Friday, April 25, 2014

Review of Disagreement and Skepticism

The latest issue of Mind (122, Oct. 2013) includes Stephen Wright’s review of Disagreement and Skepticism (Routledge 2013), which I edited. I’d like to say something about the reviewer’s main concern (something I told him before the review was published). He says: “Given the book’s aim to differentiate itself from other collections on disagreement by tightly focusing on the relationship between disagreement and skepticism, one might question the inclusion of the significance of disagreement for a debate that is about anti-realism rather than skepticism.” He then adds: “In the same way that a traditional skeptic would not want to suggest that we lack knowledge of the external world because there are no suitably external facts to be known, a moral skeptic might thus also be reluctant to hold that the reason that we lack moral knowledge is because there are no moral facts.” And at the end of the review, he states: “Including the significance of disagreement for the dispute between moral realists and moral anti-realists, given the volume’s stated theme, thus remains surprising.”

Although I perfectly understand the reviewer’s point, we should remember that the label ‘moral skepticism’ is sometimes used to describe moral anti-realism or moral nihilism. The clearest example is John Leslie Mackie’s ‘moral error theory’, which claims that, though moral judgments are truth-apt, they area all false because there are no objective moral values, properties, or facts (see, e.g., p. 10 of the “Editor’s Introduction”). In his famous 1977 book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (which I cite in the “Editor’s Introduction” and in my own chapter, and which is also cited in Tersman’s and Adams’s chapters), Mackie calls his view ‘moral skepticism’. Note also that this kind of position is referred to by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong as a variety of moral skepticism both in his book Moral Skepticisms (OUP, 2006) and in his entry on moral skepticism in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He calls this variety of skepticism ‘skepticism about moral reality’. For those involved in the discussion of skepticism in metaethics, calling such a view ‘skepticism’ is not odd at all. That view is considered skeptical because it undermines people’s beliefs about morality by claiming either that all of our positive moral beliefs are false because there are no objective moral properties (Mackie) or that they are all neither true nor false because the moral facts they presuppose do not exist (Richard Joyce). I admit that some might be reluctant to call the position in question ‘skepticism’, but it is a fact that it is called that way in the literature, and I think it makes perfect sense to call that way. (In this regard, let me point out that, as I make clear in the volume, from the perspective of Pyrrhonian skepticism, several views we call ‘skepticism’ are not as a matter of fact skeptical: e.g., contemporary external world skepticism is not really skepticism because it asserts that we lack knowledge of the external world.) I therefore do not think that discussion of the implications of disagreement for the moral realism/anti-realism debate is a surprising inclusion at all.

No comments:

Post a Comment