Gambling from a weak hand: radical skepticism and an ethics of uncertainty.

Author:Walsh, Sean Noah
  1. Introduction: Epistemic Prologue to Ethics

    Ethics are a deeply political category. Since they are always concerned with right and wrong and attendant standards of conduct, ethics are often associated with issues of power, governance, and justice. Questions within the category of ethics have often been saddled with problems of knowledge. Understanding how we ought to act is frequently obstructed by the difficulties in meeting the stringent standards of knowledge, which is considered to be more demanding than belief, opinion, or faith. The difficulty in meeting even lenient criteria for authentic knowing can call into question the necessity, or even the advisability, of acting ethically. The very possibility of ethics is jeopardized by the seeming absence of epistemological foundations. If our claims to knowledge are tenuous or, as skeptics suggest, unfounded, building knowledge of right and wrong is sharply hazardous.

    Religions, particularly Western religions in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, attempt to answer this problem by appealing to a moral authority, a deity. Thus, the answer to the question, why should I act rightly, is often addressed by the evocation of a god. Purely philosophical systems of knowledge cannot answer in that manner because, insofar as they are heterodox, philosophic systems are compelled to question the veracity of claims to knowledge. Religion, therefore, attempts to account for this problem with belief or faith, rather than actual knowledge.

    Ethics has been traditionally burdened by a particular problem of knowledge, which I describe as the failure to meet the requirements of justified, true belief. On the one hand, philosophy cannot conjure a sufficient proof to validate any ethical imperative. Because philosophy lacks the wisdom it loves, there is no necessary answer to the question of why one ought to behave in a certain way. Religion, on the other hand, seeks to answer this question, but ultimately resorts to faith, not knowledge. I do not wish to portray neatly discrete and autonomous categories of religion and philosophy as though there is no overlap between the two. This is simply to say that philosophy, as a perpetual activity of questioning, seems at odds with faith. We might, in this instance, agree with the political philosopher Leo Strauss (1959, 221), who says that philosophy is the effort to replace the opinion of all things, which is to be found in the sphere of politics, with the knowledge of all things. If true, philosophy has assigned itself a quixotic task.

    Because epistemology presents an obstacle, ethical frameworks have tended toward those informed by a theological basis and those formed by an ontological basis. Thomas Aquinas exemplifies the construction of theologically driven ethics. In his Summa Theologiae, he argues that right action is that which is mindful of God. Right behavior is always part of a relationship with God, or as he explains:

    Now every injury we inflict on others is of itself opposed to God's friendship, which moves us rather to will good to our fellowmen. So to do injustice is of its nature a fatal sin (Aquinas, 1989, 386). To do wrong is to be opposed to God; to act rightly is to conform to God's will. The basis for Aquinas' ethics is the knowledge of God from which the inspiration and consequences of right and wrong action ultimately stem. Theories excluding or circumventing the concern for theological bases have fared no better in producing an epistemologically stable foundation for ethics. Jean-Paul Sartre (1956, 795) insisted that ontology could not determine ethics. (1) In this sense, he was referring to the absence of a necessary link between the nature of existence and a specific program of ethics. Yet, Sartre remains an example of ethics informed by ontology because, for Sartre, ontology mandates responsibility. Sartre explains that

    man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being. We are taking the word "responsibility" in its ordinary sense as "consciousness (of) being the incontestable author of an event or of an object" (Sartre 1982, 52). Because the existence of a human subject precedes its essence, the individual is entirely his or her own creation. As such, the human world, for Sartre, is nothing but the aggregate of self-creating human beings. Humans are, therefore, responsible for their own choices and the world they create.

    While the utility and coherence of theological and ontological bases for ethics can be productive, I want to provide an epistemological alternative. Historically, epistemology, or, to be more precise, the problems of epistemology, have represented impediments to ethics. The same problems of knowledge that make philosophy a sustainable activity have left us unsure about how to construct a system of right and wrong. Solutions have tended to install a God to substitute for the lack of human knowledge, or, as in the case of some ontologically driven ethics like Sartre's (Ibid., 22), find that the absence of God leaves us to accept that "everything is permissible."

    I will argue for an alternative epistemological basis that will contribute to a framework of ethics. Specifically, the problem of knowledge will be regarded as the basis on which the ethical framework can begin to emerge. The problem of knowledge might rightly be thought of as the source of the solution. This essay is, therefore, guided by a simple, if unusual, question: how do we know that I am not God? The question refers to 'we' because, in addition to you (plural), I could also be mistaken about what I am. Errors in introspection are not uncommon. Therefore, 'we' may all be mistaken about what I am (and I in this case refers to me, the author of this essay). I want to suggest up front that this question is more consequential than an analogous question such as, "how do we know that I am not a zombie or an extraterrestrial?" Gods are traditionally situated as authorities in ethical discourses. Our interaction with gods, therefore, will have consequences for considerations of ethics. As we trace the problems of knowledge through epistemological discourse, through idealist and materialist systems, the answer that confronts us, that we cannot know for certain that I am not God, demands a specific, rational response. Moreover, as we universalize the guiding question and its response to any and every human being, the prudential consequence is that we treat each human being as though he or she might be God. In the following section, I offer an exposition of the extent to which uncertainty has saddled ethics in two of the largest philosophical traditions, idealism and materialism. Next, I address the operative question, how do we know that I am not God, from a deeply skeptical posture. Finally, using a reversal of Blaise Pascal's famous wager on faith, I argue that skepticism demands an ethical response to uncertainty. If we cannot know for certain that any or all individuals we encounter are not God, then it becomes prudent to act as though they might be God. Therefore, I am arguing for an ethics predicated on the condition of epistemic uncertainty.

  2. A Brief Tour of the Uncertain in Idealism and Materialism

    In both idealist and materialist philosophical systems, ethics are confounded by the problems of knowledge. In the history of political thought, we find evidence of this in ancient idealists such as Plato and modern materialists such as Thomas Hobbes. Plato, as an idealist, and Hobbes, as a materialist, represent disparate philosophical systems that, despite their metaphysical oppositions, highlight the ethical problem posed by epistemology. Theories of knowledge have often been an obstacle to frameworks of ethics within the annals of political thought. Philosophy stands as a testament to the problem of knowledge. Translated from ancient Greek, the term philosophy means "love of wisdom." In his Symposium, Plato relays to us the idea that to love something is necessarily to lack; to love something means to not have it. As Socrates tells the poet Agathon:

    So this and every other case of desire is desire for what isn't available and actually there. Desire and love are directed at what you don't have, what isn't there, and what you need (Plato 1999, 34-35). If we follow this train of reasoning, consistent as it seems with the character of Socrates presented throughout the Platonic dialogues, philosophy is the adoration of wisdom, something that it needs but does not yet have. Philosophy is situated, perhaps, in that state "between wisdom and ignorance" which Diotima of Mantinea tells Socrates is "having right opinions without being able to give reasons for having them" (Ibid., 37). This, she says, does not qualify as knowing because knowing requires that "you can give reasons" (Ibid., 37).

    The criteria for knowledge, as distinguished from opinion or belief, have long been elusive. Genuine knowledge, in the strong sense, is something that Socrates dedicatedly pursues, despite being a man who claims that he knows nothing except that he may be just a little wiser than those who are unaware of their own ignorance. On this journey he encounters individuals who, it...

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