Daniel Callcut very kindly made me aware of his paper 'The value of teaching moral skepticism' (Teaching Philosophy 29 (2006): 223-235). Here's the abstract:
This article argues that introductory ethics classes can unwittingly create or confirm skeptical views toward morality. Introductory courses frequently include critical discussion of skeptical positions such as moral relativism and psychological egoism as a way to head off this unintended outcome. But this method of forestalling skepticism can have a residual (and unintended) skeptical effect. The problem calls for deeper pedagogical-cum-philosophical engagement with the underlying sources of skepticism. The paper provides examples of how to do this and explains the additional benefits of teaching moral skepticism.
I imagine many philosophy instructors have Callcut's worry, namely, that students already inclined toward skeptical views about morality will conclude that the inquisitive give-and-take of philosophical ethics simply confirms their skeptical position (whether the position is egoism, simple subjectivism, nihilism, relativism, etc.). If students are to be moral skeptics, better that this be the product of critical engagement with skeptical and non-skeptical positions rather than an easy dogma.
Callcut's suggestions as to how to forestall this easy moral skepticism strike me as levelheaded and sensible:
- to evaluate the merits of skepticism in comparison with other positions so that skepticism is not treated as "the default position"
- to communicate"a sense of just how extreme a claim is involved in the denial of any ethical knowledge" (226)
- to emphasize that skepticism at the level of moral theory need not diminish our confidence in our well-established first order views (e.g., that torturing children is wrong)
- to point out that 'piecemeal' justifications of our moral claims are not necessarily infirm (Here Callcut observes that many student skeptics are disillusioned foundationalists; so perhaps some headway can made against their easy skepticism by drawing attention to their foundationalist assumptions.)
- to acknowledge the possibility of theoretical moral pluralism
- to insist that the desire not to impose one's values on others is not, appearances to the contrary, a value-neutral strategy