To better illustrate the problem presented by moral skepticism as it relates to moral rationalism and moral realism (the claim that there exists moral truths which exist independent of the individual and are knowable), a dialogue could be quite helpful. The problem is one by which the faculty of reason is given varying degrees of importance for our moral deliberation. The moral rationalist believes that through our faculties of reason – we can gain knowledge and insight into moral truths. The skeptic, respectively questions: how do you know? Is this really possible? Are moral claims the type of claims that can be true or false? Do moral truths exist independent of the agent that conceives them? And, is this really knowledge to begin with?
The skeptic may solve the issue with a number of arguments. Some range from quite simple posits as to the diversity of moral truths, others into highly complicated arguments regarding metaphysics, epistemology, and an overall attempt to undermine the assumptions made regarding human access to objective knowledge. To best illustrate the moral skeptic position (which I have taken in contrast to the moral rationalists and moral realists), I will present a dialogue between a moral realist and a moral skeptic, both of whom will be labeled by their respective school.
Rationalist: “It is always wrong to lie. This is true because we can rationally conclude that our wills could not will such a maxim permitting lying.
Skeptic: “You are making several assumptions; I cannot accept your claim that 1) ‘It is always wrong to lie’ can be said to exist as knowledge; 2) I cannot accept the groundings of your argument that assumes something peculiar about reason allowing it access to such information; 3) that we may have any definitive knowledge regarding the will or its role in moral experiences.
Rationalist: “1) Perhaps we cannot “know” these to be true, but this is only a problem of semantics. You are generalizing a definition of knowledge that is too strict for practical purposes; and thus should be rejected. 2) Then you must be willing to reject reason’s other prominent roles in human life – and by doing so it follows then that there is no real moral difference between beast and man, but that is absurd because we could not see ourselves as reduced solely to natural causes. We would undeniably reject such a claim out of necessity. 3) Even if we cannot know we have a will (which I only concede to you for the sake of argument) why would we not assume (if it exists) that it is free?”
Skeptic: You are committing a grave error. What you are arguing is nothing more than dogmatic metaphysics. By dogmatism I’m referring to your instance that what you believe must be accepted as necessary truth – and from this follows that your premises must be correct. You have only argued in a circle. Now I will demonstrate your error; 1) the problem is not one of semantics, but a problem of attributing a dogmatic stance to your own positions. Your argument is circular when you affirm the positive existence of truth, for which you make it your priority to determine; however, you silence the efforts towards truth by taking a dogmatic position to metaphysical questions without undertaking the limitations of your own boundaries. Hence, your argument is neither sound nor valid, but only dogmatic. 2) There is not a problem in denying the over-estimation given to human reasoning; reasoning can only be said to have practical concerns as to our actions as it relates to the physical world. Thus, we do not have to reject reason altogether (nor its role). However, we must reject the role of reason as it pertains to generating any such knowledge about the non-physical world as an illegitimate use of reason. And, we must deny access to reason to a metaphysical component of morality as having a causally-determined impact on our “will.” Thus, we’re not denying reason as it exists to the physical world of taking practical actions; I am only denying reason’s use as necessitating moral behavior – an illegitimate extension of reason’s use beyond its empirical boundaries. 3) By assuming the will is free we are committing another dogmatic error. This dogmatic error, which posits our moral experiences as being guided and determined by our rational wills – we are again attributing something as knowledge that by its nature has no reciprocating example in experience.”
Rationalist: “You have only presented an argument against the possibility of knowledge against the will. This can lead us nowhere, and you only assume that our experiences of the will exist independent of experience because you are assuming some particular account of experience. Can it not be said that we experience our freedom to choose on morally trivial issues? When I decide to wear a red-shirt, is that not the action being chosen on behalf of my free-will?”
Skeptic: “It can only be an assumption that asserts the choosing of one’s clothing to put on a red-shirt instead of a white one (or any other color). But this does not prove the grounding for knowledge in the free-will; rather, it is only attributing a false-cause to a morally trivial effect. In other words, how do you know that it was your free-will that chose the red-shirt? Also, the fact that can be deduced from your choosing a red-shirt is not an experiential account of the free-will, for you have no committed an error by your own definitions of the free-will. When you see someone else wearing a red-shirt, are you anymore justified in assuming he did so out of the autonomy and freedom of his will? The answer is obviously no. The determination of the free-will is not something that can be experienced in the free-world.”
This brief dialogue only serves to illustrate the point about skepticism as it relates to moral rationalism and moral realism and the respective belief regarding moral truths. The moral skeptic denies the possibility of knowledge that anybody could make regarding moral claims, or that moral claims are the types of claims that could be true or false to begin with (however this latter differentiation could be said more of moral nihilism).