Three Ways to Defuse Skepticism by Shrey Desai


Sinnott-Armstrong (2011) defines moral skepticism as, “a diverse collection of views that deny or raise doubts about various roles of reason in morality.” There are many different versions of skepticism; for example, some deny the possibility of possessing moral knowledge, reaching moral truth, having justified ethical beliefs, or plainly attaining reasons to act in accordance with moral principles. Debaters that advocate for moral skepticism usually do it on the negative but there have been some that read it on the affirmative.           Consider the following example: If the resolution was, “Just governments ought to require employers to provide a living wage”, most affirmatives would generate an obligation to provide a living wage, i.e. living wages are key to avoiding extinction therefore beneficial under a consequentialist ethic or living wage are key to preventing exploitation, which is key under an oppression framework. Negatives reading moral skepticism would instead argue that we don’t have a moral obligation to do anything because of X, Y, Z reasons and therefore we don’t have an obligation to provide a living wage.

Skepticism is a tricky position to answer because it is deflationary in nature, however most judges are very receptive to arguments against it and this makes it easy to beat if you respond to skepticism using smart, intuitive answers. When the affirmative debater hears the words, “Skepticism is true – five warrants”, they usually get psyched out because it is such a weird position, but affirmatives need to collect their thoughts and answer the position strategically. This article will cover common justifications that debaters use to set up skepticism and three ways debaters can employ in their rounds to never lose to skepticism again!


I. Metaethics

DeLapp defines metaethics as “a branch of analytic philosophy that explores the status, foundations, and scope of moral values, properties, and words.” In essence, the purpose of metaethics is to try to understand the theoretical value of ethical properties – it’s the star on a Christmas tree. This is distinct from ethics, which instead is concerned about determining the correct moral course of action; for example, should we protect the interests of the general population or instead focus on the autonomy of individual beings. Metaethics is aimed to answer questions such as, “What is the meaning of moral terms?” or “What is the nature of moral judgments?” Since skepticism itself is a metaethic, a strategic way to beat it is by proving the truth of another metaethic. This allows debaters to determine the correct methodology to evaluating the rest of the debate. I will discuss three metaethics debaters can leverage against skepticism: reflective equilibrium, constitutivism, and emotivism. Note that each metaethic has flaws in its instantiation but assuming they are true for the purpose of the article, they can be valuable assets in countering skepticism.

Reflective equilibrium or RE, spawned by John Rawls, Nelson Goodman, and Tim Scanlon, is the idea that there must be coherence among beliefs held by a multitude of people; this process is carried out by a mutual adjustment and fine-tuning among principles and beliefs. RE is a very intuitive metaethic, which is why it is very popular in philosophical culture. RE would justify rules such as “do not hurt the innocent”, “do not lie”, or “do not steal”, because these are intuitive principles that most people would agree with. RE interacts with skepticism very well for a couple of reasons. If the negative was reading skepticism and argued that people cannot have moral knowledge, RE would have an easy time responding; it would say that people in fact do have moral knowledge since their intuitions would tell them to act a certain way. For example, if one were in a situation where he or she could prevent a lot of innocent people from getting harmed, a skeptic would say that the person would have no moral knowledge to make a decision, but a reflective equilibrist would say that the person would use their beliefs and make the most intuitive decision, which would be to save the innocent people. RE would also solve the problem of deriving moral truth since it opposes foundationalism. Foundationalism is the idea that knowledge rests on justified beliefs or logic, for example, if A = B and B = C, then A = C. Reflective equilibrium is a non-foundationalist theory because it argues that people should compare a wide range of beliefs and come to a sound conclusion about how to act since it is impossible for a foundational premise to have 100% plausibility.

Constitutivism, a recent development in moral philosophy, holds the view that moral agents have a constitutive aim that gives normative claims truth. Katsafanas (2011) gives the example of chess: “[P]art of what it is to play chess is to aim at checkmating your opponent. This aim simply must be present in order for a series of movements to count as an episode of chess playing.” In this example, Katsafanas shows that people aim to checkmate their opponent in every move that they make during chess. This is a good metaethic to use against skepticism because a constitutivist would hold that people couldn’t fail to adhere to their constitutive aim without losing their agency, or capacity for moral deliberation, since the aim is one that is intrinsic and therefore inescapable. Therefore, if is impossible to be inconsistent with one’s constitutive aim, then one must be an agent at all times. This renders skepticism incoherent since one must be an agent at all times if they hold the intrinsic aim and it impossible to conceptually picture otherwise. Ferrero (2009) puts it best: “[T]here is a sense in which we cannot but be agents.”

Emotivism argues that ethical propositions express emotional attitudes and views. For example, an expressive, “Yes!” would imply that something is morally correct while a disgruntled, “No!” would imply something is morally incorrect. Greene (2003) argues that emotivism escapes skepticism since emotions are an innate part of our psychological makeup and we cannot escape it. He gives the example of viewing a male and female face; when we see the two faces, we can readily distinguish a male from a female face. People are not taught in school how to distinguish genders, but instead our evolutionary makeup and mechanisms can quickly distinguish a male from a female face. Applying this to skepticism, we can see that an emotivist metaethic would be quick in defusing skepticism since if people have emotions, we would be able to express rightness from wrongness without having to derive this knowledge or experience it because it is a part of our psychological makeup.


II. Theoretical Arguments

The most common response to skeptical argumentation is through using theory, or arguing that skepticism violates interpretations or norms that are impacted by fairness or education. Because debaters are so quick to pulling out their theory shells, negative debaters will often write lengthy blocks to theory because this is the response that they will be getting the most of. Therefore, it is important that affirmative debaters structure their theory arguments in such a way that it would be tough for the negative to counter them without reading their prepped blocks.

There are many interpretations that debaters have constructed that skepticism violates. Here are some examples:

  1. All burdens must be necessary and sufficient for both debaters.
  2. The negative must concede the affirmative’s ethical framework.
  3. Debaters must provide normative reasons to affirm/negate.

For (1), skepticism would violate this interpretation because the negative has to win one layer of the debate while the affirmative has to win two. The negative simply has to win that obligations do not exist while the affirmative has to win that obligations do exist and that there is an obligation to affirm. However, this depends on how the negative frames the skepticism arguments. If the negative says that the negative burden is to prove the resolution false and the affirmative’s burden is to prove the resolution true, skepticism would not violate this interpretation because the relevant question would be whether we have obligations or not. If we do, then the resolution is true and the judge should affirm. If we don’t, then the resolution is false and the judge should negate. For (2), skepticism would definitely violate this interpretation because it denies the possibility of the affirmative ethical framework to be true. If the affirmative sets up a consequentialism framework and makes arguments as to why our obligations are determined by consequences, skepticism would implicitly challenge the validity of the framework since if obligations do not exist, there is no obligation to act in accordance with good consequences and avoid bad consequences. Therefore, by reading skepticism, the negative would be setting up an alternate ethical framework, skepticism, and violating the interpretation. For (3), normative is defined as, “establishing a standard of norm”, which most likely requires an ethical theory because ethical theories set up guidelines for what moral conduct is appropriate. Skepticism would argue that the idea of moral truth is flawed in of itself therefore “normative reasons” are false. Consequently, the negative debater would not be providing normative reasons to negate the resolution and therefore would violate the interpretation.

While these are all viable interpretations, debaters that read skepticism engage the theory debate full-on, but a lot of them primarily answer the theory shell on the voter level. This strategy was recently deployed in multiple rounds at the 2014 Tournament of Champions. The biggest mistake affirmatives make is not impacting the voter section of their theory shell enough, such as fairness or education. The voter constructs the final impact of the shell and if it does not have enough analysis, the judge cannot vote for it. Usually when reading theory, affirmatives will argue that fairness is important because debate is a competitive activity and needs rules and education is important because it’s the main reason schools fund debate. On the fairness level, skepticism engages this reasoning very well because it denies any possibility of ethical knowledge. Negatives would argue that the idea of fairness presumes some notion of equality, which is an ethical or moral guideline. On the education level, negatives would make a lot of arguments as to why skepticism is necessary because of philosophical education, which would outweigh any disadvantages incurred.

Fairness should be separated into two categories, competitive equity and structural fairness. Competitive equity refers to the idea that both debaters are on equal footing while structural fairness is more concerned with the burdens set in the round that prevent the adjudication of the round. Consider the following examples – 1) Competitive equity: if the affirmative debater doesn’t flash his case or pass papers to the negative, it would be harder for the negative debater to win because trying to flow at high speeds is difficult. A theory shell that rectifies this would link into competitive equity because both debaters are now on equal footing but it has not significantly altered the routes to the ballot. 2) Structural fairness: skepticism might be an issue of structural abuse since the negative only needs to win that obligations do not exist while the affirmative needs to win that obligations do exist and that there is an obligation to affirm. Debaters would say this creates a 2-1 structural advance since the negative needs to win 1 layer while the affirmative needs to win 2 layers in order to access the ballot. This puts the negative at a structural advantage thus is unfair. But, this would also depend on the way the negative frames skepticism in their case.

Since competitive equity is directly involved with having a balance in opportunity, it is normative, and therefore subject to denial by skepticism. Structural fairness, on the other hand, is different because it establishes parameters that exist before the debate even starts. If for some reason affirmative debaters always won, then nobody would debate because everyone would lose their affirmative rounds when they were negating. This establishes the idea of participation in debate, which structural fairness maintains. If the round becomes structurally unfair and this is a norm, people would cease to participate and that would destroy the activity. It is also important to note that “participation” as a concept is not normative and therefore not easily subject to deflation through skepticism. Therefore, when crafting theory shells, debaters should make standards that have links to structural fairness specifically and not just the regular competitive equity fairness that most debaters use when reading theoretical positions. With that said, affirmative debaters should not let the negative get away with arguments that skepticism outweighs theory. One could make the argument that saying skepticism outweighs theory creates irresolvable assertions since the concept of “voting” is also normative because it says that the judge ought to vote for the debater that is winning the most offense, so the judge should just vote off the theoretical position as it frames the evaluation of substance.

The affirmative should also make links to education when constructing theory positions. However, the education voter itself should also be nuanced to get out of common skeptical arguments that the negative can leverage. Skepticism debaters will most likely make the argument that skepticism is core philosophical ground and therefore the largest impact under education. While this might be true, affirmative debaters should nuance their education voters so that they can sidestep this possible response. Affirmative debaters should make arguments that say skepticism denies civic education, which is a form of education that has more to do with societal and communal obligations. Giroux (2006) explains that young people hold the most value for the future because they have great aspirations and dreams that shape our society. In order to do so, they must uphold civic education because that is vital in defending their ideas and opinions. The judge has an obligation to uphold civic education because as educators, they must reward arguments that promote good education and consequently punish arguments that deny education. Affirmative debaters could make arguments that skepticism is bad for civic education because it has no real world applicability as, for example, there is no option on the ballot that says “I can’t vote for x politician because I have no obligations.” Therefore, making links to civic education is strategic for two reasons. First, it is a very intuitive claim that debate is an educational activity and the judge must uphold norms that are good for debate. Without these positive educational norms, the activity would collapse, so the judge has an obligation to vote for these arguments. Second, appealing to debate as an educational activity is not normative because we are appealing to its function, which is civic education; the affirmative debater would probably need to win skepticism in order to access this argument because the idea of why one should care about “function” might be normative. This sidesteps arguments that claim skepticism outweighs theory and allows debaters to leverage their theoretical positions against skepticism.


III. Discourse

It is easy to deduce that if morality doesn’t exist or people cannot achieve moral truth, then it would be impossible to condemn acts that seem intuitively wrong. For example, a moral skeptic would argue that the Holocaust would be an indifferent event or punching babies would not be morally correct nor would it be morally incorrect. Other instances such as slavery would also fall subject to this skeptic dilemma. As people that have either experienced or read about these tragedies, we can come to the conclusion that these events are morally repugnant and ought to have the label that they are bad. It would be taboo in our society to say that said events are morally just or even indifferent. Upholding the severity of these instances is especially important in debate because as debaters we must ensure that we respectfully engage in discussions about the topic. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about how debate is not a safe place at times and the judge’s primary obligation is the make sure that debate is a home to everyone and is as inclusive as possible. Vincent (2013) puts it well when he writes, “If a judge is comfortable enough to vote for discourse that is racist, sexist, or homophobic, they must also be prepared to defend their actions.” The same logic applies to arguments about skepticism. If a debater, whose family has experienced years of oppression by the government, walks into a debate round and hears the negative argue for a position that denies the moral injustice of that oppression, the debater would certainly feel uncomfortable. It would send the message that we are indifferent to their suffering and refuse to accept the conclusion that events such as the Holocaust are morally repugnant. This would make the debater excluded from the discussion at hand and would have a detrimental impact to their feelings as well as their perception of the debate atmosphere. Debate should be a safe place for all participants where everyone should feel included. The negative reading skepticism would thus have to achieve an extremely high threshold to beat these arguments back if the affirmative were to make these arguments. Therefore, it is a very intuitive argument that the judge ought to reject skeptical positions prima facie because it draws repugnant conclusions make the debate an unsafe space for its participants.



This article has shown three distinct ways to answer different forms of skepticism. Remember that not all strategies discussed in the article are perfect but it should lay the groundwork for how your arguments are set up when answering skepticism. Debaters should also use these strategies to craft cross-examination questions that could potentially get answers that would make it easier to answer the skeptical position. Lastly, it is important not to get flustered when the negative reads skeptical arguments. Debaters reading skepticism have to win the idea that 100% of the time there is no capacity for moral truth, or full terminal defense. On the flip side, affirmative debaters only need to prove <0.01% chance that moral truths do exist, or a risk of offense. Also keep in mind that if you make intuitive, smart arguments, you are probably on the right side of the issue and the judge will be more inclined to vote for you. Finally, a warm thank you goes out to Allie Woodhouse and Haziq Siddiqi for your comments, feedback, and revisions.



Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2011). Moral Skepticism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

DeLapp, K. M. Metaethics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Katsafanas, P. (2011). Deriving ethics from action: A Nietzschean version of Constitutivism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research83(3), 620-660.

Ferrero, L. (2009). Constitutivism and the Inescapability of Agency.

Greene, J. (2003). From neural ‘is’ to moral ‘ought’: what are the moral implications of neuroscientific moral psychology?. Nature Reviews Neuroscience4(10), 846-850.

Giroux, H. A. (2006). America on the edge: Henry Giroux on politics, culture, and education. Palgrave Macmillan.

Vincent, C. (2013). Re-Conceptualizing our Performances: Accountability in Lincoln Douglas Debate. Victory Briefs.