Morally Blameless Ignorance

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 19, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, 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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Luke has written about why atheists lose debates.

Ultimately, he argues that the reason atheists lose debates is because they fail to understand the arguments that theists are using. As a result, their responses tend to miss the point. His advice to those who wish to debate theists is to consult with philosophers about the arguments being used and to learn and apply valid philosophical responses to those arguments.

I have no objection to this. However, it has some disturbing implications.

One implication is: What does this say about the person debating the theist who claims that as a part of his atheism he has the virtue of basing its beliefs and values on a respect for reason and science?

If the person in the debate does not already know and understand the philosophically valid responses to these theist arguments, then he has not grounded his belief on reason and science. In fact, the claim is that he is substantially ignorant of what reason and science has to say on the matter.

So, what Luke is demonstrating in talking about atheists who lose to theists in debate for the reasons he mentions, are atheists who have adopted their atheism without fully understanding the philosophical arguments for and against their position.

And that happens to be true of most atheists – atheists who claim that they have adopted their position on the basis of reason.

The other implication applies to the farmers, construction workers, dentists, legal secretaries, and bus drivers of the world who do not believe in God.

Is it legitimate for any of them to adopt the belief that there (almost certainly) is no God without fully understanding every piece of philosophical argument produced on the subject?

If not, then it is not legitimate for any person to have any belief whatsoever. Very few people have the time for this. Of them, none have the ability to do more than to compare religious beliefs to other beliefs, all of which have also been subject to the same type of scrutiny.

Please note that for this blog I am writing about the moral legitimacy of belief. I have written a number of posts concerning the subject of epistemic responsibility. When beliefs mean the difference between life and death, or health and sickness, or benefit or harm for others, morally responsible people will feel the need to give those beliefs a careful look.

However, it is not legitimate to require a person to have a PhD in the philosophy of religion to hold an opinion on the existence of a God. We have to allow the moral legitimacy of holding beliefs based on reliable but fallible methods that fall short of the rigid requirements of strict logical soundness.

One of these legitimate moral shortcuts is to pick up the views that dominate the society in which one lives. While it is a logical fallacy to infer P from the premise “85% of the population believes that P”, it is a functionally reliable shortcut that makes sense for people living real lives in the real world. If we were to take a survey of the things that 85% of the people believe, I would predict that the survey would show this system to be a reliable indicator of truth – and its reliability is in proportion to importance. The propositions that the majority are less reliable about are those that it is less important to be correct about.

It is reliable, but fallible. Sometimes the majority is wrong. This is why it is a poor – in fact, a morally contemptible response to the claim, “The majority is wrong on issue P” to respond with, “85% of the people believe P; therefore P.” The actual evidence for P – the evidence that would show that those 85% are correct – is the only legitimate response to a challenge to P. But this is not an obligation that it makes sense for us to force on everybody.

This ties in with a dispute I have had with some new atheists on whether teaching religion to a child constitutes child abuse. I hold that mis-educating children counts as doing them harm, and doing harm to one’s children is something any decent parent would seek to avoid. Yet, I hold that teaching religion to a child has more in common with taking thalidomide while pregnant in the 1950s (a morally blameless harm-doing) than with raping one’s stepdaughter (child abuse).

This is because it is not a morally culpable error – when it is an error – to hold a belief shared by 85% of the community in which one has grown up. In fact, if it were a morally culpable error, every one of us is to be morally condemned. None of us have the ability to check all of our beliefs against the light of reason so all of us hold a large number of beliefs that we simply absorbed from society as we grew up.

We have a responsibility to form beliefs that are reliably true. However, the standards for moral culpability are not the standards of perfectly sound logic. We do not have the time for that. Such a standard would paralyze us and prevent any action at all. Those standards allow for some reliable but fallible shortcuts to pure reason.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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P.S. from Luke: I agree that we need not hold a Ph.D. in philosophy to have an opinion on the existence of God. But I do think people who engage professional theists in debate about the existence of God should familiarize themselves with contemporary arguments if they want to succeed in debate.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Lorkas August 19, 2010 at 4:11 am

Just because an atheist isn’t familiar with all of the arguments doesn’t mean that his belief isn’t based on reason. Maybe the atheist is quite familiar for reasons A through E for disbelieving in gods, but they aren’t totally familiar with argument Q that apologists make.

After all, someone can reasonably accept the theory of evolution as true after hearing about biogeography, the state of the fossil record, and homologous structures, even if they never hear about how ERVs demonstrate evolution as well. It certainly doesn’t make them unreasonable that they might not know how to respond to a creationist’s claim about the impossibility of the bombardier beetle’s evolution.

The fact that they don’t know all of the reasons for their belief doesn’t imply that they’re basing their belief on something other than reason. Ignorance on one aspect of a subject doesn’t imply ignorance of the entire subject.

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MauricXe August 19, 2010 at 4:28 am

“But I do think people who engage professional theists in debate about the existence of God should familiarize themselves with contemporary arguments if they want to succeed in debate.”

I would add that at the very least the atheist should familiarize themselves with their opponents arguments and rebuttals.

WLC has been debating the same thing for 20 yrs. Can’t be that hard to get his arguments right.

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Burk August 19, 2010 at 6:28 am

This also assumes that theist arguments are more than sophistry and rhetorical fireworks- that they have serious content. But typically, they simply dress up the basic intuition of “I can’t imagine the world without a god in charge” in fancy garb. Evidence would go a whole lot further than so-called logic in this case.

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Dave August 19, 2010 at 6:30 am

His advice to those who wish to debate theists is to consult with philosophers about the arguments being used and to learn and apply valid philosophical responses to those arguments.

I think this is great advice. There are reasons that atheists lose debates against theists; after all, both atheisets and theists are placing competing rational arguments in front of an audience of rational beings. If the atheist regularly fails to establish the superiority of his/her argument then there must be a flaw in his/her reason. Learning the flaws in one’s reason can only lead to a firmer grasp on reality.

Personally, I find it helpful to study contrary views of reality; if for no other reason than they force me to examine my own assumptions. What is the logical outcome of a particular set of assumptions? Given a particular set of assumption is belief in ‘X’ warranted?

Sadly, most people forget that logic consists of two parts; the assumption and the argument. They construct a valid argument and never examine the assumptions from which the argument flows. It is the assumptions which shape the matter of the argument, not the validity of the argument itself. Wrong assumptions lead to absurd, or indefensible, conclusions.

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Hermes August 19, 2010 at 7:15 am

[ The following is not a correction or analysis of any virtues or flaws in Alonzo's excellent blog post. Many will find what I write to be familiar even if they disagree in part or in whole. Some parts are unusual, though I think I can offer adequate support for the more important ideas. ]

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I take a different approach that is not limited to topics on religion or theism but applies broadly to beliefs in general. While beliefs are not limited to one category or another, the number of theistic beliefs and variants is quite substantial, often dominating the discussion in place of beliefs in general. There is even some effort to use theistic/religious beliefs as a different animal from beliefs in general, and I acknowledge those strong influences, though they all — theistic/religious/… or not — can be treated on some level as a member of the group of all potentially held beliefs.

If any moderate amount of thought is given to a subject that deals with a stated belief, the person will have some stance on what their belief is, or if they have one at all. (Note: This is a statement of belief, not a knowledge claim.)

Anyone can — and will — have a few beliefs or many beliefs or even most beliefs that are neither informed by reason nor substantiated by evidence. That is why beliefs may be influenced by knowledge, but that knowledge is a different end of the spectrum from belief.

As the first link demonstrates, beliefs aren’t claims to knowledge but are personal statements about a specific person or group. Though there is a tendency to subjugate knowledge as a subset of beliefs with belief being superior in all ways to knowledge, this is interesting in what it says about the specific beliefs that are being promoted like that. [ Click here and search for my first message in the thread for some details on how imagination and agency apply to specific beliefs and tell us something about human nature. (Well, that was part of the intent even if the conversation itself was derailed!) ]

It may be that it is a good goal to strive for basing beliefs on some rules, such as evidence or reason or some other metric, but beliefs will not always track even those.

This tendency — to believe without justification — is not theoretical but is demonstrated in reality.

At no point can any one person tell any other person what the other person believes. Someone may guess correctly, the other person may be brainwashed into accepting an authority’s judgment, but they are incapable of dictating what others believe without the hooks of control already in place, ready for manipulation.

So, I hold beliefs like bigotry and bias as blameless in themselves. We can’t help but to be biased, even bigoted, and will hold unsupported or even contradictory beliefs. We can work on our beliefs by addressing what we know, but only if we want to put our beliefs up against what we know and can know about reality.

Being shocked or angered that someone asks or demonstrates to you that you have a bias or or are bigoted or even hold specific unfounded beliefs is not the way to improve yourself. The ugly or nonsensical parts can be dealt with honestly, and that doesn’t mean turning away from those parts in denial.

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Tony Hoffman August 19, 2010 at 8:13 am

I think this is another great post.

I think a good rule of thumb is to ask, “Would my understanding of said tangential philosophical / theological argument have any usefulness outside of the support it supposedly offers your main argument?”

I think that the atheist has the perfectly defensible starting position that God does not exist because the evidence indicates that he does not exist. In lieu of evidence, all theological arguments designed to persuade the atheist need to be shown to be meaningful in some way other than their supporting an argument that God exists.

If there is a lock tight argument that the world is propelled by invisible pink unicorns whose activities are designed to deceive us that they do not exist, and if no evidence is going to be offered for this, I need to know why the Argument for Invisible Unicorn Necessary Simplicity will be meaningfully useful to me before I will engage to understand it.

Should I understand the rules of logic before I dismiss the existence of God? Absolutely, because the rules of logic are practically useful for gaining knowledge, separate from the question of whether or not God exists. Is the Argument for Invisible Unicorn Necessary Simplicity useful in any way besides gaining knowledge of Invisible, Simply Necessary Unicorns? Because if it’s not, I have every right to not engage to understand it.

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Dave August 19, 2010 at 8:25 am

all theological arguments designed to persuade the atheist need to be shown to be meaningful in some way other than their supporting an argument that God exists…. Because if it’s not, I have every right to not engage to understand it.

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Tony Hoffman August 19, 2010 at 8:30 am

Dave,

Yup. I appreciate the improvement.

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cl August 19, 2010 at 8:37 am

Nice post Alonzo. Not a single point of contention from me here.

What does this say about the person debating the theist who claims that as a part of his atheism he has the virtue of basing its beliefs and values on a respect for reason and science?

Not much.

I hold that mis-educating children counts as doing them harm, and doing harm to one’s children is something any decent parent would seek to avoid.

So do I, and I would just ask everybody to remember that mis-education is a human error, not a religious one. Atheists, scientists and teachers inadvertently mis-educate children, too.

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Hendy August 19, 2010 at 10:08 am

Another way to look at this is that instead of suggesting that atheists need to comprehend dozens of subject areas in order to evaluate the arguments/evidence is that each really only needs one successful counter-argument to a particular theism.

I wish to have a much broader comprehension of the landscape and hope to make my decisions on the big picture, but in essence if you know just one argument that proves an indispensable claim of religion x to be false, you are justified in rejecting religion x.

I suppose a religion y could have everything that x had except that crucial claim and thus you haven’t defeated religion y, but you get the point.

@cl:

…I would just ask everybody to remember that mis-education is a human error, not a religious one. Atheists, scientists and teachers inadvertently mis-educate children, too.

Completely agree. I see it equally unattractive to raise a dogmatic theist as I would a dogmatic atheist. What appeals to me primarily is raising children with what is most certain not to be mis-education: logic, philosophy, the scientific method, history, critical thinking, and reading comprehension. Sure, schools are supposed to cover this stuff, but I’m fairly sure that kids pick up more than they/we may ever know from a sort of “lived teaching” via parents.

I can’t believe some of the stuff I have picked up from my dad, especially, that in the past I loathed or thought idiotic. Now I’m grateful!

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Tony Hoffman August 19, 2010 at 10:19 am

Hendy: “I can’t believe some of the stuff I have picked up from my dad, especially, that in the past I loathed or thought idiotic.”

I have always loved this quote:

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” ~Mark Twain

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Hermes August 19, 2010 at 10:39 am

Hendy: Another way to look at this is that instead of suggesting that atheists need to comprehend dozens of subject areas in order to evaluate the arguments/evidence is that each really only needs one successful counter-argument to a particular theism.

I take the opposite track.

I only want from the theist their single best argument (or more moderately, their single best proposal or recommendation), but only if it is one of the core reasons why they themselves think that the theism they have is more likely than not.

If the theist did not become convinced of their theism through what they present to me, the comment is useless. After all, they didn’t need it, they needed something else.

Now, they might think what worked for them will not work for me, but isn’t that my decision? Why resort to an unconvincing argument because they think that they can understand my most inner thoughts and considerations?

Additionally, if I hear enough winning arguments that I find unconvincing in isolation, don’t they think that I could piece together some string enough of them together to figure out what they personally are most convinced about.

This narrows the discussion way down to the actual nuts and bolts, and gives the theist the best opportunity to honestly propose to me (and other non-theists or ones in other sects or religions).

Take Christianity for example.

This is one of the reasons that I reject the KCA as well as Pascal’s Wager when they are introduced by Christians. They aren’t why Christians talking to me are Christians, so what good are they if you want to promote Christianity to me?

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Hermes August 19, 2010 at 10:42 am

Tony, Twain and Ambrose Bierce are great for getting recharged and knocking out the cobwebs. Don’t forget Twain’s 3 part autobiography being released this year and next.

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Dave August 19, 2010 at 11:03 am

Hi Tony

Yup. I appreciate the improvement.

Good to see you keep an open mind.

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Hendy August 19, 2010 at 11:19 am

@Tony: excellent Twain quote. I love that one, too!

@Hermes:

Good point. It meshes very well with the golden rule post from yesterday, actually. This brings us back around to the nature of “belief.” Does the theist (or atheist for that matter) believe because of arguments x, y, or z? Or is there a hidden reason (perhaps even from themselves) that led them there and x, y, and z are only post hoc reasons?

I still am so, so, so curious about what’s really at the core of the countless transactions that happen around here: “Check out this argument.” “Eh. Nothing special.”

How can two persons of reasonable intellectual ability find the same things so divergently convincing?? There can’t be that many options:

1) Both sides are irrational and arguments/evidence are a front
2) One side’s arguments/evidence are kick-ass while the other side is to-the-core delusional
3) Neither side’s arguments/evidence are convincing and they are both right and some other alternative is actually true and would be convincing if they could see the arguments/evidence for that

Which is it? Or did I miss one or more?

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Hermes August 19, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Hendy: Which is it? Or did I miss one or more?

All 3 at times plus this one at a minimum;

4) Both sides are incredulous about the proposition offered by the other, and neither consider just telling them why they believe and think as they do.

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Hermes August 19, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Related (from the Applying the Golden Rule post);

Evid3nc3 has this partially covered in his deconversion story [full playlist] . Specifically, 2.5 Deconversion: Personal Relationship (part 1 & 2); his personal relationship with God drove his actions and were tangible; real.

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cl August 20, 2010 at 11:41 am

Hendy,

…in essence if you know just one argument that proves an indispensable claim of religion x to be false, you are justified in rejecting religion x

I disagree in general, though, I typically take things case-by-case. In most cases, falsifying a claim of religion X would only justify rejecting the claim in question, along with any other claims which may be founded thereupon. It seems to me that your statement comes closest to holding only when religion X claims to be the “all-inspired, 100% truth.” Even then, falsifying said claim only proves that religion X < 100% truth, which may or may not be grounds for rejecting religion X outright, depending on who you ask.

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Hendy August 20, 2010 at 1:13 pm

@cl:

For the most part, I agree, which is why I wrote this sentence right after the quote you pulled:

I suppose a religion y could have everything that x had except that crucial claim and thus you haven’t defeated religion y, but you get the point.

I agree — one might find some claim about hell or biblical literalism false and could subscribe to obliteration or a more interpreted view and still adhere. I guess it depends how we define “religion x.” How many of the claims it purports to be indispensable can go by the wayside before we have some new hybrid or different entity altogether?

Perhaps this is why there are 10k or whatever minute variances on Christianity!

It probably also matters what the claim is… Obviously Jesus physically resurrected >> Noah and the ark!

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Hermes August 20, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Hendy: Perhaps this is why there are 10k or whatever minute variances on Christianity!

Perhaps you are understating things. Perhaps.

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James Gray August 22, 2010 at 1:25 pm

If the person in the debate does not already know and understand the philosophically valid responses to these theist arguments, then he has not grounded his belief on reason and science.

We can have highly justified beliefs even when we don’t know “what to say” and even if we are unable to defend our position with the an argument. This is especially true given the 1 minute you have to think in a debate.

I can’t give a good argument that “1+1=2″ is true, but I just find it obvious. At the same time I think I “know” it is true. It might be justified from something like self evidence. In that case it’s not surprising that I can’t explain why I know it’s true.

I think atheists tend to know of a few arguments for God’s existence and they are unimpressed. They think that “there is no reason to believe in God” and that seems to lead to a fairly reasonable belief. The Christian can then present several new arguments for God and they can all be unimpressive. It might be difficult to explain why they are so unimpressive (especially given a short time frame), but it can still be rational to be unimpressed by them and to rationally be an atheist.

In fact, the claim is that he is substantially ignor/ant of what reason and science has to say on the matter.

I agree with this. We might not fully know what reason or science “says” about something in detail. But I disagree with the implication — that we can’t have a justified belief as to the likely conclusions that will be drawn from reason and science. We can have justified beliefs about various beliefs (conclusions) even when we can’t explain how the justification functions.

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