Head to Head: Skepticism- Adam Bistagne vs. Martin Sigalow

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This is Head to Head!  Two people will argue back and forth on a controversial debate topic. They are presented with word restrictions and limits on time for when they must submit their responses. The winner will be declared upon the posting of the next “Head to Head.” Vote and let us know who you thought won!

Last time, Bob Overing defeated Sam Mathews  on a 760 to 752 decision because nobody voted twice for sure. Next up in a rematch of Round 3 of the 2010 Minneapple is Adam Bistagne versus Martin Sigalow, both coaches at their alma maters.

Question: Should arguments that suggest that morality does not exist (i.e. moral skepticism) be acceptable arguments in debate?

To facilitate difference in opinion. Two polls are below. One is the question of who won, the other is your opinion on the topic.


Skepticism is most often utilized today in the form of a “trigger” or an ethical justification for a moral theory that “escapes skepticism.” I will defend that both of these are theoretically and logically unacceptable.

Theoretically, “skepticism triggers” are unfair because they allow the debater to have two paths to the ballot: they can win by showing “skepticism is triggered” or through the stock debate. The other debater can only win the stock debate. This is an unfair 2-1 burden structure which should be rejected because it violates one of the central tenets of fairness in reciprocity.

The “you can do it too” argument is non-responsive. To “turn” skepticism requires winning a different interpretation of how burdens function in the round. However, this doesn’t solve the 2-1 structural advantage; it just means whoever wins this interpretation debate will be at a 2-1 advantage. It’s better to disallow arguments that when won change the round’s burden structure to be non-reciprocal.

Skep triggers are also anti-educational.

First, acceptance of skep triggers increases the incentive to run them rather than legitimate moral philosophy, shifting philosophical ground to arguments that have high strategic value instead of arguments with high truth-value. Debaters have an incentive to run arguments that “solve” for skepticism even when few to zero actual philosophers discuss moral theories as “solving for skepticism”. For example, contractarianism is usually run with Gauthier cards that are power-tagged to say “we have to be able to motivate the skeptic” or something of that sort. This is inconsistent with Gauthier’s argument because he’s not a motivational internalist; he’s a motivational externalist who believes the only reasons that exist are self-interested ones.

Second, skep triggers minimize clash because debaters will just extend framework defense to “trigger skep” instead of actually doing comparison between moral theories, which is what good philosophy should do. Clash is even more important than general philosophical ground because debate can uniquely teach how philosophical arguments interact (which is something just reading on one’s own can’t do nearly as well). Further, even if x moral theory is able to account for an argument against realism, this doesn’t imply that x moral theory is necessarily more valid than y moral theory. There are other concerns that should and do enter into our calculus about what is the most valid moral theory. These include whether an ethical theory has a coherent explanation of which acts are right or wrong or whether a theory matches our conception of the person. This undermines the very logic of skep triggers because they necessarily presume that a moral theory that has an account of escaping skepticism is the only moral theory that can be valid. This implicit argument is rarely brought out in debates and is logically incoherent..

Moreover, there are strong reasons to reject skepticism even if a debater never explicitly answers the contingent standard because we would still have higher credence in any particular set of moral beliefs than we would have in skepticism. For example, anyone who understands the meaning of the proposition “it is morally wrong to torture babies for fun” would agree that the proposition is true. As Thomas Nagel elaborates, we can compare our credence in these self-evident moral beliefs against our credence that morality does not exist. In a debate round, this would be the equivalent of comparing your standard justifications against the justifications for skepticism. Most of us, I hope, would agree that we have much stronger reasons to believe in some set of moral beliefs than some argument for skepticism because any argument for skepticism must claim that the proposition “it is morally wrong to torture babies for fun” is false


Thanks for having this discussion with me Adam!

Although most of your arguments aren’t about skepticism generally, I still feel obliged by our question to say it’s good. I will be brief. The top two reasons are: First, it’s an important school of thought in philosophy; as sort of the proverbial boogieman for shoddily warranted positions, skeptical objections are considered by philosophers when framing their arguments. This is not infrequent; ethicists after Moore must account for his broad-based use of the naturalistic fallacy, and analytics are still dealing with Wittgenstein. For the benefits of philosophy education, read Becca’s article. Second, it’s so counter-intuitive that it forces people to think in terms of arguments and not just feelings, helping us to become better philosophers and thinkers. It forces critical thinking because of how it doesn’t fit in with our pre-established web of beliefs, and forces the other debater to articulate their intuitive objections in rational argumentation, lest they lose to arguments from Wittgenstein.

I’m not feeling this NIBS thing. First, it’s now common for people’s triggers to link to presumption, not permissibility. If skepticism would mean no one has offense, and a judge should think that the negative probabilistically win in those cases, that isn’t unfair enough to disallow skepticism. This also indicts the impact to some triggers rather than triggers in general. Second, I think arguing here about whether NIBS are bad (I think they’re good, or at least not bad in principle) isn’t productive. That debate is so common as to be stilted and uninteresting. I recommend we eschew that discussion in favor of other issues. I also think, for reference, that “you can do it too” might work if you frame these answers as impact turns, but I won’t discuss that here.

Your say triggers supplant “legitimate moral philosophy.” First, most of the contingency portions of these arguments aren’t long, so any tradeoff is slight and not worth giving up the educational benefit of skepticism generally. Additionally, for a philosophy argument’s “legitimacy” it isn’t necessary for one’s ethics author to also advocate the decision rule for that ethic. That’s arbitrary and overlimiting. Similarly, it’s not illegitimate to argue someone’s philosophy is good at answering skepticism, even if they made that argument. I don’t think that equating “high truth-value” moral stances with “what someone previously argued” is justified. “Academic consensus” in philosophy isn’t reason to disregard fringe positions outright. If the position is beatable, beat it, and beating it intelligently is educational. Gauthier DOES frame his arguments to answer to the skeptic who asks “why should I be moral?” Even if you’re right that Gauthier isn’t internalist (I think you’re not, but I haven’t read much Gauthier), this isn’t a problem with triggers, but with debate’s treatment of Gauthier; the claim that Gauthier is an internalist easily predates the skep trigger version of the argument.

Your minimizing clash argument is decent in theory but not practice. It’s quite difficult to successfully trigger skepticism without having to clash, since most of the time the other debater’s arguments don’t actually trigger the contingency. Most skepticism triggers justify: the truth of a general skeptical objection, their framework avoids this objection, no other framework does, skepticism triggers a decision rule, and that decision rule flows their way. For a contingency to be triggered without clash, the opponent must have only answered that the triggerer’s framework avoids skepticism. Any other set of arguments, including or excluding the successful answer, necessitates clash. If the other side wins the skeptical objection is generally false, winning that no framework can solve it is irrelevant. If they wins their own framework avoids the problem, extending the contingency does nothing. If the other side wins it triggers another mechanism, new reasons they win are required. If the other side wins that the mechanism flows their way, the triggerer triggering skepticism means they lose. To successfully extend triggers, unless the other debater understands nothing or reads framework blocks without answering specifics (aka not clashing), the triggerer must respond to many objections at all levels and explicitly justify why the negative framework bites into the skeptical problem. This is hard, interactive, and educational.

Your substantive objection to skepticism as insufficient standard warrants on their own is fair given how these debates usually go. A skeptical disjunction is probably itself not a sufficient standard warrant absent some meta-standard about adopting frameworks that avoid skepticism. This doesn’t apply if someone actually goes for the trigger, however. If the only moral theory that could avoid skepticism doesn’t, skepticism is true. It’s immaterial that those false moral theories are false for additional reasons.

Your “come on” argument is unpersuasive. Assuming that by “credence” you mean how much we are willing to believe, then this argument is familiar: intuitively, most people think that there’s a moral reason against doing things we don’t like (abusing toddlers). Yes. They do. I don’t consider this the litmus test for successful refutation, although I “understand” the proposition. You’re overly dismissive of skeptical scholarship. That said, an attempt to warrant the value of intuitionalism might well answer skepticism. That’s a reason for a debate to play out, though, not a reason to reject skepticism outright. This is a substantive objection one might raise in round, and is something that perhaps should be brought up so some smart and interactive debate might be had! Excluding skepticism altogether means this debate is prematurely cut short where it could have involved spirited clash on the use of moral language.


There a few unique arguments that together make a very powerful case against skepticism generally and skepticism triggers in particular.

The first is that skepticism is a NIB. Even if debaters usually use skepticism to trigger presumption, my argument against “you can do it too” seems to answer this. Introducing presumption as a decision-rule into the debate (where the winner of who gets presumption gets an advantage that is non-reciprocal) seems to be an unfair way of constructing a debate. Skepticism arguments force debaters to use presumption as a decision rule, which is not how presumption ought to function.

Further, skepticism cannot enter into a decision-making process that is fair, because fairness is bound up with normative reasons. Debaters are not only claiming that the judge should vote for them, but also that the judge should fairly evaluate the round. Since skepticism claims that no normative claim could ever be true, skepticism denies that either debater could have a claim over the judge to vote for anyone or to evaluate the round fairly. Skepticism cannot function in debate since a basic premise of debate is that it is true that the judge should vote for someone and should carry out a fair adjudication of the arguments.

The second is that skepticism shifts arguments away from quality philosophical ground to positions that deliberately misrepresent the philosophical literature. Because of skepticism’s unfairness, it changes the research incentives of debaters to find positions that may not be logically coherent, but that can win debate rounds. My argument is not that “academic consensus” is a reason to disregard fringe positions outright, but that when an argument in debate incentivizes debaters to research incorrectly, or to misrepresent philosophical literature, as unfair positions do, then that provides an additional educational reason to bar the argument from debate. Unfair positions lead to non-educational experiences.

You also fail to understand how skepticism arguments diminish clash, thus providing another incentive for debaters to misrepresent the philosophical literature in order to find the path of least resistance to the ballot. In your ideal world, the debaters must justify skepticism generally, the other debater refutes skepticism, and we have an educational debate about whether or not skepticism is true. However, in practice, this is never what happens. Instead, debaters who initiate skepticism will not defend anything except that both frameworks are false, and then they will extend that the decision rule for skep flows their way. I think this is pretty terrible for philosophical debate because it doesn’t encourage clash at all; it destroys clash.

The way you supposedly account for this lack of clash is that “[debaters can argue] the mechanism flows their way”. However, this brings up another problem for skepticism. If skeptical debates just collapse to debates about to which side the decision rule flows, than skeptical debates are no longer about the truth of skepticism, but are rather now about an obscure debate of what the resolution means. Skepticism debates will thus no longer be debates about philosophy; philosophical ground that you say is so educationally valuable.

The third argument is that the question is not just about whether philosophical ground is good, but about how skeptical arguments interact with other philosophical arguments. If skepticism “crowds out” other moral philosophy, then any educational argument for skepticism must be compared against the quality and quantity of the philosophical ground that it replaces. Skepticism crowds out applied ethics, or topical debate, precisely because it creates a higher-level burden structure that allows debaters to ignore the topic.

Thus, the educational question with regards to skepticism is whether we prefer asking skeptical questions in a debate round, or whether we should try and decide what to do in the moral dilemma that is the topic. All the reasons that debating the resolution, such as predictability or the educational value of switch-side debate, are thus reasons to ignore skepticism in favor of topic education.

Lastly, this preference for topical debate over skepticism meshes very nicely with Thomas Nagel’s argument that we have reasons to have much higher credence in any minimally plausible ethical theory (as in any of the ethical theories you see in a debate round) that attributes the proposition “it is morally wrong to torture babies for fun” a value of true, than any skeptical theory that attributes the proposition a value of false. You’re overly dismissive of the power of this argument, for what it claims is that a warrant for any plausible ethical theory gives us a higher reason to believe in that ethical theory than it does to believe in skepticism. We ought to thus tailor debates to focus on areas where there are substantial disagreements among the experts, such as the moral dilemma that is the topic, in order to provide for the best learning experience debate can offer. In short, skep is wrong, moral facts exist, and an educational experience should reflect these facts.


Thanks again for your responses!

There’s no answer my arguments about skepticism’s general value. First, it’s necessary to understand how philosophers justify their positions, i.e. Moore and Wittgenstein. Philosophy education outweighs. Second, it’s great for helping debaters grow as people by learning to transcend personal bias. I think these lasting impacts probably outweigh the, let’s be real, slight fairness dip from having a single NIB. Second, my first argument answers your assertion below that skepticism is literature nobody considers/defends; they do, and it’s great.

You haven’t answered that this’s a poor place to debate NIBS good/bad since that’s, by now, stilted and will teach everyone nothing new. Let’s table this before it bores us to tears. And, presumption has always been a decision rule, just not one invoked by a debater. The judge does it, which seems even worse for fairness since it’s out of debaters’ hands. A presumption burden exists even if you don’t want it to. But I’d say I mostly just don’t think we should regurgitate about this.

Skepticism answering theory obviates the prefiat/postfiat distinction. It’s best to assume a distinction, in absence of a Kritik, because it makes debate possible: if a debater justifies Utilitarianism, must I vote them down since they failed to exit the round and feed starving children? Should a debater’s contention about income equality of result mean I vote for the poorer debater? Skepticism is similar: it doesn’t trickle up to prefiat concerns like fairness. Moreover, this is a conflation; just because skepticism says fairness isn’t important doesn’t make skepticism unfair, just that it answers the impact to something being unfair.

You’ve not proven this is bad literature. I’ve given two examples of my own and link-turned your Gauthier one. Your conflation of fairness due to structure and fairness due to research burdens/predictability is also striking. Plus, there’s literature on it, which is above.

Your “crowd out” argument was initially just about triggers not skep generally, but it’s still answered above: skep is good philosophy. Also, this probably begs the question of whether skep is a NIB. Even if it is, skepticism education outweighs.

My objection to your clash argument is 100% responsive. You say a triggerer will “just” defend that both frameworks are false, but that requires winning a) a general skeptical problem, b) that other frameworks don’t avoid the problem c) that it triggers a decision rule and d) that decision rule flows their way. Even if the opposing debater just said “your framework doesn’t solve,” the triggerer must make new arguments why the other’s framework linked to the objection. Most debates, the opposing debater will, as normal refutation, make multi-layered objections the triggerer must answer, which PROMOTES philosophical clash.

Debates need not devolve to decision rule discussions, but even if they do, that’s an exciting area of philosophy! Analytic claims about what it means to say certain words, what happens when words in statements are meaningless, and arguments about the importance of metrics for evaluating those claims are great, complex philosophy.

Switch-side debate good’s best argument is critical thinking skills, which I have links to. Plus, you haven’t said why skepticism isn’t TOPICAL debate; obviously, arguments about morality’s falsity proving the resolution false would make it topical and predictable since you can write stable answers. You’ve not refuted the immense value of philosophical education re: Becca’s article anyway, which probably means philosophy outweighs.

You’ve not answered my two objections to your credence argument. First, there’s NO IMPACT to this. Even if there’s a good argument why skep is false, that’s not a reason to exclude it from the debate outright. In fact, you should allow skepticism because using this argument in round is educational because it fosters great debates about moral language. Second, this is illogical. People, especially skeptics, understand what these propositions mean and can still not automatically find them immoral. Maybe I’d read Nagel and become convinced, but I’m not blown away by your rendering.


Who won?

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What do you think?

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Think they made all the right arguments? Did they miss something? Are they wrong? Are they right? Let us know in the comments down below!

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