Securing One’s Beliefs

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 3, 2009 in Ethics,Guest Post

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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. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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somersA recent article addressing Suzanne Somers’ new book promoting alternative medicines over chemotherapy and other conventional treatments for cancer ended with the following:

“Celebrities are easy to pick on,” Somers says. “But I don’t have an agenda. I’m just a passionate lay person. And I’m using my celebrity to do something good for people.”1

Desirism provides us with some tools for evaluating a statement such as this, giving us reason to believe that it is not entirely accurate.

I will start with the principle that each person acts so as to make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of their desires – given their beliefs.

Suzanne Somers’ actions aim to make or keep the proposition true that she is being talked about in the press, thus preserving her status as a celebrity. At the same time, her actions will not work to make or keep true the proposition that she is helping people. In light of these facts, we have two possible options:

One option is that she cares more about her status as a celebrity – getting her name in the press and being talked about – than helping people. In other words, she is accomplishing what she truly wants to accomplish. Celebrity status is so important to her, that it does not bother her that she is acquiring it through means that will lead people to their deaths.

The other is that she cares most about helping people, but simply has false beliefs about what is helpful and what is not. Under this option, we may suggest that she written and is promoting a book in which she promotes certain cancer treatments, even though she knows almost nothing about the scientific method and the ways that scientists select one method over another (or one theory over another). She writes without realizing that the very idea of a form of treatment with a higher success rate that is not recommended by science is virtually a contradiction in terms.

The second hypothesis has some serious weaknesses.

We are looking at these two claims as we would look at any two scientific theories. We are looking to determine which hypothesis best explains and predicts a range of observations. On this model, the “cares about people but has false beliefs” hypothesis runs into serious problems – problems that the “cares more about publicity than about people” hypothesis can easily handle.

Moral negligence (or, more accurately, immoral negligence) is the moral crime of not caring enough about the harm that others might suffer as a result of one’s actions to take the pains necessary to prevent that harm.

I frequently illustrate the concept of negligence by referring to a rancher who has loaded a truck full of scrap metal he plans to take into town. Lazily, he simply heaps as much junk onto the back of the truck as can fit and heads off down the highway – doing nothing to make sure that the scrap metal is secure within the truck. On the way to town, as he goes around a corner, some of the metal falls from the truck and crashes into oncoming traffic, killing the occupants of a car that was coming the other direction.

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The rancher did not actively desire to kill the occupants of the passing car. However, he is still morally culpable for bringing about their deaths. The moral fault, in this case, does not come from a desire to kill, but from the lack of an aversion to causing death. If the rancher had such an aversion, it would have motivated him to secure the load better before heading to town. The reason he did not secure the load is because he simply did not care enough to avoid the possible consequences.

Exactly the same moral charge can be leveled against people who write books and recommend policy but do not properly secure their beliefs.

A false belief – particularly one written into a popular book addressed to people diagnosed with cancer – can have deadly consequences. It can be orders of magnitude more deadly than a heavy piece of metal put high on a heap in the back of a truck. A person who does not take care to secure her beliefs is telling us, through her inaction, that she does not really care about the welfare of people who might be harmed by her actions. If she cared, then she would have taken the pains to make sure her beliefs were properly secured.

So, we have a set of observations here that are not consistent with the “cares about people but has false beliefs” hypothesis. Instead, they support the “cares about publicity and does not mind that her quest for publicity will lead others to their deaths” hypothesis.

We have another observation of note that could cause a problem for this hypothesis. Suzanne Somers applied her own bad medical advice to her own case, refusing certain forms of medical treatment, and ended up surviving cancer. We cannot reasonably assume that she did not care about her own life. So, we also cannot draw the conclusion that she did not care about the lives of others whose deaths she is contributing to.

However, we have a number of observations that question the assumption that people generally have a particularly high regard for their own well-being. Overeating, under-exercising, smoking, drinking, drug abuse, promiscuous unprotected sex, and the like all suggest that human desires are such that a desire for our own well-being is not a particularly strong motivator. It is no more surprising to see a person risk her life for the sake of being in the press than it is to see a person risk her life for the sake of a dose of nicotine or to drive home after he had been drinking.

The hypothesis that Suzanne Somers cares more about publicity than about helping people still stands.

People like Suzanne Somers have desires that make them the type of people who tend to thwart the desires of others. People in general – you and me – we all have reason to condemn the individual who fails to secure her beliefs, just as we have reason to condemn the rancher who fails to secure the load on his truck before heading into town. More of us and those we care about will live longer and happier lives if we could only get people to adopt a stronger interest in securing their beliefs.

We accomplish this, as a society, by praising those who take the pains to secure their beliefs and by condemning those who fail to secure their beliefs. This is no different than praising the rancher who secures the load that he takes into town by noting that he is a responsible and praiseworthy individual, and condemning the rancher who fails to do so.

Notice that the negligent rancher deserves our condemnation even if he should make it into town without killing anybody – in the same way that the drunk driver deserves our condemnation even if he makes it home without killing anybody. The moral fault rests in caring so little for the welfare of others that one is willing to create a risk of harm. Actual harm is simply one of the most reliable indicators that a person was willing to create such a risk.

So we do not need to prove that Suzanne Somers’ actually lead somebody to her death by following her advice to charge her with intellectual negligence. It is enough that she did not care enough to prevent the risk.

If there is any defense that can be given for Suzanne Somers, it is the same type of defense that we offer George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for the crime of owning slaves. They grew up in a culture in which this was accepted, and their culture blinded them to the evil to be found in these types of actions. Similarly, Suzanne Somers can be said to have suffered from growing up in a culture that gives little moral weight to intellectual responsibility. We are surrounded by agents who profit by words and deeds seeped in intellectual recklessness, the way George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew up in a slave culture.

If we want to end this evil – if we want to protect ourselves and those we care about from the harms of intellectual recklessness – then we need to take a stand against the institutions that tolerate and even profit from the practice. We have to do to the institutions of intellectual recklessness what our forefathers eventually had to do to the institution of slavery. We have to recognize that we have many and good reasons to condemn those who engage in the practice – to call them evil and to call their participation in these practices ‘moral crimes’.

Intellectual recklessness needs an abolitionist movement just as slavery needed an abolitionist movement. The sooner we start, and the more energy we put into it, the better off we and those we care about will become.

- Alonzo Fyfe

  1. Dishing out bad medicine: Latest book on alternative remedies makes doctors cringe” by Jocelyn Noveck, The Associated Press. []

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

eheffa November 3, 2009 at 9:43 am

Excellent points Alonzo.

Speaking as personally as a physician, I can attest to the fact that it is difficult to allow empiric data to trump one’s own anecdotal experience and prejudice. It also a lot of work to keep abreast of the current literature and to be prepared to modify one’s own practice accordingly. In my field of Anesthesia, adopting new practices & attempting to standardize quality of care in the context of a group of practitioners can provoke a lot of debate; but, if the value of intellectual integrity and a desire to avoid “intellectual negligence” is a shared value, I see that we have the ability to make real progress as a group.

Thanks for helping me understand a little more of what we need to do.

-evan

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eheffa November 3, 2009 at 9:46 am

Oops typo alert…
-evan

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Penneyworth November 3, 2009 at 10:56 am

So this is an application of desirism? This is a “calculation?”

Questions: Is desirism necessary to disapprove of intellectual recklessness and other negligence? Isn’t it just common sense that one should ground their beliefs in truth in order to make the best decisions about medical procedures and everything else? Where in this example are we using desirism?

Questions: If desirism is not in fact necessary here, then why did you indroduce it as such? Why not just say “here’s Alonzo Fyfe maligning Suzanne Somers.”?

Suzanne Somers may be wrong about the best treatment for cancer, but to say (unless you have a shitload of evidence) that she refused mainstream treatment for her own cancer, thereby puposely risking her life, in order to get publicity – is assinine. This reminds me of the stupid claim that confederate soldiers in the civil war were “fighting for slavery.”

To imply that she has evil desires brewing… Well, suffice it to say the Alonzo would do well to change this stance to something like “Suzanne Somers is misinformed, and here is the evidence…”

She is nothing like the guy who carelessly piles scrap metal onto his truck. Imagine someone who does find themselves suddenly healed of a terrible medical condition while at a Benny Hinn performance. This person would certainly write books and promote Benny Hinn with great enthusiasm, even if it was just a coincidence that she overcame her condition at that key moment. There is nothing immoral at work here. This is just misinformation being applied, and this situation is much more like Suzanne Sommers’. Promoting knowledge about psychology and medicine etc. can help these situations where positing a moral theory is worthless.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 3, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Pennyworth, you wrote:

“Imagine someone who does find themselves suddenly healed of a terrible medical condition while at a Benny Hinn performance. This person would certainly write books and promote Benny Hinn with great enthusiasm, even if it was just a coincidence that she overcame her condition at that key moment. There is nothing immoral at work here.”

There is, in fact, something immoral at work here. This person is making a recommendation regarding the health of others based on research with a sample size of one. He should recognize that the life and well-being of others is at stake and recognize that this type of thinking is reckless and irresponsible. This is exactly the type of behavior we have reason to condemn.

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ayer November 3, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Fyfe: “There is, in fact, something immoral at work here. This person is making a recommendation regarding the health of others based on research with a sample size of one. He should recognize that the life and well-being of others is at stake and recognize that this type of thinking is reckless and irresponsible. This is exactly the type of behavior we have reason to condemn.”

Fine, there is something “immoral” at work here, and that something is called “negligence.” But there is a reason the law distinguishes between “negligence” and “gross negligence.” Relying on a too-small sample size is a very mild form of negligence–it would be ludicrous to expect every person to go through life implementing the scientific method before coming to any conclusions. Failure to do so does not rise to the level of a “moral crime.” People listening to the Benny Hinn fan are free to dismiss his endorsement because of that small sample size.

The comparison to slavery in particularly inapt, since holding a slave is not an act of negligence, but one of intent. Indeed, Jefferson recognized that his holding of slaves was wrong, which is why he “trembled for his country” due to the injustice of slavery.

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Penneyworth November 3, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Alonzo,

To call ignorance immoral is to utterly change the meaning of morality. If scientists discover tomorrow that all cancer can be cured by drinking apple juice in the correct quantities, would you then say that all these years of doctors recommending dangerous chemo therapy has been hideously immoral? Of course not. In my example, the Benny Hinn healee does not understand sample sizes, or statistics at all for that matter; she just wants to share the fact that Hinn healed her and he can surely heal others too.

You do not condemn ignorance. You educate people. Calling ignorance immoral is just calling us all immoral, and now the word has lost any useful meaning. (And don’t dare equivocate ignorance with willful ignorance.)

Furthermore, desirism adds not one iota of compulsion to eliminate ignorance. We already all agree that we want to know what is true (though some of us sometimes misinterpret evidence, sometimes due to bias).

I’ve been rather hoping to ask you a few things about desirism in general. Where would be a good place to discuss them with you?

Ayer: “People listening to the Benny Hinn fan are free to dismiss his endorsement because of that small sample size.”

Exactly. People who are credulous about ignorant advice are just as “immoral” in their ingorance as the ignoramus who gave the advice.

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Roman November 3, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Hi Penneyworth,

You said:
“To call ignorance immoral is to utterly change the meaning of morality”

You’re the first person to mention IGNORANCE. No one has said that ignorance is immoral. Especially if all you mean by ignorance is having false beliefs, or lacking true beliefs on important subjects.

In the case of doctors recommending chemotherapy, they may be ignorant but they are not being NEGLIGENT, because they have good evidence for their belief that chemotherapy is effective, even if it is a false belief.

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faithlessgod November 4, 2009 at 5:02 am

Roman

“In the case of doctors recommending chemotherapy, they may be ignorant but they are not being NEGLIGENT, because they have good evidence for their belief that chemotherapy is effective, even if it is a false belief.”
Where is your evidence that it is a false belief? You just said that the doctors have good evidence that chemotherapy is effective and if so it is not a false belief!You look like you are contradicting yourself.

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Roman November 4, 2009 at 5:06 am

Hi faithlessgod,

I was responding to this:

“If scientists discover tomorrow that all cancer can be cured by drinking apple juice in the correct quantities, would you then say that all these years of doctors recommending dangerous chemo therapy has been hideously immoral?”

I interpreted this as a hypothetical scenario in which we discover that chemotherapy is not effective treatment for cancer, instead drinking apple juice in the correct quantities is.

So in the hypothetical scenario their belief is false.

I don’t claim that it is actually false.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 4, 2009 at 8:45 am

Ayer:

My comparison was not to slavery. My comparison was to the intellectual negligence used to defend slavery – the ‘making things up’ about blacks in order to get to the conclusion that the proponent of slavery desires.

Moral culpability comes from making a claim that has the potential to cause harm to others without saying, “Maybe I should double-check my facts and my reasoning, giving those who would be harmed the benefit of the doubt, and making sure I get this right?” This is what I mean by ‘securing one’s beliefs” and failure to do this is morally negligent.

Pennyworth:

I did not call ignorance immoral. In fact, my posting explicitly provides examples in which a person can be ignorant of certain facts without being morally culpable – in the same way that I am ignorant on how to build a dam but am not morally culpable for that ignorance.

Furthermore, desirism does ot add compulsion in any case. It looks at relationships between states of affairs and desires that exist (or, in the moral realm, between maleable desires and other desires). It does not add to them.

The Apple Juice Example:

The discovery that drinking a particular quantity of applejuice cured cancer will not prove that all current claims are immoral because it does not prove that people arrived at those beliefs out of negligence.

However, after a couple of years in which everybody drinking applejuice in the recommended quantity was cured of cancer, people still insisted that it did not work and wrote books telling people to use chemotherapy instead, THOSE people would be guilty of intellectual negligence.

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Roman November 4, 2009 at 8:47 am

I agree with Alonzo Fyfe :)

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ayer November 4, 2009 at 9:06 am

Fyfe: “If we want to end this evil – if we want to protect ourselves and those we care about from the harms of intellectual recklessness – then we need to take a stand against the institutions that tolerate and even profit from the practice. We have to do to the institutions of intellectual recklessness what our forefathers eventually had to do to the institution of slavery. We have to recognize that we have many and good reasons to condemn those who engage in the practice – to call them evil and to call their participation in these practices ‘moral crimes’.”

Regarding the slavery example, my point was that you were wrong about Jefferson–he knew very well that slavery was wrong and still practiced it; his was a act of intent and not negligence, and thus the analogy breaks down.

Regarding your quote shown above, the problem is your exaggerated and hyperventilating conclusion that jejune forms of “negligence” must be condemned from the rooftops as “evil” and “reckless.” “Reckless” is a loaded term with a different meaning from “negligence” (which is why the civil law distinguishes between the two). For example, a public figure can prevail in a libel suit only if he can show that the reporter had a “reckless” disregard for the truth; mere “negligence” does not support an action. And here, your Somers example is one of jejune negligence, on the order of a student failing an exam because of a failure to study. Yes, in some sense the student has failed morally–but to suggest that he should be condemned as “evil” from the rooftops is bizarre.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 4, 2009 at 9:51 am

These types of errors are getting a lot of people maimed and killed, so it is, in fact, quite legitimate to condemn them quite harshly.

This is not akin to somebody failing an exam because the failing grade affects only the student who failed.

Suzanne Somers’ recklessness is actually worse than the example of the rancher with the unsecured load that I described in my example. Somers’ places far more lives at risk than could ever have been put at risk by the negligent rancher. That rancher might . . . perhaps . . . get a couple of people killed. Somers’ is risking far more lives than the rancher, so deserves far more condemnation than the rancher.

It is also relevant that on matters of speech, as opposed to matters of physical negligence, we do not have the option of punishment. The right to freedom of speech translates into a right to immunity from punishment. This means that there is reason to give extra weight to other methods of deterrance and reform – specifically, the type generated by harsh condemnation and other private words and actions.

If a student’s wrong answer on an exam generated the same types of consequences, then the student taking the exam should face the same condemnation I am writing about here.

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John Quincy Public November 4, 2009 at 10:19 am

Fyfe: “Somers’ places far more lives at risk than could ever have been put at risk by the negligent rancher.”

What we have here then is that either Fyfe bodgered his own analysis completely or Luke has bodgered his Desirism FAQ.

Fyfe’s analysis only holds if we suppose that people are not sufficiently capable of reason. If that is so then, per Luke’s FAQ, Fyfe falsifies Desirism outright; his own creation.

If the FAQ is wrong then Fyfe’s analysis expands into absurdity that any statement is immoral if it could be misunderstood by those too ignorant to digest it and thus lead them to unwitting harm. There is no advice or statement that can be made that will not fall prey to such things. Thus Desirism must necessarily find all communication immoral.

Which not only demolishes science through the immorality of communication. But calls science itself immoral. Disagree as you like, but I offer the simple scientific blunders of the “vestigial” nature of the appendix, tonsils, and spleen as first evidence.

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Penneyworth November 4, 2009 at 11:34 am

Alonzo,

In my Benny Hinn example, the “healed” person is ignorant of statistics and medical science (like most anybody hoping to be healed by Hinn). You plainly stated that it is immoral for this person to try to get others to seek medical treatment from Hinn. Since this poor soul only wishes to help people, but is only acting on misinformation, it must be that ignorance is immoral if her actions are said to be immoral. If you would like to move the immorality off of the person and onto the action alone, then we are forced into the absurdity of calling every accident and natural disaster immoral.

The thing that really puzzles me is when you say: “desirism does not add compulsion in any case.”
If there is no case in which desirism could compel us to perform (or abstain from) some action that we otherwise would not have, then what is the point of desirism? If a moral theory has no power to compel us to alter our decisions, what use is it?

I repeat: Is desirism necessary to disapprove of negligence? If so, why has it never been needed in the past? If not, then Occam’s razor eliminates desirism within our analysis of negligence, and we have no reason to see this condemnation of Somers as an application of desirism.

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lukeprog November 4, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Penneyworth,

Fyfe has repeatedly said that it is not ignorance but negligence we have reason to condemn.

“If there is no case in which desirism could compel us to perform (or abstain from) some action that we otherwise would not have, then what is the point of desirism?”

Desirism describes the fact that people act such as to fulfill the strongest of their current desires, given their beliefs. It also describes the fact that people generally have reason to change the desires of others such that they tend to fulfill other desires. That is the point of desirism.

Re: Occam’s razor. Let’s pretend it was a pre-theoretical fact that it was objectively morally right to condemn negligence. In fact, desirism DOES provide the best explanation of this “fact.” Other theories you may suggest to explain this “fact” will refer to things that do not exist, for example intrinsic values.

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ayer November 4, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Fyfe: “It is also relevant that on matters of speech, as opposed to matters of physical negligence, we do not have the option of punishment. The right to freedom of speech translates into a right to immunity from punishment. This means that there is reason to give extra weight to other methods of deterrance and reform – specifically, the type generated by harsh condemnation and other private words and actions.”

The reason it is not punishable by law (like the negligent rancher’s behavior) is because there is no proximate causal connection between her book and the harm you mentioned. Can you cite specific evidence showing a causal connection between her book and a certain number of deaths? (the link to the AP article no longer works) Anyone harmed would have to freely believe that Somers is an authority (just like they would have to believe the Benny Hinn fan). The victim of the rancher has no culpability because he is simply hit by the debris.

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Antiplastic November 4, 2009 at 8:56 pm

lukeprog: Desirism describes the fact that people act such as to fulfill the strongest of their current desires, given their beliefs.

Well, I thought “plain English” described that too.

It also describes the fact that people generally have reason to change the desires of others such that they tend to fulfill other desires.

I admit to not following every (or even most) comment thread here, but at what point was this demonstrated? IIRC I pointed out this non-sequitur months ago in the “more questions answered” thread, and got “Of course, this objection will be answered in a future addition to the FAQ.” Will this be forthcoming any time soon?

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Penneyworth November 5, 2009 at 10:48 am

Luke,

Thank you for finally throwing me a bone in trying to explain what you mean my “true” in the moral sense. Do you think that this world is in fact the pretend world you speak of? If so, is it possible to further define this objective truth? Does it entail ought statements that carry consequences? Does this moral truth emerge from a consensus, or from some physical constant, or from some magical realm?

It seems to me to be trivially easy to better account for this particular “moral truth” without desirism: negligence leads to undesirable consequences, so people tend to not like it, and may therefore go to certain pains to stops others from exhibiting it. This is in fact desirism you say?! Well then you are most certainly not a moral realist after all, and desirism is just an extremely hifalutin explanation of emotivism that allows you to not appear to be a nihilist when talking to theists who might blush.

You write: “Fyfe has repeatedly said that it is not ignorance but negligence we have reason to condemn.”

Sure, and I constantly repeat that I am not actually breathing as I sit here, breathing. See my previous post for more explanation.

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