We prosecute CEOs for failing to do due diligence. But with people, we call it 'faith'

by avichapman 3 min read5th Jul 201240 comments


I wrote the following on my blog last night. I thought that I'd run it past an intelligent audience. Note that what I have referred to as an idea is what we here at lesswrong would call a 'belief'. I changed the name to remove any strange foggy baggage that might appear in the heads of potential readers who are not familier with belief vs belief-in-belief and other concepts like that.

What are your thoughts?

I recently got into a discussion on Facebook that started with an assertion that free-thought/atheism/humanism/etc was no different than the certainties of fundamentalism. But that discussion moved into many topics, one of which is why it should not be controversial to assert that one idea can be more 'right' than another.

I asserted that the view that the universe was created 13.72 billion years ago was more 'right' than the view that the universe was sneezed out of a giant space cow. My interlocutor felt that the giant space cow could be 'right' for one person, even if it is not 'right' for others.

It is at this point that we ran into a problem, as it became apparent that her view of the meaning of 'right' and my own were different. As best I can tell, she felt that 'right' meant that it feels right or brings comfort. I, of course, use the word 'right' to mean that an idea contains explanatory and predictive power. The idea that the universe started in a big bang explains a lot about what we see in the cosmos and predicts what we will see as we keep looking - with a high degree of accuracy. That makes is 'right'. And it's more 'right' now than it was two decades ago because we have found places where it is 'wrong' (the increase in the rate of expansion of the universe) and revised the idea to explain it (dark energy), making it more 'right'.

So we had two versions of 'right'. It wasn't a given that she would accept my version, so I had to come up with a good reason why my version of 'right' was, well, 'right'.

What I came up with was to point out an ethical imperative to be as 'right' as possible - using my definition. Consider this: If there are two ideas, one of which is 'right' enough to predict certain unintended consequences of an action that the other idea fails to predict. If you consciously choose the less 'right' of the two ideas (perhaps because it is 'more right for you'), you have consciously chosen to risk harming others in ways that could have been prevented by choosing the more 'right' of the two options.

Perhaps it will be clearer with an example:  Sally is worried about vaccinating herself before travelling to another country. She knows that the doctor says that it is necessary and safer than not being vaccinated. But she's also heard some bad stories about the side-effects of vaccinations. She decides that not vaccinating is 'right for her'. After all, if she's wrong, what's the harm? She might get sick, but that's a fate she brought on herself. What she fails to realise is that the more 'right' idea (that vaccines are safer than not having them) also predicts that if she fails to vaccinate, she can bring those diseases back to Australia and infect others.

But this isn't just a problem on the left wing: Consider the case of Josephine, who concedes that there is little evidence for the existence of an afterlife. But she chooses to believe anyway because it is 'right for her'. Why not? If she's wrong, she'll never know it because she'll have ceased to have existed. But here comes those unintended consequences again. This time, they come in the form of predictions that the less 'right' of the two ideas makes - that death is not the end of all existence, but a transition to a greater existence. As it happens, Josephine is an Australian senator and is about to vote on an authorisation for the ADF to bomb some village  in Afghanistan. She briefly worries about the fate of any innocent bystanders but is comforted by the fact if the ADF's aim is off, any innocents will go to heaven. But she's so busy that she fails to remember that her assumption about heaven was an arbitrary one for her own comfort and shouldn't be used outside the confines of her own skull.

Now consider this case: The CEO of a company sees credible evidence that the government is about to change, leading to a major change in policies directly affecting the company's business environment. She should probably hedge her bets to prepare for the likely change. But what if she really liked the current government? What if the prospective change to the opposition caused her distress? Might she choose to believe that the government will almost certainly win the next election because that idea feels 'right for her'? I would suggest that the stock holders would feel that her due diligence required her to hedge the company's bets, whatever her feelings.

But change this CEO to a mother making a choice on matters of vaccines or faith healing, and now she hasn't made any kind of ethical lapse - she's has just exercised her faith. We owe it ourselves and to those who are affected by our actions (which is everyone really) to try to be as 'right' as possible as often as possible. Never chose an idea because it is 'right for you'. And always be on the lookout for ideas that are even more 'right' than the ones you already cling to.