This very interesting, but little read, book by philosopher Ian Hinckfuss is sadly out-of-print (but the manuscript can be found online here). Hinckfuss is a moral sceptic and nihilist, arguing that the only way in which we could possibly gain moral knowledge would be by a "sixth sense" of moral "intuition" or "conscience" (that we have no good reason to think that any human possesses), and that there are no (good reasons to think that there are any) "moral facts" to have knowledge of. The enemies of scepticism are the rationalists (who believe that we can gain moral knowledge in the same way we gain knowledge of logical or mathematical truths), the naturalists (who believe that moral facts are just ordinary natural facts, and thus that moral knowledge can be gained by empirical observation), and the non-cognitivists (who think that moral opinions are not beliefs at all, and can thus be neither true nor false). Hinckfuss makes a good case against these non-sceptical views, paying special attention to the naturalist view.
But if it is widely believed that all knowledge of the natural world must come from empirical observation, and it is also widely believed that moral knowledge, if any, must be rooted in "conscience", why isn't the world filled with moral sceptics? One reason, Hinckfuss maintains, could be that
... societies can live with obvious contradictions for generations or even centuries - especially if the contradictory beliefs are part of the rationales for important societal relationships. In religion this phenomenon is commonplace. It is no less so in morality - or, for that matter, within science. What usually happens under these circumstances is that the apparent contradiction becomes tagged as a philosophical problem so that society can go on believing in its inconsistencies while the philosophers wrestle with their “problem”.
Moral scepticism is hardly new, and has been around in one form or another since the very beginnings of Western philosophy. What is original with Hinckfuss is that he explicitly connects his moral scepticism with a healthy scepticism of elitism and authoritarianism:
[M]embers of the moral elite are often treated as authorities about moral obligations. Since most members of the society will want themselves and others to act in accordance with what they believe their obligations to be, they will tend to favour conformity to the injunctions of the moral authorities. This restricts their own freedom and the freedom of others. Since an authoritarian society is one in which obedience to authority is preferred to individual freedom, morality and authoritarianism go hand in hand.
Insofar as people believe that there are objective moral facts, they are prone to also believe that some people are better than others at gaining knowledge of these facts (that there are "moral experts"). And those who are thought to know what ought to be done are also often thought to be worthy of leadership. What Hinckfuss calls "moral societies" are societies where belief in the reality and objective validity of moral obligations is widespread. He conjectures that most or all actual societies, past and present, are moral societies in this sense. He notes that authoritarianism is regarded as some sort of evil in most moral societies. So the question arises as to how moral people live and practice within a system which has properties that they regard as evil. The answer, Hinckfuss proposes, is that they seldom regard their own moral society as authoritarian. People tend to be blind to their own authoritarianism. Yet these same people see so readily the authoritarianism in societies other than their own.
Thus moral agents, identifying as they do with what they believe to be their moral obligations, do not feel coerced by them, and insofar as these beliefs coincide with the moral propaganda of the society in which they reside, which will usually be the case, that society will not appear unduly authoritarian to them. It is only when we allow ourselves to take an outsider's view of the moral society in which we live that its authoritarianism becomes apparent.
Hinckfuss seems to also think that coming to accept moral scepticism helps a person to take an outsider's view of one's own moral society; to take an amoral (which is not the same as immoral!) perspective.
From an amoral point of view, the moral elite of a moral society would be seen as a bunch of free riders [...] who survive by virtue of the doctrine of deserts, moral parsing and associated arts of good public relations, plus, above all, the fact that it is their moral intuitions which bear weight in social decision making.
But despite his disapproval of freeriding and authoritarianism, and his approval of individual freedom, Hinckfuss also disapproves (which, given his nihilism, obviously cannot be moral disapproval) of economic inequality. This implicitly assumes that liberty and equality are compatible. This is a debated claim (and one that I for one think is deeply mistaken). Under liberty, since people are different from each other in all kinds of ways, including in what ends they strive for, they will use this liberty in different ways, pursuing different ends, and will inevitably end up in very different outcomes as a result. Further, Hinckfuss also seems to disapprove of hierarchies of all kinds. A moral sceptic cannot, of course, say that some hierarchies are morally bad and others morally good, but it must still be recognized that some hierarchies benefit those who are part of them, and thus might not merit disapproval (moral or otherwise). The economist Paul H. Rubin noted in his book Darwinian Politics that, because of our evolved nature, humans often confuse dominance hierarchies and productive hierarchies. The same factors that (very understandably) lead humans to dislike dominance hierarchies in the environment in which we evolved, can (less understandably) lead them to dislike productive hierarchies today, even though the latter may benefit all its members.
Hinckfuss notes that it is often argued (even by moral sceptics) that morality is useful in securing peace and bringing about the prerequisites for mutually beneficial co-operation. But Hinckfuss argues againt this. He thinks that, on the whole, we would all be better off without morality! Naturally, given his purpose, he focuses on the bad aspects of morality.
In an amoral society, Hitler and Stalin could not have used moral injunctions to lead ordinary people to persecute fellow citizens and the citizens of other countries in such a heartless manner. In an amoral society, moral propaganda is unavailable to the megalomaniac as a tool for mass manipulation. Tyrants could, of course, still use fear to establish and maintain their position. Nevertheless, fear unaccompanied by moral charisma is a two-edged sword as many tyrants have found to their cost when rebellion has finally broken out. Fear and moral constraints have different social consequences.
There could be war without morality. But moral propaganda eases the task of those with control of the mass media to get almost all the nation determined to attack, plunder, slaughter and subjugate another group of people.
While this is undoubtedly true and important, it doesn't show that morality on the whole leaves us worse off compared to an amoral society. Wouldn't a wholly amoral society be chaotic and messy? How could we co-operate with each other without moral prohibitions on lying, stealing, killing? Hinckfuss tries to calm us:
Apart from any basic altruistic motivations, there is a more self-interested amoral mechanism which encourages people to want to satisfy the desires of others and which thereby augments the possibility of the rational resolution of conflicts. Everyone soon learns the advantages in receiving the co-operation of others in achieving ends which one desires. But such co-operation is unlikely to be forthcoming from those who do not trust us - from those who believe for whatever reason that there is a considerable possibility that we may behave in ways which are detrimental to their interests. Such people will want to distance themselves from us - to put themselves in a position where our actions are less likely to have an effect upon them. If, therefore, we wish to reverse this tendency, it is necessary for us to become trustworthy in the eyes of as many people as possible - to be thought of as people who are likely to act in the interests of others. It is such mechanisms, rather than any moral injunctions, which encourage us to abide by our promises and contracts, to be open and honest in our dealings with others and to be predictable and cooperative in our own behaviour. It is true that there are occasions when people can advantage themselves by disadvantaging others or by risking a disadvantage to others, with little likelihood of any adverse reaction. Likelihoods build up with frequency, however, so, on the surface, at least, it would seem imprudent to so behave with any regularity. Sooner or later the reputation of such people for taking others into account in their behaviour is likely to suffer and with it would suffer their ability to gain the cooperation, let alone the friendship and love of others.
But isn't this a morality? Some would call principles of rational choice that constrain an individual's behaviour in order to gain the co-operation of others, moral principles. David Gauthier has explicitly argued this in his ground-breaking book Morals by Agreement. However, Gauthier also says (in a paper called "Why Contractarianism?") that
Deliberative justification [grounding constraints on behaviour on rational choice principles] does not refute morality. Indeed, it does not offer morality the courtesy of a refutation. It ignores morality, and seemingly replaces it.
I would prefer to say, as a moral sceptic, and in the spirit of David Gauthier, that I reject Morality (with a big M), but still accept morality (with a small m). Another way to put it is that I reject Morality, but accept an improved version of it: morality 2.0. But what is the difference? The primary difference, I would say, is that morality 2.0 lacks that claim to absolute and objective validity that is necessary for a system of rules to qualify as Morality.