Friday, 5 March 2010

Morality and Rationality

I was reading today about attempts in various US jurisdictions to bring in laws that will force schools and educational institutions generally to have "open debate" on such matters as climate change and the theory of evolution and, after calming down, considered the nature of what irritates me so much about such an approach, not least to law. There seems to have grown, particularly on the right in the US, a generic kind of irrationalism that is based on the view that all kinds and types of belief are effectively equivalent to each other and hence that there can be some kind of "neutral forum" in which they can all present their case before the public.

This belief is in fact a masquerade since the kinds of people who think that there are grounds for serious debate concerning the "theory" of evolution have very little conception of what a theory consists in and what kinds of considerations are relevant for evaluation of it. So it appears "reasonable" to some to appeal either to Scripture or to a set of apparent "evidences" of design in nature as if either of these appeals was somehow evidentially on a par with the accumulative work of natural science. In responding to such people one tends to lose one's patience simply because they have such a peculiar view of what counts as an argument. So the kinds of evidence of "design", to take the most respectable version of this kind of view, that are supposed to count are either versions of an anthropomorphic fallacy or they are clearly accounted for within the scope of evolutionary theory in any case which is based on a comprehension of adaptation to environment that would predict such effects of design as emergent. Further, any serious rational person is aware that the use of Occam's razor commits us to accepting that the simplest explanation that accounts for the phenomena in question is, by virtue of its simplicity, the best one.

Since the kinds of people one is arguing with, however, systematically flout all considerations of evidence and rational grounds of belief these types of appeal are unlikely to persuade them. At which point one finds that effectively there is no kind of rational ground that would persuade them of anything. So, to move over to climate change, apparently some "religiously" motivated critics of it argue that we can't be affecting the climate in this way as the climate was designed by God. Again, since it is apparent that any and all aspects of the climate are susceptible to harm by us, there is no ground at all for thinking it per se impossible that we could be responsible for damaging the climate. But anyone who thinks that you can invoke God in this kind of way in an argument has so little conception of argument that one is at a loss how to begin with them.

At this point I tend towards the view that the real problem in these cases is a moral one. Irrational people of the sort who deny the intrinsic possibility of climate change or think that the theory of evolution is "just" a theory are people in a grip of a conviction and this conviction is one that has corrupted their reasoning powers. This doesn't entail that they are generically incapable of reasoning but that, with a range of subjects, there is a moral fault when it comes to being able to practice the skills of reasoning that they undoubtedly are capable of using. In this sense people of this sort are morally corrupt persons, persons that is, who prefer a belief to be adopted because it suits them and feel no responsibility to see how such a belief may relate to the myriad kinds of considerations that are appropriate for its evaluation. In this sense the fault they have is not, in the first instance, one of reason but of morality and the kind of fault it is involves submitting to inclination in the sense that certain kinds of beliefs strike them as "looking" better than others. Hence, though it seems ugly to say it, these people are guided by a kind of corrupt aesthetic that has taken charge of their morals and atrophied their reasoning capacities.

There is a moral basis to reasoning correctly which involves acceptance of rules and canons of argument, understanding of what kind of thing counts as evidence and agreement to engage with others in a common discussion. In the absence of this there is moral irresponsibility based on abdication before presumed "facts" that have an absolute status and yet get defended by means of a perverse relativism.

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