• Everything!

    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:

    1. Skeptics assent unquestioningly to moral propositions of the form “You must not [commit atrocities against humans]” without stopping to ask for further evidence.
    2. 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.


    Category: Counter-Apologetics

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.

    2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Ophelia Benson asserts unquestioningly that skeptics unquestioningly accept moral propositions. How do you know that most atheists haven’t questioned moral propositions, at least with an internal dialog, Ophelia?. I rather thought that lots of skeptics rejected the idea of objective moral absolutes and are perfectly aware that our morals are guided by balancing many unquantifiable factors. There is also the issue that our evolved emotional responses mitigate against being able to live with coldly derived morality based on nothing but calculations of the greater good. For instance, would you sacrifice 1000 people now to prevent a 75% chance of losing 5000? We might, in that instance, take what seems to be the path that results in more suffering because we feel that we would lose something of ourselves in the process of doing otherwise.

      This is standard Ophelia. She asserts whatever will support the self-serving argument she is making.

      • I’m not particularly interesting in profiling Ophelia or making generalisations about her as a person. That way lies the circumstantial ad hominem, or worse…

      • Fair enough, although I don’t think I profiled her as a person. I would say that I profiled what I see as a pattern to the way she argues of late.

        Propositions such as “you should not commit genocide” have certainly been discussed extensively. I would wager that most active skeptics have at least thought this through and come to the conclusion that acceptance of such propositions promotes better societies using what they have concluded as the best possible yardstick. What Ophelia is doing is slipping feminism in there as equivalent to the other propositions without doing the work of specifying a form of feminism that we could broadly agree as just and also without bothering to demonstrate that that form of feminism is indeed rejected by skeptics at large.

        I fail to see how Ophelia can believe moral propositions have been adopted without examination. If she thinks that, then surely she should be making an argument for better skeptical examination of moral propositions.

    • David Brunton

      So now there are two high up members of the A+ crowd who reject skepticism.

    • qbsmd

      I just read Benson’s article. She didn’t say it explicitly, so I’m assuming this is a reaction to anyone who has claimed incompatibility between skepticism and feminism or stated that skepticism needs to be applied to feminism.

      It demonstrates a common misunderstanding between the “sides”: “Feminism” in used in two different ways making equivocation between them easy. It is commonly claimed that feminism just refers to gender equality (“feminism is the radical idea that women are people”), and just as commonly refers to “feminism 101”, patriarchy, rape culture, objectification, all the things we should magically know are harassment, etc.

      Criticisms of feminism are almost always (we have to leave the exception for religious fundamentalists) related to the second meaning, but commonly misinterpreted as being related to the first. A comment about being skeptical of feminism is intended to refer to the fact claims (e.g. patriarchy) associated with the second meaning of feminism. Benson’s entire post is a misunderstanding of those comments as being related to the first meaning of feminism involving only a basic humanist ethical claim.

      • Agreed. Skepticism and feminism can peacefully coexist, so long as feminists allow skeptics to be skeptical of feminist claims.

        I’d love to skeptically examine some of the claims made in Feminism 101, but I’m afraid that doing so will generate far more heat than light, no matter how hard I try to keep things even keel.

        Then again, it can be very difficult to pin 101 down to the sorts of claims that can be evaluated using data instead of anecdotes and lived experiences. Might not be worth having a go.

      • qbsmd

        “doing so will generate far more heat than light”

        I understand your concern but the existence of skeptical analyses of feminist ideas would also make it harder for people like Benson to claim that skeptics have a problem with basic equality.

        “it can be very difficult to pin 101 down to the sorts of claims that can be evaluated using data”

        That’s probably a good one-sentence description of the incompatibility between skepticism and feminism to start with. I recall Randi saying something similar about Million Dollar Challenge applicants having trouble making precise testable claims.

        Maybe the solution is to have a thread soliciting feminist ideas that are problematic for skeptics, and compiling them into a list that feminists associated with the skeptics movement can defend or discuss at their leisure. The list could be broken into data analysis questions (such as crime statistics), questions about whether a topic can be analyzed with data (is the concept of patriarchy falsifiable?), and cultural issues (free inquiry vs. safe spaces, ‘no right not to be offended’ vs. trigger warnings).

      • I like that solution. Look for that post over the weekend.

      • Clare45

        I like it too. Let’s see a good list of Feminism 101 claims. Don’t just tell us to Google it or look it up, as I do not think this list will be be found on any feminist websites. Let us also look at Feminism issues in other parts of the world for comparison. Does the patriarchy problem exist to the same extent in European countries compared to the U.S, for example? Are there really more rapes of women than of men and young boys when you take the prison population into account (as Dawkins recently pointed out)? How many women actually attend secular events? How many of them actually feel unsafe or harassed?
        We can get even more technical by examining questions such as “Are there any real inherent psychological differences between men and women, or is it a continuum?” Do sex hormones or X or Y chromosomes have any affect on sexual behaviour and preferences? Do women behave like women because they are given dolls and pink ponies to play with as children? Are most women physically weaker than most men? Does it matter in the army now that weapons are lighter? I could go on….

      • Karmakin

        Both sides in this thing, I think, agree with the basic moral concepts going on here…that women are people too and should be treated equally. There might be a few people out there who don’t agree with that, but they’re a vast minority. (not too many TradCon Atheists/Skeptics out there, although they’re not nonexistent) However, there’s a fundamental difference in how to get there.

        One side, I call the Egalitarian side, believes that we should just treat gender as non-prescriptive as we can, to treat all people based upon their own individual personalities and merits and all that. The other side, I call the anti-egalitarian side (note that feminism doesn’t play into either term. There are egalitarian feminists and anti-egalitarian feminists who have vastly different beliefs) believes that the structural, systematic and cultural bias against women is too large to be overcome and as such we need to actively treat women better in order to even the playing field.

        I’m actually somewhere in the middle of this (as I actually suspect most people are). Where there is a systematic bias, I think we really should or should have (if we’ve already done it, which is the case for a LOT of things) change it. Again, I think most people agree with this. But we need to look at it on a case by case basis. And because we’re talking about social situations, it’s horribly complex. So there’s a lot to be skeptical about, one way or the other.

        But one thing I find among anti-egalitarians, is that they often have very little to no interest in that sort of sausage making. The “patriarchy” explains it all and that’s just that.

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    • ahermit

      Seems to me you’re actually making the same point Benson was; ie we don’t apply rigorous scientific skepticism to every proposition.

      • We can all agree that scientific skepticism, by definition, cannot apply beyond scientifically testable propositions.

        That said, when “movement” skeptics (like myself) say things like “you have to be skeptical of everything” what we usually mean is that one should inquire as to what the good reasons are for believing any given proposition. That is a broader form of skepticism, call it what you will.

        If the proposition put forth is a scientifically testable claim, we can apply scientific scepticism. If we are dealing with a moral proposition, however, then we’re going to have to talk about the values and metaethics of the interlocutors themselves. This is far harder, sometimes, since the objective truths available to scientific inquiry don’t tell individuals what they should ultimately value, only how to get there.

      • ahermit

        …which is exactly what Benson was saying…isn;t it?

      • Nope.

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