Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The End of Skeptical Theism? (Part 4) - The Incoherence of ST

This post is part of my series The End of Skeptical Theism? For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through William Hasker's paper "All too Skeptical Theism", which is a critique of Michael Bergmann's brand of skeptical theism. As with all entries in this series, this post on the evidential problem of evil serves as an essential reference point.

We have previously discussed Bergmann's four skeptical theses (ST1-ST4) and seen how they give rise to a fairly extreme form of moral skepticism. In this post, we will wrap up the discussion of Hasker's paper by looking at a potential contradiction or blindspot in Bergmann's thinking.

1. How is moral Reasoning Possible?
The question is a straightforward one: how, given Bergmann's skeptical theses, is it possible to engage in any species of moral reasoning that results in the issuance of a moral judgment? Bergmann thinks he can answer this question; Hasker thinks the answer contradicts his advocacy of skeptical theism.

Bergmann begins by noting that skeptical theism is largely a doctrine about moral consequences. It states that just because something appears to be a prima facie evil, does not imply that it is not logically connected to some morally superior set of consequences. Bergmann goes on to note that moral reasoning need not be strictly consequentialist in form: we could have duties that constrain our actions irrespective of their consequences. Nevertheless, he accepts that consideration of consequences is an important part of moral decision-making.

This leads him to make the following proposal:
What is relevant are the likely consequences we have some reason to be confident about after a reasonable amount of time and effort aimed at identifying the expected results of our behaviour. If after such consideration, a particular action seems clearly too maximise the good (or minimise the bad) among the consequences we're able to identify [and no consequence-independent duties apply] ... then that action is the morally appropriate one for us to perform.

2. Hasker's Response
Hasker thinks that Bergmann's proposal is certainly admirable, but that it can't be consistently espoused by a skeptical theist who is cut from the Bergmannian cloth.

Recall from the previous entry how ST1-ST4 demand that we be completely unable to assign any degree of probability to something which is alleged to be an all-things-considered good or evil. For example, they would imply that we have no way of knowing whether the murder and rape of a five-year-old girl is an all-things-considered evil. It's not just that we think there is a high probability of an outweighing good, it is that such probabilities are inscrutable. Bergmann needs this extreme variety of skepticism if he is going to undercut the evidential problem of evil.

But then it becomes truly perplexing as to why Bergmann thinks we should consider the foreseeable consequences of our actions when making moral decisions. On his own theory, there is no reason to think that the apparent goodness or badness of those consequences bears any relation to the actual goodness or badness of the action and its consequences. This relationship is, by his own lights, completely unknowable.

For Hasker, this reveals the crucial incoherence in Bergmann's position: he gives central role, in his moral decision-making, to a procedure that is morally insignificant. Ultimately, any actions chosen by the skeptical theist amount to little more than an arbitrary preference.

They are like John Cleese's black knight in Monty Python's the Holy Grail: still trying to fight the fight despite the fact that they've lost the means to do so.

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