The Red Ribbon Argument for Skepticism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Ribbon99

In his Contra Academicos, Augustine discusses a fragment of Cicero's Academica in which Cicero advances a unique argument for skepticism. Cicero's argument is unique in that it derives, ironically, from a positive epistemic assessment of human judgments. Skeptical arguments usually proceed from negative assessments of human cognition according to which humans cannot tell the true from the false, cannot articulate their reasons, are prone to unreflective dogmatizing, and so on. Those negative assessments are then taken to yield the skeptical outlook. Cicero's argument for skepticism, by contrast, derives from a positive assessment of a subset of human judgments. Let us call it the Red Ribbon Argument (or the Argument from Second Place):

The second prize is given to the Academic (skeptical) wise person by all the self-declared sages from the other schools, since they must obviously claim the first prize for themselves. A persuasive conclusion one can draw from this is that he is right to take the first place in his own judgment given that he has the second place in the judgment of all the others.

Cicero starts from a regular observation about dogmatism: those committed to a view become not only invested in their view, but also less capable of critically reflecting on it. We often form our own theoretical, political, and religious alliances well before we have thoroughly surveyed and critically compared all of the plausible options. That is, we make our allegiances first and critically examine later. As Cicero notes elsewhere in the Academica:

All other people . . . are held in close bondage placed upon them before they were able to judge what doctrine was best, . . . they form judgments about matters as to which they know nothing at the most incompetent time in life, either under the guidance of some friend or the from the first harangue from the first lecture they attend, and cling as to a rock to whatever theory are carried to by stress or weather.

Hence we might say that we are serially confirmationally biased. As we are committed to our beliefs, and loyal to our doctrines, we tend to seek evidence that supports them. And yet we formed these allegiances with almost no judgment at all! And so, Cicero observes, we will of course assign our own view first place when asked to rank all of the views. But this method of ranking obviously is not reliable. And the widespread conflict between votes for first place is testament to it.

So our votes for first place are unreliable. And when we compare the competing views to our own, we likely will succumb to similar distortions; the competing views will be rejected simply on the grounds that they are incompatible with our own view. So our ranking of the competing doctrines against our own are epistemically polluted as well. However, our assessments of the merits of the competing views relative to each other tend not to involve such distortions. Thus Cicero predicts that when enthusiasts of a particular view are asked what the second best view is, they will judge more clearly and less prejudicially. The interesting thought is that the skepticism has massive support as the second best view. According to almost all perspectives, skepticism is the best of the incorrect views.

Cicero provides no outline of the reasoning that fuels this second-place judgment. Nor does Augustine gloss this element of the argument. Our hypothesis is that every dogmatist sees and condemns the dogmatism of every other dogmatist. They see their opponent's use selectional evidence, and they see their opposition's early alliances playing determining roles. But skeptics don't have those alliances, or at least they've overcome them. One does not begin as a skeptic; rather, one begins as a naïve enthusiast, becomes a dogmatist, then comes to see the problems with one's view, and only then arrives at skepticism. Academic skeptics master all the arguments for each view, can provide the counter-arguments, and so embody the spirit of inquiry all dogmatists take themselves to have satisfied. Thus the dogmatist judges skepticism the second best view.

Again, it is important to note that this argument for skepticism proceeds from a positive epistemic assessment of our judgments regarding the second-best view. It depends upon the claim that although our judgments about the best view are distorted, our votes for second place tend to reflect what unbiased rational judgment favors. As skepticism is nearly everybody's second-best view, we have a positive reason be skeptics.

There is a possible skeptical alternative to this positive assessment. If, as we've assumed, first-place votes are infected by confirmation bias, then what prevents that very bias from contaminating our second-best assessments as well? Now, for sure, the bias of positive commitment isn't going to distort the skeptics' judgments, since they hold no views. The skeptic and dogmatist have no agreement on things to accept. But they do agree widely about views to deny. And so the Stoic says that skepticism is second best because skeptics reject the animalistic hedonism of the Epicureans, the antisocial behavior of the Cynics, the supercelestial ambitions of the Platonists, and the fussy aristocratic virtues of the Aristotelian. This kind of argument could be advanced from any non-skeptical perspective.

It seems, then, that Cicero has provided a novel argument for skepticism: There are familiar reasons for thinking that our judgments about the best view are polluted, distorted, biased, and unreliable. Importantly, there are also familiar reasons for thinking that our judgments regarding the second-best view are generally reliable. From any non-skeptical position, skepticism is likely to appear to be a clear second-best view. Hence we have reason to think that it's in fact the best view. We should be skeptics after all.