Features, Philosophy

The Case For Moral Doubt

I don’t know if there is any truth in morality that is comparable to other truths. But I do know that if moral truth exists, establishing it at the at the most fundamental level is hard to do.

Especially in the context of passionate moral disagreement, it’s difficult to tell whose basic moral values are the right ones. It’s an even greater challenge verifying that you yourself are the more virtuous. When you find yourself in a moral stalemate, where appeals to rationality and empirical reality have been exhausted, you have nothing left to stand on but your deeply-ingrained values and a profound sense of your own righteousness.

You have a few options at this point. You can defiantly insist that you’re the one with the truth – that you’re right and the other person is stupid, morally perverse, or even evil. Or you can retreat to some form of nihilism or relativism because the apparent insolubility of the conflict must mean moral truth can’t exist. This wouldn’t be psychologically satisfying, though. If your moral conviction is strong enough to lead you into an impassioned conflict, you probably wouldn’t be so willing to send it off into the ether. Why would you be comfortable slipping from intense moral certainty to meta-level amorality?

You’d be better off acknowledging the impasse for what it is – a conflict over competing values that you’re not likely to settle. You can agree to disagree. No animosity. No judgment. You both have dug your heels in, but you’re no longer trying to drive each other back. You can’t convince him that you’re right, and he can’t convince you, but you can at least be cordial.

But I think there is an even better approach. You can loosen your heels’ grip in the dirt and allow yourself to be pushed back. Doubt yourself, at least a little. Take a lesson from the physicist Richard Feynman and embrace uncertainty:

You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell – possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.

If Feynman can be so open to doubt about empirical matters, then why is it so hard to doubt our moral beliefs? Or, to put it another way, why does uncertainty about how the world is come easier than uncertainty about how the world, from an objective stance, ought to be.

Sure, the nature of moral belief is such that its contents seem self-evident to the believer. But when you think about why you hold certain beliefs, and when you consider what it would take to prove them objectively correct, they don’t seem so obvious.

Morality is complex and moral truth is elusive, so our moral beliefs are, to use Feynman’s phrase, just the “approximate answers” to moral questions. We hold them with varying degrees of certainty. We’re ambivalent about some, pretty sure about others, and very confident about others. For none of them are we absolutely certain – or at least we shouldn’t be.

While I’m trying only to persuade you to be more skeptical about your own moral beliefs, you might be tempted by the more global forms of moral skepticism that deny the existence of moral truth or the possibility of moral knowledge. Fair enough, but what I’ve written so far isn’t enough to validate such a stance. The inability to reach moral agreement doesn’t imply that there is no moral truth. Scientists disagree about many things, but they don’t throw their hands up and infer that no one is correct, that there is no truth. Rather, they’re confident truth exists. And they leverage their localized skepticism – their doubt about their own beliefs and those of others – to get closer to it.

The moral sphere is different to the scientific sphere, and doubting one’s moral beliefs isn’t necessarily valuable because it eventually leads one closer to the truth – at least to the extent that truth is construed as being in accordance with facts. This type of truth is, in principle, more easily discoverable in science than it is in morality. But there is a more basic reason that grounds the importance of doubt in both the moral and scientific spheres: it fosters an openness to alternatives.

Embrace this notion. It doesn’t have to mean acknowledging that you don’t know and then moving on to something else. And it doesn’t mean abandoning your moral convictions outright or being paralyzed by self-doubt. It means abandoning your absolute certainty and treating your convictions as tentative. It means making your case but recognizing that you have no greater access to the ultimate moral truth than anyone else. Be open to the possibility that you’re wrong and that your beliefs are the ones requiring modification. Allow yourself to feel the intuitive pull of the competing moral value.

There’s a view out there that clinging unwaveringly to one’s moral values is courageous and, therefore, virtuous. There’s some truth to this idea. Sticking up for what one believes in is usually worthy of respect. But moral rigidity – the refusal to budge at all – is where public moral discourse breaks down. It is the root of the fragmentation and polarization that defines contemporary public life.

Some people have been looking for ways to improve the ecosystem of moral discourse. In a study, Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg1 demonstrated that when you reframe arguments to appeal to political opponents’ own moral values, you’re more likely to persuade them than if you make arguments based on your own values. “Even if the arguments that you wind up making aren’t those that you would find most appealing,” they wrote in The New York Times, “you will have dignified the morality of your political rivals with your attention, which, if you think about it, is the least that we owe our fellow citizens.”

Affirming your opponent’s values is indeed worthy. But if there is a normative justification for utilizing Willer and Feinberg’s antidote to entrenched moral disagreement, it seems to be the presumption that you, the persuader, are the righteous one and just need a salesman’s touch to bring the confused over to your side. Attempting to persuade others is inherent to moral discourse, but there’s something cynical and arrogant about using their own moral values against them, especially when you don’t hold those values yourself. Focusing solely on how to be the most persuasive also ignores another objective of moral discourse – being persuaded.

And the first step to being persuaded is doubting yourself.


Scotty Jenkins has a master’s degree in bioethics from Emory University. He writes about ethics, politics, and culture at The Ought.



1 Feinberg, Matthew; Willer, Robb (2015). “From Gulf to Bridge: When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Oct;41(12): 1-17.


  1. defmn says

    The idea that facts are qualitatively different than facts is a relatively new idea tracing back less than 150 years. Prior to that innovation ‘value’ existed only as a verb – as in “I value my integrity.” Proceeding as though values are different than facts leads to all sorts of dead ends.

    That said I agree with the sentiment of the essay although I believe it is really just a re-statement of Plato’s “The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything.”

    The desire to embrace questions rather than answers does appear to be a relatively rare occurrence in human beings however.

    • Mario says

      In your first sentence, you probably meant that “values are qualitatively different.”

      Also, as far as I know, that quote is by Socrates.

      And regarding the third paragraph of your comment, yes, apparently you’re right. Questions are more unsettling, and unsettling means uncomfortable to many people.

      • defmn says

        Thanks for the correction. Yes, the sentence should read that “values are qualitatively different than facts”. I don’t think you can trace that to Plato or Aristophanes or Xenophon – the three authors who write about Socrates – though since the entire idea of ‘values’ as a concept is no older than the late 19th century.

        You might be thinking of Aristotle and his telos or ‘purpose’ based understanding of cause which ‘values’ understanding of first causes as the highest purpose of humans and rank orders other ‘purposes’ accordingly. A significantly different perspective than what ‘values’ has come to mean in our time.

      • Ferd Roseboom says

        Seeing the many poppy-encrusted crosses on display in homes and businesses last month, I unsettled a few on Quora by asking what the Christian argument against pacifism was. Almost all quoted, not from the gospels, but from the ‘books’ comprising its preface.

  2. Ferd Roseboom says

    Scotty, you’ve articulated much of what’s crossed my mind on the subject of morality.

    Last week, I started listening to Stephen Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature” to try to get a sense why there’s been so little violence between the political extremes in America. I think it has a lot to do with the nature of digital discourse. Compared with the bloodshed in 1968 and the murders in Montreal in 1970, we seem to have replaced physical assault with verbal forms. As a language teacher, I’ve started looking at the research into CMC (computer-mediated communication) to compare with face-to-face. What’s surprising is how few in the research domain recognize that online interaction is much more than ever, a dialogue with the globalized self than it is the embodied other, you, in this case whom I cannot see nor count.

    Since reading and discussing quantum physicist David Bohm’s distinction between what he called ‘literal thought’, and ‘participatory thought’, I’ve come to view dichotomous terms as expressing distinct narratives, incomplete pictures of reality, be it the classic wave vs particle duality of physics, the determinism vs free will of philosophy; or the good (benevolence) vs evil (malevolence) of religion. Seems the moral question fits in here somewhere. The other day, I watched Hitchens remind the other three of the ‘Four Horsemen’ that doubt is as much a driver of religious belief as it is of science: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7IHU28aR2E

  3. The author should go one step further and embrace moral anti-realism, the reality that there are no objective moral truths. That also leads to humility in imposing ones moral ideas onto others. This article seems like a half-way house to the truth of the matter.

    • Ferd Roseboom says

      | “The author should go one step further and embrace moral anti-realism, the reality that there are no objective moral truths. That also leads to humility in imposing ones moral ideas onto others. ”

      Not backward? The 3rd paragraph is: “Or you can retreat to some form of nihilism or relativism because the apparent insolubility of the conflict must mean moral truth can’t exist.” And how does believing there are no moral truths obviate one from attempting to impose one’s moral ideas onto others? What, if not doubt, leads to humility?

  4. “Truth” is a form of evaluation – either “this is true” or “this is false”. How can this apply to morality? You tell me. A moral action is evaluated by how well it achieves your value or goal. That’s not a true/false situation.

  5. Alan Friedmann says

    I would suggest that the author draws the wrong conclusion from Feynman’s quote. Feynman would subscribe to the following (necessarily un-nuanced) description of scientific knowledge:

    1. is always uncertain and provisional;
    2. is always open to new data/theories/ interpretations;
    3. is anti-authoritarian: there is no absolute authority;
    4. is anonymous: it does not matter who the scientist is, only what s/he does;
    5. proceeds by relentless scrutiny by peers whose sole qualification is specific expertise.

    I suggest that we apply the same categories to moral truth.

    Moral truth:
    1. can never be certain and immutable;
    2. it is always open to new data/theories/ interpretations;
    3. it cannot be established by an absolute authority;
    4. it is anonymous: it does not matter who the proponent is, only what s/he suggests;
    5. it advances by the widest and freest debate among open-minded people.

    To clarify, it may be useful to contrast the above with religious dogma.

    Religious dogma:
    1. is certain and immutable;
    2. is independent of evidence;
    3. is established by ascertaining its divine origin;
    4. its authority follows from its divine origin as inscribed in the authorized Scriptures and interpreted by the religious hierarchy;
    5. has to be obeyed as the will of God – it cannot be discussed and amended.

  6. prince campbell says

    This is what I tell my kid. History shows that man is always wrong. From the world being flat, calling minorities only partially human to saying Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player. It all ends up being wrong. So hold your strong beliefs loosely.

    Great, well-written article. Glad I read it.

  7. This strikes me as written from a position of being already within the kind of consensual detachment it advocates. Doubt is presented as a good because it serves the ends of ‘public moral discourse’. But why should those ends in particular notably guide my moral judgments? Sometimes maybe they shouldn’t: in fact, sometimes there might not even be a shared, rational public life within which such discourse can make sense. We haven’t been having much of a cosy moral discourse with the atrocity-mongers of Islamic State. And ethics is about doing as well as talking: there are things we probably do want to be wholehearted, such as the love of parents for their children. So this pretty much seems to say that consensual politics works better without zealotry–which is true, but maybe not much of a truth about ethics.

  8. Sarfka says

    I think there could be a problem here with what is meant by (moral) values. The term seems to cover quite a large field of “stuff”, from things that might seem capable of framing as a belief – credo e.g. “I believe in equality”, to propositions directly about the world/reality, “All humans are equal”, to quite elaborate constructions such as “human rights”, to rules on the border of pragmatics and ethics, “Honesty is the best policy”, to expressions of (moral) sentiment/emotion – “Cruelty disgusts me”, all the way to more complex questions like preferences for how moral outcomes are to be derived in case of dilemmas, where morality comes from and so forth.
    How serious our moral differences from others are thus also depends on what sort of differences they really are. Frequently differences on aspects that are theoretically very basic (for example between the secular humanist and some religious system, or between western schools of philosophical ethics), do not actually cause immense differences in imperatives for practical conduct. But then again, some differences in values will produce a problem that cannot be overlooked or – imaginably – solved by open-mindedness – pro-choice and pro-life issues, or honour killings, or even just the moral dilemmas that face us in acute ways, sometimes, in personal life.
    It is also evident that moral conduct is something lived rather than just a sort of derivation of theoretical beliefs/propositions. This may of course mean that a fair amount of doubt and leaps in the dark are an essential part of it, but also means that the stakes are rather high and some kind of gentle rather skeptical compromising with other views may not really be possible experientially.

    • I agree with this comment. I take the conservative view articulated by Oakeshott that morality already exists in the world in terms of how human beings relate to one another, and it is not the business of philosophy to uncover any rules or special truths here. Morality is culturally contingent, but that does not dissolve into relativism because there really is no project of ethical philosophy, let alone one that exists outside of a cultural time and place. Moral conversations use terms like ‘rights’ and ‘equality’ but these terms have no absolute traction.

      The trade off between the rights of the foetus and the rights of the mother is a trade off that is made within a nexus of values in a cultural time and place, and if Catholic faith features with weight in that nexus the resolution will be different than if it does not.

      Another example is criminal punishment. In a pre-modern society with high mortality, no forensic science and really-believed religion, the morality surrounding punishment is refracted through a very different value-nexus than in a modern technological society: now plastic deterrence is less important, and execution is more savage.

      So moral conversations can never be suspended. They are never not real. And they do open themselves to be negotiated discursively, but this will always be passionate, and always political.

  9. Abu Nudnik says

    Am I the only person who thinks this is a piece of cake? You take an action and consider it like this: does the action, if universally applied throughout one’s society, increase or decrease the morale of the society and its members? Will it lead to a will to live, and live fully, or to defeat and despair? Will it lead to innovation, courage, knowledge or to stasis, terror, incuriosity, ignorance? Can it create culture? sustain it? repair it? retrieve it from certain defeat?

    It becomes obvious when considering these questions what moral and immoral behavior is.

  10. Mark30339 says

    There is an immense body of work spanning thousands of years with respect to moral formation and moral reasoning. One can certainly study those processes within the Jewish tradition, the Roman tradition and the orthodox tradition. Studying them to identify what is valued more and why those traditions order it that way, is an essential first step before suggesting alternate moral orders — or before deluding oneself into declaring that an activity, whether social, or scientific, or political, or familial, can be carried on free of a moral order. Comprehending these traditions is not the same as obliging oneself to them spiritually. But refusing to oblige a spiritual tradition does not get any of us off the hook from having a moral order, and refining it based upon a particular set of ideals.

  11. Mark30339 says

    If you listen to Dr. Jordan Peterson you may come across his commentary on the Genesis and Exodus stories. These are fascinating examinations of wisdom passed on regarding the nature of reality and ways to navigate through it. His talks are not theology. One of his particularly incisive reflections of his compares the Marxist view of Human Suffering with the Judeo-Christian view. The moral order from which each of us operates needs to address the reality of paid and suffering. Dr. Peterson’s take is here https://youtu.be/ctXwK0xtmVI (Judeo-Christian) and here https://youtu.be/T9eqoAHByHQ (Marxist).

  12. Many of the commenters here must be relatively young. Some of you in due course will come to understand that the theological view of reality is necessarily true. Although you are clever, men such as Kurt Godel were, effectively, of infinitely deeper intellect than you or me. He was — along with the great majority of the world’s most profound thinkers — absolutely certain of God’s existence and (generally) his nature. Summary rejection of this fundamental position is the sign of an impoverished intellect. You must be able to articulate a position before rejecting it, an apparently impossible feat for most academics today, at least when it comes to theology.

    I too was once an atheist given to the sort of titillating but ultimately incoherent statements such as “there is no such thing as moral truth”. When philosophy takes leave of common sense it is analogous to the data not fitting the theory. The problem is not with the data. The deeper your intelligence, the more you owe it to yourself to escape the benighted intellectual era we inhabit. Read widely and deeply. Read Summa Theologica and truly test yourself.

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