Moral Skepticism

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Moral Skepticism

Moral skepticism denies the existence of morality. It is supported by a variety of arguments that deny morality’s existence, prove that morality is arbitrary, and/or prove that people have no reason to act moral.

Strategic Value

Skepticism is strategic for a variety of reasons. First, because every affirmative appeals to morality, skepticism is a generic argument that can be applied to any debate without topic-specific or even round-specific preparation—it can be read against policy, philosophy, and kritikal affirmatives. This allows debaters to master the argument in a time-efficient manner. Second, it is a very defensible position from a logical standpoint because it is generally easier to prove there is a fatal flaw with a moral theory as opposed to proving that an entire moral theory is true. In the context of answering another framework with skepticism, that means general indicts as to why the opposing framework fails are sufficient to win the framework debate rather than also needing to prove the truth of your own framework.

Conceptualizing Moral Skepticism

The morality of actions (such as the resolution) is typically divided into the three categories of obligatory, prohibited, and permissible. If an action is obligatory, you ought to do it; it would be immoral not to take the action. Since LD resolutions are typically phrased as “ought” statements, such as “states ought to ban lethal autonomous weapons,” it is often argued that the affirmative debater must defend that the resolution is obligatory. Prohibited actions are actions that would be immoral to take. For instance, murder is immoral and therefore morally prohibited. Permissible actions are actions that are neither obligatory nor permissible. Instead, they are morally neutral – neither good nor bad. Actions such as looking out of a window or drawing a pigeon are categorized as permissible because they don’t have any influence on morality.

Because skepticism proves that morality does not exist, it implies that every action is morally permissible. It would be impossible for any action, including the resolution, to be morally good or bad (i.e., obligatory or prohibited) if there is no such thing as morality. The common terminology for this implication that all actions are permissible is that skepticism “triggers permissibility.” The debater reading skepticism then wins that permissibility either means that the judge would affirm or negate.

Skepticism is typically read by the negative debater because it is easier to win that permissibility negates. This is because the negative can argue that the affirmative defending an “ought” statement (as most resolutions are written) means that the affirmative must prove an obligation, and an action cannot be both obligatory and permissible; thus, permissibility is sufficient to disprove the “ought” statement and negate.

To recap, the premises of moral skepticism typically follow as such: moral skepticism is true --> the resolution is permissible --> permissibility affirms/negates. The following section will explain a few common arguments that prove the first premise of moral skepticism.

Arguments for Moral Skepticism

Determinism is an argument that the future is completely set in stone and humans do not have free will. This is typically based on arguments from logic, physics, and neuroscience. It argues that since free will is necessary for moral responsibility, moral responsibility does not exist.

External world skepticism (a.k.a. Cartesian skepticism, empirical uncertainty) questions what we know about the world around us. When people dream or hallucinate, they often don’t know that they aren’t experiencing reality. However, there is no way to verify that we are not in the exact same position. We could be in a simulation, be deceived by a mad scientist to think our experiences are real, etc., and we can never actually determine what reality is since our senses are unreliable.

Linguistic skepticism is a branch of skepticism that argues that language is meaningless. Thus, a statement like the resolution cannot be proven to be true.

Infinite regress argues that one can infinitely question why we ought to be moral. For instance, a utilitarianism would argue we ought to strive towards pleasure. Why? Because pleasure is desirable. Why is pleasure desirable? Because biologically, dopamine is released into our system upon experiencing pleasurable experiences. Why should we listen to our body's natural properties? At that point, the utilitarian framework does not seem to have a clear answer, and as a result, would fail to derive a reason why following the standard is good.

The is/ought gap (a.k.a. naturalistic fallacy, Darwinian dilemma) is the argument that humans can only have knowledge of what is happening, not what ought to happen. For example, proving that humans pursue pleasure and avoid pain can only prove that we have evolved to do so, not necessarily that it is moral.

Moral divergence (a.k.a. moral disagreement) proves that we have been arguing over the correct moral theory for thousands of years. If anything, debate over which moral theory is correct has been getting more broad, and we are not moving towards any unified consensus of what is moral. Therefore, it seems unlikely that any objective truth exists.

Paradoxes are arguments loosely related to skepticism that are based on why the resolution would be logically impossible or contradictory. They are often considered to be tricks.

Solipsism makes a similar argument as external world skepticism. It posits that you can only be certain that your own consciousness exists. Other people may act like conscious agents, but they could, for example, be hyper-realistic robots that act without consciousness – the opponent must prove that other consciousnesses exist. Solipsism implies that morality is irrelevant because there does not exist anyone else for morality to apply to.

Skepticism Triggers

Moral skepticism is not always read as a full off-case position. Instead, debaters can “trigger” skepticism, arguing that their opponent’s framework fails to generate moral obligation. For instance, a debater responding to utilitarianism can choose to make the is/ought gap argument while responding to arguments about pleasure instead of reading it as part of a skepticism NC. This makes the skeptic argument less developed but more time efficient. For more information, see this page on skepticism triggers.

Common Objections

Debaters responding to skepticism often argue that it is morally repugnant. Since a skeptic would argue that morality does not exist, they are unable to condemn actions, including moral atrocities, such as genocide. Although this argument is persuasive in front of some judges, it is logically invalid since calling a concept "morally repugnant" presupposes that morality exists in the first place. Since skepticism denies morality existing, one could not leverage morality as a reason to reject the framework.

Pascal’s Wager is the argument against skepticism that we should act morally in case there is a chance we are wrong about skepticism. There are no negative effects from not adhering to skepticism if it is true since every action would be neutral, but there would be negative effects from adhering to skepticism if morality does exist. This argument functions better under a comparative worlds role of the ballot than a truth testing role of the ballot.

Other Resources


Moral Skepticism (Philosophy Basics)

Moral Skepticism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Determinism (Conceptually)

Samples Cases

Skepticism NC.docx