There is such a thing as skepticism about morality


I’d better go back to the beginning, and explain very carefully, for the inattentive. (Not you, obviously.)

There is such a thing as skepticism about morality. There really is. There are people who ask why we should care about [the poor, immigrants, people who fall through the cracks, victims of natural disasters, all of the above in Bangladesh or Ethiopia or DR Congo, animals, climate change, future generations, other people’s children, schools, famines, droughts, factories that collapse, slave labor, forced marriage, stonings, for example]. There are people who ask why we shouldn’t just take as much as we can of everything for ourselves or for ourselves and our families or for ourselves and our tribe. There are people who say we shouldn’t care, and we should take as much as we can. Those are all claims, about morality, and people make them.

Apparently I didn’t make that clear enough (because I thought anyone who bothered to read this blog would already know it).

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Sara E. Mayhew @saramayhew

Ophelia Benson is fed up with skepticism thinking it answers all questions, like “why should I care?” Um, skepticism is for CLAIMS. #idjit

Skepticism is for claims, humanism is for morals. This is why #atheismplus is stupid.

See? Obviously I didn’t explain carefully enough, because that’s completely uncomprehending. I didn’t say skepticism thinks it answers all questions. I said it asks questions like “why should I care?” and that it’s not skepticism that can answer them. That’s really…quite different.

There are skeptics who think the whole concept of “morals” is bullshit. More skepticism isn’t the way to convince them otherwise. Skepticism isn’t the boss of all claims, and morality doesn’t float free of all claims. It’s not that easy.

Comments

  1. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Wait, TED Fellow Sara Mayhew isn’t smart enough to realise that you can combine the two, i.e. make a claim about morality? Good grief. She really should stick to…whatever it is she does when she’s not making ridiculous gaffe after ridiculous gaffe.

  2. Al Dente says

    I keep getting the idea that Sara E. Mayhew is not the sharpest knife on the Christmas tree (or some such simile).

  3. ajb47 says

    Is skepticism for claims like people shouldn’t hurt other people?

    What you highlight from this person is a constant stream of vapidity.

  4. Stacy says

    Have you been praying Voltaire’s prayer, Ophelia? Because if you have, I may need to rethink this “atheism” business.

  5. Minnow says

    And we should take a skeptical approach to morality, no? At least sometimes. It really is worthwhile asking if our intuitions really tell us anything meaningful. Nietzsche made a career of it.

  6. voidhawk says

    Does Sara not realise that if you make a claim about morality (We shouldn’t care about [insert cause here]) then it becomes something we can evaluate critically, even skeptically? Why are some outposts of the skeptic community so dedicated to debating obscure, boring topics like UFOs and crop circles and ignoring the rest of the world which scepticism can be used to evaluate?

  7. says

    There are people who ask why we shouldn’t just take as much as we can of everything for ourselves or for ourselves and our families or for ourselves and our tribe. There are people who say we shouldn’t care, and we should take as much as we can. Those are all claims, about morality, and people make them.

    And the proper answer to such claims (whether or not you call it a “skeptical” answer) is: If that’s how you feel, move to Somalia.

  8. says

    …ignoring the rest of the world which scepticism can be used to evaluate?

    Important quibble: rational enquiry is what we use to evaluate and understand the Universe. Skepticism is a subset of rational enquiry, not the whole system.

  9. says

    At our last local Skepticamp, there was a talk about smart giving, ie. how to research charities and allocate your giving so as to achieve the greatest bang for the buck. Things like: look at overhead costs (some orgs have shockingly high ones), realize that there’s a processing cost associated with every gift (so give more $$, less often, to fewer targets).

    Seems every bit as Skeptical[tm] as checking out medical therapies and religious sects.

  10. left0ver1under says

    One common criticism of religion is, “Funny how your ‘god’ wants the same things you do.”

    The same could be said about morality. Some people’s definitions end up being self-justification about what they want for themselves.

  11. aziraphale says

    There are people who say we shouldn’t care, and we should take as much as we can.

    I know. I was one for a while, when I swallowed Atlas Shrugged whole, in College as an 18-year-old. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  12. says

    Al Dente @4:
    A non-native-english-speaking friend of mine made up a similar one that I’ve used ever since: “not the sharpest axe in the kitchen.”

  13. says

    For an example of skepticism applied to moral questions, see Jadehawk’s latest post on FHM: http://feministhivemind.com/?p=929
    It deals with claims about the concept of personal choice, and how that plays out society, and skeptically analyzes one common model.

    Whether or not one agrees with Jadehawk’s specific arguments, the point is: it’s shallow thinking to wall off a huge and important field of human experience from skeptical inquiry (unless you’re going to arbitrarily define “skepticism” as applying only to Bigfoot and quack-med, and use some other term for reasoning in sociology and politics).

  14. screechymonkey says

    left0ver 1under @16:

    One common criticism of religion is, “Funny how your ‘god’ wants the same things you do.”

    The same could be said about morality. Some people’s definitions end up being self-justification about what they want for themselves.

    I thought you were going to say “the same could be said about skepticism.” It does seem like many people’s definition of skepticism is “critical inquiry into ideas I don’t like” and isn’t applicable to anything they like, aren’t interested in, or have incentives (religious donors) to leave alone.

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