And if your principles are wrong?

magrittememoryWe all have principles. And we believe that society would be better off if these principles were enforced and observed. This is a self-deceit. There is no guarantee whatsoever that our ethical and moral believes would assure the best outcomes for society. If you were shown that your principles may do more bad than good, what would you do?

In 2001, John Donohue and Steven Levitt attracted the ire of conservatives and liberals when they published a paper showing that legalization of abortion in the USA in the 1970s was the cause of the sharp crime reduction observed 20 years later.

Conservatives, who are usually against abortion, didn’t like this conclusion for obvious reasons. Liberals, even those favorable to abortion, didn’t like it either, as it did not align to their social policies.

Few years later, it was shown that Donohue and Levitt’s analysis had statistical mistakes, which put their findings in question with a boring ongoing academic debate.

Independently of the outcome, the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis was an example of how our principles and what is the best for society may not be on the same page.

We all have principles, moral beliefs and ethical rules. We also believe that if these rules and beliefs were actually followed by other people, the world would be a better place to live. This is a self-deceit: there is no necessary causal link that guarantee that observance of a simple principle would imply better outcomes for a complex society like ours.

If you are a conservative, odds are that you believe that family is the building-block of a healthy society. Indulge me for a moment and suppose that rigorous and irrefutable studies showed that family leads, in fact, to a raise of honor crimes and domestic violence (just to avoid misunderstandings, I don’t believe on that; it is only for the sake of argument). Would you stop advocating in favor of family?

Now, if you are liberal, odds are that you are in favor of individual freedom. Suppose, in another exercise, that rigorous and irrefutable studies showed that divorce laws lead to a general impoverishment. Would you still defend that people should be free to get divorced?

It is much bigger out there to honestly believe that simple secular or religious heuristic commandments should give the best recipe for a better world, whatever “better world” may mean for each one. For this post purposes, I take that “better world” means a world where people have happy, safe and fulfilling lives, with gratifying jobs and good perspective for their kids.

And if democracy is not compatible with building this “better world”? Maybe the economic growth needed to hold gratifying jobs and good perspective for the next generation can be achieved only by, say, a Chinese heavy state hand controlling society.

And if some civil rights are not compatible either? Maybe for living in a safe world we should accept a NSA style of vigilance on our private lives.

And if education is not a goal worth being pursued? Maybe people can only be happy if they alienate themselves through consumption, entertainment or religion.

And if right to life itself is not compatible with this better world? Maybe death penalty and abortion are needed to control crime; maybe medical research on old-age sicknesses should stop and life expectancy should be held at less than 70 years to control population.

If any of these or other scary hypotheses coming straight against your principles became true, what would you do? Would you live in denial fighting the evidences? Would you stick to your principles whatever their consequences are? Would you accept that your ideals weren’t fit for the best common interest and then embrace a brave new world?


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Categories: Culture, Moral and Ethics, Scientific Culture

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4 replies

  1. And for all those causes that you talk about, there are huge amounts of people fighting for and against them. Apparently, it is not possible that both sides are right. And this immediately proves that there are huge amounts of people fighting for the wrong cause.
    I don’t know what the way out is. Maybe it is that we should not have preformed generalized principles, but decide things on an individual basis. And if we do have things that are important to us, we should make sure that we spend more time and effort researching and reflecting on those ideas, than promoting them and fighting for them.

  2. Ethics? What if you’re wrong…
    The basic setup for philosophical debate and no small amount of political discourse. The answers to such questions as posed here underscore so many controversial ideas, books, discussions, systems of government.

    Society does not structure itself well enough to see the leaders say “Well, that didn’t work, let’s try this other method”. So it is that we try one bad plan after another with the hope that small tweaks here and there make significant improvements over time.


  1. The Time of My Selfish Altruism | Much Bigger Outside

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