PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday January 16, 2014

 

Moral skepticism is the opposite of:

 

moral realism (df.): the view that there is such a thing as objective moral truth, i.e., moral judgments that are true (and others that are false) independent of what people think, feel or believe about them.

·         One may be a moral realist about all morality (this is “full blown” moral realism) or just about specific issues, such as rape (“limited” moral realism).

 

The LCDA concludes that: there is no objective truth as to whether infanticide is right or wrong; all there is with regard to infanticide is opinion. In other words, the LCDA is an argument in support of moral skepticism about infanticide and against moral realism about infanticide.

 

 

[2.8.3.] Is the LCDA a Sound Argument?

 

Since “sound” means: (a) having all true premises and (b) valid, we can split this question into two parts:

 

(a) Are both of the premises true?

(b) Is the argument valid?

 

If the answer to either question is “no”, then the argument is unsound, and we should reject it.

 

 

[2.8.4.] Rachels’ Criticism of the LCDA.

 

Rachels offers the following criticism of the LCDA (so far as I can tell, this criticism is accurate… the argument really does fail for the reason that Rachels describes):

 

The premises of the LCDA are both true. Each premise merely makes a factual psychological claim about what is believed by a specific group of people. The fact that these premises are about people’s beliefs does not make them subjective:

·         it is an objective fact about me that I believe Atlanta is the capitol of Georgia; and

·         it is an objective fact about most Americans that they believe that infanticide is immoral.

 

But the LCDA is invalid, i.e., the truth of the premises would not guarantee the truth of the conclusion.

 

The important thing is to understand why the truth of the premises would not guarantee the truth of the conclusion. The reason is this: In general, the fact that different groups of people have contradictory beliefs about x does not imply that there are no objective truths about x. It is possible for two groups to have conflicting beliefs about a subject, and for one of those groups to be right and the other to be wrong (or for both groups to be wrong).

 

The “shape of the earth” argument described by Rachels (argument 5, at RTD p.23) has the same flaw:

 

  1. Some people believe that the earth is round.
  2. Some other people believe that the earth is flat.
  3. Therefore, the earth is neither objectively round nor objectively flat; there is no objective fact of the matter, only beliefs about what shape the earth has.

 

This is invalid for the same reason as the LCDA: the fact that two groups of people disagree about something does not imply that there is no objective fact of the matter about it. The following argument is invalid for the exact same reason:

 

  1. Some people believe that Santa Claus exists.
  2. Some other people believe that Santa Claus does not exist.
  3. Therefore, Santa Claus neither exists nor fails to exist; there is no objective fact of the matter, only beliefs about whether or not he exists.

 

An important logical point: the fact that the LCDA is unsound does not imply that its conclusion is false. It just means that the argument is itself not a good argument for that conclusion. It may still be true that infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong.

 

However, since the LCDA is an invalid argument, those who believe that infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong need a better argument to support that claim.

 

As we have already seen, the fact that an argument is invalid does not mean that it has a false conclusion. It is easy to come up with unsound arguments for true conclusions, for example

 

Some NFL teams are named after a bird. (true)

The Atlanta Falcons are an NFL team. (true)

So, the Atlanta Falcons are named after a bird. (true)

 

This argument is unsound because it is invalid (the truth of the premises would not guarantee the truth of the conclusion). But it still has a true conclusion.

 

 

[2.9.] The Provability Argument.

 

The next argument Rachels considers is an argument in support of full-blown moral skepticism. In other words, it is an argument in support of moral skepticism about everything, not just about a single issue (like infanticide, abortion, capital punishment, etc.). If full-blown moral skepticism is true, then no action whatsoever is objectively immoral... not even rape, torture, or killing innocent people for fun.

 

This argument is at RTD p.25 (I have changed the wording to make it clearer):

 

1.      If there is objective truth in ethics, then we can prove some moral opinions true and others false.

2.      But we cannot prove any moral opinions true or false.

3.      Therefore, there is no objective truth in ethics.

 

 

[2.9.1.] Valid or Invalid?

 

The Provability Argument is valid. It has the following argument form:

 

1.      If p, then q.

2.      Not-q. [This premise denies the q portion of the first premise.]

3.      Therefore, not-p.

 

And any argument that has this form is valid. It does not matter what propositions you fill in for “p” and “q”; so long as both “p”s are replaced with the same proposition and both “q”s are replaced with the same proposition, the resulting argument will be valid. For example,

 

 

1.      If Atlanta is the capital of Georgia, then the moon is made of cheese.

2.      The moon is not made of cheese.

3.      Therefore, Atlanta is not the capital of Georgia.

 

This is a valid argument, even though one of its premises is false.

 

This argument form has a name: modus tollens. We will return to this argument form, and consider other argument forms that are similar to it, in a few days.

 

 

[2.9.2.] Rachels’ Criticism of the Provability Argument.

 

According to Rachels, the Provability Argument is unsound because the second premise is false.

 

He argues that we can prove moral claims to be true, and he gives a number of examples of moral opinions that he thinks we CAN prove to be true:

·         that a test was unfair

·         that “Jones is a bad man”

·         that “Dr. Smith is irresponsible”

·         that “A certain used-car salesman is unethical.”

 

We can prove that a test is unfair by showing that it has nothing to do with the class content, is too long for any student to finish, that it does not follow the study guide that the professor provided for the test, etc. And we can prove that Jones is a bad person by showing that he is a habitual liar, that he abuses his wife and children, that he tortures puppies for fun, and so on.

 

Discussion: is Rachels right to say that we can prove these claims to be true? Is there are difference between proving a moral claim and simply providing good reasons to believe it?

 

But even if Rachels’ criticism is right and the second premise of the Argument is false, this does not mean that the conclusion of the Provability Argument (full-blown moral skepticism) is false. As we saw previously, the fact that an argument is unsound does not imply that its conclusion is false. It might be an unsound argument for a true conclusion.

 

So the defender of full-blown moral skepticism needs to give a better argument if he or she is to convince us that that theory is true.

 

 

Stopping point for Thursday January 16. For next time, study the lecture notes from today, and begin reading EMP ch.2 (pp.14-22 only). You may have a pop quiz on both at the beginning of class.

 

YOUR FIRST EXAM IS TUESDAY FEBRUARY 4. The study guide is now on the class website.

 

 




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