Morality and Skepticism

I was thinking about morality and skepticism today. Not about moral skepticism, but about the relationship between morality and skepticism. When you look around, it often seems that skeptics are painted in a very negative light, and faith is regularly extolled as a virtue. That seems rather contrary to my way of thinking.

It appears to me that the concept of skepticism is widely misunderstood, particularly when it comes to morals or virtues. However, before getting into the morality angle, it's important to recognize an important fact: skepticism and cynicism are not the same thing. True, the two can go together, but they often do not. As a habitual skeptic, I can honestly say that I question just about everything I encounter and cynicism rarely enters the picture.

Now, before you break out the dictionary that tells you cynicism is "a feeling of distrust" and say that that is the same thing as skepticism, make sure you read more than one definition. Cynicism is also defined as "jaded negativity" or "believing the worst of human nature or motives." Those are the definitions commonly associated with cynicism, and they are the definitions which are not a usual part of my skeptical outlook.

Simply put, I don't see my skepticism as a form of jaded mistrust, pessimism or any other negative emotion. It simply comes from a desire to know. Because I like knowing things.

Let me say that again: I like knowing things. Not assuming things or guessing at things, but knowing them. I can press a key on a piano and realize that something inside is turning that action into a sound, but until someone explains how it works--or better yet, I open the piano and see the mallet hitting the string for myself--I don't actually know how it works.*

My desire to know things drives me to ask a lot of questions. It's also the reason why I obsessively look up words in the dictionary and spend hours pouring over Internet sites about how stuff works. When I come across information that goes against something I've previously learned, it forces me to back up and ask some more questions. Is the new information wrong, or am I mistaken about the thing I learned before? Are they really contradictory ideas, or am I not yet seeing how they work together?

By being skeptical of new information, I can make sure that I have fully considered this new knowledge, and tested it to the best of my ability. Only then am I comfortable in stating that I believe it to be true. So, where's the pessimism in wanting to get something right?

Let's look at this from the other side for a minute. People who don't ask questions--the ones who blindly follow what anyone else tells them, even if it doesn't fit with their own knowledge of the world--don't appear to hold the truth in very high regard. Particularly when they turn around and pass questionable information off as fact.

When I decide to trust that someone is an authority on a subject, I become responsible for the information that I pass from them to another person. I am also likely to use this information as a basis for many decisions down the road. This means that I should be very careful about where I get my information, and very aware of how to separate fact from opinion or belief.

Morality often comes down to making ethical decisions or choosing to behave in a particular, ethical way. If you don't take the time to ask questions and fully understand what is going on around you, how do you know that you are making the correct moral decisions in any given situation?

With that question, I'm probably skirting the edges of a moral skepticism debate. However, I am not skeptical of the existence of morality itself. I believe there are people who behave morally every day, and they do it based on the best information they have gathered.

What I can't help but wonder is whether skeptical people have a tendency to make better decisions. This would be for two reasons: 1. Skeptics practice critical thinking; and 2. Skeptics often put their "truth" through more rigorous testing before accepting it and using it to make decisions.

I have no basis for proving this theory one way or the other. I can imagine many ways that I would approach the study-- if I had a lab, and funding, and the ability to study human behavior just for fun. But I don't.

There are two points I'm willing to wager: 1. There are people with the proper resources who are studying similar theories; and 2. Our society may not survive long enough to see a day when skeptical thinking is held as a virtue.

But that second one is probably just my cynicism talking.

*As a kid I once got caught moving away all the knick knacks to open up the upright piano and "see" the music being made. Luckily, my dad understood and took the time to explain the science behind the strings. My parents were not as understanding when I took apart the telephone.

No comments:

Post a Comment