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Occupational hazard

Some skeptical questions that are less than useful.

  • Why should I do no harm?
  • Why should I care what other people want?
  • If it’s fun for me to make fun of fat people on the bus, why shouldn’t I go ahead and do that?
  • If I can trick people into giving me all their money to “invest” why shouldn’t I do that?
  • If I enjoy sex with children why shouldn’t I have it?
  • If I’m a priest why shouldn’t I use that as a way to get access to children to have sex with?
  • Why should I inconvenience myself to help someone else?
  • Why should I worry about the working conditions in the factory where my inexpensive Tshirt was made?
  • Why should I care about the problems of people in Bangladesh or Somalia?

There’s an infinite number of questions of that type. They’re not skeptical in the sense of taking a hard look at pseudoscience or woo or fairy tales, but they’re skeptical in the philosophical sense.

This is probably one reason organized skepticism can attract a lot of assholes. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s a hazard.


  1. Corwyn says

    I am not sure they aren’t useful. I just don’t think they are hard to answer. I would certainly rather people ask them than just assume that the answer is ‘no reason’. Skeptics should, having asked one of these question, go about finding the answer.

  2. spiralling says

    One I saw just the other day. If a woman is about to die, why should I not rape her? :/

    I abhor the skeptical community so much at times.

  3. says

    Restated slightly these seem like meaningful questions:

    + Does harm trump all other considerations when choosing a course of action?
    + When should I prioritize others’ desires over my own?
    + What duties do we owe to distant others?

    Why do you characterize these as “less that useful”? Do you believe that philosophical skepticism is, in general, a fruitless exercise? Are the answers to these questions self-evident?

  4. says

    Well of course they’re better questions if you restate them.

    But, it’s not philosophical skepticism I’m talking about. It’s more like…movement skepticism. Fanboi skepticism. Libertarian skepticism.

  5. says

    Fair enough, but the distinction between “philosophical skepticism” and “movement skepticism” seems somewhat arbitrary. Moreover, a comprehensive answer to “Why should I do no harm?” would (probably) also suffice to answer “Does harm trump all other considerations when choosing a course of action?”, and vice versa. We shouldn’t penalize people for failing to couch their questions in terminology acceptable to the academy when the core concern is essentially the same.

  6. says

    Well first of all I have nothing to do with what’s acceptable to the academy.

    Second, no, the distinction isn’t arbitrary. Philosophical skepticism is quite radical; it doesn’t confine itself to Big Foot and homeopathy and the like.

    And I disagree about your claim about a comprehensive answer to “Why should I do no harm?”

    And finally, penalize? What penalty do you take me to be exacting here? And who are the people I’m penalizing?

  7. barbswire says

    The questions themselves may seem distasteful, but it is the answers that some “skeptics” give that are frightening, particularly those of libertarians and nihilists persuasion, that are particularly disturbing, and feed into the theist idea that atheists “have no morals”.

    I also don’t understand the concept of “penalizing” that was made by GG above, and exactly what the word penalty is referring to. If the “penalty” is criticism, then yes, they open themselves up to criticism, as we all do, when we open our mouths or write something. I don’t think potential criticism should be considered a “penalty” for speaking or writing, however.

    Yes, I would criticize some of those questions, in that the fact that some people would find it even necessary to ask them. They indicate a general immaturity. If they were being asked as a brain exercise, the more general questions as proposed by GG a few comments above would make far more sense.

  8. Minnow says

    But these are interesting questions, doesn’t just about all philosophy start with questions like these? Peter’ Singer’s latest book can pretty much be summed up with the question “Why should I care about the problems of people in Bangladesh or Somalia?” If the answer to that question were quite so transparent, I think we would see more people caring about people in Bangladesh or Somalia instead of, say, fighting to protect ‘American jobs’ against the ‘threat’ of immigration (hope that isn’t getting too libertarian there).

  9. aziraphale says

    These questions often come down to “Why should I respect other peoples’ rights?” But the people who ask them are often to be seen complaining that others are not respecting their rights. To which the obvious answer is “Why should we?”

  10. Saith says

    I knew a number of people in online gaming who had the attitude that their desires always overruled other people feelings. This led to the point where one of them claimed some individuals who had encouraged someone to commit suicide online should not carry any responsibility or feel guilty in the slightest. His answer, when I challenged this was that “If someone gets upset from something I say, its their fault for how they take it, not my fault for what I said”. He went on to state that he couldn’t care less if he reduced someone to tears (or worse) as they were entirely responsible for their reaction to his words.

    From my own personal experience this view of the world seems to be widespread online. The only difference between this individual and some people I’ve seen online is that he was quite willing to behave like that face to face with someone (we did ask him to let us know in future years how that worked out for him in the workplace) whereas I do wonder if a lot of people online would be quite so obnoxious offline.

  11. left0ver1under says

    It makes me despair that somebody could even think up such “questions”, never mind ask them.

    Why should I inconvenience myself to help someone else?

    Worse than this, some go out of their way to deliberately inconvenience people they had no reason to interact with. I didn’t have to think it up, I’ve seen people do it, as I’m sure others have as well.

  12. johnthedrunkard says

    ‘Skepticism’ has acquired the assumption of Libertarian ass hattery.

    There was a time when the label ‘Atheist’ carried the assumption of gullible Stalinist Communism, OR of sociopathic Randroid-ism.

    Is it possible to oppose ass hattery, gullibility, and sociopathy with uniform fervor? Isn’t that what real humanist ‘skepticism’ would look like?

  13. moarscienceplz says

    Actually, I think questions like these ARE useful, especially to us Americans with our mythos of the lone cowboy on the open range and the ‘self-made man’ (it’s always a man, isn’t it?) There are good, scientific reasons why Homo sapiens is a social animal, but that concept is often buried under our culture that so highly values self-actualization. A good explicit discussion of how we all depend on the goodwill of others, and of reciprocity and ‘paying it foreward’ could open a lot of eyes.

  14. says

    @ 11 and 17 – true. It is of course possible and useful to discuss these questions, but there’s a difference between the way Peter Singer would ask them and the way a fan of Ayn Rand would ask them.

  15. Shatterface says

    I’d be more convinced of the sincerity of philosophical skeptics of they also asked:

    Why should other people do me no harm?
    Why should other people care what I want?
    If it’s fun for me to make fun of fat people on the bus, why shouldn’t they make fun of me?
    If other people can trick me into giving them all my money to “invest” why shouldn’t they?
    If rapists enjoy non-consensual sex why should I object to being raped?
    If a priest was in position to abuse me as a child why should be be punished?
    Why should other people inconvenience themselves to help me?
    Why should other people worry about my working conditions in the factory where I make inexpensive Tshirts?
    Why should other people care about me if war breaks out or I’m victim of a natural catastrophe?

  16. says

    Skepticism is a filter. These are good example of philosophical skepticism that bring to mind why people choose to be skeptical. There are legitimate reasons and illegitimate reasons.

    We all build build a filter for choosing when to be skeptical over the course of our lives. The filter and the choices for engaging it in separate contexts are separate things and I find the subject of when people choose to be skeptical very interesting.

    Every single application of skepticism has a reason for it and I think the biggest defining characteristic involves how mindful a person is about why they are being skeptical. If I set up the extreme ends of a spectrum, people either determine if there are good reasons for applying skepticism in specific situations, or they are applying blanket hyper-skepticism.
    On one hand the person applying skepticism is doing so because the claim being made has characteristics that indicate that the claim needs more investigation before taking a person at their word (mindful skepticism).
    On the other end of the spectrum there is automatic detection of certain subjects, or opinions about subjects, that the person applying skepticism is sensitive to. For example the hyperskepticism about claims that make ones own political party look bad.

    These ends seem to have some other characteristics. Mindful skeptics can actually accurately describe what the person they are skeptical about is claiming. That is to say that mindful skeptics seem to be able to actually repeat a persons position back at them later instead of some caricature of their position. The hyper-skeptics don’t seem to actually consider what the object of their skepticism is actually saying. More often when I see these folks and line up what they say person A said with what person A actually said, they don’t match up at all.

  17. freemage says

    The need for re-phrasing to make these acceptable is, in fact, a key element of things, indicating that the questions are not asked out of ‘skepticism’, but out of a particularly selfish variety of cynicism. By narrowing the question down so that only others are affected by a failure to come up with a convincing ‘reason’, the askers are attempting to ensure their own privilege remains unchallenged and uncontested.

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