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Scepticism of the Ancient Greek Philosophers
The sceptical contention is that we cannot know anything at all, not even whether the sceptical contention itself is true. This doctrine led the ancient sceptics to suspend judgement on many issues, including whether objects really were the way they appeared to be, and, whether there were such things truth and falsity, and even whether there were actions that were morally right or wrong. It is the latter subject I would like to take issue with here. The sceptics argue that it is reasonable to suspend judgement over whether any action is either a morally good or a morally bad action because we cannot know which actions are good or bad. But I disagree with this proposition. Here, I will offer a criticism of the sceptical argument for this position and provide my own argument for the common-sense belief that there are morally good and bad actions.
The sceptics developed a system of ten modes that helped illustrate the various ways in which we cannot know anything at all. Since the sceptics concluded that nothing at all could be known, it made sense to suspend judgement on matters that were of an uncertain nature. Since everything was of an uncertain nature, the sceptics suspended judgement over everything. One significant topic the sceptics chose to suspend judgment over was whether there could be any such thing as a morally right or wrong action. The sceptics argued that because there was no agreement among people as to what constituted a morally good action, it followed that there simply was no such thing as a morally right or wrong action (p. 295). For example, the sceptics argued that some cultures considered it morally acceptable for a father to have sexual intercourse with his daughter; however, other cultures considered such a practice morally despicable (p. 290). That the same practice was held to be good by some cultures and bad by others suggested that there was no objective right or wrong action; thus, we ought to suspend judgement in these matters.
To state the sceptical position concerning the suspension of judgement over right and wrong actions, we can construct the following argument: 1) good and bad are human constructs, so nothing is either good or bad by nature; 2) if it were true that good and bad were good and bad by nature, the same things would have to be good or bad for everyone; however, 3) there is nothing that is good or bad for everyone; therefore, 4) there is nothing good or bad by nature (p .295).
This argument has at least two problems: one is its logical structure; second, are the logical consequences that follow from the conclusion. First, we will address the problems with its logical structure. Upon examination of the premises and the conclusion, we will notice that premise #1 is virtually identical to the conclusion. That is, premise #1 says, in part, ‘…nothing is either good or bad by nature.’ Yet, this is the very same statement we arrive at in our conclusion. Thus, this argument is circular, and as such, we ought to dismiss it as an illegitimate attempt to persuade us of the sceptical doctrine.
In response to this accusation levelled against this argument, the sceptics would likely remove the first premise, since it is question begging, and begin the argument anew at premise #2. Thus the argument would then become: 1) if it were true that good and bad were good and bad by nature, the same things would have to be good or bad for everyone; however, 3) there is nothing that is good or bad for everyone; therefore, 4) there is nothing good or bad by nature. This restructuring of the argument eliminates the problem of circularity. However, as noted above, there is still a second problem with this argument.
The second problem with this argument is the consequences that inevitably follow from the conclusion. While disagreeing with a conclusion is not a sign of a bad argument, this conclusion does seem counter-intuitive for several reasons. If we accept the conclusion that there is nothing good or bad by nature, then it would seem that no one could ever do anything wrong. But this is surely unacceptable. If this were the case, we could never be justified in punishing someone for his or her actions, because there would be no such thing as a good or bad action. Furthermore, it would appear that the sceptics could not even allow that a member of a community could ever do right or wrong according to the standards of his or her community, because, as the sceptics conclude, there is nothing good or bad by nature. In other words, you could not do right or wrong, even when the laws and customs of your own community forbid you from committing such acts. Therefore, it seems laws would be completely arbitrary.
If, however, we are not prepared to accept the sceptical conclusion and the consequences that follow, we must see if we can construct an opposing argument to counter the sceptical conclusion. I would argue that if there is nothing good or bad by nature, then it would follow that no one could ever do anything wrong. But, if no one could ever do anything wrong, this would render people infallible. But we know that people are fallible; hence, it must be the case that good and bad do exist. Here is an argument from James Rachels that states this position quite succinctly: 1) if there is no such thing as a good or bad action, then we are infallible; but, 2) we are not infallible; therefore, 3) good and bad do exist (p. 35).
It would seem that the force of this new argument rests in our acceptance of premise #2: we are not infallible. We undoubtedly have many good reasons to think that humans are fallible. To argue this point seems almost unnecessary. However, there is much at stake if we can strengthen our argument. Therefore, I will offer an attempt to support our premise. To be fallible is to be capable of making a mistake, and we all make mistakes from time to time. We can make errors in our speech by saying a wrong word here or there. We can, and often do, make simple mistakes in arithmetic when adding or subtracting numbers in our head. We can make a mistake in identifying someone as a person we thought we knew, etc. We could go on a great deal to prove this statement further, but I think that will not be necessary. Most would willingly agree that it is obvious that humans are indeed capable of making mistakes, and are therefore, fallible; to argue otherwise seems pointless. Hence, if we accept that humans are not infallible, our conclusion follows that good and bad do exist.
Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings. 2nd ed. Eds. Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson, (Hackett, 1997).
James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2003).