Three Ways to Answer Skepticism

In debate we use the term “skepticism” to refer to a broad set of arguments which conclude that no sound normative conclusions can be drawn. It is therefore never appropriate, the argument goes, to say that a given action or policy is morally right or wrong.
Arguments with skeptical conclusions go in and out of fashion in LD. Right now you see them most often intertwined with permissibility debates. “If nothing is prohibited then everything is permissible.” That is a highly questionable conclusion, but not directly the subject of this article. My hope is to give you a set of intuitive answers to skeptical arguments without the need to resort to theory.

Caveat: These answers should not be a substitute for research. There is voluminous scholarly commentary on the various forms of skepticism which you should absolutely dive into if you want to be at your best when answering skeptical positions. Most of the answers I suggest below exist in a more sophisticated form in the literature, so please, no “Torson 2012” cards.

1. It’s defense.

Skepticism, by its nature, cannot prescribe an action. To say that debaters, judges, or the agent in the resolution “ought” to do anything is inconsistent with its basic conclusion, which is that there are no valid “ought” statements.

Put yourself in Peter Singer’s famous drowning child scenario. You walk by a pond and see a drowning child in it. Option A is to save the child, option B is to do nothing. An angel pops up on your left shoulder and says “There is a near universal intuition that pain is a moral evil, so you should try to minimize the amount of pain in the world. Saving this drowning child would reduce the amount of pain in the world, so you should save her.” A devil pops up on your right shoulder and says “You can’t know for sure that there are any objective moral rules.” At this point, it seems to me, you have no good reason not to save the child. You have a reason to save the child which may or may not be true, but no argument as to why the preferable alternative is not saving the child.

In other words, the skeptical claim is just defense. It points to the probability that an advocacy may be unjustified, but all offensive arguments might be untrue. A dubious reason to choose option A is more compelling than the absence of a reason to choose option B.

2. Debaters can’t escape normative claims.

“There are no valid ought-statements, therefore you ought to vote for the negative.” The contradiction is apparent. Debaters cannot avoid making normative claims that are essential to their ballot story. At the very least they are assuming a paradigm for evaluating arguments and picking a winner that itself includes normative underpinnings. There may be ways to resolve this apparent contradiction, but those trying to do so will have to do some fancy footwork. Press on these tensions in cross-ex to highlight the double-bind. Either skepticism is false or their ballot story doesn’t follow.

3. “The only serious business is living…”

Skeptical hypotheses pose an interesting challenge for theorists, but they tell us relatively little about applied ethics. Bernard Williams puts it this way:

Bernard Williams [Prof. of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, University of California at Berkeley], Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1985), pp. 116-117

“The main consequences that this discussion has for ethical argument is that reflective criticism should basically go in a direction opposite to that encouraged by ethical theory. Theory looks characteristically for considerations that are very general and have as little distinctive content as possible, because it is trying to systematize and because it wants to represent as many reasons as possible as applications of other reasons. But critical reflection should seek for as much shared understanding as it can find on any issue, and use any ethical material that, in the context of the reflective discussion, makes some sense and commands some loyalty. Of course that will take things for granted, but as serious reflection it must know it will do that. The only serious enterprise is living, and we have to live after the reflection; moreover (though the distinction of theory and practice encourages us to forget it), we have to live during it as well. Theory typically uses the assumption that we probably have too many ethical ideas, some of which may well turn out to be mere prejudices. Our major problem now is actually that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can.”

Responsibility seems omnipresent – our choices affect those around us (and ourselves). It may be the case that all human practice is ultimately without normative significance, but it does not seem possible for human beings to simultaneously go on living and accept that assumption. If this is a plausible implication of skepticism, then perhaps we should reject it. The meaningfulness of human choices is a fundamental axiom for debate about normative concepts.

  • I have to disagree with a lot of the points here, but first and foremost with point one. It is all about how one is framing the skeptical position. For example, if the negative claims the resolution has a burden to prove the resolution true under a truth-testing paradigm and the resolution is making some sort of moral evaluation how does skepticism not negate? It may seem like defense as it simple states the affirmative cannot prove the resolution true but then because of how it is framed one would have to negate. If a topic says something is morally permissible and the affirmative proves permissible means no prohibition exists then how does skepticism not affirm? Clearly there are instances in which skepticism proves to be offensive in its implications.Also, the second point is clearly a mischaracterization of most well-run skeptical positions. The argument does not flat out say it is true or it is prescriptive. Not only that, but many would contend that claims against categorical moral truths are not moral judgments themselves. Clearly there are more nuanced debates to be had than "skep is itself a morally prescriptive judgment".

    • Adam Torson

      Re your first point – skepticism more plausibly affirms under a truth-testing paradigm. The first suggestion amounts to a claim that we oughtn't evaluate the debate in that way because the negative doesn't have to advocate anything.I don't get the second paragraph – how would a skeptical argument be framed so that a valid normative conclusion can be derived from it?

      • So the argument remains that skepticism then would serve as offense.and the second paragraph has two main points. The first was simply that no smart skep position would say There are no valid ought-statements, therefore you ought to vote for the negative. The position is not posited as an "ought". The second argument is that while skepticism evaluates the concept of morality and moral judgement of action it itself is not a moral or ethical judgement. It functions on a separate level from "ethical considerations", it is not a prescriptive statement.

        • Adam Torson

          It is offense under a paradigm for evaluating debate rounds which this argument suggests is not preferable.I still don't follow the argument in the second paragraph. You say no good skep position would claim there aren't "ought" statements and that it "evaluates" morality without itself being an ethical judgment. Perhaps an example would be helpful – what skeptical argument powerful enough to deny the truth of all normative ACs is consistent with an "evaluation" of morality and the assertion of a judging procedure to pick a winner?

        • To clarify, the second point was not to say that skep does not claim "there aren't ought statements". It does say there are not ought statements but the second half of your claim that it is followed by "therefore you ought to vote negative" is the problem. The negative is not prescribing an ought statement when running skep. Because skepticism is not a moral guide for action, it is instead a rejection of such a framework as a guide for action. Thus my point is that it itself is not attempting to dictate our action but change how we evaluate action, by stopping the practice of making categorical statements. Saying we should not use ought statements as a dictate for action without context is not itself a moral judgement of moral judgements. Thus it is not subject to its own criticism.

  • I don't think the #2 is very convincing. A debater forwarding a util framework doesn't have to show that signing the ballot aff is a utilitarian good, and I don't think you could answer egoism with "his standard justifies voting for whoever you feel like". A judge isn't obligated to donate to charity every time he/she votes aff on the Nov-Dec 11 topic. Debate is nonpolitical in almost every other context, so I don't see why skepticism should be held to a uniquely higher standard.

    • Adam Torson

      A couple thoughts:1. My claim is not that judges have to make choices that are consistent with the positions they vote for. #2 is just an argument debaters can make to demonstrate that skepticism is logically inconsistent with other claims being advanced in the round. Using your example, if utilitarianism was a true standard (and not positionally contextualized), it certainly would be legitimate to answer it by saying "you claim that people should pursue utilitarian goods but acknowledge that this rule does not hold as applied to the judge." I don't see why that holds the argument to a higher standard. If a debater says a norm should apply in one situation but not another, they should be required to explain the apparent contradiction.2. There is a difference between saying one norm should be preferred to another and saying that there are no norms at all. Most standards are plausibly applied to the resolutional actor and are therefore easily distinguished from the particular norms that apply to judging. Skepticism, on the other hand, makes a universal claim about normativity. It is impossible for the latter not to be implicated in the rules a judge applies to decision-making. So, unlike most standards arguments, it is legitimate to test to validity of a skeptical position by applying it to in-round practices like judging.

      • Anonymous

        This argument confuses pre and post fiat implications. A debater running util would have to advance his norm that it is net benificial for the judge and debaters to be debating rather then helping save people in africa. Or that one debater should win because he will sell the trophy and donate the money to a cancer fund, ect. No one uses these arguments to challenge util for the same reason they are non-responsive to skepticism.

        • I don't think this is particularly responsive to the second argument which is standards arguments (that are good at least) are actor-specific. Debaters can absolutely collapse the post-fiat/pre-fiat distinction if they wish. It's a matter of whether it makes sense. If someone says governments must use util. and a debater says you should vote to maximize utility that conflates the judge with a government. Pre/post-fiat is a construct that must be defended otherwise.

        • Anonymous

          Actor-specificity is a non-issue. The vast majority of justifications for util do not appeal to the government as an actor specifically so I do not see why those are at all relevant. Pre/post fiat is a needed distinction for switch-side debate, otherwise the activity is non-sensical as every round is a performative contradiction from what happened in the previous one. This might be relevant if a debater claims that skep takes out theory, but ive never seen that argument actually used or won.

        • Adam Torson

          I don’t follow why the pre/post-fiat distinction is necessary for switch side debate. Skepticism is not a post-fiat argument because it does not implicitly or explicitly defend an advocacy. It’s not pre-fiat in any meaningful sense of that term because it claims to deny the truth of a post-fiat prescription, and in any case it doesn’t advocate anything pre-fiat either. One could argue that the normative rules governing the ballot are somehow exempt from skeptical conclusions, but I don’t know why that argument would be true.

        • Anonymous

          You're looking at it the wrong way. It's not that skepticism justifies pre-fiat action, it's the other way around — the fact that a debater has normative pre-fiat arguments dejustifies skepticism, which posits a universal negative claiming no normative truths. No one's saying that "since skepticism is true you should just sign your ballot for me!" is a good argument (which would be analogous to your util example), but instead "She's claiming both that no normative truths exist and that you ought to vote for her which is contradiction".Your appeal to the pre/post fiat distinction as being "necessary for debate" is normative which, guess what, concedes that skepticism isn't true. Which means that it's still a total contradiction.You could try to say that using implicit assumptions about the role of the ballot could take out other normative theories, but that's much less plausible. For one thing, as mentioned, actor-specific theories would take that out. It just isn't true that the "vast majority" of util justifications aren't specific to governments; see Sunstein and Vermuele, trade-offs and paralysis, and every single social contract argument ever made (not that these have been used much this year due to lack of government-focused topics). But even for agent-neutral theories it's ambiguous; one could just as easily argue that rewarding the better debater maximizes our education which matters more in the long run than one person promising to give money to charity. What's not ambiguous is that "absolutely no normative facts" and "you ought to vote for me" are completely incompatible.

        • I don't see how the first paragraph is responsive. The same kind of contradiction you mention can be pointed out versus an opponent who reads a util AC but doesn't donate to charity. It also applies to anyone who hasn't forwarded the same moral theory every single round and/or hasn't adhered perfectly to that theory.As regards the last paragraph, your intuitions about plausibility seem mistaken. It's hard to imagine that every moral theory but skepticism commits one to judging high school debate rounds and voting on the flow. Actor-specific justifications (a) usually aren't very good, (b) don't apply to many (e.g. any universal) moral theories, and (c) don't help much when every topic this year has had an individual actor.