For some two and a half millennia Philosophical Skepticism and Moral Philosophy have been locked in constant dialogue. Like an old couple who never could agree upon much, they have in many ways come to define each other. In this short essay I will examine the ancient “trunk” of Skeptical ideas as well as some of their more relevant offshoots in moral theory today, namely Individual and Cultural Relativism. At the end of each section I will highlight the specific problems posed to Moral Philosophy, and offer a brief rebuttal on its behalf.
Skepticism and Morality
While many variations of Skepticism have arisen through the ages, its basic tendency, to doubt the existence and accessibility of objective truth, has persisted since its birth:
Pyrrho declared that  things are equally indifferent, unmeasurable and inarbitrable. For this reason  neither our sensations nor our opinions tell us truths or falsehoods. Therefore, for this reason we should not put our trust in them one bit, but we should be unopinionated, uncommitted and unwavering, saying concerning each individual thing that it no more is than is not, or it both is and is not, or it neither is nor is not (Eusebius Bk.14 Ch.18).
The skeptic’s position is essentially thus: we may or may not have access to objective knowledge (that is, knowledge of things as they are in themselves, independent of human perception) via our senses and mental faculties. Because we cannot escape or “get outside of” our own limited perspectives, however, we have no way of knowing how accurately our perceptions of the world represent the world as it is in itself. Poet William Blake wrote “[man] sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern,” expressing many skeptics’ view that our powers of perception are likely quite dim relative to the vast and complex truths of the world in itself. For most skeptics, though, even the notion of “the world in itself” lacks corroboration, as anyone who has alluded to it has necessarily done so from a perspective. In other words, the idea of objective reality has only ever been inferred from subjective accounts. This observation has led some skeptics to deny the existence of objective truth altogether, stating instead that “man is the measure of all things,” as Protagoras did in the 4th century B.C.E. This proposition may be considered the foundation of relativism, which will be discussed in more detail below.
Though not a skeptic himself, philosopher Rene Descartes produced perhaps the most radical illustration of Skepticism’s challenge to modern philosophy. Descartes wished to arrive at a sound, certain, indubitable foundation upon which to build a new, more scientifically correct worldview. To this end he sought to raze all existing opinions which could in any way be doubted:
…reason now persuades me that I should withhold my assent no less carefully from opinions that are not completely certain and indubitable than I would from those that are patently false. For this reason, it will suffice for the rejection of all of these opinions, if I find in each of them some reason for doubt (Descartes 18).
He then goes on to demonstrate that every one of his opinions and observations can in fact be cast into doubt and rejected, save that of his own existence. Hence, his famous “cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am” statement. His senses were left open to doubt due to the possibility of dream states (or one can imagine other false realities such as those in the Matrix movies), his faculty of reason can be doubted due to the possible manipulations of some kind of demon, “an evil genius, supremely powerful and clever,” etc. While philosophers tend to find this kind of Skepticism generally useless, few of them
argue with its rational coherence.
The consequences of Skepticism for Moral Philosophy should by now be obvious: if objective moral knowledge is either nonexistent or inaccessible (or both), then what sense is there in attempting to discern it? The simplest answer may lie in the question itself: to say the skeptic generally withholds judgment about truth is not to say that it cannot be known or ought not be sought. Furthermore, despite doubts about the nature of truth, we as agents still have to make daily decisions about how to behave in the world. According to skeptic David Hume, we need not fear skeptical philosophy “should ever undermine the reasonings of common life, and carry its doubts so far as to destroy all action…” (Hume 85). Thus while Skepticism may threaten Moral Philosophy at the height of abstract thought, it has trouble following it down into “the reasonings of common life,” where it is thought to be most useful.
The Problem of Relativism
Relativism may be defined as the position that knowledge, specifically moral knowledge, is relative to either cultural or individual standards and not to objective or universal standards. In other words, moral codes are defined not by one people, God, or methodology, but by various cultures and persons for themselves. Take for example the observation that “the Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callations believed it was right to eat the dead” (Sher 197). Rather than arguing that one or both of these codes must necessarily be incorrect (as would be the case in a world of universal morality), the cultural relativist would say simply: “eating the dead is wrong for the Greeks and right for the Callations.” The same principle may also be applied at the level of the individual; some acts may be right for person X and wrong for person Y, depending on their individual conceptions of morality.
Relativism follows from Skepticism in that doubt about the existence and accessibility of objective truth naturally leads one to search elsewhere for the origins of truth and meaning. According to philosopher James Rachels, however, many relativists move in the opposite direction, from the observation of seemingly irreconcilable value differences to the belief that no objective truth exists. This conclusion, he rightly notes, does not follow from the premises. Moreover, as the skeptic would point out, the flat denial of the existence of objective truth is itself a claim on objective truth. Or, from the other side of the coin, “all truth is relative” comes as a universal statement about truth holding that no statements about truth are universal. Some forgive these apparent contradictions, and to many relativists these refutations of Relativism’s arguments miss the point.
Somewhat ironically, Relativism’s attacks on meta-narratives – from human Progress to theories of good and evil – more closely resemble moral outcries than logical proofs: “different strokes for different strokes” has been a common pro-tolerance banner in the United States since the 1960s. “Cultural Relativism warns us, quite rightly, about the danger of assuming that all of our preferences are based on some absolute rational standard…they may be nothing more than the result of cultural conditioning…[and] can reflect the prejudices of our society” (Sher 203).
As Relativism has been equated with tolerance and multicultural understanding, so too has it been associated with moral paralysis and indifference. “Relativism,” says philosopher Allan Bloom, “has extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life” (Bloom 34). He goes on: “Avoiding [prejudice] is one of the main purposes of education. But trying to prevent it by removing the authority of men’s reason is to render ineffective the instrument that can correct their prejudices… To deny the possibility of good and bad is to suppress true openness” (Bloom 40). This “true openness,” according to Bloom, has been supplanted by an “openness of indifference,” whereby
relativistic thinking has neutered a generation of its motivation for critical judgment and ultimately self-determination.
Philosopher Robert Kane also views Relativism as a kind of logical misstep from the virtues of openness and tolerance, and states that they may very well lead us in the complete opposite direction:
[Openness] can be a way of expanding our minds beyond our own limited perspectives. It can be an effort to find out what is true from every perspective (universally true), not just what is true from our own perspective. Openness and tolerance to other points of view, so conceived, becomes a way of searching for the objective truth about values under conditions of pluralism and uncertainty rather than a denial of that objective truth” (Kane 217).
To the relativist this “pluralism and uncertainty” that marks our place in time is a sign that the quest for absolute knowledge was an illusion; to others, as Kane has demonstrated above, it is an opportunity for much to be learned.
Arthur, John. Morality and Moral Controversies: Readings in Moral, Social, and Political Philosophy, 6th Edition. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2002.
Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.
Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Donald A. Cress. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1993.
Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica, translated by Long, A.A (Author), Sedley, D.N. (Author). The Hellenistic Philosophers. Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Open Court Publishing, Chicago and La Salle, 1988.
Kane, Robert. “Values, Responsibility, and Ethics” Course Reader. University of Texas, Austin, 2007.
Sher, George. Moral Philosophy: Selected Readings, 2nd Edition. Wadsworth Group, Stamford, CT, 2001
Stumpf, Samual Enoch. Elements of Philosophy: An Introduction, 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill,Inc., 1993.