Earlier today, Ophelia Benson had a go at the breadth of skepticism in a post titled “Everything?” on her blog. Her argument seems to be something like this:
- Skeptics assent unquestioningly to moral propositions of the form “You must not [commit atrocities against humans]” without stopping to ask for further evidence.
- Checkmate, skeptics!
I may have missed out a step there, but that seems to pretty much cover it. My answer to this is twofold.
Firstly, a hardcore scientific sceptic will tell you that they don’t do moral reasoning while operating as a scientific skeptic, but rather by doing some other form of reasoning altogether. They might do it as a utilitarian, a secular humanist, an egoist, or even (*gasp*) a divine command theorist. Yes, there are theists who practice scientific scepticism with the part of their mind not dedicated to operating on faith. I know that sounds weird, but I’ve met a few, and come to think of it, I’ve been there myself.
Secondly, for those who are thinking of methodological skepticism as the general practice of demanding reasons for assenting to propositions of any sort, it’s relatively easy to combine that sort of skepticism with ethical reasoning, and indeed, it is difficult for me to imagine doing the latter without the former. Suppose that someone is a consequentialist, the sort of person who seeks to maximize human flourishing and minimize human suffering. If you ask them, “Why is it wrong to kill all the Jews?” they could answer straightforwardly in terms of their own values and goals, “It would cause a massive amount of human suffering, without bringing about any advancement in human flourishing.” By giving a reason to act morally in terms of their own values and goals, they are doing ethical reasoning while doing skepticism in the broader sense.
Finally, a quick word on being “extra skeptical of anti-egalitarian arrangements.” Of course, we should be quite skeptical of them, but in doing so we should recognize that we are most likely doing ethical reasoning rather than scientific inquiry. To give a quick example, it is clearly anti-egalitarian for powerful corporations to sell homeopathic remedies (which they know have no medical effect beyond that of a placebo) to unempowered consumers who don’t know any better. In debunking the proposition that homeopathy actually works, we are doing scientific scepticism. In critiquing the immorality of the producers in putting profits before people, we are doing ethics. The toolboxes available to debunk scientific claims are very different than those we must use to test moral claims, but we should demand appropriate reasons in either domain.