Empiricism and Moral Politics

Why critical thinking is so critical to moral reasoning.

I reread some Bertrand Russell recently. One of the essays in particular struck me as important. It was an essay on Empiricism, specifically, how empiricism improves politics.

Empiricism is the idea that knowledge comes from experience. Russell goes further and defines it as a scientific mindset open to revision in which nothing is known absolutely. Basically, an empiricist occupies the middle ground between dogma and skepticism. Dogma is not being open to revision and strict skepticism refuses to acknowledge that we know anything for sure.  Empiricism, according to Russell is a balanced view based, as much as possible on what can be known objectively and understanding that what we think we know may not be so – which is the being open to revision part – which is essential to a scientific mindset.

Taking this approach has significant implications for moral reasoning, especially moral reasoning as it is applied in politics.  On the value of empiricism, Russell says,
“In the sphere of practical politics, this intellectual attitude has important consequences. In the first place, it is not worthwhile to inflict a comparatively certain present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good.”  He goes on to say, “If it were certain that without Jews the world would be a paradise, there could be no valid objection to Auschwitz; but if it is much more probably that the world resulting from such methods would be a hell, we can allow free play to our natural humanitarian revulsion against cruelty.”
Obviously, it would have been nice if he had taken a stronger stand in favor of the basic and intrinsic humanity of Jews, but his point about the important role that doubt plays in ensuring moral actions is critical.

Doubt prevents us from inflicting certain cruelty for uncertain rewards. This harkens back to the Epicurean formulation for morality. A little pain for a long term gain is ok. It’s amazing how often this formula is invoked to justify cruelty towards others, even today.

The empiricist, as Russell points out, will never accept that sort of deal precisely because it can never be considered moral. In such situations, the proposed better future is unlikely to result, but also because the methods to secure this better future are so heinous. It is highly unlikely you can use heinous methods and not create heinous results.

To translate that into simple English, when it comes to intentionally inflicting cruelty – the ends don’t justify the means because just ends can’t be created by unjust means, no matter how many TV shows and movies purport to show just that.

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