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Eating People: A Sceptical View

by Peter Mottley

“The moral sceptic…holds that all moral propositions are false.”
M.E. Fox and A.C.F.A. d’Avalos (‘The Necessity of Moral Realism’, Philosophy Now No. 6)

Hands up all those who have ever heard a sceptic argue that all moral propositions are false.

Worthless, yes; suspect, obviously; subjective, almost by definition. But false? That would be like an atheist resorting to arguments about faith in order to try and prove that God didn’t exist.

Messrs. Fox and d’Avalos seem to have cut themselves out a cardboard dragon, and then blown it over with an asthmatic puff.

The point is that a sceptic wouldn’t commit himself one way or the other: he’d simply doubt the truth of any given moral proposition. (He’d also, of course, doubt the falsity of any such proposition: no bias with your dedicated sceptic…)

But if he really wanted to play the Fox/d’Avalos game, he’d argue that all moral propositions are true – for someone, somewhere, sometime.

And, without any paradox, the antitheses are also true. Think of a moral proposition and, if you look hard enough, you’ll find someone for whom the exact opposite is The Only True Way.

Which leaves the moral realist with a problem. If all moral claims are true (and equally true at that), how do we establish ‘the objective existence of moral properties’? If my vision of right and wrong differs from Fox/d’Avalos, and we all differ from Hitler, which of us (if any) is looking at the matter objectively? Or do we put the matter in the hands of The Great Arbitrator in the Sky? And whose Great Arbitrator: mine? Fox/d’Avalos’s? Hitler’s? And how do we know when we’ve got the right answer? And are all the possible answers right anyway, even the ones that contradict each other?)

(Being persuaded that we’ve got the right answer is a different can of worms altogether. Fox/d’Avalos might make me see the light with the help of a ‘mind-numbingly obvious’ argument; Hitler might make me see the error of my ways with the help of a Luger automatic; but the art of getting your own way is politics, not ethics.)

To return to our argument. Since all moral stances are a matter of culture and/or opinion and/or fashion (the sceptic would argue), and since 50% are mutually incompatible with the other 50%, none of them (saith the sceptic) can be taken seriously. Quite simply, a sceptic doesn’t need to invalidate a moral proposition in order to dismiss it. And that’s another thing: if Fox/d’Avalos are going to invoke logic to support their argument, they really ought to get their weak disjunctives sorted out. “Whatever x is, it is either going to be P or it’s going to be Q or it’s going to be neither P nor Q.” Whatever happened to “or both P and Q”?

In the real world, where morality changes by the minute, by the latitude, by race, colour and creed, any act can be both right and wrong, without any inconsistency

Let me show you what I mean.

Having sex with your wife in the privacy of your own bedroom is considered by most to be honourable, moral, right. (In fact the C. of E. Marriage Service – and there’s a moral document, if ever there was! – actually requires it.)

Having sex with your wife in the middle of Piccadilly Circus would be considered by most people to be wrong (especially the police). Same act, same participants, different place.

Having sex with someone else’s wife in the privacy of your own bedroom: wrong. Same act, same place, different participants.

Ditto having sex with your daughter in the privacy of your own bedroom.

Having sex with your wife in the privacy of your own bedroom ten minutes after she’s died: wrong. Same act, same place, same people, different time.

Though, of course, you’re bound to be able to construct scenarios where having sex with your own wife in the privacy of your own bedroom is wrong: for instance, if you’re estranged and she cries “Rape”. And you should, with a little juggling, be able to justify the exhibitionism, adultery, incest and necrophilia I’ve outlined above. (Especially the incest: after all, we have to presume that Cain and Abel fathered the rest of the human race either on their mother or on some unrecorded sisters…)

So is having sex right or wrong, moral or immoral? “The sceptic…holds that all actions are amoral. No moral issues exist. All is amorality.” according to Fox/d’Avalos. But he doesn’t: rather, he thinks that actions are chameleons, taking on the moral colour of their surroundings.

Another example. Taking out a Mafia-style contract on a novelist, just because you don’t like his latest book, would be considered a bit over the top by most British Christians; but there are a lot of British Muslims who consider it to be their moral duty.

Now, in case I’m accused of taking the argument into strange byways, let’s apply the above principles to the Fox/d’Avalos example: ‘eating people is wrong’.

In 19th Century Britain, eating people was wrong; in 19th Century Borneo it was right.

In 21st Century Borneo, eating people will undoubtedly be wrong (I believe it is already); in 21st Century Britain it could conceivably be right (cf. the science fiction film Soylent Green).

And, of course, there’s plenty of opportunity for moral tail-chasing if you consider the position of the Andes plane-crash survivors a decade ago: you’re bound to find at least two viewpoints on that, even within the same community (especially between the nearest and dearest of the eaters and the eaten). The sceptic wouldn’t even toss a coin: he’d accept that both sides were right.

Fox/d’Avalos do the sceptic a further injustice: “He apparently fails to understand that there can be no counterfeit coins without genuine currency.” Au contraire: he accepts all coins as equally genuine. This probably makes them all equally worthless, but that’s the price you pay for being sceptical.

To put the sceptic’s case very simply: all moral propositions are equally true. Eating people is sometimes right, sometimes wrong, often neither, usually both – it all depends on who you are, where you are, when you are. But every facet of the argument is probably true somewhere in space and time.

As to the value of moral claims when you give them all equal credence, that’s a different matter altogether. W.S. Gilbert summed it up very neatly in The Gondoliers: “When every one is somebody, then no one’s anybody…”

Afterthought: if the moral realist believes that some moral propositions must be true, and the sceptic believes that all moral propositions must be true, who’s actually the more sceptical…?

© P. Mottley 1993

Peter Mottley is a scriptwriter and director who read philosophy at Sheffield University aeons ago.

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