    The neighbor’s house is looking a little unkempt and I’ve got all these matches and gasoline… Be back in a moment.

  10. leftwingfox says

    Me, I find so many people who say “you have to be skeptical of everything.” are actually never skeptical about their own position.

    Skeptical about equality, not skeptical about “The Bell Curve”.
    Skeptical about global warming, not skeptical about those against it.
    Skeptical about evolution, not skeptical about the bible.
    Skeptical about the pharmaceutical industry, not skeptical about Andrew Wakefield.
    SKeptical about government regulation, not skeptical about the free market.

    Skeptical about feminism, not skeptical about anti-feminists.

  11. Ulysses says

    Altruism and the golden rule tell us not to harm others. In numerous discussions with theists about morality I’ve considered these ideas and I haven’t seen a downside for either of them for myself or for other people. Therefore I consider them to be reasonable ideas for me to follow.

  12. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    I’ve said on more than one occasion that if those who call themselves Skeptics™ and demand the holy power of Skepticism™ be applied to all things feminist lived by the same rules they insist we do, they’d never cross the street. How could they without knowing that every driver has been tested and found to be free of drugs, alcohol or medical condition? Without knowing that every car is mechanically sound? That a freak sinkhole might suddenly appear?

    So, yeah, One thing I’m not especially skeptical of is that most of them are completely full of shit.

  13. says

    Although I suppose to be fair… you can probably find some testable claims somewhat comparable to your list in terms of how little skepticism they deserve.

    For example:
    Is it better to leave your apartment through the lobby door or the 15th floor balcony?

  14. Ysanne says

    Ophelia,
    my 5-year-old asks “why” about statements of the kind you listed all the times. (Ok, more along the punching lines than the genocide ones…) His 7-year-old brother answers with the standard know-it-all “doh, you just don’t, what a stupid question” sigh, and is then at a loss when the little one pressures him to explain if it’s all that super-simple. Because it’s not all that simple after all.
    Yes, there are very good reasons why pushing someone in front of a car is a big no-no, and it’s important to be able to spell them out: Firstly to avoid badly timed “hm, it seems like a good idea actually, let’s just do it” moments of doubt, and more importantly, so that one can apply the underlying principle to other similarly difficult ethical questions (such as “right, no kids in front of speeding cars. but maybe weak-looking adults in front of oncoming trains?”).

  15. says

    Hmm… I suppose better implies a value judgement that skeptics wouldn’t like… Safer I guess?

    And I don’t really feel like arguing VHEM.

  16. says

    Ysanne – but don’t the “just obey” versions come first? The emergency ones? Hot, never touch; sharp, never touch; never bite; never kick; etc. Aren’t there very basic ones that parents want to instill, not discuss (until later)?

  17. Carlos Cabanita says

    In a much more practical level than the meta-ethics discussion, it must be noted that absurd quantities of bullshit are produced about politics. Skeptics, even without entering directly in the political debate, could show the public verifiable facts about reality that would permit sound decisions to the citizens. Questions that interested lobbies do everything to muddle. Let’s say a group does a scientific inquest about social security, with a clear communication of the results. Or, does stimulus create jobs? Who pays for health care? And so on.

  18. says

    Of course skeptics don’t question everything; the most obvious example of which is induction, which is only a certainty in mathematics – that is, if you accept that some mathematical proof can be proved true by the application of logic, assuming some basic axioms… but shouldn’t a Skeptic™ of Everything™ be questioning the truth of those fundamental axioms as well? We only have a (close to 100%) expectation that the sun will rise each morning because of past experience, that the sun has always risen in the past, and events such as the sun suddenly going nova or undergoing a core collapse of some kind and becoming a white dwarf are very unlikely; a proper Skeptic™ of Everything™ however would be calculating Bayesian statistics every second of the day, and devising actions to test their P(H|E)s as correct before they actually got around to doing anything.

    jonathangray, re: your reply to OB: very helpful! (Or rather not.)

  19. hoary puccoon says

    Leftwingfox @ 13–

    Personally, I’m not skeptical at all about “The Bell Curve.” I know for an absolute fact it’s a malicious pack of lies.

  20. says

    The notion of questioning everything is more of a general principle than an absolute statement
    for the obvious reason that not everything needs to be questioned // So is only that which has
    to be that gets investigated now not what does not // But in spite of that now do think that it is
    nonetheless an excellent maxim to reference because it reinforces the idea that nothing should
    be dismissed without good reason // I personally think every sacred cow should be questioned
    because it is the only way // It is those that need the greatest attention because their status is
    a major impediment against analytical rigour // I even question the king of them all // That is
    the right of the human race to carry on existing // And so general rule is the more respected or
    popular a position is the more it needs to be taken apart // So religion is the obvious candidate
    here though by no means the only one // Long as it is being done by objective and transparent
    rigour then there is or should be no problem // Also one should too equally question their own
    position as much as alternative ones and to remember too that no one possesses a monopoly on
    wisdom and that knowledge is always finite // And that absolute positions are generally unwise

  21. Aratina Cage says

    Just a reminder that jonathangray is an old Pharyngula troll who used to go by Piltdown Man (AKA “Pilty”).

  22. hjhornbeck says

    You’re still left with the fact that commitment to universal human rights is still a commitment as opposed to a fact, but you could perhaps argue that human brutality is a reason to be extra skeptical of anti-egalitarian arrangements.

    Well OK, let’s ditch the human rights angle, and follow the anti-egalitarian route to see where it gets us.

    Let’s say, for instance, that we think men are smarter than women.What happens when we structure society around that? Well, smart women will be kicked from roles that demand smarts, in favour of less smart men.

    Slight problem: They’re not. Not surprisingly, if we implement this arrangement we’ll get inferior decisions, wasted resources, and so on. We could have realized this and corrected for it, but then we have to embrace the scientific method (and therefore skepticism).

    Now let’s look at, say, lifting ability. By observation and measurement, we know that on average men are larger than women, and since (again by observation/measurement) larger people tend to be better at lifting things, that means the average man is better at lifting things than the average woman. So if the jobs we’re trying to fill require raw lifting ability, we’d be more likely to choose a male candidate than a female one. Is this anti-egalitarian? No, because in this scenario we wouldn’t hesitate to hire a woman if she could lift more than any other candidate. No outside bias is clouding our judgment, we are following the true abilities inherent to all the sexes, and so again following science/skepticism has kept us from going down the wrong path.

    What if we were to then say, sorry ladies, we won’t even consider you? We’re back at the first scenario; inferior men are replacing superior women, and the outcome is less than optimal. We’re letting our biases get in the way of facts, and again we’re failing to be skeptical.

    Even if we ditch the human rights angle, skepticism and feminism still go hand-in-hand. Give up, Benson, you’re not going to win this one. ;)

  23. says

    VHEM is voluntary human extinction movement which is what I thought when I saw jonathangray’s link to a philosopher discussing whether the world would be better without people.

  24. Drew Hardies says

    Skepticism works fine here. Take the first claim: “you must not push small children in front of speeding cars”

    This is a combination of a fact (‘pushing small children in front of cars hurts them’) and a moral preference (‘hurting children is undesirable’).

    The fact-claim is in the realm of science. People don’t spend a lot of time testing it for the same reason we don’t spend a lot of time testing ‘kitchen knives are sharp'; the evidence it one-sided and there’s no any serious reasons for doubt.

  25. Drew Hardies says

    “Ysanne – but don’t the “just obey” versions come first? The emergency ones? Hot, never touch; sharp, never touch; never bite; never kick; etc. Aren’t there very basic ones that parents want to instill, not discuss (until later)?”

    Parents give all kinds of commands; “don’t touch, don’t bite, don’t swear, be straight, wear these clothes, pray to that god.”

    It’s skepticism that lets people toss the bad rules. People claim “all those things are bad because they hurt others”. In some cases, they’re right; biting hurts. In other cases, they’re wrong; homosexuality is fine.

    How would you have people sort through the “just obey” rules if not via skepticism?

  26. says

    hj @ 28, yes, I know all that, but that’s not all there is. One can be skeptical about egalitarian arrangements on the grounds that the traditional division of labor is more efficient, or better for children, or in accord with what most people want and weirdos who don’t want it shouldn’t be the ones making the rules…and so on.

    All I’m saying is that skepticism isn’t 100% on the side of feminism and 0% on the side of anti-feminism or non-feminism.

  27. says

    Drew @ 31 – right. That’s my point.

    @ 32 – No it’s not really skepticism. It’s rationality or reason, which is a larger category. Skepticism is useful for rationality but it’s not the whole of it.

  28. Drew Hardies says

    @32 I’m saying that skeptics do question the sorts of moral claims you put in the first post.

    Investigating the underlying fact-claims (“homosexuality hurts”/”biting hurts”) is how some claims get rejected (“don’t be gay!”) and others get kept (“don’t bite!”).

    Questions like, “how do we know that homosexuality causes bad outcomes?” are totally skeptical questions, particularly in regions where the answer is taken for granted.

    And, it’s silly to say, “Oh, no, we’re not encouraging to question all moral claims that your culture treats as basic and assumed. You should just question the ones that are wrong.” A child won’t know that their parents were correct-about-matches and wrong-about-gays until they think about the truth of supposed reasons.

    That connects skepticism to basic moral claims. I don’t see what’s left of the argument, except, “Are skeptics really asking people to think about super-obvious facts like ‘stabbings hurt’ or ‘fire burns’?”

    That answer, to me, seems pretty clear. Those are good things to think about once. They’re good things to think about if someone raises a credible-seeming challenge.

    But a critique like, “skeptics don’t re-investigate ‘is fire hot’ every time they see a candle!” seems more like an attempt to filibuster discussion than a serious indictment of either skepticism or the idea that skepticism is relevant even to obvious-seeming moral claims.

  29. says

    Well I’m saying skeptics don’t, so there.

    And questions like “is homosexuality ‘wrong’ and if so why?” precede questions like your “how do we know that homosexuality causes bad outcomes?” and neither of them is totally skeptical. They are part of rationality, not just skepticism. Skepticism is not all there is to rationality. Sometimes skepticism can be quite irrational.

    You seem to be ignoring what I started with, which is what I think is a rather fatuous claim that skeptics do or should question everything (with no stipulation about once and then never again). I say that’s an exaggeration and a piece of self-flattery.

    An attempt to filibuster discussion? What? Seriously?

    Are you skeptical of #ftbullies?

  30. hjhornbeck says

    OB @33:

    All I’m saying is that skepticism isn’t 100% on the side of feminism and 0% on the side of anti-feminism or non-feminism.

    I cannot think of a single exception, however. Can you? Maybe I’m too ignorant of the PoMo or Mother Earth wings of feminism, but quite frankly both strike me as secretly anti-feminist; the former because it denies or cheapens the reality of injustice, the latter because it imposes gender roles.

  31. says

    I think that one of the points of contention here is that if you’re constantly, perpetually skeptical of concepts that are correctly identified as helping to create a healthy society, it isn’t your skepticism that is being questioned as much as your basic decency. And the people on the other side of the deep rift are people whose basic human decency is very much in question: racists, anti-feminists, right-wing libertarians, etc.

  32. hjhornbeck says

    Drew Hardies @37:

    But a critique like, “skeptics don’t re-investigate ‘is fire hot’ every time they see a candle!” seems more like an attempt to filibuster discussion than a serious indictment of either skepticism or the idea that skepticism is relevant even to obvious-seeming moral claims.

    I think the main point is to point out the difference between skepticism (the process) and skepticism (the community). You can be skeptical about “fire is hot,” but you should very quickly conclude that the claim is effectively true in all cases, and a waste of time to challenge. This amounts to a pseudo “sacred cow,” so in one sense there really are sacred cows out there. To deny those cows exist, at the same time as you advance your own regarding the skeptical community, is to be a skeptic by name but not by action.

  33. Drew Hardies says

    I think you have it backwards. Morality is a label humans apply to things. I call a principle ‘moral’ because I think it’s likely to improve the well-being of others.

    The label question comes after the consequence-question has been answered. For instance:

    Arson causes harmful outcomes consequently so I describe it as immoral.
    Allowing consenting adults to marry will lead to a better society consequently I say marriage is a right.

    A child’s reasoning around ‘is arson bad’? or ‘is gay marriage a right?’ should be: “My parents say arson is likely to cause other people pain. How credible is their evidence and reasoning?” and “My parents say gay marriage will hurt society. How credible is their evidence and reasoning?”

    This is absolutely something skeptics should do and promote in others.
    —-
    I’m afraid I don’t see how that hashtag connects to the core of your argument.

  34. Drew Hardies says

    41 – You can be skeptical about “fire is hot,” but you should very quickly conclude that the claim is effectively true in all cases, and a waste of time to challenge. This amounts to a pseudo “sacred cow,” so in one sense there really are sacred cows out there.

    I think there’s a clear difference between a settled question and a sacred cow. Take the questions ‘does evolution happen?’ or ‘does climate change exist?’. Those are settled. Neither is sacred.

    If someone wants to try and write a grad thesis disproving either climate change or evolution, I’d think they’re wasting their time. But (because neither topic is sacred), I’m not going to be offended.

    The idea that, to be a skeptic, someone must personally and continually re-investigate settled questions is what I’m describing as a filibuster. Endlessly re-running the same PCR gels would waste tons of time. That time could be spent more interestingly elsewhere.

    If a climate change denier thinks that old models are worth re-running, they’re welcome to do it themselves, with their own time.

    The same is true about more basic skeptical exercises like, “Is fire still hot?” or “Are people’s arguments for ‘arson hurts people’ reasonable and well-supported?” They’re worth considering once. Then they’re settled and people move on.

    If you have reason to believe that flames work differently on Thursdays, feel free to test your theory. So long as you don’t hurt anyone else, I won’t be offended (because the claim is not-sacred) though I will think you’re wasting your time (because the claim is settled).

  35. says

    No, consequences don’t necessarily come first. Consequentialism is not the only brand of morality there is.

    You’re still misunderstanding what I said in the post (and now what I replied to you) – I’m not saying that “to be a skeptic, someone must personally and continually re-investigate settled questions” – I’m saying that many skeptics claim that “question everything” is an imperative of skepticism, and that they’re wrong about that.

    Please don’t describe what I’m saying as a filibuster. That’s obnoxious. I’m not doing anything the least bit like a filibuster. The point of the hashtag was that I get stupid accusations like that all the time.

  36. Drew Hardies says

    No, consequences don’t necessarily come first. Consequentialism is not the only brand of morality there is

    How would you answer a question like, “Why should our society recognize ‘marriage equality’ as a right?” if you’re not appealing to the well-being of others?

    I’m not saying that “to be a skeptic, someone must personally and continually re-investigate settled questions” – I’m saying that many skeptics claim that “question everything” is an imperative of skepticism, and that they’re wrong about that

    Other than questioning each ethical rule in turn, how should people decide which rules they should adopt, and they should abandon?

    The rules you’ve listed rest on obvious justifications. They’d be quick to question. A child might think, “My parents say I shouldn’t push my brother in front of cars because cars are dangerous. That checks out with what I know about fast-moving objects. And I don’t want to hurt my brother. So pushing him in front of a car is bad.”

    With the question settled, the person can tick the “investigated that thing” box and move onto the next step of the “question everything’ process. Perhaps the next thing will be a rule that won’t bear up under scrutiny.

    What is the harm in encouraging this process? How should people know (before investigating) which rules they shouldn’t apply their skepticism towards?

  37. says

    I didn’t say consequentialism is a bad thing; I didn’t even say I’m not a consequentialist; I just said it’s not all there is.

    You sound as if you’re not at all familiar with meta-ethics. I don’t really have time to fill you in (and I would probably get it wrong anyway). You could just read up on it a little.

    Also: again: I understand that people can question things and move on; that’s part of why I’m saying that “question everything” is a silly slogan.

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