About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, April 02, 2012
On debunking relatives
This blog is devoted — at least ideally — to the practice of evidence-based rationality. Which means that from time to time we turn our writing to the debunking of indefensible notions, be they the existence of UFOs, that of paranormal powers, or the “scientific” status of creationism. While my co-writers and I think this is an important, if small, contribution toward a better society, from time to time I wonder why I’m not quite as active in debunking my relatives’ bizarro beliefs (as far as friends are concerned, I try to select them more carefully). This past week I had occasion to reflect on this quite a bit, because of a visit of a close relative who, as it turns out, subscribes to almost every type of irrational belief I can think of.
First, let me give you an idea of what I’m referring to. Most predictably, perhaps, s/he is a believer in a Catholic-style god, naturally oblivious to Humean and even Kantian counter-arguments. But that’s most definitely not unusual, and as long as religious belief stays clear of fundamentalism I honestly have little incentive to engage it.
The relative in question also subscribes to a variety of “alternative” medicine practices. Here I did put up a weak challenge, paraphrasing Tim Minchin’s hilarious Storm and pointing out that there is no such thing as alternative medicine, because when an alternative remedy works we simply call it “medicine.” That got a good humored laugh, but I seriously doubt that a rethinking of medical priorities will follow.
Then it turns out that my relative is also a truther: s/he thinks that 9/11 was somehow orchestrated by the federal government. Stunned, I asked on what grounds could such belief possibly rest. I was hence treated to vague references to 400 year old conspiracies by some group of Illuminati that included the Italian politician Giuseppe Mazzini (whom my relative misplaced in history by almost a century), to “well known American engineers” who have attested to the “fact” that the twin towers could not have collapsed because of the exploding airplanes, and finally to the well known “fact” that somehow no Jews died in the resulting inferno.
This one really got my juices going, however, so my challenges became stronger, and went on for the good part of a morning — during which, appropriately, we were visiting the recently open 9/11 memorial. The Illuminati story was quickly dropped after I pointed out that Mazzini had lived in a different century, and after I made the commonsense observation that the main reason I don’t believe in (most) conspiracy theories is because — humans being humans — any plot involving large numbers of people and long periods of time is almost guaranteed to both fail and become known. People are simply not that smart (which leads to the frequent failure of plots), and they love gossip (which is how those involved are discovered).
I then commented only briefly on the “experts” my relatives was relying on because that discussion would have gotten technical very quickly, and simply pointed out that plenty of other (actual) experts had debunked the notion of bombs planted inside the twin towers to make them collapse on demand. (Interestingly, we barely touched on why the federal government would do such thing to begin with, though we both quickly agreed that the war on Iraq had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism.)
Finally, we got to the missing Jews. My relative insisted that s/he had checked the names of the people killed on that day, and found not a single Jew. Quickly skipping (out of politeness) over how unlikely it was that s/he actually had done that kind of thorough homework, I pointed out — at the very site of the memorial — how many Jewish names were actually listed on the sides of the two reflecting pools that make up the monument. Surprisingly, that did have an effect (after a weak attempt at suggesting that these people were not really Jews, because a Jew is someone who practices the religion. That counteroffensive didn’t last long, and I think I even managed to impart some elementary cultural knowledge there.)
The bottom line is that I was much less willing to engage my relative’s cuckoo beliefs than I normally am with strangers, even though I think I did manage to make her/him doubt or even reconsider part of the nonsense s/he apparently so readily accepts. The question is: should I not have done more? After all, I subscribe to virtue ethics, an approach to morality according to which your friends and relatives are actually more important (to you) than strangers because you have a relationship with and duties toward them. Do these duties not include steering them away from falsehoods, some of which (e.g., the ones concerning alternative medicine) can actually be directly deleterious to them?
But perhaps Aristotle’s somewhat tricky idea of striking the right middle ground applies here. On the one hand, I do care about fighting irrationality in the world, and I am particularly concerned when my relatives display it. On the other hand, I am also preoccupied with maintaining a caring and loving relationship with them — again, more so than with strangers — and these two criteria may come into conflict. The third way between the Scylla of all-out confrontation and the Charybdis of total acquiescence is the path I tried to follow during my relative’s visit.
This, of course, raises questions about what my attitude should be concerning these matters with strangers. Is the balance going to shift toward engagement on the basis that I do not have a personal relationship with most people? (I am sidestepping here the question of effectiveness, which is psychological, not ethical.) The answer would have to be no, if I wish to remain coherently within the framework of virtue ethics. However, in my forthcoming book (Answers for Aristotle, BasicBooks, to be released in September) I suggest that for practical purposes one can adopt different ethical frameworks under different circumstances (within limits, this isn’t an “anything goes” license). Particularly, that while virtue ethics is in my opinion the best approach on a small scale (personal decisions, relationships with friends, relatives and acquaintances), something more like rule-consequentialism (as opposed to the more crude act-consequentialism) may be appropriate when dealing with larger issues affecting the whole of society.
Indeed, two crucial differences between virtue ethics and consequentialism apply here: the first one is supposed to be an answer to the question of how are we to live, and its ethical concern is not universal (i.e., one is not supposed to treat everyone, strangers and relatives, in the same manner); the second one addresses the question of what is the right thing to do, and does so in an agent-neutral manner (i.e., regardless of who the agent is or what her/his relationship to you is). Professional ethicists will surely frown upon this mix-and-match approach, but I think it makes sense of why I felt reasonably comfortable engaging my relative’s bizarro beliefs in a way that is different from what I do when I write a blog entry or give a public talk. I wonder what Aristotle would think of this.