Epistemologies of Reckless Endangerment

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 26, 2010 in Ethics

It is time for epistemology to take its rightful place alongside ethics as a discipline that offers practical, real-world recommendations for living. In our society, the powerful [sometimes pay a heavy price for] engaging in immoral actions… But our society hands out few sanctions to those who promote and defend policies supported by appallingly weak reasoning…

Epistemology is serious business for at least two reasons. First, epistemology guides reasoning, and we reason about everything. If one embraces a defective morality, one’s ability to act ethically is compromised. But if one embraces a defective epistemology, one’s ability to act effectively in all areas of life is compromised.

Second, people don’t fully appreciate the risks and dangers of poor reasoning. Everyone knows the danger of intentional evil, but few fully appreciate the real risks and untold damage wrought by apparently upstanding folk who embrace and act on bad epistemological principles. Such people don’t look dangerous. But they are.

Bishop & Trout, Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment

When I was twelve, my 15-year old cousin Salina was killed. I remember weeping in church at the funeral. The tears seemed to flow straight up from my gut and out the corners of my eyes.

A truck went around a turn, and its load of cement pipes broke loose. One of them flew through the car window into Salina’s head. The driver had failed to secure his load, and his negligence killed my cousin.

The truck driver did not mean to kill my cousin. His intentions were only to get his load from one place to another. He merely lacked a strong enough desire to make sure his load was secure.

Sometimes, when we fail to secure our beliefs, our failure likewise contributes to death and suffering, even when we have good intentions.

There are parents who believe God wants them to avoid scientific medicine in favor of faith healing. Presumably, they have only the best of their intentions for their own children. And yet they end up killing their children, because they failed to secure their beliefs.

The same is true of the anti-vaccination crowd. Such people often have an epistemological process that favors anecdote and personal intuition above even the most comprehensive scientific evidence. Because of their epistemology of reckless endangerment, people die.

Libertarians who look to their political ideology to answer questions about the facts of climate change have an epistemology of reckless endangerment. Their epistemology contributes to death and suffering on a massive scale. Political advocates who don’t know the first thing about the amount of the federal budget spent on foreign aid or the economic policies of the current administration may advocate ignorant positions that contribute to the death and suffering of millions of people. Those who answer grand metaphysical questions with reference to ancient books or religious authorities engage in epistemologies of reckless endangerment that sponsor terrorism and the oppression of women around the world.

Epistemology matters. It’s time to get serious about figuring out what methods really work for getting at the truth, so we can live successfully in the real world.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Heuristics July 26, 2010 at 5:16 am

>”Epistemology matters. It’s time to get serious about figuring out what methods really work for getting at the truth, so we can live successfully in the real world.”

Ok! Let’s do this.

What good epistemological reasoning do we have to suppose that such things as desires and beliefs exist?

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lukeprog July 26, 2010 at 6:10 am

Herustics,

This isn’t quite fair, but for now I only have time to say: Please listen to the previous podcast. :)

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Rob July 26, 2010 at 6:44 am

No matter how robust your epistemology is in theory, pragmatically this battle is really with human psychology.

http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire/?page=1

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G'DIsraeli July 26, 2010 at 8:26 am

I think it’s here in detail:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-belief/
I love to attack theism with this, tho they can bite back.

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Josh July 26, 2010 at 8:32 am

This is a tough issue. On one hand, I agree with you, and think that we let some people get away with far too liberal of an epistemology. On the other hand, we already DO punish people for their epistemologies: we put them in mental institutions if they say things that are contrary to accepted wisdom about what is and what isn’t possible to believe.

The issue is that the type of people who get put into these institutions are often very culturally specific and the reasons depend on the current Zeitgeist. Moreover, until recently mental hospitals were essentially places of torture and even now they aren’t the most pleasant places in the world.

It’s a fine line to walk… but we have to watch out for imposing our own epistemology on others, despite the fact that we can’t really justify our own.

(btw, don’t take me for a relativist, I think that I probably have a very similar notion of reality to you… I’m just always worried about becoming the kind of person I hate)

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antiplastic July 26, 2010 at 8:52 am

“What good epistemological reasoning do we have to suppose that such things as desires and beliefs exist?”

The primary reason is that they play a role in our heuristic (!) which enables us to predict animal behavior. In combination they give us a domain to quantify over and when we do, we can do better than chance in predicting which organisms will do what in response to what stimuli.

However there are very good reasons to suspect that beliefs and desires are not propositionally structured and so our final theories will not quantify over them — it would be in principle impossible to maximize desire fulfillment.

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Rob July 26, 2010 at 10:40 am

Josh,

Your comment reminds me of something hilarious. The medical profession defines a delusion as a “fixed false belief”, unless the belief is a religious belief. So, for the medical folks who come up with these precise definitions, it is pretty much a given that religious beliefs are false. You see the same sort of unspoken attitude among anthropologists who study religion as well.

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lukeprog July 26, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Rob,

That is exactly the kind of thing Trout and Bishop’s book engages.

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Rob July 26, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Thanks Luke, that book is already in my “to read” pile. Here’s Steven Weinberg on the ethics of belief:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBeGu55gAp8

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Alonzo Fyfe July 28, 2010 at 7:01 am

Josh

On the other hand, we already DO punish people for their epistemologies: we put them in mental institutions if they say things that are contrary to accepted wisdom about what is and what isn’t possible to believe.

Actually, almost all criminal law is ultimately devoted to punishing people for their epistemologies.

When you walk out of an airport with another person’s suitcase, the difference between an accident and theft has to do with what the person taking the suitcase believed, and had reason to believe in taking the suitcase. “I thought it was mine because it looks just like mine,” is a valid defense against the charge of theft.

The difference between murder and killing in self defense rests with what the agent believed and had reason to believe at the time of a shooting.

With the exception of a few strict liability laws, proof of guilt for just about any crime requires proving “mens rea” – proving that the accused was had a particular mental state – which defines him as being a person deserving punishment.

The problem is that while, in some areas (e.g., whether a woman gave consent to having sex) we apply rigid epistemic standards to the beliefs of the accused, in other cases (e.g., whether to innoculate one’s child against a potentially fatal illness) we do not.

Antiplastic

However there are very good reasons to suspect that beliefs and desires are not propositionally structured and so our final theories will not quantify over them — it would be in principle impossible to maximize desire fulfillment.

This may be true. I am aware of some of the problems.

However, there is nothing that can be done unless and until people actually come up with a better theory.

For 300 years, scientists knew that there were problems with Newton’s theories of motion. However, until a better theory came along, it was the best available and quite powerful in everyday applications.

In fact, Newton’s theories, even though wrong, still provide answers that are good enough when considering almost all engineering projects.

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lukeprog July 28, 2010 at 7:09 am

Antiplastic,

Also, desirism is not a theory of maximizing desire fulfillment.

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antiplastic July 28, 2010 at 10:54 am

Yeah, we all know it’s not act-U, but the point remains that there is some calculation in some never-specified counterfactual context and we are supposed to run with the highest net positive for the Generally People. And any eliminativist scenario has any generalized calculations of any kind being impossible in principle.

This would be even worse than the current state of affairs, in which the calculations are merely impossible in practice, and so we only ever see restatements of common-sense center-left liberal attitudes (which are mostly agreeable) with a bit of weird verbiage tacked on at the end, and the claim that the slogans somehow theoretically underwrite the moral views already held for other reasons, or would underwrite them if we could figure out how to do a calculation.

Invoking Newton in support of folk psychology is wildly off base here. It is precisely the quantitative predictions of the former which the latter lacks, and which a Fyfist would need to claim anything in the moral realm remotely analogous to “answers that are good enough when considering almost all engineering projects” with the aid of folk psychology. Folk physics would be a much better candidate.

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