Philosophers have searched for moral truth and argued for varying principles that allow for the determination of right and wrong action since before the time of Plato and Aristotle. Plato developed his system of ethics based on the Theory of Forms while Aristotle developed a teleological theory of ethics in Nicomachean Ethics. The Enlightenment of the late 18th and early 19th century saw the birth of the deontological ethical principles of Kant and consequentialism of Mill. The late 19th and 20th century, however, saw the development of a different idea of ethics in the form of moral skepticism and moral nihilism. The claim that either moral knowledge is impossible or moral value does not exist, defined respectively, is more popularly associated with J.L. Mackie from Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong and Michael Ruse from Biology and the Foundation of Ethics. I will provide a detailed overview of arguments for moral nihilism and moral skepticism and distinguish the differences between the two. Both arguments are difficult to argue against since the denial of the validity of moral belief does not provide much of a base to argue against; however, I will show how the phenomena of conscience may defeat the arguments for either moral skepticism or nihilism.
Moral skeptics conclude that no moral belief is justified and deny the possibility of real knowledge to anything’s moral status. Moral truth may exist but moral skeptics claim that discerning this truth is impossible. Adam Morton suggests that, “… many of our firm moral beliefs may be mistaken (perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with telling lies).” The simplest argument in support of moral skepticism is based on the fact that people from different cultures, backgrounds, and educational levels disagree on certain moral truths. For example, the U.S. Republican Party that represents 55 million Americans supports an anti-abortion platform based on the idea that the procedure is equivalent to murder and therefore always wrong. The Democratic Party on the other hand, represents approximately 72 million Americans and supports a platform that abortion is not always wrong. If so many people disagree then maybe knowledge on any moral claim is unknowable. Other arguments for moral skepticism include Rene Descartes’ argument against justification based on the contrary hypothesis. He argues that if a contrary hypothesis to any belief cannot be ruled out then that belief is not justified. For example, if I believe that I will not get in a car accident while going down to the corner store, but cannot rule out that I won’t, then my belief is not justified. This is an argument that supports generalized skepticism but seems especially poignant related to moral knowledge. If I believe that torturing babies is always wrong but cannot definitively prove otherwise then according to this argument, my belief cannot be justified. Again, this does not speak to the existence or non-existence of moral truth but only that knowledge of that truth is impossible.
Moral nihilism, however, supports the claim that nothing is morally wrong and therefore knowledge claims of right and wrong are meaningless. Moral skepticism is an epistemological position while moral nihilism is a metaphysical one. The moral skeptic may allow for the possibility that torturing babies is wrong, although epistemically unjustifiable, while the moral nihilist would not assign a truth-value either way. Moral disagreement supports the moral nihilist claim in addition to arguments from the field of evolutionary psychology. The inherent value of some moral conduct may have nothing to do with moral truth but is inherently valuable in propagating the species. Torturing babies does not allow the passing on of their genetic code, which is bad from a species, survival perspective. Moral skepticism claim that knowledge of moral truth is unattainable while the moral nihilist claims that moral truth does not exist. I will show, however, that the phenomena of conscience and may provide a counter argument that the moral skeptic or nihilist may not be able to defeat.
John Henry Newman was a 19th century philosopher and Catholic Apologeticist who argued for the rationality of religious belief. In Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford, he explores the difference between natural and revealed religion to start his argument supporting this claim. He attempts to show that natural religion as an abstract, individual spirituality arises out of the faculty of conscience. Newman states, “… conscience implies a difference in the nature of actions … brings with it no proof of its truth … and subdues the appetites.” It is beyond the scope of this essay to evaluate his religious claims but there is no denying that conscience exists among individuals across all cultures and time periods. According to Newman, moral systems arise from instances of conscience and the avoidance of discomfort. In other words, if I feel bad the first time I torture a baby then I will be less likely to do it again in the future. Differences in reasoning, appeals to authority, or culture may lead to the development of differing moral systems and therefore moral disagreements between groups. Reason, affect, and environmental influences subdue conscience in this respect. I argue that this process leads to a corruption of what the conscience was pointing to in the first place which might be moral truth.
Evidence supporting the faculty of conscience pointing in the direction of moral truth is that certain acts are universally looked upon as immoral. Stealing and murder without justification are an example of what may be a universal moral truth. I argue that no culture at anytime has looked favorably upon these two types of acts without some sort of justification. From an evolutionary point of view, my claim is problematic because conscience as a natural phenomenon is explained by propagation of the species instead of pointing in the direction of moral truth. Conscience then is simply a function of natural selection and supports arguments for moral skepticism and moral nihilism. Justification for moral belief or the existence of moral truth may be illusory to pass on the genetic code. Evolutionary psychology is arguably controversial because speculation on the origin of behaviors is not easily verified. It is here, however, that moral skepticism and nihilism have a weak spot from which to start a strong counterargument. If even one instance of conscience prior to the development of moral system could be shown to have no evolutionary benefit then conscience may point in the direction of moral truth and therefore weaken their position. For example, some acts of altruism are not easily explainable as an evolutionary benefit and as such are candidates for such a counterargument. The argument would be tricky because it would also have to be immune to a claim of environmental influence such as how a child is raised within a culture. The key would be to show an instance of conscience that was universal, therefore strongly supporting it as natural, but explanatory by neither a nurture claim nor an evolutionary claim. If this can be shown then it would provide a starting point from which to argue for moral principles. All we would have to do at that point is agree on what principles most directly point to moral truth … but that’s another question.