Saturday, June 25, 2011

Short and Sharp: What if you're wrong?

If you are familiar with the evangelical style of Ray Comfort and Kurt Cameron, then you will be familiar with the question “what if you’re wrong?”. For those of you who are not, it is a tactic that attempts to highlight in the minds of atheists the repercussions if they are wrong about the existence of the god that Comfort and Cameron believe in (i.e. that the atheist will go to Hell). I have seen many refutations of this argument (which is essentially Pascal’s Wager), however, I am going to actually do the opposite; I think it is a valid question in certain contexts and should be answerable by any person about any belief that they hold.

To demonstrate why I think this is the case, I would like to modify a scenario used by Richard Carrier in his book, Sense and Goodness Without God;  
Suppose a friend told you they had purchased a new car, would you believe them? As this is a fairly unremarkable claim (many people own cars), it would require very little evidence for you to believe them, perhaps even just their word alone. However, suppose now that you were relying on this friend to drive you to a very important meeting. Would you be willing to rely on just their word or would you require more evidence now that the claim has the potential to impact upon your life? If you believe them, and they are wrong (either by lying or just being misinformed; say they thought the car would be ready for their use on that day, but it was delayed), you are now stuck without a way to get your meeting.
The point that I am trying to drive at is that the amount of evidence needed to support a claim is not simply just how ordinary or extraordinary the claim is, but also how much of an impact the claim’s truth or falseness will have. Claims that will have very little effects require less evidence than claims that will have profound effect, all other things being equal. The way in which Comfort and Cameron use this question is still wrong; in that, they are essentially throwing in a possibility, Hell, which has such a low probability of actually existing that it isn’t worth considering. As such, the question is only valid when used in the context of known negative outcomes. However, when used in this way, it is very useful at highlighting how effects can impact upon our evidential standards.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

'Ethical' Egoists

While watching the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy recently, I was reminded of my general distain for ‘ethical’ egoists. These are people who believe it is okay to do what is in the best interests for themselves and their in-group (family, friends, lovers etc.), even if it leads to the otherwise preventable harm of others. As such, it is kind of a very shallow version of ethical egoism; the branch of moral philosophy that says that moral agents should act in their own self-interest. While the actual theory is a lot more detailed than my one sentence summary indicates, I still believe it has problems.

To demonstrate my problem with ‘ethical’ egoists, I’ll explain the scenario that occurred in the episode. Earlier in the season, Meredith had switched a placebo for an active drug in an Alzheimer’s clinical trial she was a part of. This was due to the fact that the patient who was to get the placebo was close to her. In the finale, her deception is revealed and the shit hits the fan. This is because it is a randomised clinical trial; the doctors do not get to assign who gets the active therapy and who gets the placebo. This prevents them from, either intentionally or unintentionally, giving the active treatment to patients they believe are more likely to recover anyway and skewing the results (i.e. making the treatment look better than it really is). So Meredith tampering with who gets the treatment invalidates the whole trial. Now, even after she is informed of this and how now no one will get access to the new drug (due to the trial not being able to go ahead, so it can’t be demonstrated to be effective) she still says she would do it again because it was a person who meant so much to her.

This sort of attitude (which is not at all uncommon) really drives me up the wall; effectively Meredith, and others in similar situations, are giving a big middle finger to everyone else just to help someone they care about. It really shows how self-centred someone is that they can’t step back and realise that while they are trying to help someone they love, so is everyone else. In the case of Meredith, she wanted to help someone she loved, but at the same time prevented hundreds of others from helping their loved ones.

I also ran into a similar phenomenon during an ethics class in my undergrad course; we were given the following scenario and asked whether we thought the decision in it was moral (paraphrased from memory);
An earthquake occurs in China and buries a man’s family in rumble. In the process of digging them out, he discovers that across the road an important official and his family are buried. The man decides to stop trying to rescue his family and rescue the official and his family instead. He successfully rescues them, but his own family die in the process. When asked why he made the choice that he did, he said that by rescuing the official, he could go on to coordinate the rescue effort (by virtue of having extensive knowledge of the local area) and end up saving more people.
Now, as a utilitarian, I said that the action was moral because it could effectively save more lives (increasing the overall well-being). Now while the majority did say they while they would have saved their family had they been in the situation but respected the man for thinking of others (a position I don’t find unacceptable), a small minority believed that he had acted immorally and should have saved his family (invoking duty to family primarily). After some discussion back and forth, I presented them with a new hypothetical to try to demonstrate the point I was trying to make;
A serial killer has you locked in a chair. In front of you is your family in a cage, ten families you do not know in another. You are given the choice of who dies; either your family or the ten families. Which would you choose?
I thought that this scenario was entirely black and white; that only a monster would say that it was moral to choose their family. However, I was wrong. Not only did these individuals say they would choose their families, they were defending it as the moral choice. I mean, I could understand someone saying that they aren’t strong enough to do the right thing, but to actually believe that ten other families dying so yours can survive is moral is downright insane. Could these people not understand that each of those families had people who loved them just as much as they loved their families? What makes them think that their love for their family trumps everyone else’s?

A bit more of a rant than usual, but there it is.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Short and Sharp - Reformation of Child Molesters

This post is prompted by this story (and the comment section found within). For those of you who are too lazy to click on the link, the article basically tells of a man who was convicted of indecently assaulting a 16 year old boy in 2005, and now has won through VCAT a working with children certificate because VCAT believe he no longer poses a danger to children.

The thing that most interests me is the response to this situation; at the time of writing this, not a single one of the 32 comments on the article was even willing to accept the possibility that this man has rehabilitated and is not a threat; every comment either explicitly or implicitly says that a person who molests a child is incapable of rehabilitating.

Whether or not this case is an example of reformation of a child molester (I personally think it is off the limited information available), it seems clear that the majority of individuals believe that it is impossible for a person who has sexually assaulted a child to be rehabilitated. I’m not quite sure whether it is that they think rehabilitation is actually impossible or that the cost of wrongly assessing a person as rehabilitated is too high to ever bother attempting it (a kind of ‘think of the children’ argument).

What do my intelligent audience think? Is it possible for a child molester to ever be rehabilitated? If so, why? If not, why not?