Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Certainty of Error

A few posts ago I mentioned that there was an interview of me up at Common Sense Atheism: CPBD 003: Alonzo Fyfe - Morality without God.

The interviewer wrote:

For today's episode of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, I interview Alonzo Fyfe, who completely changed the way I think about morality with this very interview.

I hope it was changed for the better. Comments like this always cause a bit of moral anxiety.

What if I am wrong?

A morally responsible person is always asking that question when he is making claims which, if adopted, would interfere with the lives of others. He recognizes the duty to continually sifting through the reasons for his belief, looking for a sign that he might have been a mistake.

Similarly, any institution that teaches its people that they need not do this – that they can accept propositions leading to harm to others on the basis of faith alone, and never need to question their legitimacy – teaches moral irresponsibility.

In this area, the institution that teaches intellectual recklessness is less moral than the institution that teaches care and prudence with respect to beliefs, in the same way that the drunk driver is less moral than the sober and careful driver.

So, whenever I get praise for what I write it always makes me nervous. It always causes me to ask, once again, "What if I am wrong?" And to invite others to consider critically anything I may write.

This is . . . or should be the standard throughout. Any person who leads an organization that tells people that their support for policies harmful to others can be grounded on groundless beliefs, he is teaching them to behave recklessly. This is no different than telling a person that he may drink as much as he wants and go ahead and drive home.

In fact, the person who is counseling others to engage in drunk driving would be by far the lesser of these two evils, compared to the proponent of reckless thinking. The drunk driver will, at worst, wipe out a school bus or a family on vacation. The reckless thinker, on the other hand, have wiped out whole civilizations or aided in the death and suffering of millions.

"We are the most moral people in the world, and you are to trust that what I tell you is the right thing to do, even though others may be harmed, and the worst thing you can do is question me or what I say because what I tell you is necessarily true and true without question."

The person who makes any claim like this is uttering a flat contradiction. The person who preaches this type of intellectual recklessness is preaching immorality, not morality.

So, in contrast with their teachings, I have said often and I will say again . . .

It is certain that at least one thing that I have written is false, though I do not know what it is (or, more accurately, what they are).

The morally responsible person takes this attitude towards everything they hear and read. The person who does not question is by that very fact loses all right to claim to being or even knowing the measure of virtue.

10 comments:

David said...

Exactly right. The most belligerent people seem to be the most misguided, too. The biggest fool talks the loudest, and I would love to release some sort of virus on the world to reverse that.

On the other hand, once you realize you might be wrong, it's important to have some self-confidence and take the risk of being proven wrong. Real thinkers make wrong predictions and then learn from their mistakes. The fakers put all their energy into covering up that they ever made the mistakes to begin with.

Anonymous said...

And in some alternate reality, this line "It is certain that at least one thing that I have written is false," is the one thing you have written that is, in fact, false.

CrypticLife said...

Alonzo,

Just because you've changed the way he thinks about morality doesn't mean he's decided to follow everything you say. It means you've introduced a new idea to him which causes him to change his worldview.

You've said before your ambition is to leave this world a better place. You can't do that without also risking making it a worse one.

Personally, I think you make it better. And yes, it's right to always examine the effect you have, and what mistakes you may be making.

Luke said...

I'm the guy Alonzo was talking about.

I don't think Alonzo would WANT to change the way anyone thinks in such a way that I follow whatever Alonzo says.

What did happen is that Alonzo gave me a whole new way of looking at moral value that really exists.

Right now I'm trying to get an accurate understanding of Alonzo's theory so that I can list every argument I can muster against it. (All arguments I've seen against DU so far are merely misunderstandings of what DU states, and I don't want to do that.)

If after that attack, DU still stands, I will be inclined to adopt it until a better descriptive theory of morality is presented.

Luke said...

Actually, maybe Alonzo's most profound effect on me has been that I've taken up saying, "Fuck you, evil [exploding Sprite can / red traffic light / computer virus], you have thwarted my desires!"

Eneasz said...

Actually, maybe Alonzo's most profound effect on me has been that I've taken up saying, "Fuck you, evil [exploding Sprite can / red traffic light / computer virus], you have thwarted my desires!"

LOL!! That's awesome! :)

(I know, not a productive comment, but I really had to say it)

Emu Sam said...

Actually, maybe Alonzo's most profound effect on me has been that I've taken up saying, "Fuck you, evil [exploding Sprite can / red traffic light / computer virus], you have thwarted my desires!"

Definitely something worth praising as it encourages the spread of a rational system of morality.

In other words, ditto Eneasz

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Luke

Actually, it should be, "You have those desires that tend to thwart the desires of others." or "You lack the desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others that a good person would have."

The latter covers issues of negligence and recklessness - including intellectual recklessness.

Luke said...

But that's not as catchy, Alonzo.

Of course I know that a sprite can does not have moral value of itself, or desires - and certainly not malleable ones. Believe me, I have TRIED to persuade sprite cans not to explode on me, but it does not work.

Eneasz said...

I believe Luke has a point. When trying to market a new product, it is more important for a slogan to be catchy than for it to be 100% accurate. :)