With all of the issues that I write about, if I had to pick the greatest moral failing of the modern world – the top of the list of evils that deserves our greatest condemnation, what would it be?
It would not be child rape or torture. It would not be terrorist bombings, nor would it be genocide.
Even though I write extensively on the subjects of having a pledge of allegiance that equates atheists with traitors, tyrants, and criminals and a national motto that declares, “Any who does not trust in God is not one of us,” these would not be the most important moral concern either.
The moral failing that tops my list of greatest evils is the lack of condemnation given to those who use poor arguments in defense of beliefs that threaten the well-being of others.
Please note that I have chosen my words carefully here. I am not saying that having beliefs supported by these weak arguments are the greatest evil. I am not even saying that advocating or using the weak arguments in support of these beliefs constitute the greatest evil. I am saying, specifically, that the lack of condemnation for the use of weak arguments constitutes the greatest evil.
We give those who use senseless rhetoric a free pass that they not only do not deserve, but that is more harmful to society than any of the other evils I mentioned above.
This lack of condemnation is what is responsible for having a culture in which weak arguments are capable of growing and prospering, spreading across human culture like weeds, planting themselves in human brains and killing off much of the good thoughts that would otherwise reside in those same fields.
Furthermore, I am not condemning the lack of criticism of these arguments. People do often argue criticism of weak arguments. I am condemning the lack of criticism of the people who employ these arguments. This is a moral failing, and moral criticism applies to persons, not things.
We are told that we are not supposed to criticize people. We are only supposed to look at the argument and criticize it. Criticizing the person is bad form.
That is what we are told.
However, failure to criticize the person who engages in reckless argumentation is no different than failure to criticize the person who engages in drunken or reckless driving or who otherwise puts the well-being of others at risk through his negligence.
If society were to adopt the attitude that drunk drivers were not to be condemned – if we adopted a standard where we may talk about the harms done by drunk driving but we were prohibited from holding anybody morally responsible for those harms, we can well expect incidents of drunk driving to rise. The same is true if we talked about the harmful effects of murder, rape, or theft but refused to hold any murderer, rapist, or thief responsible for his actions.
So it is the case with intellectual recklessness, demagoguery, sophistry, and similar moral crimes. The very fact that we refuse to hold people morally responsible for their transgressions simply translates to an ever growing number of transgressions. That is something that harms all of us.
There is an extremely important caveat to this post. A right to freedom of speech means that it is illegitimate to respond to mere words with violence. However, the right to freedom of speech is not a right to immunity from criticism. It is only a right to immunity from violence.
However, it is precisely because violence is not a permissible response to intellectual recklessness, criticism becomes far more important. It is the only legitimate tool we have left.