Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dumb Things that I've Said: Some Sheepish Retractions

It's a good idea to clear out your closet once in a while and throw out the moth-eaten shirts. Here are some of the ridiculous things I've said over the last year.

1) "Legalize Animal Cruelty." In pointing out an inconsistency in the way our laws treat animals, I showed my own moral obtuseness. In this post, I argued that it's wrong for us to permit animal slaughter but prohibit animal cruelty, even though both inflict similar amounts of suffering. But why should we be narrow-mindedly consistent when we distinguish between good and evil? I happen to concur in my society's judgment that it's more acceptable to slaughter a cow than to beat a dog. That's not a judgment that follows from a neutral, general rule—but no one ever said that judgments have to be.

A desire to beat a dog for pleasure is vicious and vile. Our society should by all means pass judgment against such depravity. Meanwhile, to slaughter a cow for food or leather is not nearly as reprehensible, and should be permitted.

2) "Why Morality Doesn't Exist." I still agree with the point I was trying to make here, but I went way too far with my rhetoric. Indeed, morality is not a matter of crystalline logic, and still less is it an empirical question. Moral judgments are not derivable from a view of the world that all "rational beings" share. But should I really say that "there is no such thing as a true or false moral statement?" Interpreted the wrong way, that's an attitude that opens the door to evil. When I make a moral judgment, I'm doing more than grunting my aesthetic approval or disapproval. I'm claiming that something is good or bad for everyone, and intrinsically bad or good.

3) "Morality and Facts in Public Debate." In this post, I set up a preposterous distinction between moral and empirical debates. Empirical debate, I argued, ought to be solved with hard data and rigorous logical thinking. And moral debates, being essentially a matter of non-rational judgment, are better off not happening.

But the two kinds of debate can't be separated except dishonestly. The decision, for example, to focus on some points of empirical dispute and not others is itself a moral choice. Moreover, there's nothing wrong with using language to convince someone else of a moral point. I can appeal to someone's reason as well as his emotion to bring him over to my side. I can, for instance, exploit my opponent's desire for consistency when I want him to adopt a new moral view.


4) "The Ethics of Proselytizing." Here, I tried to argue that Christians who believe that nonbelievers are going to Hell have—given their information—a moral obligation to say so. That's an argument that treats religious beliefs are a matter of scientific information: A knows fact φ, and therefore has duty δ. But that's not what our religious beliefs are like at all. If they were, we would see a lot more disputes on the question of Hell that referred to empirical evidence. Instead, it works like this: a believer lives his life afraid of a Hell which he assumes exists; and the skeptic, rather than refute him, holds him in contempt.

I thus don't strictly disagree with a Christian who thinks I will burn forever, because our criteria for truth are utterly different. The kind of proof I could offer—scientific evidence—would be rejected as a temptation of the Devil. The kind of proof I would be offered—the misinterpreted testimony of the New Testament—would be equally uncompelling to me.

I can therefore understand fully why a Christian would want to save my soul on the subway. But I can still call Hell a false and wicked doctrine—and act on that conviction—without arguing against him, and without bringing science or theology to bear.

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