Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Morally Culpable Stupidity

Unorothodox Atheism has a post, “I Want To Cry”, containing a video that tells of people explaining their reasons for supporting Huckabee and their objections to other candidates. A relevant fact about this video is that many of the claims expressed in the video are false.

Reed Brandon, the author of the blog post that exposes many of the false claims and assumptions that appear in the video. I want to add a moral dimension. Everybody makes mistakes – everybody gets the facts wrong from time to time. Usually, these are non-culpable mistakes. However, we all have an obligation to avoid mistakes. When people get too careless, their mistakes become morally culpable. They prove by their actions that they do not care about the types of things that morally concerned people care about.

The first mistake that Brandon mentions finding in the video is the claim that Barack Obama has asked to use the Koran for his swearing-in ceremony if he is elected as President. This is a widely spread internet rumor. It is also completely false.

I have made the point repeatedly that we can learn something about a person’s moral character by the mistakes that they make. When a person adopts a conclusion that is not, in fact, supported by the available evidence, we have reason to ask what caused them to embrace that particular conclusion. If it is not the evidence that brought the agent to a particular conclusion, then it must have been something else. One of the things that commonly affects our beliefs are our desires. When we know something of a person’s desires, we know something of his or her moral character.

Why did these people want to believe the lie that Obama has asked to use a Koran?

Actually, there are two issues that are relevant here. The first relevant question is, “What should it matter that a person wishes to be sworn in under the Koran as opposed to the Bible?” These speakers obviously believe that being a Muslim makes one unfit for leadership. They have an aversion to somebody who would take their oath on the Koran being President.

Would a good person have such an aversion?

Some atheists have the same aversion. To be fair, some have the same aversion to the idea of a person who will take an oath on the Christian Bible serving as President. However, this post is not about what ‘some people’ will do, it is about what a good person would do.

The concepts of ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ represent a wide variety of attitudes. So does the concept of ‘Atheist’. It is simply not the case that, if you know that one person is a Muslim and another is an Atheist, that you can automatically know which is best suited to be President. Among our moral responsibilities is a responsibility to make sure that we elect the best candidate. We have an obligation to make sure that we do not base our decisions on irrelevant or inaccurate criteria.

The morally responsible person recognizes these facts. The person who does not recognize and respect these facts are guilty of a moral failing.

This is just one example of a mistake that shows up in this video where the speakers ought to have known better (where a morally responsible person would have known better). Another internet rumor that found its way into the video was the claim that Obama refuses to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. The evidence for that comes from a clip in which Obama did not put his hand over his heart during the National Anthem. These speakers exhibited absolutely no curiosity or interest in discovering the fact of the matter. They have no love of truth. Indeed, they show that they are the type of person who will eagerly embrace a lie.

Now, I would like to introduce another fact into this analysis. There are people in the lives of those who created this video who have taken it upon themselves to be the ‘moral advisors’ to their flock. They say, “Come to me for moral advice.”

A person who accepts that type of authority also accepts a certain amount of additional moral responsibility. For example, a person who does not pretend to have any special training in medicine gives you advice on how to avoid a flu, this advice can be taken with a grain of salt. People know that the advice is ill informed. However, when a person claims to be a physician – a medical expert – this obligates him to provide better medical advice than one’s next-door neighbor (unless one’s next door neighbor is a physician).

This is an obligation that I recognize myself to be under when I write this blog. With each posting, I recognize that there is a particular danger that I may promote as good that which is in fact evil, or that I may be arguing for people to avoid as evil that which is in fact good. Whenever a person makes a moral mistake of this type, it follows as a matter of definition that innocent people will suffer, or guilty people will be rewarded. It is the very nature of a moral failing that it comes with these types of consequences. A responsible person recognizes and respects these facts.

Who are the people that these agents take to be ‘moral advisors’, and why are they not telling these people of the moral obligation to get their facts rights – to care about the truth and to take care that the claims they make about people are, in fact, true.

In this case, it turns out that one of the speakers herself is somebody who has taken on the mantle of ‘moral advisor’. One of the speakers identifies herself as Karen Sanders. Not only is she failing to provide moral guidance (advising the other speaker on the need to make sure that accusations are true before they are made), she is one of the agents exhibiting the morally objectionable behavior in the video.

This is a culture that completely fails to recognize the moral significance of important moral obligations such as an obligation to check one’s facts.

I want to stress that I am not speaking here about the religious claims that these people defend. I am talking about simple facts such as those concerning Obama – facts that can be easily verified or falsified. It is here that these people exhibit the moral failing of intellectual responsibility.

We can extrapolate from this to conclusions that they show the same immorality with respect to their religious beliefs. It may well be possible to make the case that their religion teaches moral irresponsibility in this regard. It teaches people to form reckless beliefs and to fail (or refuse) to live up to their moral responsibility to make sure that they claims they make are true. They teach people to be reckless in ways that cost people’s lives. All of these inferences are possible. However, I do not need to prove that they are true to make the moral case. Outside of the realm of religion – inside the realm where facts can be easily verified or falsified, even here they exhibit a morally culpable level of intellectual irresponsibility when it comes to what they believe and what they assert to be true.

We could say that this is a culture that does not recognize intellectual responsibilities – that suffers from simple ignorance of the fact that people should be held accountable for culpable mistakes of belief. However, this can easily be proved false. There is no doubt that these people would condemn the engineer or the doctor who made a mistake that proved costly to them. There is no doubt that they could condemn the gossipy neighbor where they were the victims of other peoples’ intellectual recklessness rather than those who are victimizing others. They are hypocrites who simply refuse to abide by a moral obligation that they know exists. They know, but they do not care.

Intellectually reckless people are a danger to others. They kill and maim far more people in the world than drunk drivers. Intellectually reckless people prevent us from taking timely action that could have saved hundreds of millions of lives and trillions of dollars worth of property. Intellectually reckless people order an attack on Iraq that does not turn out at all the way they (intellectually recklessly) think it will turn out.

We have a lot of good reason to invest some time and effort into using social forces such as condemnation to reduce the numbers of intellectually reckless people. Our lives will be healthier, safer, and longer if we do.

There are more people to condemn here - to morally condemn - than just those who spoke. Condemnation also belongs to those who helped to create and promote this video, and any who applaud it as if these characters are exhibiting some sort of moral virtue. This praise of stupidity will only help to ensure that more people suffer from more mistakes made by the intellectually reckless.

In fact, the intellectually reckless doctor, engineer, or other professional can go to jail, and should go to jail.

We should be no less judgmental when it comes to the actions of the intellectually reckless moralist.

1 comment:

Frederick H Watkins said...

Interesting essay. However, in response to your statement:

"Intellectually reckless people order an attack on Iraq that does not turn out at all the way they (intellectually recklessly) think it will turn out."

I would ask you to ponder the possibility that your personal disillusionment of the entire exercise more or less persists simply because the outcome has not met with your personal expectations.