Irrational apathy: do we descend into irrationality when it comes to ethics?

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In science, apathy might well be the key to irrationality.

 

No matter the brilliance of the idea, if we do not explain it then it’s worthless. No matter the manner of the explanation, if it can’t be demonstrated then it is pointless. And no matter the desirability of the idea, if it can’t be replicated, or conditions possible for its disproval, then it‘s nonsense.


It’s reasonable therefore to suggest that an apathetic method is at polar opposites with decent, rational thought, as it asks us to stop short of good practice. So wouldn’t it also be irrational to allow apathy to cloud our judgements in morality? This conclusion relies on two assumptions which first need to be supported.

 

Firstly, we need to be able to assume that ethics is in some way rational or objective. Without delving too far into meta-ethics, or the subject of mine or anyone else’s theories of moral science, we can assume a system of ethics which is agreeable and philosophically sound. This would consist of explaining our rough current system, which we already use, in a way which is satisfying to a rational explanation. We can do this fairly easy by saying: ‘We have a set of basic moral values, which develop and evolve in context with one another, but which are extended rationally over time’. In other words, there are values we hold greater than others, but there are some with which we would always follow and others which are open to change through rational extension of the more basic and important moral values. For the purposes of this article we need go no further than this, as I’m not trying to prove or disprove any particular piece of practical ethics, I’m simply setting out a roughly agreeable description of how we rationalise moral decisions.

 

The second assumption is that apathy in ethics is the same as apathy in scientific method. To justify this assumption, I must make clear that we aren’t talking about apathy in morality as a whole – apathy could be defined as simply ‘not acting’ in some circumstances, and thus might often be a good moral idea (again, this is not something to delve into here). Rather I am referencing apathy in the method in the same way as I am referencing apathy in wider scientific method. This could have very direct comparisons, such as not examining the consequences of a theory or a decision thoroughly (thus being similar to doing likewise in physical science). It also, however, has a less obvious comparison, which is best explained with reference to that science which gives us non-socially acceptable answers.

 

Probably the most popular example of a socially frowned-upon scientific discovery is Darwin, so I will unashamedly jump on the bandwagon for ease of getting my point across. Darwin demonstrated clear trepidation upon his discoveries about natural selection. The wrong thing to do, from a scientific basis, would have been to ignore his results or hide them from wider scientific observation. Doing so stunts out understanding and ability to progress: it defeats the object of science to hide away those things that challenge the status quo of how and what we think.

 

We have the same issue in morality. People tend to be easily led in moral values in the same way that they are easily led by religious values: not always, but in general people share the major moral values of the people who raised them or were raised alongside them. Whilst increasing secularisation has led to a less terrifying environment in which to do science, we have yet to do away with the same ‘traditional norms’ within morality. The respect we accord to scientists theorising about quantum mechanics, for example, is not quite accorded in the same way to those who theorise about the increasing moral need for alternatives to fossil fuels, or the strong ethical case for not consuming animal products.

 

Thus as the affection for apathy has decreased within science, for the great benefit of us all, it has yet to do the same in ethics.

 

This brings us back to the point in the title: is this apathy in morality not exactly as irrational as when it comes to pass within science? The case is certainly compelling.

 

When we look at the two examples I stated earlier, it is perhaps easier to analyse. The growing need for alternatives to fossil fuels is certainly a moral issue; physical science does not hold the value that we need electricity or rocket ships. Science is there to help us progress understanding by using these things, but is neutral on whether we want to focus efforts with these kinds of areas. It’s morality (or moral science) that tells us we need these things in order to progress or live better lives. The comparison is whether our unwillingness to accept the need for renewable energy is a similar comfortable apathy to the unwillingness to accept evolutionary theory.

 

Given the seemingly strong scientific backing for alternatives to fossil fuels, it is perhaps the other examples – animal products – that most tests our resonance with apathy. To support ethical veganism in the modern world is to draw ridicule very much on a par with the drawings of Darwin as a monkey. Most ironic, perhaps, is the excuse that many people give: ‘what difference would it make if only I stopped eating these things?’ That’s an excuse on behalf of apathy, and were it the opinion of people in earlier generations, we might still be living in mud huts or drowning accused witches.

 

As I’d earlier stated, this piece isn’t intended to be an advocacy of renewable energy or ethical veganism. It is, however, written by someone who is compelled to agree that apathy in ethics is as irrational as the apathy that greeted some of the greatest scientific accomplishments in history. So long as we agree that moral progress and scientific progress are inextricably intertwined, then that’s a difficult point to disagree with. It might be a simple and relatively agreeable point, but our agreement with it logically removes the vast majority of our excuses when it comes to the environment or eating animal products (whether it be mundane comments regarding taste or convenience, or even the appeal to those living in Antarctica or surviving plane crashes).

 

Robert Johnson is a practical ethicist and philosopher of science. He specialises in the intersection of rationality and ethics, and is the author of 'Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong'. http://www.robertjohnson.org.uk/. Be sure to follow Robert on Facebook here.

Written By: Robert Johnson

3 COMMENTS

  1. Moral: Principles of right and wrong behaviour
    Apathy: Lack of interest or concern

    Hi Robert,

    By definition a moral rule is shorthand for: daily guide. Guidelines are useless if they constantly change. This is, granted, counter-intuitive – if a rule is bad why wouldn’t you want to change it.

    It’s reasonable therefore to suggest that an apathetic method is at polar opposites with decent rational thought as it asks us to stop short of good practice.

    True – but necessary. In order for someone to change their moral outlook requires more than a simple presentation of the evidence. Morals as principles are generally thought out – this does not, of course, exclude morals being thought out on false premises and those with a stake in the status quo will speak up (tut!). Morals as social constructs are agreed – and therefore form a part of the social contract (albeit informally in many cases) – requiring substantial political support to be adopted into the collective consciousness, let alone embraced as the new rule. Morals as customs are habits – and if habits are not difficult to break the tobacco companies would all have gone bust half a century ago. Note that all these moral types require adoption as an overtly political act – and this means that the supporters of the status quo are conservative. For example; many a socialist politician will defend the status quo regarding the right of labour to organise under any conditions as a principle.

    So wouldn’t it also be irrational to allow apathy to cloud our judgements in morality?

    No, as above. In order to support a new morality one has to break ranks. Not wanting to become a social pariah is perfectly rational. Leaders, again as above, have a double dose of conservatism to overcome in order to break ranks – they must do so on a personal level and they must carry their political supporters with them. You may say that this shows up a lack of political leadership among our current politicians – and I wouldn’t argue. In the defence of politicians in general, they are often not allowed by partisan media to lead. You may say that it is the role of those same politiciuans to ensure that they set the agenda. Again, no argument here – I’m just the messenger.

    This conclusion relies on two assumptions which first need to be supported.

    Firstly, we need to be able to assume that ethics is in some way rational or objective … We can do this fairly easily by saying: ‘We have a set of basic moral values, which develop and evolve in context with one another, but which are extended rationally over time’.

    Yes, those who clearly see a need, or rationally approach evidence with an open mind, are the true leaders of the evolution of morals. This is most clearly seen in the rise and rise of single-issue politics.

    In other words, there are values we hold greater than others …

    I’m not convinced that is true. In the everyday sense we stand behind morals we call principles – in effect saying we believe them to be unchangeable. But given the right incentives we pull those same principles out of the bottom draw and dust them off. Do those who do claim extraordinary circumstances. Of course they do. Do they demonstrate a lack of political and moral courage?

    … [while] there are some [morals] … which are open to change through rational extension of the more basic and important moral values.

    Again, I’m not convinced. There are certainly morals that we change through irrational extension – practical examples are as common as muck, which is hardly a surprise given the amount of dogma and playing on the collective emotional psyche that goes on on politics.

    The second assumption is that apathy in ethics is the same as apathy in scientific method … I must make clear that … apathy could be defined as simply ‘not acting’ in some circumstances, and thus might often be a good moral idea … This could have very direct comparisons, such as not examining the consequences of a theory or a decision thoroughly … It also … has a … comparison, which is best explained with reference to science which gives us not-socially-acceptable answers.

    Or not sticking your head above the parapet as it’s sometimes called.

    Probably the most popular example of a socially frowned-upon scientific discovery is Darwin … We have the same issue in morality. People tend to be easily led in moral values in the same way that they are easily led by religious values: not always, but in general people share the major moral values of the people who raised them or were raised alongside them.

    As above, I believe the evidence of being easily led goes far beyond immediate family.

    We have yet to do away with … ‘traditional norms’ within morality.

    Yes, I have labelled this conservative bias.

    The respect we accord to scientists theorising about quantum mechanics, for example, is not quite accorded in the same way to those who theorise about the increasing moral need for alternatives to fossil fuels, or the strong ethical case for not consuming animal products.

    I don’t believe the evidence supports widespread respect for the Quantum Mechanics. Deepak Chopra is merely the tip of a very large iceberg of ignorance, misinformation and arrogance. Quantum theory is actually a very good example precisely because it is an area of knowledge which, for most of us, is almost akin to mysticism. If you can say the same about new moral principles that says more about the public understanding of those principles than it does about apathy.

    Thus as the affection for apathy has decreased within science, for the great benefit of us all, it has yet to do the same in ethics.

    It seems to me that you confuse affection for affectation in science – perhaps that is also true of the public study of the necessary evolution of our morals (assuming we accept that morals should change in the light of new evidence, which is not a universal as I’m sure you’re aware)?

    This brings us back to the point in the title: is this apathy in morality not exactly as irrational as when it comes to pass within science?

    1. I don’t believe it’s apathy that you are describing. Rather, it’s an innate conservatism that we all have – and which we call dislike or fear of change. This conservatism is bolstered by the artificial political structures that we have in place – including our mass media. I mean *artificial * in the same sense that walking is our natural form of getting from A to B – and the artificial means run from permanent pavements to space-skirting planes. Just because it’s artificial doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad – but there is no free lunch, we need to be aware of the shortcomings.

    2. The inertia we see on moral development is not the same as the inertia we see in science. Both must battle against the existing (assumed to include the meaning: working) model. But moral progress must also grind through the political mill. As it happens your example of Darwin illustrates this perfectly. Where ignorance of Darwin, and dogmatic resistance (i.e. conservatism), are higher any new idea will find political resistance. This is clearly demonstrated by a US political arena which is far more conservative and dogmatic than most other parts of the World – and here is Darwin’s idea actively, and politically, resisted. Moral change, such as the acceptance of more than two gender, can swim against this tide – but it requires political activism and leadership and, as we have seen, that means working in parallel with the political mainstream.

    The growing need for alternatives to fossil fuels is certainly a moral issue; physical science does not hold the value that we need electricity or rocket ships.

    I don’t understand this sentence. I understand the part before the semi-colon – but then it loses me.

    Science is there to help us progress understanding … but is neutral on whether we want to focus efforts with these kinds of areas.

    It seems to me that this is an entirely different subject to apathy, or conservatism, in social and moral development?

    Nothing loath; If science shows a clear result from one set of actions and a far more agreeable result from a second course of action it is unavoidably advising that one is more moral than the other – no?

    The comparison is whether our unwillingness to accept the need for renewable energy is a similar comfortable apathy to the unwillingness to accept evolutionary theory.

    Returning to my argument that your misunderstanding a political issue: You’re battling against a way of life that billions follow and enjoy when you say that fossil fuel use needs to be curbed. It’s like the paperless office – trumpeted as ‘just around the corner’ since the late ’70s – people simply do not realise how integrated the internal combustion engine and electricity are in our social structures. That includes, of course, our morals. Calculate the fossil fuel expenditure for a hospital (include all the products consumed, staff commuting, patient travel, and so on). Then use the results as your primary model for arguing against fossil fuel use – and let’s see how far you get before you hit a moral objection.

    Overall my response to the dilemma you outline is that social progress is indeed being dragged down by a populace that is too often ignorant (including myself), too easily led and universally below the necessary par (again, me included) to understand the challenges that we face together.

    Recently the media have been talking a lot about the trillions spent every year on education. Quite apart from the fact that most of the people in media are, in my experience, among the most poorly educated (and therefore not qualified to comment) there are clearly two things that need to change. One is that we need more science of education – because a great deal of that money appears to be wasted and we need to find out why. The other is that it clearly isn’t enough – spending globally on education needs to rise even in these tough times.

    I suggest that another, more urgent, task is to awaken the public’s thirst for knowledge in general. Adult education is constantly side-lined and we will never get moral courage, and therefore moral development, to levels that are necessary without some initiative here. The media, of course, have a vested interest in this arena and they mostly appear to believe that their innate conservatism should be interpreted as: ‘That’s our job and sustaining the public’s innate conservatism at unsustainably harmful levels is obviously the way to go’. They have the political class behind them, of course.

    This is the veritable mountain of inertia we have to overcome if we want to educate people in adulthood.

    Then, eventually, we’ll get moral progress.

    Right, I’m off to buy a steak for my supper.

    Peace.

  2. “…no matter the desirability of the idea, if it can’t be replicated, or conditions possible for its disproval, then it‘s nonsense.”

    The third clause appears disconnected from the rest of the sentence, making Mr. Johnson’s conclusion unnecessarily vague. Then he goes on:

    “It’s reasonable therefore to suggest that an apathetic method is at polar opposites with decent, rational thought, as it asks us to stop short of good practice. So wouldn’t it also be irrational to allow apathy to cloud our judgements in morality? This conclusion relies on two assumptions which first need to be supported.

    Firstly, we need to be able to assume that ethics is in some way rational or objective.”

    Mr. Johnson employs totally subjective generalities, “decent” and “good”, to illustrate the exact opposite of “apathetic” and then calls for readers to reject apathy for ‘objective’ certainty when charting an ethical course. But this description of ethics is nothing more than being arbitrary if an unmoved mover must be employed to enable it. Espousing such a philosophy is where the phrase ‘spun out of whole cloth’ originated.

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