Intellectual Hipsters: Sceptics

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I would like to return to a concept I’ve referenced once previously–intellectual hipsters. Intellectual hipsters are people who want other people to believe they are intellectual, philosophical people, but have not put in the work of really considering the ideas they embrace. This results in philosophical fads where a bunch of people jump onto the bandwagon of a facile idea. Often they do not even credit the originators of the idea, but treat it is as if it were some brilliant revelation they stumbled upon in their “reflections”. They assume that anyone who does not express agreement with the position just has never thought of it before, when in actuality usually the idea was considered and dismissed some time ago by people who, you know, actually think about the implications of the philosophical positions they take. Today’s hipster idea? Scepticism.

 Let’s be clear–I’m not referring to your day to day “think carefully about what you read and hear” scepticism. I’m talking about big time philosophical scepticism, the sort of scepticism that far, far too often starts with “what if we’re in The Matrix?” This scepticism points out that hey, you cannot know for certain if anything you believe is true. For all we know, we’re all being systematically deceived about every element of our reality by robot overlords, so you don’t know for certain that you’re really doing all of the things you think you’re doing, or if your reasons for doing the things you’re doing are your actual reasons for doing the things you’re doing, or if your ethical beliefs have anything to do with reality, if pleasure is really good and pain is really bad, and so on. You don’t have to actually believe that we could be in The Matrix to hold the view–the point of the argument is that we cannot be certain about any of our beliefs. Oh, and never mind the fact that this argument originally comes from the French philosopher Descrates and his notion of a demon that deliberately leads us astray by planting false information into our minds for his own amusement–as far as the hipster is concerned, this is his own brilliancy at work here (perhaps US Representative Paul Broun believes in the Cartesian demon–he seems to think that all of modern scientific evidence is a plot to lead people astray).

This is often marketed by the hipster as a revelation that changes everything, something that disproves the validity of every theory of justice or theory of the good or system of ethics anyone can come up with. You cannot be sure that utility is good, or equality, or justice, or anything. You cannot even be sure what equality or justice are. At this point you are supposed to be taken aback at the sheer brilliance of the hipster’s sceptical argument and come to the conclusion that the hipster is just far more brilliant than you could ever hope to be, but of course you should not.

Why not? Two reasons:

  1. Scepticism (ironically, like Nietzsche’s philosophy) leads to nihilism.
  2. Scepticism cannot pass its own standard of validity; it’s self-defeating.

Let’s consider each in turn.

First off, how does scepticism lead to nihilism? Well, if we cannot know anything, then no standard of ethics that makes claims about right or wrong can be correct. If you’re going to actually be a sceptic in the normative world, you must either do absolutely nothing–because choosing to do anything is an expression of some kind of belief that is impossible to prove correct–or you must be okay with everything, as you have no conclusive evidence to prove that there is anything wrong with any behaviour. A strict interpretation of the former would mean that you would starve to death because you would have to refrain from eating because it was possible that food isn’t really food but is something else, and to eat would be to express a conclusion drawn from insufficient evidence  that food was good for you. The sceptic chooses everything is permitted over nothing is permitted because the sceptic has a will to live (even though the sceptic would deny that it was possible for me to know that the sceptic has a will to live because I cannot know the mind of another person with certainty). “Everything is permitted” is a complete abdication of ethical responsibility altogether, and it leads to a miserable dystopia in which people do horrible things to each other all the time. The sceptic might claim that my understanding of “miserable” and “horrible” are not provable, and therefore my claims about the society generated are no more provable than an opposite argument that would claim that it would be a lovely paradise, but this only goes to show the sceptic’s total lack of concern for the world we live in. The sceptic demands we throw out everything we perceive and think because there might exist in the universe things we have not perceived or sensed that could disprove what is in front of us, with no standard of evidence being acceptable. We are expected to give up what we have simply because we don’t have everything. This makes scepticism empirically useless, like all forms of nihilism. It will not improve your life or the lives of other people because it denies that there is any acceptable notion of what “improvement” is in the first place.

The second problem is really obvious–if scepticism claims that we cannot know anything, then it stands to reason that we cannot know that we cannot know anything. We should be sceptical about scepticism. This is such a simple and easy response to this idea that we have records of the ancient Greeks using it in arguments. Yet, despite this, we still have large numbers of intellectual hipsters brandying about the same silliness today.

So scepticism is useless and self-defeating. As a result, it’s no wonder that theorists have decided to ignore it and resume trying to come up with theories that, you know, actually might lead to a society that is more pleasant in which to live. The sceptics have forgotten that the whole point of philosophy is trying to come up with ways of living and organising societies that make life better for people, that determine and bring about the good life and the good society. Theories that do not help us to pursue this end are useless theories, and people who never manage to intellectually outgrow scepticism are phony intellectuals who have failed to take seriously the responsibility philosophy has to actually help real people in the real world. If we theorists expect society to pay us to theorise, we had best be trying to use our skills for society’s benefit, not for our own self-aggrandisement.

I am not the only one making the criticism–Ronald Dworkin’s attack on the sceptical position is quite good: