Last winter, I saw over the tweeter that Lawrence Torcello published a new paper. Paywalled. So I asked him for a copy, using the hashtag #CanIHazPDF:
He sent me a copy in a matter of days. We exchanged a bit. I asked him for a Q&A. Here it is. Trigger warning: my questions (after “[W]“) can make no sense, and Lawrence’s responses (following “[L]“) can make you think.
[W] Let’s start with Clifford’s first thought experiment:
A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.
He concludes that it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. I am not sure I’d go as far as Clifford, but I feel there’s something right about the argument in your abstract: [W]e are morally responsible for our beliefs because (a) each belief that we form creates the cognitive circumstances for related beliefs to follow, and (b) we inevitably influence each other through those beliefs.
[L] I don’t endorse Clifford’s final position, which I think is too strong, but I do propose that our beliefs carry a moral hazard. The premises I interpret to undergird Clifford’s argument are enough to support the conclusion that our beliefs have morally consequential implications. Put most simply, our beliefs may lead to harmful consequences for other morally relevant beings that we ourselves may, or may not, be insulated from.
I agree with my fellow philosopher Peter Singer on what it means to be morally relevant, and to act ethically. Any sort of being that is minimally sentient—capable of suffering—is morally relevant. Beings who are capable of suffering have an interest (in not suffering) that from an ethical point of view deserves to be taken seriously. This is not to say that all minimally sentient beings need to be treated equally, but it does imply that acting ethically involves extending equal consideration of interests to all morally relevant creatures.
[W] Thus according to your stance, there is a relationship between morality and knowledge. Does it mean the whole fact/value dichotomy collapses, and that our knowledge establishes both epistemic and moral constraints?
[L] I don’t claim the fact/value dichotomy collapses, but, I do think that our knowledge, and epistemic limitations on our knowledge, can establish moral constraints. Consistent with Clifford’s arguments, our beliefs and our means for gathering evidence in support of our beliefs, carry moral implications. I agree that what we can reasonably claim to know ought to inform our judgments and behaviors—including our ethical decisions. And, yes, our ethical judgments also determine what restrictions we place on gathering information about the natural world (e.g. some human experiments that might be extremely useful in gaining medically relevant information are ethically unjustifiable). All of this follows from first making the decision to care about living an ethical life. However this is a value based decision. To reference an observation made by the early 20th century philosopher G.E. Moore, it remains an “open question” whether or not it is good to embrace such values.
I don’t think we need to overcome the fact/value distinction to get on with ethical decision making. We just have to value living an ethical life. One might respond that the reason we ought to value ethics is based on the fact that human beings need to cooperate with each other in order to survive. Very well, but first we must value survival. Once we commit to living a philosophical life, that is to say, a life in which we accept that beliefs and behaviors should be justifiable (to others as well as ourselves), we have already made an ethical commitment. Still, one must value living a philosophical life to begin with—no one is morally compelled by facts to do so.
[W] Still, Clifford’s argument seems to imply that we can derive an epistemic norm (or at least a meta-norm) out of facts from our cognitive and social reality. If we take the ethics of belief seriously, why shouldn’t we conclude that what we know transfers into what we should do?
[L] To be sure, what we know, or think we know, does inform what we do. It doesn’t follow from this that the fact/value distinction has been overcome. In some ways what we don’t know is equally–if not more–important for ethics than what we know. The epistemological limits of my ability to reasonably justify my actions to others constrains my ethical options. And yet, we can get very far, ethically speaking, just by figuring out what behaviors we can’t justify while equally considering the interests of others. Notice I am using the word justify rather than convince. Not every ethically relevant being is capable of being convinced or will be convinced by normative reasoning. The difficulty of the is/ought distinction is that it raises a challenge for anyone wishing to arrive at a final indisputable normative claim about ethics, that every rational entity qua rational entity is compelled to accept, premised on some natural fact about the world. Aristotle pointed out, over two millennia ago, that it is a mistake to expect ethics to function as a precise science. I agree.
Any claim to overcome the fact/value distinction, in my opinion, is fraught because (1) we can’t have certainty with regard to facts—which is not to say that facts don’t exist, and (2) we can at best inductively infer a moral implication of a perceived fact about the world, but we cannot deduce moral facts from natural facts—because it always remains logically possible for us to be wrong. At the most basic level such inferences would violate the rules of logic. (3) We only care about any of this, if we do, because of our prior valuation of truth and morality.
I suspect that some “lukewarmer” types would like to use Hume’s legitimate caution to bolster their own arguments against ethical calls to address climate change. They are out of luck: For one thing ethics, like science, can provide useful guidance independent of certainty. Not every decision with clear benefits to human health and survival needs to pass strict meta-ethical scrutiny to be of reasonable utility (Hume would agree).
One benefit of recognizing fallibility is that it keeps us from being dogmatic both in terms of facts and values, which to my mind is of great assistance to the self-correcting projects of science and philosophy.
[W] Speaking of which, you say: The scientific process does err, it should be emphasized, but it also self-corrects over time (Merton, 1942, 1973). Again, it is this process of progressive self-correction that relies upon robust genuinely skeptical methodologies. Those who challenge the view that science is necessarily self-correcting, in doing so, can even play a role in the long-term trend of scientific critique and self-correction (Ioannidis, 2012). A nifty way to turn the auditing business on its head: whatever is reliably converging toward truth could in the end be called science.
[L] I think of science as an ongoing process that involves, regardless of the field, a rigorous methodologically skeptical approach to understanding the natural world. The exact methodology used in science differs depending on the field, but the long term process is ultimately one of criticism and scrutiny. It involves the collection of data, the running of experiments, the examination of peer-review, and the open analysis of published results by one’s colleagues, who then, in many cases, test conclusions further through their own research. At each turn scientific hypotheses and findings are subject to skeptical refutation. Science advances, in this way, through organized efforts to disprove conclusions. The process is one that guards against the individual biases of researchers and their social circumstances. This means that by virtue of the process, there will always be errors and false starts. Those errors are not evidence that the process is flawed but signs that the skepticism inherent to the scientific process is working.
Science is self-correcting precisely because of its philosophical foundation in skepticism, which is always toxic for dogmatism. Any one scientist can be sloppy, mistaken — just an all-around poor scientist. This is why the modern scientific process is, and needs to be, a communal effort that involves researchers from different fields all over the world. Something like climate change is first and foremost described and understood by scientists working in climatology, but researchers in fields such as biology (for instance) can provide confirmation of climatological findings through the impacts they detect in their own field. This is how the global community of scientific researchers from various domains converge upon evidence that supports a larger theory, which then adds to our collective human understanding of nature.
[W] So we’re all in one big boat together, both in our values and our beliefs.
[L] We seem to be stuck together, endorsing different values, embracing different beliefs. This isn’t a bad thing, if we are reasonable, we can find ways to work together socially and politically in the context of physical and logical reality. This is why the fact of scientific consensus, by the way, is so important for the layperson to recognize and understand. When a scientific consensus exists it is a signal that a finding has been as thoroughly vetted as human beings know how to vet a finding. Science is a powerful philosophical enterprise. Furthermore, those that critique the scientific process itself, and philosophers of science have been doing this constructively for a long time, contribute to the process by checking the epistemic foundations and logical planks of the scientific structure in order to refine the process. Even those who are politically motivated and ideologically driven to criticize the findings of climate science contribute, insofar as they are able to raise legitimate questions that need to be clarified to the public. Nevertheless, in my experience the latter critics have not made much of a contribution to science other than to provide a lively contrast for comparison to the virtues of actual science.
[W] I must share with you this talk that I found while looking if The Worldwide Web of Beliefs was already taken. I found it very moving. Climate change is mentioned at 16:30:
[L] Thanks for sharing this interesting talk. The reality of morally pluralistic groups of people, who may hold beliefs that are equally valid compared to, but incommensurable with, the beliefs of other cultural groups, is one of the things that makes deriving “an ought from an is” so tricky.
Relatedly, the major question that drives my work in moral and political philosophy (independently of climate change ethics) is how we might recognize moral/value pluralism while avoiding ethical relativism.
By the way, the most basic lesson of Clifford is that we cannot avoid the moral implications of our beliefs. Our epistemic beliefs don’t form, or exist, in a moral vacuum.
[W] Can our candid readers haz a copy of your paper?
[L] I’ve added a preprint version to my WordPress page for anyone unable to access the published version. I, of course, am happy to email a copy to anyone that asks.