The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moral theory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist.
Luke Muehlhauser has asked me to make regular contributions to Common Sense Atheism in which I am to discuss the practical applications of Desire Utilitarianism (a.k.a. Desirism) to specific issues.
I am more than happy to do so.
He even suggested the initial topic. A reader of his has criticized a position that I presented on my blog, and Luke defended, stating that young earth creationists are guilty of a moral failing that makes them worthy of moral condemnation.
That criticism can be found at The Warfare Is Mental.
I am going to broaden the topic a little and discuss the general concepts of incompetence and negligence. Because, as it turns out, the response given to my original position, if valid, would be arguments for abandoning the concepts of incompetence and negligence, or at last rendering them inapplicable in the real world.
My position is that, if these concepts have any real-world applicability at all, they would apply to young earth creationists who not only display incompetence on issues relevant to a wide range of public policy but negligently insist that they contribute to shaping that policy.
First, I need to specify (as I did in my original post) that my remarks refer specifically to young earth creationists – those who believe that the Earth itself is approximately 6000 years old. My remarks do not apply to old-earth creationists. They are also completely inapplicable to deists who hold that a God created a universe 13.5 billion years ago within which the Earth formed after 9 billion years and intelligent life evolved 4.5 billion years after that.
Now, let us assume that the citizens of a town have decided to commission the building of a dam upstream of their community to control flooding. They collect the money, and they set out to hire an engineer. One of the applicants says that he can build a dam out of paper mâché. Other engineers scoff, saying that there is no way that paper mâché can hold up to the force of water that would be put on the dam.
However, the paper mâché engineer insists that paper mâché has one million times the strength that the other engineers say it does. As such, even a very thin (and inexpensive) paper mâché dam will block the river and provide the town with the flood control it desires.
Here is where the concept of incompetence comes in. It is perfectly sensible for the members of the engineering community to claim that the paper mâché engineer is incompetent. The town folks would be idiots not to follow the recommendation of the vast body of engineering experts who insist that the dam must be made of concrete and steel, as opposed to paper mâché, if it is to hold back the river in spring time.
Now, let us assume that our paper mâché engineer gets a defender. That defender says it is inappropriate to scoff at the paper mâché engineers’ plans. After all, the paper mâché engineer merely drew a different set of conclusions from the same data. We are told that rejecting the views of the paper mâché engineer is merely prejudice and is wrong in the same way that rejecting the views of the concrete engineers is wrong. We must assume, instead, that both views have equal merit.
We see here that society has very good reason to want to preserve the concepts of competence and moral responsibility – with one of its components, immoral recklessness. Incompetence and recklessness maim and kill people when they are put into practice. The very reasons we have for avoiding those harms ourselves, and protecting those we love from those harms, are the reasons we have to praise and reward competence and moral responsibility, and to morally condemn incompetence and recklessness.
Young earth creationism, like the views of the engineer proposing the paper mâché dam, when put into practice, are examples of incompetence and recklessness.
If we were to look at the magnitude of error on the part of young earth creationists, it is the same as that of a pilot who insists that his plane is a mere half an inch from the ground, when in fact he was flying at an altitude of 37,500 feet.
It is the same difference as one in which an engineer insists that 1 cup of coolant was enough to safely run the nuclear reactor, when in fact 45,000 gallons was needed.
It is the same ratio as a case in which an engineer builds a dam capable of withstanding 1 pound of force per square foot when it needs to support 22.5 tons of force per square foot.
Worse yet would be those pilots, nuclear engineers, and civil engineers who insist that the right to freedom of speech entitles them to teach this nonsense in schools – that freedom of speech requires that they be entitled to “teach the controversy” over whether paper mâché is good dam-building material in engineering classes across the country.
Before the question gets asked, the answer is, “Yes, the evidence for the Earth being 4.5 billion years old rather than 6000 years old is as solid as the evidence that a plane is flying at an altitude of 37,500 feet instead of half an inch, or that a dam will experience significantly more than 1 pound per square foot of force.”
At this point, we can consider the claims of the person defending this pilot claiming, “How dare you accuse this engineer of incompetence merely because he disagrees with you on how much force is going to be put on this dam!”
We can immediately see the absurdity of this defense. It is not a judgment based “merely upon the fact that they disagree with our conclusion.” Rather, they disagree with a huge body of collected evidence governing the facts with respect to water pressure, material sciences, and structural engineering. These things have been tested over and over again and they work.
The defender might also claim that I am condemning the paper mâché dam builder for his beliefs.
I morally condemn the young earth creationist – not for their beliefs, but because they are so reckless and incompetent with respect to whole realms of public policy where they still insist on making decisions. These include policies on matters affecting the environment, climate, medicine, energy, agriculture, and natural disasters. Their absurd beliefs are the very measure of incompetence in these fields.
Yes, it is possible to be an incompetent dam builder and to do no harm. I am an incompetent dam builder – and I do no harm. This is because I leave the business of building dams to those who are competent. I admit that my lack of knowledge does not qualify me to pass judgment as to which design is best.
The young earth creationist who admits to his incompetence in matters of science and leaves those judgments to experts will do no harm. People generally have as little reason to be concerned about his incompetence in science as they have to be concerned about my incompetence as a dam builder.
However, a person who admits to incompetence in matters of science is not a young earth creationist. The young earth creationist claims that he knows what the right answer is – and this is not something that a person who admits his own incompetence will do.
The proper analogy is not between the young earth creationist and me – the incompetent dam builder who knows he is incompetent and thus refuses to build dams. The proper analogy is as I have drawn it above – between the young earth creationist and the incompetent dam builder who holds himself to be competent in the face of dangerously absurd beliefs and insists that he should be permitted to act on those beliefs on matters of dam building – and who insists that he has a right to teach those beliefs to others as they represented a legitimate engineering alternative.
A person cannot understand the science of energy resource management unless he understands the science that says that the sun has existed for billions of years, and that current oil reserves are the naturally processed remains of plants that died out tens to hundreds of millions of years ago.
A person cannot understand the problem of nuclear waste disposal (or nuclear war) unless he understands the process of radioactive decay – the very same process that provides an important portion of the evidence of an ancient earth.
A person cannot understand gene therapy, or the risk of superbugs, or the risk of pandemic unless he has a working understanding of mutation and the process of natural selection – the same processes that show that the life on Earth evolved over billions of years.
A person cannot understand climate change unless he can understand the evidence that has been gathered that shows the interaction between the earth and its environment that has been locked in the ice caps going back hundreds of thousands of years – and in the rocks going back billions of years.
Failure to competently make policies in these and relevant areas will get people maimed and killed. Young earth creationists will continue to get people maimed and killed as long as they continue their incompetent contribution to policies in these areas.
There is simply no defense for this behavior that would not end up abolishing the concepts of competence and moral negligence entirely – allowing all sorts of evils that come from incompetence and negligence.
Most important of all, knowing what has happened to the Earth itself in the past – knowing the Earth’s history – is vitally important to knowing its future. That is a subject that all of humanity has a vested interest in getting right. That is the area in which the incompetent and morally irresponsible young earth creationist is capable of doing the most harm.
- Alonzo Fyfe