Thursday, December 14, 2006


I will confess that I delayed publishing this blog entry because I am not very comfortable with it.

I have been made aware of some cases where people are advising others not to purchase my book, A Better Place,” because it is self-published, meaning that it must have been rejected by every legitimate publisher – as if that is a bad thing.

I have spoken previously about the ethics of jumping to conclusions. What I said is that we must necessarily jump to some conclusions because we do not have the time to subject all of our beliefs to rational scrutiny. Our obligation to take a belief and subject it to that extra scrutiny is proportional to the degree that the belief, when acted upon, will threaten the well-being of others. In those instances, one owes extra care.

At the same time, I have argued for another set of facts, and I see no better opportunity to explain them than when they work against my interests. I have suggested that we have limited opportunity to give our beliefs a thorough review, and so we use shortcuts. These are irrational – sometimes fallacious arguments that are nonetheless efficient at generating true beliefs. Efficiency is not measured by a large percentage of success. It is measured by success per unit of output. Thus, a quick test that is less reliable may be more efficient than a long mental process that is more reliable.

Technically, there is no valid argument that states, “This book was self-published; therefore, its conclusions are false.” Yet, I cannot criticize the person who argues, “This book is self-published; therefore, I have reason to doubt that it says anything worthwhile.”

When I first published this book, I thought about burying the fact that it was self-published so that only somebody who looked would recognize the fact. Yet, as an ethicist, I despise those types of tricks.

As it turns out, no publishing company rejected the book, because I never approached any of them. I measured the cost and benefits of seeking a publisher versus self-publishing and determined that seeking a publisher was not worth the effort.

Why not?

When I write the book, and when I re-write it, I look at each sentence and ask myself, “Is it true?” When I think about finding a publisher, I look at the book through a publisher’s eyes. The publisher does not look at each sentence and ask, “Is it true?” He looks at each sentence and asks, “Will it sell?”

There is a reason why books from Anne Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, as well as volumes defending ‘intelligent design’ and “proving” the historical reality of Jesus or claiming that the Pyramids were built by aliens or that JFK was killed by the CIA or that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by the government or that you can predict the future by looking at the position of the planets.

These things sell.

Publishers get this type of material, examine it on the standards that they judge all presentations, and come to the conclusion, “I can sell that!”

So, they do.

A poorly book that defends a position that people want to see defended – no matter how poorly argued – is, to the publisher’s eyes, with countless books that defend something that nobody wants to accept – no matter how well defended.

To be honest, one of the thoughts that went through my mind was, “Look at all of the garbage out there that people actually pay money for? This book, with whatever flaws it may have, certainly is of much higher quality than a lot of that stuff.”


So, am I saying that this book is a masterpiece of moral philosophical, and that publishers and readers are simply too stupid or too uncaring to see its true value?

I am, admittedly, of two minds about this.

On the one hand, I think that everything that I have written is true, and that the arguments contained within the book answer a lot of tough questions in moral philosophy. If I did not believe these things, I would not write the book.

On the other hand, I am able to take a more distant view of the project. History is filled with people who were certain that they had found the answer to serious issues, who were fully convinced that they were right and that all who disputed their claims were wrong, only to be wrong.

Christopher Columbus was convinced beyond all reason that the circumference of the Earth was only 14,000 miles and that the Indies lay just below the western horizon. He presented his arguments to scholars who rejected them, and for good reason.

Is it not more likely to be the case that I am like Christopher Columbus and that I have merely latched onto an error that makes sense only in my own mind?

I have to admit to the possibility. I do not like it, but it must be possible.

However, we are all stuck in this particular trap. If it were wrong to present the best case one could make for a position on the grounds that one might be wrong, then nothing will ever be written.

It is, perhaps, ironic that those who seem the most convinced of their own infallibility are those who tend to be the most fallible. Or, perhaps, it makes sense. I had a high school teacher who gave a lecture once in which he asked us to imagine that the blackboard represented the sum of all knowledge. He drew a little speck on the board. The speck represents what the person knows. The board not covered by the speck represents what he does not know. And the boundary between the two represents the person’s awareness of his own ignorance,

He then drew a larger circle on the board. This represented somebody who knew much more than the first person. As a result, the boundary between what he knew and what he did not know was larger. He was more aware of the vastness of the huge number of things that he did not know.

With that lesson in mind, I cannot pretend to having the certainty that the arguments that I give are as solid as they seem to me. I am well aware of how easy it is to be wrong, and to simply not see the one thing that is the key to that error.

However, I try hard.

And it is not as if I am writing in a vacuum. Through twelve years of college, I was fortunate enough to do this full time. Let us assume that I learned something in those twelve years. Maybe not enough, but something.

So, is this book a brilliant piece of philosophy?

Well, I really can’t see any serious problems with the arguments I presented. Yet, Christopher Columbus could not see any problem with his arguments either.

And, yes, that bothers me. It bothers me a lot.

All I can do is lay the arguments out to the best of my ability and invite those who are willing to come on over and take a look. Yet, even if they agree with me, and praise my work, this still does not prove that I am right. After all, Christopher Columbus also had people who praised his work – and was even willing to give him a grant and a chance to prove his theory, against the advice of the best scholars at the time.

Ultimately, the only standard that makes any sense to apply to a project such as this is, “Are the premises true (or is their probability of being true accurately assessed) and do the conclusions logically follow from the premises?

And the only test that I can ultimately make of whether I have met that standard is to put my arguments out there and let others tell me whether they can find an area where I failed.

I have put my arguments out there.

1 comment:

D.R.M. said...

Didn't someone else state he might be able to get Havard University Press to print "A Better Place"?