I have no doubt Ramesh covers all the bases, so I’m not even going to read Andrew’s attack. It doesn’t sound like there’s anything new there.
But I have been fascinated by the degree to which so many people get angry about what I at least believe to be an entirely sensible and moderate position on certainty. Many of the same people screaming at me in my email, are convinced that torture is always and everywhere wrong. No exceptions. That’s obviously a decent and honorable position to hold. But it smacks of more than a little moral certainty, does it not?
I think the big problem for a lot of people stems from a simple category error. No one really likes a rigid know-it-all. We have problems — I would say outsized problems — with “judgmental” people. So some people leap from that to the view that because rigid people have bad characters, they must also have bad morals or philosophy or metaphysics. But this strikes me as nonsense. I am certain — morally certain! — that kindness is better than cruelty. I am morally certain that charity is better than greed, that murder is worse than taking a life unjustly, etc, etc, etc, etc. Indeed, what is striking in this “debate” is the fact that so many moral certainties enjoy enormous social consensus. So much so that we don’t even question them.
Regardless, the trick in life is how we translate these noble certainties into action. This is where skepticism, humility and doubt play important roles. Am I sure that I am applying my principles properly? Am I missing something? Is my small act of kindness actually contributing to a greater cruelty? Does my opponent make a good case that I’m not seeing the bigger picture?
Decent people are open to the possibility that they may have the facts wrong, that what they believe are cut-and-dried moral issues are actually more complicated than it appears. But it strikes me as absurd and dangerous to say that simply because I might be wrong about something that I can never, ever, be absolutely right.
Lastly, what is so galling about those who claim to be the tender and sensitive enemies of certainty is that they are no such thing. They are merely enemies of other people who have made different judgments, based on different priorities. But they get to cloak themselves in humane-sounding verbiage while they hypocritically use their own moral certainty against others. It’s shabby, shabby, stuff.