Saturday, December 02, 2006

Time and the Obligation to Reason

Many of my posts this week touched on a real-world fact that a moral system simply cannot ignore.


A moral system cannot demand more from a person than a person can possibly deliver. More specifically, a moral system cannot demand that a person spend more time on a project than there is time to spend. A moral system that does this violates the principle of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ – that the claim that a person ‘ought’ to do something implies that he ‘can’ do that thing. A corollary to ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ is ‘cannot’ implies ‘it is not the case that one ought’.

This came up in some of the comments and responses concerning Harris’ and Dawkins’ criticisms of religion. It appears to me that some in this debate make an unreasonable demand on people with regard to checking their beliefs for reasonableness. The criticism is that any amount of unreasonableness in a person’s beliefs is reason for condemnation.

My answer to this is that people do not have time to check all of their beliefs for reasonableness. To a substantial degree, we must pick up our beliefs on the run. This means using shortcuts and ‘rules of thumb’ that are quicker than an application of perfect reason, but also necessarily less accurate. We make snap judgments, jump to conclusions, and adopt and apply rules rather than assess individual situations on their merit – all in the interest of saving time.

Every one of these shortcuts falls short of the requirements of strict rationality and logic. In every case, somebody is able to criticize the person by saying, “Your thinking is unreasonable – your conclusions do not strictly follow from your premises.” The criticism is accurate, but nothing can be done about it. If we could instantaneously run every one of our beliefs through an assessment of strict rationality, then perhaps we should do so. But we cannot. So, it is not the case that we ought.

Criticizing people for using these shortcuts and coming up with wrong conclusions based on ‘poor reasoning’ then is not always legitimate criticism.

On the other hand, we should not that not all rules of thumb, shortcuts, and jumpings to conclusion are equally fallible or equally fast. We have reason to constantly review the shortcuts that are in use and to replace less reliable and efficient shortcuts with those that are more reliable and efficient. Yet, there will always be some unreliability in these methods – some irrationality – some adopting of beliefs that are not wholly justified and, in some cases, wrong.

One of the implications of this is that we will always live in a society with a wide variety of beliefs. Those who demand universal assent are going to be disappointed. Every one of us evaluates our beliefs in relation to the beliefs we already have and beliefs about how those beliefs are linked. We all grasp a different subset of the total set of knowledge, have different shortcuts, and use those tools with different levels of competence. We are well advised to teach ourselves and others to be comfortable with the fact that we live in a community with others whose beliefs will never be identical to our own.

Another implication is that we need some sort of criteria for distinguishing the beliefs that we can adopt on the run, and those that warrant a little extra attention. There are times when we are obligated to give a belief some extra attention, and times when the accuracy of a belief matters very little.

The criteria that I argue determines when beliefs need our considered assessment, and when they do not, is when they create a risk of harm to others. This ties in with the claim that desires provide the only reasons for action that exist. The possibility that desires may be thwarted provides a reason for action to give beliefs some extra consideration. Where that possibility is low, we may govern our quest for information on other desires such as curiosity, or even entertainment.

There are those who apply this criterion to belief in God. It is not unreasonable to hold, “If a God exists, being benevolent, He would want me to refrain from harming others and to help them when they need it. If no God exists, people who exist also have reasons for favor my refusing to harm others and to help them when they need it. Either way, if I refrain from harming others and help them when they need it, the question of whether God exists does not require my full attention. It seems to me that God exists. It seems strange to suggest that all of the unlikely occurrences that brought intelligent life to this planet would have occurred but through intelligent guidance.”

Those of us who have studied this argument for the existence of God – Paley’s ‘Design Argument’ – know its flaws. If it odd at best to have difficulty with the idea that intelligent life could come into existence without a creator, but to have no difficulty with the idea that a creator could simply exist – and that even if such a creator exists, we have no evidence as to its competence, or its compassion.

We could demand that this person study the issues. However, his quite reasonable response may well be, “I do not have time for that. I have a job to do – and I need to keep my job so that I can keep my health insurance, my home, and send my kids to college. I have a far greater need to work on my skills at medicine or law or engineering or teaching or whatever job I do. Plus, I am spending time with my kids, quality time with my wife. And if I spend some time simply being entertained – watching a movie or going to a game – I have precious little time for that anyway. It’s not as if I am hurting anybody.”

An exception is to be made when such a person IS hurting others. At this point, it is reasonable to say, “No. You have an obligation to those who you are harming to give these ideas more thought.” At this point it is reasonable to condemn in the harshest terms, and not ‘sugar coat’ the condemnation, that, “You are adding misery and suffering to the world you senseless twit!”

And if somebody should utter the criticism, “But you should be nice to these people. We might need their cooperation elsewhere. You need not speak so harshly,” the answer is, “Say that to their victims whose suffering is on their hands! Tell the person whose family member was killed in a terrorist bombing that they need to be nicer to the bombers, the person who will lose a family member to a disease that could have been cured that they need to be nice to the person who stood in the way of that cure, to the gay teenager considering suicide because he has been taught to hate himself that he suffers from a lack of compassion.”

Where moral criticism is truly justified, that criticism should be delivered forcefully. It is, after all, through criticism itself that we generate the aversions that protect people from harm. The objects of legitimate criticism need to be made to feel whatever shame and the guilt that this criticism can create.

It is not enough reason for criticism to note that a person adopted a belief without perfect rationality and refuses to review it. We must also assert that there is reason to review that belief – and that those reasons for action are strong enough or numerous enough to put that belief at the top of the list. (Otherwise, he may need to check that belief, but only after he checks other, more important beliefs.)

Desire utilitarianism is well suited for making judgments on the run. Desire utilitarianism makes most moral judgments quite quick and easy. The person considering whether to take property belonging to another does not need to give the idea a lot of thought. “I do not like taking the property of others; therefore, I’m not going to.” Or, “I do not like sex that is forced on a partner, so I’m not going to pursue it.” That’s it. That’s all of the thought that the vast majority of moral questions require, for somebody who has good desires.

There is still a need for debate as to what desires are good and bad, whether they can be influenced through social conditioning, and the ‘reasons for action’ for doing so. Desire utilitarianism suggests that there will continue to be social debate on a number of issues where the benefits of particular desires, their application to specific situations, or the effectiveness of social tools are not clear.

So, desire utilitarianism does not give instant answers to questions of euthanasia, drug laws, late-term abortions, capital punishment, or a host of other issues. In fact, desire utilitarianism says that some issues will be very difficult to resolve – and the only people we should not listen to are those who arrogantly proclaim that the answer is easy and they know what the answer is. (Chances are, they know what answer they like, which is the answer that benefits them, but not what answer is right.)

At the same time, it still allows for easy determination of the wrongness of (the benefits of promoting a widespread aversion to bring about) most instances of theft, rape, murder, lies, assault, and similar moral crimes.

Irrationality, or even holding a belief on the basis of little evidence, is not itself a moral crime. In many cases, with the vast amount of information that exists, we simply do not have time for anything else. Given the limited amount of time that we have to examine our beliefs, we must allow for some – in fact a great deal – of irrationality. We still have reason to promote the best rules of thumb we can discover, but a moral command to complete rationality simply is not in the moral cards.


Austin Cline said...

You are absolutely right that it's wrong to expect everyone to rationally scrutinize every belief they have. Broad, generous allowances have to be made for people believing things which are technically unjustified and which most people would realize are unjustified if they invested some effort into looking at it.

In many, if not most cases, though, I doubt that religious theism falls into this category. I'd accept this with regards to people's beliefs about astrology, psychics, UFOs, and a host of other things. What they all have in common, I think, is that they are relatively unimportant beliefs in a person's life. Being right about them matters little in the grand scheme of things. Being wrong would matter not much less.

Religious theism, however, is a whole lot more important to most people. At least, that's what they say. Most believers will say that believing in god, especially as part of their religion, is the most important thing a person can do. This god is the central organizing principle of their life. Their religion gives their life structure. This religious theism is the basic source of morals, meaning, values, purpose, etc.

Now, if we're talking about a person whose attitude is something along the lines of "yes, it seems to me that God must exist, but I don't think about it every day," then I guess I'd include this sort of theism in the group of beliefs listed above. I just don't think that this is the professed attitude of most theists.

If their religious theism is as important as they say, then it is important enough for more attention and scrutiny. As I have often said: with a belief so ostensibly important, they shouldn't use *lower* standards than they know they should be using when buying a house or a used car. If, however, they insist on *not* investing the time and effort to be more critical, then we must conclude that their religious theism isn't *really* as important as they claim.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I would agree with your claim that, "In many, if not most cases, though, I doubt that religious theism fallse into this category."

In fact, I would go beyond 'most' to say 'the vast majority of cases.'

Technically, I argue that the criticism of theism is justifiably limited to those who defend claims that threaten the well-being of others. Yet, if we look at the numbers of people standing in the way of health research, same-sex marriage, early-term abortions, sex education, birth control, the education of women, atheists in elected government positions and appointed as judges, not to mention the more obvious cases of religious wars and terrorism, we see that theism is in fact linked to harm to others in a vast majority of cases, even when in principle (and sometimes, though rarely, in fact) it is not used to support actions harmful to others.