Thursday, 14 April 2011

A brief defence of moral skepticism

The point about skeptical consequentialism - is that there's nothing over and above the biologically or psychologically harmful consequences that marks something as wrong. It's a bit otiose. Here's an example. "The man was murdered and that was bad." Well, we know that murder involves a bad consequence, so what does saying "and it was bad" add to it? We have the full description in saying he was murdered. Adding "and it was bad" is irrelevant. 

Take another example. Rape, say, - I mean - that's sufficient as a description of what occurred. Adding "and it was wrong" seems to add nothing to the facts of the matter, apart from perhaps something like this: Maybe by "and it was wrong" one means something like "and it ought to have not been done". But what does "ought" mean? Does it mean, perhaps "is expected to"? Ok, so "it is expected to not have been done". Well, that doesn't quite work, so maybe - "is expected by me to have been" - so "and I expect it to have not been done" is probably the only translation of "is wrong" here. But so what if your expectations aren't met? What relevance do your gut-reactions (the "reactive attitudes") or expectations have to a murderer/rapist? If he cared about the opinions of unacquainted third parties such as yourself, he'd not perform his act. Yet he performs it. 

So again, what do we mean "and it was wrong" other than "and it was biologically or psychologically harmful"? But we know rape and murder are those things - we don't need to add that. It's like saying "it was water and it was wet". It's redundant. Anyway. There's the brief explanation.

There is also a psychologist's point - that Nietzsche makes. Moral posturing is an attempt to set oneself up as a power, as an authority - a bastion of respectability. By comparison, those whom we condemn are the lower ones, the ones we are superior to. So is moral posturing not merely a crude simian behaviour? Chest-beating? I think it may be that, in addition to being otiose.

Obviously, this argument does not justify morally "bad" actions. Nor is it saying they ought to be tolerated. No. It is merely saying, again, with Nietzsche, that there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena.


Now, regarding the reactive attitudes, proof by potency also does not work. We're not allowed to say "my gut tells me this is wrong" or "I react adversely to this action, so it must be wrong". That's proof of nothing more than conditioning or instincts. It's not proof of universal moral truths.


But now do not mistake this position for relativism. Relativism does not deny that there's a right and a wrong; it merely places the right or wrong within a limited social context. Skepticism denies that there is any kind of way we can make sense of "right" or "wrong" other than with redundancies such as "it was bad and it was harmful", or, with mysticism, eg "God ordained it," or with gut reactions, instincts.


If we accept, as some naturalists, such as Dawkins, do, that instincts are proof of a moral code being naturally bred into us - eg chimpanzee social behaviour - then we're guilty of a naturalist fallacy, viz that the natural is the right. But if the natural is the right, then we have to discard human culture. And in fact, I believe that many moral injunctions, apart from very basic ones such as against murder, incest and theft, are cultural. Theft may be cultural too. I can easily imagine a culture which does not have a concept of property. However, anyone watching a dog protecting his bone would disagree.

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