On Skepticism and Values


One of the big arguments that I have seen a lot, perhaps more densely in recent times, is what we should be arguing about. Productive-sounding right? Well, it is reasonable to figure out what things skepticism either ought to be concerning and what it ought to focus on. There is definitely a place at the table for debunking Big Foot stories, which is strangely not as popular among skeptics as Big Foot stories are among the general public; at least that is my impression. However, there is also space for discussing things related to religion, politics, etc.

In one of those recent discussions, Steven Novella made some good points in his response to PZ Myers on this subject. I don’t agree on everything, but that is normal in a community of many such minds. However, there was something Steve said which has been repeated by many others in the skeptics movement: one cannot apply skepticism to value judgments. To quote:

Issues of freedom vs security, individualism vs collectivism, meritocracy vs egalitarianism are all value judgments. It is not just counterproductive, it is simply wrong to frame these issues as empirical questions objectively resolvable with skeptical analysis.

Indeed, what we value is going to affect how we analyze these matters. However, if value judgments are off the table for what skeptics are supposed to be considering, we are actually cutting out our legs from under us.

Steve gives several things about what skepticism is, and you will probably agree with most things on that list, if not all of them. You may even add some things. But his first point is “respect for knowledge and truth”. Explicitly, he says that this is something skeptics “value”.

And this gets to the crux of the problem: why prefer skepticism over its opposite or simply not being a skeptic? Why value reality as it is rather than how you can think of it in any way you prefer? This is a value judgment, and according to Steve and other skeptics we cannot analyze this with the tools of skepticism. We are left with a void of why we prefer what we do over what our “opponents” do.

In other words, you need a reason to prefer skepticism over not being such. And how do you do that without appeal to reason or evidence? You are now stuck and cannot convince a non-skeptic to adopt your values. Basically, why are a skeptic’s values better than otherwise?

If you go the route of saying that “if you don’t follow reality, bad things will happen” you are doing two things: appealing to reason and evidence (empirical consequences of what will happen) and that person’s desires/value (they don’t want the ‘bad’ things to happen). While the evidence can speak for itself and be universal, the only way a skeptic can use the argument above is to have a value in common with the person they are trying to convince.

What this means is that to be a skeptic you have to have some values already in place, and to convince others to join you, you will need to have some values in common. And if you think that everyone ought to be skeptically-minded, then you and everyone else have to have some underlying value or values. If there is not something all people value, then we cannot convince all people and cannot make them think they ought to be skeptical. Yet we think it is a superior approach to the world (cf. here). How can that be a justified view if it’s “just what you think”?

This leads to an empirical question: are there things all people value? Richard Carrier in his chapter about moral objects from The End of Christianity argues that there is such a value: everyone wants to be happy/content. And since there is science to back what things will actually do that, we can talk about what people generally ought to do to be happy. From that many more things will follow. In particular, we know from experience and science that being more reasonable in ones decisions leads to greater overall happiness. You avoid what will harm you, to get the things you want more, etc. This isn’t the sort of Straw Vulcan  I am talking about (a great video from Julia Galef can be watched here), but the one where you think about what you want, why you want it, and how to obtain it.

As such, we can through reason and evidence argue that skepticism is a better mode of thought than otherwise, that you are more likely to live well and happy, and therefore you ought to be skeptical. But this all comes from a value judgment at its heart, and one that no human can get rid of; otherwise, if you have no preferences, why would you do anything over another? The base-level values that humans have will also leads to certain sociopolitical conclusions, again depending on the evidence.

So skeptics and skepticism should not and cannot run away from value judgments; just by being a skeptic (by being a human!) you have committed to certain value judgments. Otherwise it truly is pointless to debunk Big Foot sightings, UFO hoaxes, religious propaganda, and alternative medicine modalities. Step away from value judgment, you become nihilistic and unpersuasive; you want to be neither (a value judgment!), so you cannot avoid this.

Moreover, some values are better than others. This is because values are going to conform or conflict with others. You may want your nemesis dead, but you value not being in prison. Conflict of values; what’cha gonna do, now? Same thing for more prosaic values. Again, you will come back to what you value above all else, which Carrier argues is in fact the same for all (happiness/contentedness/fulfillment). So we can push a certain view of the world as the best of all current views. We will obviously disagree on what exactly that will entail, but that’s part of the inquiry process, discovering what we really do value and what those values mean in the network of our other values.

So, I reject that skeptics ought to be avoiding value judgments. Why? Because the ‘ought’ in that last sentence is itself a value judgment!

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3 thoughts on “On Skepticism and Values

  1. I agree that embracing skepticism is a value judgment, but I also think that there is a difference in order of magnitude between promoting skepticism as a method of thought and translating that into value judgments about how one should live. Paul Kurtz tried that with his idea that skepticism was the foundation for secular humanism, and he argued that science invariably yields rules for how best to live. Similarly, Michael Shermer has promoted the idea that science can determine ethics. The trouble, of course, is that defining “best” is a challenging proposition, and it is more than possible that many who engage in skeptical inquiry will still disagree on how to translate skepticism (which establishes facts) into policy, which is based on judgment and opinion. You seem to suggest utilitarianism as a solution, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the arguments against utilitarian ethics.

    • I see your point, and it may be a matter of how one comes to skepticism. To me, skepticism comes out of the values that also lead me to certain moral and political positions. I don’t derive from skepticism my position on gun control (though I am skeptical in researching the evidence for and against things), but my values that lead to skepticism also have consequences. That is more my point: realizing that we came to skepticism because of our values, and we cannot then say those same values have no weight in the community of skeptics.

      As for using science to determine ethics, I know that is a tricky road, and I don’t use Michael Shermer or Sam Harris on this point; they both failed to give a proper meta-ethical argument (Harris is pretty much rhetoric to get to utilitarianism). The best approach I have seen from the point of meta-ethics is with desirism or goal theory, the only place I have seen a justification for an “ought” statement. From there you get the best of Kantian ethics, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. I agree it’s not an easy discussion to make everyone agree with me (even though I’m right 😉 ), but it has the best philosophical foundations I have seen and will have the best progress in figuring out what we ought to do, including using science (which most philosophers do agree, that science informs ethical decisions).

      So, unlike Kurtz, I don’t use skepticism to get to secular humanism (which I agree is itself insufficient for that), but if anything the reverse or from the same source.

  2. Pingback: Science, Skepticism, and Sexism–All Real | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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