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.