Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Most Significant Moral Issue

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.

8 comments:

anton said...

Great Post!!!

My observation is that many of these poor arguments are spoken first from pulpits where just by the nature of the event, the audience is committed and preconditioned to accept everything they hear, and any criticism is confined to a "hush hush" dialogue out of earshot of the rest of the congregration.

Luke said...

Alonzo,

How would you defend your earlier proposition that value (in general) is about reasons for action? How does that make sense with the general way we use the word "value"? Does it make just as much sense to talk about reasons for action as the source of all aesthetic value, in addition to all moral value? Are there other types of value?

And then, how does something have aesthetic value or some other kind of value instead of moral value? If reasons for action are the basis of ALL value, what distinguishes moral value from other types of value?

Lirone said...

I see your point, but isn't this like saying that failing to prevent a crime is worse than carrying out the crime itself?

faithlessgod said...

Alonzo you hit the nail on the head with one caveat ;-)

First I was trying to unravel this specific issue that got me to your site in the first place. My position has always been to show how the encouragement of poor argument has led to the greatest evils on the planet, even if you use poor argument for only noble results.

However innocent one's personal desires and goals the encouragement of poor reasoning - in not just old age and new age religion but everywhere else - is lowering the standards of what counts as reliable knowledge and guides to action. For example one is not innocent if one uses faith to do (undeniably) good works but specifically also encourages faith as a virtue.

Still the caveat is I would say this is more like the "gateway" to "hard drugs" and not the greatest evil itself but rather it is the most significant moral issue in the sense that this is the one that could make the most difference in the world.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Lirone

I see your point, but isn't this like saying that failing to prevent a crime is worse than carrying out the crime itself?

No.

First, failing to prevent a crime is not the same thing as failing to try to prevent a crime.

But, more importantly, my identification of this as the most significant moral issue has to do with the fact that the wrong attitude towards weak argument is so common and widespread.

As more people adopted a better attitude towards intellectual recklessess, the problem of people having an improper attitude towards intellectual recklessness would diminish.

faithlessgod said...

Luke

"How would you defend your earlier proposition that value (in general) is about reasons for action?"
Not, I think, in general. The Desire Fulfilment theory of value (DF) says that value is the relation between desire and states of affairs. Desire Utilitarianism (DU) is the result of applying DF to the moral domain. So in morality the issue is over reasons (and lack of) to act that exist and DF shows that desires are the only reasons to act that exist and this, coupled with the unrestricted scope - everyone's desires, results in DU.

"How does that make sense with the general way we use the word "value"? Does it make just as much sense to talk about reasons for action as the source of all aesthetic value, in addition to all moral value? Are there other types of value?"

Value is such as to (tend to) fulfil the desires of the kind in question. When it comes to
moral value this is about evaluating the effect of intentional action on everyone's desires - these are the desires of the kind in question. However what is evaluated is the desires that led to the intentional action - which is the desires of the agent.

It is important to note that there are two different types of desires in this relation but this is not so in other types of evaluation where the states of affairs are not desires themselves. In other types of value the agent's desires are not being evaluated but other states of affairs are. In which question of "reason to act" are often irrelevant

For example "beauty" - it is usually visual objects or persons that are the states of affairs being evaluated in terms of whether they directly fulfil certain desires of the agent. In this case - and as opposed to moral evaluations - only the agent can report on whether they are fulfilled or not.

Luke said...

faithlessgod,

Alas, your response was incoherent to me. I'll have to read Alonzo's book again.

faithlessgod said...

Luke

Lets try again:

In moral (and prudential) value the states of affairs are the desires that bring about intentional action.Whether such states of affairs (tend to) fulfil or thwart other desires (ones own in the case of prudence, everyone's in the case of morality) is the basis of evaluating them. Or it is these latter desires desires that determine the states of affairs, where the states of affairs are the desires under evaluation - are they such as to fulfil the desires in question (everyone's in the case of morality, one's own in the case of prudence).

This is not so in general for other types of value such as aesthetic value such as the term "beauty" as in my previous comment.

Part of the support for DU comes from the general theory of value on which it is based - desire fulfilment - which explains not only moral value but value in general. Indeed moral value is shown just to be a type of value, as aesthetic, health or economic values are other types.