Sunday, February 06, 2011

On weak points and blind spots.

It's been a long time since I've written here, I know. I'd like to break the silence with some long, epic post composed of sheer brilliance, but I don't see that happening. Instead, I'd like to expound briefly on some themes that are by now familiar to readers of this blog.

In particular, I've been thinking a lot lately about how and why intelligent, well-meaning people can still do horrible things, or at the least, turn a blind eye to them. Even the most thoughtful of people can be seen to ignore the role, for example, that the Catholic Church plays in perpetuating the AIDS epidemic. Those that otherwise serve as prime examples of humanistic morals can still ignore or deem unimportant the moral issues associated with modern communication, such as censorship, DRM, or net neutrality. Passionate feminists can still take a sex-negative attitude (though many, thankfully, do not). So too can passionate advocates of science and education be misogynistic creeps.

In my experience, everybody, regardless of intelligence or compassion, is afflicted by moral blind spots and weak spots. It is important to remember this as we make decisions in life, as none of us is infallible, and as none of us have privileged access to the facts and logic that must direct our compassion. Indeed, there have been many times where I have been wrong in my thinking about ethics and morals, and where I have been happy to have been shown the errors in my previous modes of thought. (This is a theme that I hope to get around to revisiting soon!) To my mind, then, the most important part of moral thinking must be a willingness to be wrong, paired with a dedication to discovering and correcting such wrongs.

Of course, I have been a bit glib until now in using words like "wrong" to describe moral hypotheses, so allow me to rectify that. When I discover that my attitudes and morals imply a course of action that would unduly harm another sentient by infringing upon their ability to exercise their freedoms as they see fit, I call such attitudes "wrong." Just as surely, if I harm someone by unfairly restricting their opportunities, then that is also "wrong." If I base my moral thinking on suppositions which are found to be false, then that thinking is "wrong." Thus, self-correction takes the form of education: to avoid such wrong-headed approaches to life, I must be educated sufficiently to empathize with as many points of view as possible, and I must be educated such that I can well predict and understand the consequences of my actions.

Invariably, however, I will not achieve omniscience, and thus must by necessity commit to wrong modes of thought where ethics and morals are concerned. The drive to improve oneself is essential in coming to terms with this reality; if I cannot eliminate blind spots, can I not make them smaller?

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