Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Value of a Life of Reason

I am starting my next paper. This one seeks to promote the virtue of seeking true and relevant beliefs in deciding on courses of action that impact the lives of others.

This is how the paper starts:

The Value of the Life of Reason (20170523)
Alonzo Fyfe

I write this document primarily to try to get you, the reader, to adopt – a bit more strongly than you have – a devotion to truth and reason, and to promote that interest across the community as a whole.

Your life may depend on it.

Its importance seems obvious beyond question. We can illustrate it in countless examples.

For an illustrative example, imagine that you are a prisoner presented with two glasses, each with a clear odorless liquid. One contains a poison that causes excruciating pain, while the other is good clean water.

It seems beyond question that you would want a way to determine which glass contains poison and which contains water. Towards that end, you discover that the poison is an oil that floats on water. You only need to take a drop from one glass and put it in the other. If that drop floats on the surface, then you should skim that drop off of the surface and drink the contents of that glass. If the drop sinks, then you should drink from the glass from which that drop came.

Having true and relevant beliefs can save you a lot of pain.

Now, let’s introduce a number of prisoners. Each prisoner is presented with a glass of water and a glass of poison, and asked to choose which glass to give some other prisoner. In this community, you have reason to promote not only an aversion to causing others pain, but also reason to promote an interest in true and relevant beliefs so that prisoners in general are choosing the glass with water rather than the glass with poison.

We live in a society where people are drinking a great deal of poison. This is happening because people are being careless about the truth and relevance of their beliefs. They are acquiring beliefs through unreliable sources, and failing to inquire into whether even the truth beliefs they have are relevant to their decisions regarding the glass from which others will be forced to drink.

This metaphor of drinking from a glass of poison stands for suffering from the results of carelessness with respect to the truth and relevance of beliefs. Those who will suffer the ill effects of greenhouse gas emissions, vaccinations (or the lack of vaccinations), a higher minimum wage, homeopathy and other forms of crack medicine, or lured into smoking, are examples of people who have been made to drink from a glass of poison – often by people who are careless in determining the truth and relevance of those beliefs causing them to choose the glass containing the poison.

This is a moral failing worthy of condemnation. Those who are put at risk of drinking poison – let alone those who are forced to drink the poison that others choose – have good reason to condemn, in harsh terms, those who made that choice carelessly.

One of the reasons we are drinking a great deal of poison these days is due to a common misunderstanding of the claim, “everybody has a right to their beliefs.” The popular misunderstanding is that it is wrong to condemn people for a careless belief that the glass they choose for others to drink from contains water. If it ends up containing poison, rather than to condemn the person who made the choice for carelessness, we are told, “everybody has a right to their belief” – and we may not legitimately condemn the person who carelessly acquired the belief that the glass contained water.

We are also drinking a lot of poison because of beliefs grounded on faith. Some of the prisoners are making their decisions based on a passage in religious scripture that says, “Always choose the glass on the right.” In fact, the glass on the right, as often as not, contains poison. The people who wrote those scriptures long ago knew nothing about the “poison floats on water test.” Now that it is known, people with a slaving devotion to scripture are still choosing the glass on the right, and thus serving their fellow prisoners poison. If your scripture tells you to always choose the glass on the right then, as long as you are choosing for yourself, that’s fine. But, when you are choosing for others, you may be obligated to use a different standard.

Scripture is only one source of potential error. There are those who choose what glass others will drink from based on horoscopes or other signs, or think that they can choose the right glass based on intuition or some other special faculty whereby, if they close their eyes and point, they will point to the glass of water rather than poison. Repeated failures in these tests do not dissuade them. There are those who carelessly believe that they can tell the poison from the water because the poison has a slight reddish color that they can see, but which exists only in their imagination. Yet, they confidently assert that they are incapable of error, and that their methods for determining truth are flawless.

We also need to consider the poison vendors – those who manufacture and sell the poison being used in the test. They obtain a profit when they can convince prisoners to choose poison instead of water. Consequently, they have reason to flood the prison with misinformation – telling them such things as that water floats on oil or, at least, that the “oil floating on water hypothesis” is “just a theory” and there are a great many reasons to doubt it. Because of these campaigns, they bank billions of dollars, and many more prisoners end up in agony.
Finally, we must consider the prison employees – often paid off by the poison vendors, or under the influence of scripture – who encourage prisoners to select poison over water.

As a result of these customs, people are drinking a lot of metaphorical poison.

People will make mistakes – that goes without saying. However, much of the poison being served is not due to the innocent mistakes of people who are, nonetheless, doing the best they can. Much of this is due to carelessness, and some of it is due to malevolence.

The solution is to say that truth and reason matter – and to hold in deserving contempt those who carelessly or malevolently come to believe, or to choose, to have their fellow prisoners drink poison instead of water.

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