Tag Archives: Ethics

A Spoonful of Superstition

Anyone who follows my blog or has read my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief, well knows that I argue passionately against most forms of belief-based thinking. But I do have to admit that sometimes a teeny tiny bit of false belief is helpful.

I rarely ever steal anything. If I realize that I was given too much change at the market, I’ll invariably drive back to return it. I don’t do the right thing because I’m such a noble upstanding person. I do it because of superstition.

You see somewhere I picked up this deeply ingrained notion that if I keep that money, the universe will somehow take revenge on me. I’ll stub my toe, or get a traffic citation, or spill coffee on my term paper. In some way I’ll pay tenfold for my dishonesty.

Of course that’s silly. I know that’s silly. Something bad will happen eventually, and when it does I will falsely ascribe the cause to be my earlier bad behavior. But nevertheless, the feeling of wanting to avoid this bad karma is so powerful that it still compels me to do the right thing.

Perhaps this belief in karma is just something learned from popular culture, but I rather suspect that our species carries the hardwired seed of this idea which gets reinforced by false associations acquired during ones lifetime. It makes evolutionary sense to me that such an assumption is a helpful genetic trait. Within social structures, what goes around does in fact often come back around.

Our innate fear of karmic payback is almost certainly a component of what we perceive as our nagging conscience.

karma

Here’s the danger in this. It leads many people down the rabbit hole into religion-land. If we believe in a little auto-karma, why not an almighty god who personally ensures payback? If a little karmic fear is good, then the fear of eternal damnation is even better. If our sense of personal karma is hardwired, then so is our belief in god!

But one essential principle you learn in toxicology class is that everything that is beneficial at low doses becomes toxic at higher doses. A little superstition may have some positive benefits. But a full-blown belief in god requires a level of superstition and a perversion of logical thinking that is so extreme as to be dangerously toxic. This level of belief is so debilitating to our logical faculties that it can compromise our ability to think rationally about critical issues like climate change.

So feel free to embrace a healthy sense of karma like you do a magic show, with a full and complete understanding that it’s not real. But don’t let that indulgence lead you down the treacherously slippery slope into religion.

Ethical Fallacies

A fallacy is a mistaken belief, particularly those based on invalid arguments. There are many general forms that fallacious arguments take, and they are almost always an indicator of faulty reasoning, incorrect conclusions, and even outright manipulation. Familiar examples of these include the Straw Man, Appeal to Authority, Ad Hominem, Circular Reasoning, and False Choice. If you learn to recognize the general patterns of fallacious logic, you can see through disingenuous or manipulative arguments far more quickly and clearly. I discuss these and many other logical fallacies in my book “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here).

But in addition to logical fallacies, I’d like to suggest that there is also such a thing as ethical fallacies that we encounter just as often. In fact, in this 2016 election cycle we have been ceaselessly deluged by ethical fallacies. Note that it is with deliberate intent that I speak of ethical fallacies and not moral fallacies. Morality is itself a form of ethical fallacy. For a discussion of the difference, see here.

The reason I make that distinction is because moral thinking is typically based on ethical fallacies including “Appeal to the Bible.” Note that a related and no less dogmatic form of ethical fallacy is “Appeal to the Constitution.” In fact, many of the same people who would like to bind us to their interpretation of the Bible would also like to turn the Constitution into another Bible, binding even secular individuals to their particular religiously-based interpretation of yet another literal and unassailable scripture.

Two related ethical fallacies are “Appeal to the Majority” and “Appeal to Individual Rights.” Sometimes these are valid arguments, but often they are not. When some argue that “a majority of Americans support the death penalty,” that does not constitute a valid ethical argument. Likewise when some argue that we should not restrict any gun sales because it is an individual right, clearly this is insufficient ethical justification. Politicians and advocates often similarly appeal to Federal versus State Rights inconsistently and arbitrarily when it serves their narrow interests.

Another set of ethical arguments that are often invoked are fallacies of “Time and Space.” Just because something may have been accepted or considered ethical in Biblical times or even in Revolutionary War days, does not mean it is ethical today. And just because something may be ethical in one place, does not ensure that it is ethical in another. Note that religious people have great trouble with this concept. It is too complicated and messy for them. It requires too much thought. They disparagingly call this kind of ethical thinking “situational” and therefore immoral. They prefer immutable dogma.

Note that just because something is lawful does not make it ethical either. “Invoking the Law” is therefore another possible fallacy. Of course we do our best to create ethical laws, but just because something is law does not make it ethical in all situations. Laws should be fluid enough to ensure fairness in individual situations. This concept is antithetical to some religious thinkers who have trouble with anything beyond simple dogmatic thinking. Ironically, they are most likely to insist the law be adhered to by others, but allow themselves to override the law when they can rationalize that it is in contradiction to their faith.

There are other fallacies related to belief. Many of the same people are most likely to invoke the “Fallacy of Sincerity.” Just because a belief is “sincere or heartfelt” does not make it any more or less ethical. Similarly, there is sometimes an “Appeal to Intent or Ignorance.” These may be extenuating factors, but neither of them make an action any more or less ethical.

In my last article I talked about two other ethical fallacies (see here). The first is the “Ethical Proximity” fallacy. This is the fallacy used grab all benefits for those in closest proximity to us while shifting all blame away to those farthest from ourselves or our group. The second is the “Personal Responsibility” fallacy. This version of ethical proximity is used to argue that those farthest away or least powerful must take personal responsibility for their actions while those closest to us or in the most powerful positions in our society are merely victims of “the system.”

And then there is the “Character versus Issues” fallacy. When we are talking about the flaws in an opposing politician, pundits focus on their basic character failings. But when forced to respond to character flaws in their own candidate, advocates insist that we should instead focus exclusively on “the issues.”

Another ethical fallacy that is constantly used, particularly during elections or during the aftermath of a ginned up march to war, is the “Water Under the Bridge” fallacy. This is frequently invoked by those guilty of past failures or even crimes, to insist that all of that is simply water under the bridge, that we must instead look forward. However, when an opponent has similar past failures, they insist that we must never, ever forget.

shieldoffaithProbably the most hypocritical ethical fallacy that incenses my sensibilities is the “Forgiveness Fallacy.” This is typically invoked by Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians, to serve as both a shield and a sword. Whenever one of their own is guilty of wrongdoing, they insist that we must forgive and that only God can judge. However, when the guilty party is not one of them, they insist that only God can forgive and that we must never forget nor forgive. Seems to me that it is those who most need forgiveness are the ones to advocate for it most strongly, but only when it benefits them.

There is a theme here. We tend to selectively use one set of ethical arguments to rationalize away problems with those in closest proximity to us, and a different and entirely contradictory set of ethical arguments to attack those we disagree with, often for completely unrelated reasons. This is called spin by some, advocacy or good debate tactics by others, and bald-faced hypocrisy by most objective observers. Yet we see and hear these and other fallacious ethical argument all the time.

But this is the thing. Just because almost every line of rhetorical attack or defense in our public discourse is some manifestation of these basic tactics, doesn’t mean we should just tune out. That is simply not an option. However, just as with logical fallacies, by learning to quickly recognize the general forms of ethical fallacies, we can quickly “tune past” all the nonsense intended to obscure and deflect and see through to the heart of contentious issues that are critically important to all of us.

Can you think of any other ethical fallacies? If so, add to this list through your comments!

 

The Personal Responsibility Con

In a previous article I discussed the impact of proximity on ethical responsibility (see here). In it, I pointed out that while proximity should impact ethical decisions, we must be careful that we do not assign too much priority for benefits to groups or individuals nearest to us and push blame and responsibility for problems off to those farthest away from us. In it I said:

The bottom line is this. Be aware of the role of proximity assessments in your ethical decisions and judgments. Try to avoid giving unduly large or exclusive priority to your own narrow group. Likewise try to avoid assigning blame and responsibility disproportionately to groups farthest away from you.

We see this pulling in benefits and pushing off blame around us every day, and no where is it as stark as in Presidential politics. We have some candidates who perpetuate a self-serving inversion of proximity ethics by claiming that people “like us” deserve all benefits while those “not like us” deserve all blame. These politicians present a very self-serving set of ethical arguments.

Other politicians emphasize that “it takes a village” and present a far less self-serving vision of a society with a broad and wide view of balanced benefits and responsibility. For a society, and I would argue for individuals as well, this is far more healthy and sustainable.

But there is another spectrum by which ethics are selectively applied. We all experience a continual friction between personal and systemic blame. Is it nature or nurture? Is the individual solely responsible for his or her actions, is society to blame, or is it a combination? And even if we acknowledge that responsibility is a combination of the two, how much emphasis do we necessarily attribute to personal responsibility for purposes of punishment? Do we focus on changing the system that drove the individual to crime, on punishing the individual, or both? How do we balance these?

It is my observation that we tend to unduly blame the individual when they are “not like us“, poor, and underprivileged. However, when the individuals are rich and powerful, we tend to blame the system. When talking about poor Black teens, we tend to emphasize that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, tow the line, and take responsibility. However when we are talking about corrupt Wall Street billionaires who selfishly destroy countless lives and fortunes, we tend to shift blame to the system.

This kind of selective assignment of personal responsibility serves those with all the power. Corporate executives are never irresponsible, it is always the system that is to blame and must be changed. Donald Trump deserves no blame for tax avoidance, the tax system is to blame. However, when poor immigrants do their best to give their families some kind of basic standard of living, they are criminals who are fully responsible for their actions and must be punished for violating the system.

This extremely unbalanced assignment of personal and systemic blame  serves and is perpetuated by those with all the power.  When wealthy, powerful people commit terrible large scale crimes, they indict “the system.” But when poor, powerless individuals step over the line of systems designed to favor the wealthy, they must be held personally responsible for their actions. In our society, insulation from blame and punishment is a perk of power. Selfishness is a virtue reserved only for the most wealthy.

My ethics say that is backwards. I believe that with great power comes great responsibility.

Proximity Ethics

Proximity EthicsIn our everyday lives we make ethical judgments resulting in ethical decisions all the time. So often in fact that we mostly don’t even realize that we are doing so. Often we don’t even think of these as ethical decisions but merely as practical routine judgments. These range from small personal decisions to collective national policy decisions.

In making these judgments we weigh and balance, largely subconsciously, a large number of different criteria across a number of different dimensions. One key criterion is the proximity of the individuals or organizational entities involved relative to ourselves and our own identity groups. In general, the closer the impacted group is to our own, the greater weight, priority, and consideration we give the issue.

This is perfectly understandable, natural, and sensible. For example, we give our spouse higher priority than our family which we give higher priority than our friends to whom we give higher priority than other people. Similarly, we give higher priority to our own neighborhood, followed by city, state, and country. We are more concerned over issues impacting our own gender or race or religion than others.

There is a great deal of sensible practicality in this kind of analysis. It’s fair that we organize into groups. It doesn’t say we should ONLY give consideration to groups closest to our own, but it’s fair that we give groups in close proximity to us greater consideration.

But there are a number of ways that this proximity calculation can fail us. The first is if our concern falls off too rapidly. While we should first look out for those close to us, too much emphasis on our own groups can lead us to be needlessly callous and insensitive to the needs of groups farther away. We demand the best school for our own kids, but completely ignore the needs of other kids in our own neighborhood. Orthodox Jews, as one example, might focus exclusively enriching their own enclave communities, regardless of the cost to society as a whole. We often maintain an extremely close proximity calculus even when helping those farther away from our own sphere would, in the long run, help ourselves as well.

The second problem that arises from our proximity calculation comes into play not when we are thinking about allocating benefits, but when we are assigning and assuming responsibility. In this case we often assign far too much weight to far groups and assume far too little for our own. How often do we hear “those Chinese should take action to stop climate change” or “I’m not responsible for US militarism.”

Of course we have to keep it in perspective. Of course the Chinese should do their part to alleviate climate change and we as individual citizens cannot bear the entire brunt of US aggression abroad. But we can and should affect change in our closest proximity groups first. Those are the groups we can and should make right first before we point fingers and deflect all blame and responsibility. We should step up and take every action we can on climate change first. We should appreciate that each of us are citizens with the right to vote and speak out. We all collectively share <some> blame and responsibility for American militarism and torture.

The bottom line is this. Be aware of the role of proximity assessments in your ethical decisions and judgments. Try to avoid giving unduly large or exclusive priority to your own narrow group. Likewise try to avoid assigning blame and responsibility disproportionately to groups farthest away from you.

How do you achieve a fair, just, and healthy balance of self-interest and social consciousness? Here’s a couple good rules of thumb:

  1. If you typically care about how others can share benefits that your group desires or enjoys, you’ve probably got it pretty right.
  2. If you first ask what your group can do to improve the world for everyone before you point fingers at other groups, you’ve probably got it pretty right.

 

Synonyms and Morality

moralwebThe purpose of a thesaurus is to help us to find synonyms; that is, words that have exactly or nearly the same meaning as another. But in truth, there are very few exact synonyms. The vast majority of synonyms, while generally related, each have very distinct and important nuances of meaning. A thesaurus alone doesn’t help us to appreciate those critical distinctions. In fact, it tends to minimize and obscure those differences by creating the impression that all of the synonyms are interchangeable.

The proper use of a thesaurus is to help us think of the right word, the better word, the exactly perfect word to precisely convey a particular meaning. The harmful and more common use of a thesaurus is to simply pick a different synonym so that we don’t repeat the same word twice in a paragraph. The good use of a thesaurus expands the richness of the language. The bad use of a thesaurus compresses the language, destroying its richness and subtlety of meaning.

So a thesaurus should be used with tremendous caution. For example, when a young author looks up the word “supple” in a thesaurus, they may conclude that they can freely substitute it with agile or limber or lithe or flexible or spry. But each of these words has its own uniquely distinct and important meaning. To ignore these differences and misuse a synonym is frankly a terrible waste and diminishes the language tangibly.

One book that I’ve held on to for decades is “Choose the Right Word” by S.I. Hayakawa (found here). This is an essential reference for anyone who cares about language and writing. In this book the authors compare and contrast groups of synonyms to help you understand how they are different and therefore how and when to best use them. It is one reference book that you really can just pick up and read cover to cover for fun.

In fact, “Choose the Right Word” is not only mandatory for writers, but for readers as well. If the richness of meaning is lost on the reader, it is like listening to music through crappy speakers. The reader misses out on much of the brilliant nuance that makes the writing worth reading.

This morning I was thinking of a possible blog article on morals and ethics. So as soon as I got out of the shower I naturally consulted “Choose the Right Word.” According to Hayakawa, the words moral and ethical were once nearly synonymous but have recently diverged in meaning.  Moral is now generally used in a religious context while ethical is usually used in a more secular context. We talk about the morals of a priest or saint but the ethics of a lawyer or legislator. Moreover, morals has come to mean “personal conduct as set by an external code or standard” while ethics refers to “just and fair dealings with other people, not by the application of an external standard but by a pragmatic consideration of all aspects of a situation in light of experience.

Or to put it more succinctly, “moral can often be taken to mean private, codified, rigid and a priori; ethical to mean public, improvisatory, flexible, and a posteriori.” As the authors point out we can “agree despite differing moral values on ethical ways to work together.

The discussion then contrasts some related words. Upright suggests moral conviction while decent suggests an ethical concern for others. Virtuous suggests a personal life free from moral blemish while honorable suggests someone who deals with others in a decent and ethical manner.

These distinctions, like all such distinctions, are critical to gaining a nuanced understanding of the world. Even though these words are often thought of as synonymous, there are good reasons why conservatives and religious people are quite comfortable talking about morals but are wary of ethics. And there are likewise good reasons why liberals and nones are frightened by the word moral but are very happy to talk about ethics. Whether we are talking about morals and ethics or anything else, we must first understand the powerful nuances inherent in the language we employ. That is the only way to ensure that we are speaking to, and not talking past, each other to gain real understanding.

Ideas cannot be simplified into a few generic synonyms compressed down into a convenient thesaurus and a rich language is all we have to express them.