Monday, February 27, 2006

The Virtue of Rationality

Even though I was having trouble posting my blog through my blackberry, I still continued to write. So, I have a posting that I wrote for Monday, February 27th. I am posting it today and back-dating it appropriately.

I discovered that there is a UFO convention going on in this hotel where I am staying. This has given me reason to consider this particular activity. i regret to report (and I am serious about the 'regret' part) that I find a bit of viciousness in those who participate in, and particularly those who foster and profit from, this type of activity.

Please note that I am using the word 'vicious' here in its classic moral sense. Where the opposite of 'virtue' is 'vice', the opposite of 'virtuous' is 'vicious'. We tend to reserve this term for those who act, in a sense, like a mean snarly dog. However, it applies to anybody who has an unadmirable character trait.

Desire utilitarianism, the theory that I use as the foundation for my writings, is very much a virtue-based moral theory. Good desires (desires that tend to fulill other desires) are virtues. Bad desires (desires that tend to thwart other desires) are vices. A person who has mostly good desires is virtuous. To the degree that an individual has bad desires (or lacks good desires), to that degree the individual is vicious.

As I have mentioned before, desires are persistent entities. A person with a desire for the truth will pursue the truth even when it may thwart other desires, just as a person with a love of chocolate (or alcohol) will pursue chocolate even when it is not good for him to have it. That is to say, he pursues truth as an end in itself -- one end among many, but still an end. He does not always ask how 'useful' it is; he pursues truth because he likes it.

That is how virtues work in a desire-utilitarian system.

A person who expresses a willingness to accept conclusions based on poor evidence -- who can believe, for example, that crop circles are the result of alien visits even after those who created the crop circles explain when, why, and how they did it -- such a person has not shown the interest in making sure his beliefs are well founded that a virtuous person would have shown.

But is this truly a vice? Is it not the case that believing in alien visits is a harmless pasttime?

If it were in fact harmless, then desire utilitarianism would have nothing to say on the topic. The point is that the character trait -- the desires that make it acceptable to embrace conclusions on poor evidence -- have detrimental effects elsewhere.

Specifically, these people vote. There is reason to worry that the same inability to discover good reason from bad reason on the subject of alien visitations will translate into an inability to determine good policy from bad -- good candidates from bad.

Similarly, when such a person sits on a jury, his duty is to weigh the evidence in order to determine if the accused is guilty or innocent. If he lacks the capacity or the interest in drawing reasonable conclusions from available evidence, then he may not be able to draw reasonable conclusions about the guilt or innocence of the accused given the evidence.

The result is that either an innocent person is punished for a crime he did not commit, or a guilty person is let off even though there was enough evidence for a reasonable person to draw a conclusion. Often it will be the case that both happens. The person who commits the crime goes free while an innocent person takes his place in prison.

I am not arguing that such people should be denied the right to vote or to sit on a jury.,/p>

My argument is that being a member of a democracy -- accepting the power to determine the course of national, state or local policy and the power to name a person guilty or innocent of a crime -- brings with it responsibilities that include responsible decision making by adopting reliable methods for drawing reasonable conclusions from available evidence. Those who do not adopt the techniques of sound reason are abdicating the responsibilities that they have as members of a democracy.

Nor am I arguing against people having some fun. Tomorrow, Lesley and I will be going to the Star Trek Experience here in Las Vegas. It will be fun. However, none of us are pushing the claim that the Star Trek Universe is real. Participating in a fantasy story for entertainment purposes does not prove a diminished ability to draw good conclusions based on available evidence. It does not display the type of viciousness I am concerned about in this essay.

One could try to counter this criticism with a claim such as, "How do you know that Earth has not been visited from outer space?" However, this misses the point. This objection falls in the same category as what I have called the Tea Leaves argument. A person, consulting his tea leaves, says that a plane will crash. I object that he has poor reason to believe the plane will crash.

If he answers, "How do you know that the machine will not crash?" then he does not understand the objection. In criticizing this man's argument, I will not be saying that the plane will not crash -- only at the reader of tea leaves has a poor reason to believe that the plane will crash.

I would like to be able to regard such people as a group having harmless fun and unworthy of a posting in an ethics blog. I would shrug them off if they were truly harvest. However, people who demonstrate an unwillingness or inability to draw reasonable conclusions from the available evidence affects more than beliefs in UFOs. It demonstrates an inability to select sound policy or to reliably determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. It represents a gullability that has the potential of producing some very poor effects.

For these reasons desire utilitarianism must view this as a vice.

1 comment:

Luke said...

OMG, writing a post on a Blackberry? How painful.