Tidbits for Political Junkies with Short Attention Spans & Hearty Appetites


Monday, May 17, 2004


The Ethics of Belief

I had promised a bit more on Peter Singer's book, so here goes. I'll start the easy way, by quoting Colin McGinn's review from the Washington Post, where he argues that Singer "refutes the myth" that, while Bush "is a man of marked intellectual limitations, he is governed by a consistent set of deeply held moral convictions."

The President of Good & Evil, Peter Singer's timely and searching new book, is in effect an ethics tutorial directed toward the leader of the "free world." Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, gives Bush a D, if not an outright fail. The bulk of the book is a litany of moral inconsistencies and failures, of persistent hypocrisy and doublethink. Singer's method is to contrast Bush's enunciations of principle with the realities of his policies, finding repeatedly that political expediency triumphs over declarations of principle.

Indeed, most of the book is a very direct and briskly readable analysis of posture versus policy. Among my favorite bits, however, is this short little parable, which appears under the heading, “The Ethics of Belief:”
The nineteenth-century English mathematician and philosopher William Clilfford wrote an essay about the ethics of belief that began with a story about a shipowner about to send off to sea a ship full of emigrants. He knew that the ship was old and needed repairs, so he had doubts about whether it was seaworthy, and wondered if he should go to the expense of having it thoroughly overhauled and refitted. But he decided instead to put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all those families leaving their homeland to seek a better life abroad. So he convinced himself that all would be well, and watched the ship sail without qualms. When the ship sank with great loss of life, his losses were covered by the insurance company.

Clifford’s point is that the sincerity of the shipowner’s belief does not absolve him of guilt for the lives lost, because on the evidence he had before him, he had no right to believe that the ship was fit to make the voyage. As Clifford says, “He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.” Even is the ship had proved sound and made the journey safely, it would not mean that the owner was justified in believing it seaworthy. He would have still been wrong to allow the lives of the passengers to hang on his faith, rather than on sound evidence that the ship was seaworthy.

What more can I add?


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