Friday, December 29, 2006

The Ethics of Ridicule

Is it ever morally legitimate to ridicule somebody else’s beliefs?

Answer: Yes, when those beliefs are ridiculous. That is to say, when a person expresses beliefs or a way of justifying beliefs that are such that ridiculing them is a wise thing to do.

I know, that’s circular. Let me see if I can straighten the circle out.

Ridicule is a speech act – a species of the family of intentional actions. As such, like all other intentional actions, it is useful to ask about its wisdom. When does it make sense to ridicule others? This is a question that is no different than, “When does it make sense to see a doctor?”

The answer to this question relies on looking at the ‘reasons for action that exist’ for and against performing such an act and performing that act that more ‘reasons for action’ recommending it compared to any other option.

Ridicule exists in the real world, and has real-world effects.

Generally speaking, ridicule is a species of the genus of ‘condemnation’.


Condemnation, in turn, is a tool that we use to modify the affections (desires) of others. Condemnation, in general, makes sense where there are ‘reasons for action that exist’ to condemn an action. That is to say, condemnation makes sense where, in condemning something, we can promote an aversion to doing that which is condemned, and make it less likely that people will perform that action. This, in turn, makes sense when we condemn that which tends to thwart the desires of others, and which condemnation will make less common.

We condemn lying to promote an aversion to lying, to make lying less frequent than it would otherwise be. We have ‘reason for action’ to condemn lying insofar as a community with fewer liars is one in which it is generally easier for people to fulfill their desires.

Condemnation and Epistemic Recklessness

Epistemic recklessness, like lying, is a disposition that tends to thwart the desires of others. By ‘epistemic recklessness’ I mean the moral crime of forming carelessly, without due regard to their truth, when those beliefs risk making those who hold them a threat to the well-being of others.

In previous posts I argued that the universe is one in which all of us have to take shortcuts in forming beliefs. We have to make snap decisions, and sometimes jump to conclusions, because we do not have time to give all our beliefs a thorough review, and the world does not stop moving while we pause to consider every single shred of evidence for and against some proposition. To deal with cases such as this, we use systems for forming beliefs that are faster, though less reliable, than pure reason. All of us have beliefs that are not fully justified. Our survival depends on it.

The criterion for distinguishing between beliefs that we are morally permitted to adopt based on less-than-full-evidence, and those that morality demands that we give a more careful review, is that of risk of harm to others. Generally speaking, the more dangerous a false belief becomes, the greater our obligation to make sure that the belief is not false.

There are a few exceptions. For example, if you have only a few seconds to decide which course of action to take to prevent a bomb from going off, you may be forced to use less reliable but faster form of justification even though a great many lives could be at stake, if a more reliable method could not be completed fast enough.

To protect ourselves from the harms that come from epistemic recklessness, we have ‘reason for action’ to take those actions that will make epistemic recklessness less common. These are actions that will cause people to use the slower and more reliable methods of justifying beliefs that risk making one a threat to others. Condemnation of epistemic recklessness would have promoting an aversion to epistemic recklessness, thereby making it less common, thereby reducing the chance that we will suffer the harms of the intellectually reckless. We should not pretend that we can eliminate it entirely. We can, however, reduce its frequency and severity. To the degree that we are successful, we live healthier, happier, and more secure lives.

Ridicule as Condemnation

Everything I have written above about the general act of condemnation applies to the specific act of ridicule. Ridicule is simply a specific form of condemnation that aims to make the target of ridicule less common, and thereby protect us from its harms.

In this moral context, the phrase, “That is ridiculous,” means “That epistemic behavior exhibits a habit of belief formation that no intellectually responsible person would engage in or accept in others. As a moral agent, you should be embarrassed to be using those types of justification in these circumstances.”

Ridicule itself adds, “Here, let me help you feel the embarrassment you should feel for that epistemic recklessness.”

The Moral Limits of Ridicule

The challenge rests in making sure that we are actually ridiculing forms of belief justification that are, in fact, ridiculous. If we use ridicule against forms of belief justification that are, in fact, appropriate to those beliefs, then we are doing more harm than good. We are embarrassing people away from using those methods of belief justification that would, in fact, do the least the harm to others, and that would make us a danger to others.

On the other hand, if we fail to ridicule those whose beliefs are ridiculous, then we fail to protect ourselves against the forms of sloppy belief justification that are, in fact, a threat to others (or more of a threat than any alternative). We fail to prevent harms that could have been prevented through a rational application of the moral tool known as ‘ridicule’.

I want to put some special emphasis on that last paragraph. It argues that not only is ridicule sometimes permissible, in fact it is sometimes required. Where ridicule is the most efficient tool for creating habits of epistemic responsibility in others, failure to ridicule implies a failure to protect people from the harms of epistemic negligence.

Another implication of this view is that ridicule is only appropriate when it is used to target behavior that is actually wrong – that we actually have reason to make less frequent – such as epistemic negligence. There is no moral permission to ridicule whatever we please. When children ridicule a fellow student who is an epileptic, or who wears glasses, or who stutters, these instances of ridicule that are as inappropriate as passing judgment on others entirely based on their race or gender, these are forms of ridicule that are misplaced, and themselves immoral. These cases of ridicule and bigotry are morally very much alike.

In the area of punishment, we have a rule that states that a person is presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. There are reasons for this rule (or, perhaps, I should say ‘reasons-for-action’ for this rule) – because punishment inherently involves the thwarting of desires and, as such, it is something which every person should be adverse to using, except when it can be demonstrated that it is being applied against desires we have reason to make less common. To reduce (though, admittedly, not eliminate) the cost of error, we adopt the principle that we must obtain proof beyond a reasonable doubt before we punish.

[Unless, of course, one is a member of the Bush Administration, in which case punishment requires no proof whatsoever.]

The presumption that punishment is not legitimate unless guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt should needs to be applied to ridicule as well. We should assume that others are undeserving of ridicule, unless we have amassed sufficient evidence to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that we are ridiculing epistemic negligence that makes people a danger to others. We must take pains to reduce (though, admittedly, we cannot eliminate) the harms of applying ridicule to things that we do not, in fact, have reason to cause people generally to be embarrassed about.

This ‘presumed unworthy of ridicule unless proven ridiculous’ no more argues for a prohibition on ridicule than ‘presumed innocent unless proven guilty’ is a prohibition on criminal punishment. However, it is still a limitation that no morally responsible person would ignore.

Ridicule and Religion

Readers of this blog may have a particular interest in the subject of ridiculing religious belief. On this matter, I hold that ridicule is appropriate in some areas, and inappropriate in others.

Many religious beliefs (and many non-religious beliefs) are, as a matter of objective fact, ridiculous. They are products and forms of belief justification that we have reason to cause others to have an aversion to doing – to feel embarrassed about.

If we take the simple proposition, “Some type of God exists,” we have little reason for ridicule. A person could, for example, look at the universe, and say that the odds that there could be such a universe so well suited for human life are so small that it must have been done on purpose. Now, those who study the issue in details know that there are several objections to this justification for the existence of God. However, I have also argued above that we do not all have time to examine all of our beliefs in such detail. The person who concludes, “Some type of God exists,” and also holds, “This is not a belief that I need to devote a lot of time on,” has not done anything worthy of ridicule.

On the other hand, a person who says, “The universe must have been created; therefore, everything in the Bible is literally true and its moral commandments must be followed to the letter.” This person is not only using very poor reasoning, but that reasoning has left makes him a danger to others. Particularly since, as Sam Harris points out in “The End of Faith”, that book contains commandments to do things such as instantly kill any who would attempt to convert a you, your family, or your neighbors from the Christian faith.

What about claims such as, “The earth is less than 10,000 years old?” Are these legitimate objects of ridicule?

I suppose that, if such a person were to admit that they are going to make no effort to become adequately informed of the basics of physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy to understand these matters, will make no policy decisions that require this knowledge, and will not profess to be an expert and spread their ignorance to others, then they are no threat, and can be left alone.

However, if they try to influence society's decisions on matters of health, ecology, the environment, resource utilization, and the like based on this fundamental ignorance, then they do become a threat to others. Also, if they claim that they are fit to teach science to children, then their assertion is certainly ridiculous, and should be treated as such. The high-school biology teach who does not understand evolution is not only mistaken (and 150 years behind in his understanding of the subject), he is irresponsible in a way does harm to others – particularly if he tries to teach what he obviously does not care to understand.

Reason and Ridicule

Ideally, it would be better to take somebody guilty of epistemic negligence and reason with them – explaining their errors so that they understand where they went wrong. However, it is the very essence of epistemic negligence that the perpetrator has chosen to abandon reason. You simply cannot reason with a person who refuses to abide by the principles of reason.

Therefore, before you can reason with others, they must be provided with a love of reason and a respect for its power. We cannot reason this into others. We must look for some other tool for promoting a love of reason or creating in them an aversion to epistemic negligence.

Reason applies to beliefs, and is used to measure the quality of a belief. To change somebody’s affections, you need a different tool.

Ridicule provides us with a useful tool in promoting an aversion to epistemic negligence. When properly used, it promotes an aversion – an embarrassment – over recklessly forming beliefs that make one a danger to others. As such, it is a perfectly legitimate tool to use to protect people from the harms of epistemic negligence.

Take seriously the requirement that epistemic negligence must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Where you find it, you do yourself and the world a service is you meet actual instances of epistemic negligence with the ridicule it deserves. The claim that you should not use ridicule when it can be used to protect people generally from harm is, itself, ridiculous.


Anonymous said...

The question to ask, I think, is this: are you ridiculing this person's be beliefs, or are you ridiculing this person (which you shouldn't do on the basis of one stupid claim)? Of course, many people have great trouble distancing themselves from their opinions, and consider every attack on their opinions as an attack on their own ego.

Anonymous said...

Another good one. Where do you find the time to write such lengthy and thoughtful analyses?

Austin Cline said...

I was going to post something like what Simen writes - you speak early on and through most of the post about ridiculing beliefs, but when you come to the section "The Moral Limits of Ridicule," you start to reference the ridicule of people and how people shouldn't be ridiculed without enough evidence.

There are entirely different standards for ridiculing beliefs and ridiculing people. People deserve some minimum, basic respect and consideration; beliefs do not. The ethical standard for ridiculing beliefs can and should be lower.

Another issue which you touch upon, but which deserves a bit more explication, is how ridicule can reveal problems in beliefs which logical arguments cannot. It's not just condemnation and creating feelings of embarrassment. Sometimes, a joke a piece of satire makes the absence of the emperor's clothes much clearer than all the academic articles in world. That has to be well-done ridicule, however - you can't just point and laugh. Satire has to be very good to work well without just being juvenile. In that sense, sometimes ridicule has to have a higher standard to meet: if you can't do it well and effectively, you'll probably be doing your cause more harm than good because you'll just look like a bully.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, I would assert that ridicule, as a form of condemnation, when legitimate, always applies to people. To speak about 'ridiculing a belief' is simply an abbreviation for ridiculing a person because of his beliefs. Or, more precisely, because of his epistemic negligence - a character trait, that we have reason to see changed.

Austin Cline I agree fully with your addendums. Ridicule not only causes embarrassment but also illustrates why the example deserves condemnation. And, ridicule and satire are art forms - like comedy and writing, that can be done well or done poorly.

Vjack. Thanks for the praise. I have had a great deal of practice. I have loved the written word ever since I was a young child (I tried to write a book on dinosaurs when I was nine). Even though I have a full time job that has nothing to do with my blog, I spend a good 80% of my free time on my writing. I have been fortunate this past week in that I have been caught in the Colorado blizzard (we have over 30 inches of snow outside from 2 snow storms in the past week), which has given me more free time than usual recently.

Speaking honestly, I would love an opportunity to do this full time.

Anonymous said...

Ridicule by it's nature can, and is often deliberately intended to harm another individual. Just as in the case of other harms they can only be justified when 1) there are no other equally effective methods to achieve your ends without causing harm and 2) the harm you are trying to prevent exceeds the harm you are causing. Since it is often hard to be absolutely sure of either of these, one should approach the use of ridicule with great care.

Austin Cline said...

To speak about 'ridiculing a belief' is simply an abbreviation for ridiculing a person because of his beliefs.

I don’t agree that the person and the beliefs are so completely interchangeable. If I say that a belief, idea, or opinion is dangerous, I'm not necessarily saying that you are dangerous for holding it — you might or might not be, but it depends upon many other factors. If I say that a belief, idea, or opinion is awful, I'm not necessarily saying that you are awful for holding it. The same is true if I say that a belief, idea, or opinion is silly, ridiculous, etc.

Now, if a person's belief or opinion is very important to them they may take any criticism personally and thus think that you are calling them dangerous, awful, silly, ridiculous, etc. That's not a reason to not reach or express such conclusions, partly because we can't allow such reactions to determine our actions and partly because it's simply a mistake for a person to so fully identify with a belief that anything said about it is transferred to themselves as a person.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Austin Cline

I do not hold that beliefs and persons are interchangable. I hold that 'ridicule' applies to persons. Just as I do not hold that circles and squares are interchangable, but I do hold that 'round' applies to circles.

Saying that a belief is false, or even dangerous, is not the same as ridicule. For example, assume that there is a belief that is dangerous (e.g., the set of beliefs associated with making a chemical bomb), and that a person has acquired these beliefs through reliable means. In this case, it would NOT make sense to ridicule a person for having those beliefs. Or assume that a belief is 'silly' - but a person has had those beliefs implanted in his brain (using whatever science-fiction scenario one can imagine). Again, riducle is not appropriate.

Ridicule applies to persons in virtue of the fact that they have done something wrong - something that no good person would do.

Calling a belief 'ridiculous' is simply a warning shot across the bow - that those who adopt it (except in extraordinary science-fictiony cases) will be legitimately subject to ridicule.

In the same way that calling an action 'wrong' is a warning shot; saying that those who perform the act will be legitimately subject to condemnation.