Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Condemnation of the Intellectually Reckless

If a community descends into immorality, then it will suffer the consequences.

Coming from me, that should be nearly axiomatic since morality is substantially concerned with what benefits and avoiding what harms people generally within a community. Consequently, a community that abandons morality, by definition, is a community that foregoes certain benefits and suffers harms.

In other words, this is not a rant that says that we must condemn homosexuality because of the harms that come from abandoning morality. Homosexuality is not immoral – it is of no threat to the well-being of a community.

On the other hand, dishonesty, deception, and intellectual recklessness are immoral. To the degree that a community abandons its love of truth and standards of intellectual integrity and responsibility, it will suffer the consequences.

It is in the abandonment of the love of truth and standards of intellectual integrity that I see the greatest causes of future harm. A politician who sends a naked picture of himself to an intern is out on the street by the end of the week. A politician who gets caught in a “pants on fire” lie goes on with business as usual. A news organization can be caught asserting blatant falsehoods without the least sanction or embarrassment. Many posters on social media scarcely ask themselves, “Is this true?” and pass on and fill the public airways with misinformation and false beliefs.

This will come with a cost.

It is not at all difficult to understand the importance of accurate information.

You are thirsty. You are going to want to know what is in the water. You are going to want to know the consequences of drinking out of the glass. There is a cost associated with wrongly believing that glass contains clean water when, in fact, it is poisoned. On the other hand, in the absence of some other source of water that you know to be clean, there is a cost associated with thinking that a specific source is poisoned when, in fact, it is not.

Ignorance over the fact of climate change will either destroy whole cities and whole countries, or it will impose huge costs on populations that they have many reasons to avoid.

A mistake in thinking that a black teenager is a threat can result in a tragic death.

The belief that you can protect a city from hurricanes or terrorist attacks by outlawing abortion and implementing prayer in school, or that you can cure a disease with prayer and have no need for an immunization, or that by making sex particularly dangerous is an effective way of preventing teenagers from having sex, are all ideas that get people killed.

When one’s beliefs impact actions that have an effect on others, that is where the concept of epistemic responsibility comes in. A doctor’s mistake of removing the right leg when the left leg was the one with the cancer cannot be dismissed by saying, “Everybody is entitled to their opinion,” or “You have no right to criticize my belief that the cancer was in the right leg.” Similarly, an engineer cannot dismiss the moral responsibility of underestimating the type of wiring that would be needed to handle the electric current in the kitchen of a highrise apartment building.

Clearly, the importance of true belief and, thus, the moral importance of epistemic responsibility is hard to underestimate.

Yet, culture today seems to have entered an era where “everybody has a right to their opinion” and where nobody is permitted to criticize the beliefs of another – even beliefs that have implications on who will live, who will die, and how much suffering they may have to endure.

We are scarcely permitted to say, “You are wrong” – let alone saying, “Not only are you wrong but no morally responsible person with a proper care for the lives and well-being of others would have reasoned as you did; you should be ashamed of yourself.”

It's the latter that needs to be said, and much more often, to build the aversion to deception and intellectual recklessness on which the lives and well-being of many actually depends.

Or, in terms that are applicable in the world today:

“No news program that values truth would have reported what your news organization reported or, if they did, would have been significantly embarrassed by the fact, retracted the error, and taken steps to avoid similar mistakes in the future.”

Or, “No responsible user of social media would have “shared” or “retreated” this particular pack of lies and deceptions; people who behave irresponsibility in that way deserve not only to be corrected, but condemned.”

Everybody makes mistakes, of course. However, there is a difference between, “I made a mistake. I am sorry. I will try not to do it again,” and “I was wrong, but I don’t care – because the truth is not what matters. Social and political success is what matters even if it is built on epistemic recklessness and even deliberate deception.” It is this latter attitude that is far more common that it should be, and we will suffer for it.

Of course . . . and this is important. Intellectual recklessness should be condemned where it exists in fact, not when charges of intellectual recklessness are themselves reckless or deliberately false, because they serve a political agenda. Anybody who takes this article as providing moral permission for the reckless condemnation of the beliefs of others did not understand what was written.

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