Friday, April 02, 2010

When Is Irrationality Evil?

Here is a question from the studio audience:

[Y]ou say that having a false belief isn't on its own a reason to condemn someone and I agree; however, would you consider someone who has been shown the falsehood/irrationality of his or her beliefs and yet still holds them to be true immoral?

Not necessarily.

First, there is the question of meeting the criteria of "having been shown the falsehood/irrationality of his or her beliefs." This is not often a simple yes/no proposition.

The more complex an argument is, even if it demonstrates a true proposition, the more room there is for somebody to say, "I'm not sure that you have proved that proposition at all?" The argument may be perfectly valid. Perhaps there is still some subtle flaw in the argument that has gone unrecognized. Perhaps 100 years from now logicians will identify a formal logical fallacy and it will be discovered that the argument that allegedly showed the falsehood of a particular belief is false.

Have you really shown the falsehood/irrationality of his or her beliefs?

Now, there are options available other than the acceptance or rejection of a particular belief. Their is a third category known as 'doubt'. If you demonstrate that a particular belief is false or an argument in its defense is invalid, the person you are talking to may not be under a moral obligation to accept your conclusion. He may still be morally justified in holding that your argument is flawed in some way he does not yet recognize.

However, he has been given reason to doubt his original proposition. The moral relevance of reasonable doubt ties in with the second criterion that I would use in judging immorality.

Is there reason to believe that in accepting a particular proposition as true that one is creating a risk to the well-being of others.

Here, I use the analogy of a person who gets drunk one night, goes out, gets in his pickup, and starts driving around recklessly. If he goes out on the public highways, we have reason to morally condemn him for drunk driving. He is engaging in behavior that risks thwarting the desires of others, and those desires give others a reason to condemn, so as to inhibit, that kind of behavior.

However, let us assume that he lives on a 10,000 acre ranch and he does all of his drunk driving within the confines of his own property. He does not put anybody else at risk. In this case, we have far less reason to morally condemn this person. We may assume that the inhibitions against acting in ways that are a threat to others are properly in place and, in fact, are motivating him to stay on his own property when he is in such a state.

The same is true of beliefs shown to be false or where arguments in their defense are shown to be irrational. The question is whether holding these beliefs puts one at risk of being a danger to others.

Consider the person who believes that God exists. God created the universe 3.5 billion years ago to be governed by a set of natural laws that, eventually, will lead to the assembly of self-replicating molecules known as DNA, which would evolve into an intelligent life form, where certain relationships between states of affairs and desires would exist that would give rise to moral facts.

This person has a false or, at best, unfounded belief in the existence of a God. However, this belief has no consequence. It does not make him a threat to others or in any way imply that he has any reason to act in ways potentially harmful to other people. It would be perfectly legitimate for this person to say, "Okay, I think that a God exists. However, I do not have the time or the inclination to look at that belief in detail or to get into any long debates. That would take time and resources that I cannot spare. I would rather be spending my time studying medicine and collecting money to provide medical care to poor people in third world countries. I will leave such debates to people with more time on their hands."

However, if a person is using religious belief in the defense of laws against homosexual marriage or strapping on a bomb and detonating it in a subway station, then we have reason to demand that those agents take a more serious look at the foundation for those beliefs. If a person is being motivated to act in ways that are potentially harmful to others, that is when he is under an obligation to examine those beliefs carefully and to make sure that they are properly secured.

This is the same moral criteria that says that, if I am a member of a jury and I am charged with determining whether or not the accused is going to be imprisoned, then I have an obligation to secure my belief that he is guilty 'beyond reasonable doubt'.

However, I do not have time to hold every single belief that I have up to the light of reason to determine if it really holds up in that light. I simply cannot do it. So, I am morally permitted to set aside those beliefs that do not create a risk that will act in ways potentially harmful to others, and focus instead on those that are relevant to the degree of risk I pose to the welfare of others.

There are a lot of people I know - people with false beliefs - where I simply shrug my shoulders and say, "Fine. It doesn't matter. You're not hurting anybody." In many cases, a belief in God is one of them. Their 'god' is such an amorphous character that it is not actually telling them what to do. I focus instead on those beliefs that make an individual a threat to others.

For the purpose of this blog, I have no interest in discussing religion in general or even the belief that a god exists. They are not morally relevant. However, I am interested in discussing and condemning specific religious beliefs that lead those who hold them to act in ways that are harmful to others. Belief that homosexuality is a sin, or that no atheist can be a good, patriotic American, are examples of beliefs that ought to be condemned.

1 comment:

SS400 said...

I've often seen you write that Desire Utilitarianism concerns itself with the evaluation of desires instead of acts. With this in mind, shouldn't we condemn the drunk driver even if he were doing relatively little harm in one specific case because the desire to get in a car while drunk is a generally harm-causing (and thus desire-thwarting) desire?

Similarly, assuming that a particularly safe, yet unsecure belief has been shown beyond all reasonable doubt to be false and irrationally held, should we not condemn him if he does not at least have any doubts about his irrational position because the tendency to do so is generally harmful in other situations like the ones you describe? If this person shows a desire to hold onto beliefs despite their demonstrated irrationality (assuming this has been demonstrated) in one particular instance, isn't it likely that this desire-thwarting desire (irrationality) will come into play in other more potentially harm-causing situations?