The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Monday, June 28, 2010

Moral Versus Intellectual Error

On July 16, 1969, NASA launched the Apollo 11 space flight from the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Four days later the spaceship Columbia arrived in orbit around the moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the lunar landing module Eagle and made history by becoming the first men to walk on the moon.

Or so history says and so most of us believe. Some people think differently. Some believe that NASA was unable to land men on the moon for real and so they filmed the moon landing on earth and passed it off as real. The theories vary as to why NASA would have wanted to do this, some saying it was to get more funding for their projects, others that it was a propaganda attempt to demoralize the Russians in the Cold War. Those who hold to the “moon landing hoax” theory point to what they see as flaws in the official version of the moon landing as evidence of their claims.

The question of whether they are right, wrong, or in severe need of medication, is beyond the scope of this essay. For the sake of the argument we will assume that they are wrong however. How do we as a society respond to people who hold views so strongly at odds with what is generally accepted as established history? Some listen to them, politely nod, and hope the subject changes. Others argue with them in the hopes of persuading them that they are wrong and that the moon landing actually did occur. Most people probably just shrug and laugh at the idea.

What we don’t do is demand that these people be silenced by the government, jailed, or fined for their views. Most of us, I would hope, would consider that to be an abuse of government power that is in conflict with our society’s basic principles of freedom.

Why would it be inappropriate for the state to step in and tell people they cannot deny the historicity of the moon landing without suffering legal consequences? It would be inappropriate, because the error of the moon landing deniers is not a moral error. They are wrong intellectually but not morally.

We must not get the categories of intellectual and moral error confused. It is easy to do so because we use the same terminology to describe both. If someone adds 2 and 2 and gets 5 we say that he is “wrong”, and we say a person is “wrong” to steal a car. They are not wrong in the same way.

To make a mistake in calculation, to get the facts of history or any other subject for that matter mixed up, to hear conflicting accounts and to judge the least accurate to be the correct account and vice versa, are examples of intellectual error. The person who is wrong in these ways has erred in the use of their reason, memory and other intellectual faculties. They are wrong but in a way that is in and of itself morally blameworthy.

What is morally blameworthy? Willful actions which are harmful to oneself, others, or society itself and the character traits which encourage or produce such actions are morally blameworthy. Moral error, is error of the will and character.

Moral and intellectual error are not unrelated. A person might be wrong intellectually because of moral error. For example, they might fail their history test because they disobeyed their parents and did not study when they were supposed to. The moral error, however, lies in the not studying rather than in the wrong answers on the test.

Socrates, at least as he is depicted by Plato in The Meno, believed that moral error was the result of intellectual error. He argued that no one would knowingly do what they thought was evil so all evil is the result of faulty knowledge of the good (an interesting position for someone whose most famous words were “I know nothing” to take).

Aristotle, who made a clear distinction between the intellectual and moral faculties of the mind, disagreed with Socrates about the source of moral error. He argued in the seventh book of the Nicomachean Ethics that akrasia (incontinence, weakness of the will), results in people doing evil despite knowing the good. This is the view that St. Paul embraces, in verses 14-25 of the seventh chapter of his Epistle to the Church in Rome. 

In this disagreement between Socrates/Plato and Aristotle/St. Paul however, the knowledge in question is knowledge of what is good and right, not knowledge of how many ships were in the armada Agamemnon led to Troy. It is highly unlikely that anyone on either side of the debate would have considered a mistake about the latter to have a deleterious effect on the morals of the person who made the mistake.

The law pertains to the moral not the intellectual. Society seeks to encourage morally praiseworthy acts and character traits (virtues) and to discourage morally blameworthy acts and character traits (vices). The law is a tool that society uses in doing so. It is an essential tool, but not the only tool, nor the most important one. It is actually very limited in its scope and capabilities. The law prohibits certain acts and penalizes those who commit those acts. By doing so it discourages people from committing those acts and forming the character traits which produce those acts. This indirectly encourages people to commit the opposite acts and form the opposite character traits.

There are limits on which acts should be prohibited by law. The government that fails to recognize these limits crosses into the realm of tyranny. One obvious limit is that the acts prohibited by government should be mala in se, they should be morally blameworthy in and of themselves apart from legislation and regulation. Another limit is that the acts prohibited by law should fall within the lawmaker’s proper sphere of authority. In passing laws governments should not intrude into and infringe upon the authority of parents in the family or of religious leaders in the church. Most acts of moral error are best left to these authorities. A government would not go wrong in limiting its laws to prohibiting acts that are intrinsically criminal, i.e., acts like murder, rape, and robbery which the government would be committing an injustice if it did not prohibit..

A government would go terribly wrong, however, if were to start punishing people for getting the facts of history wrong.

Nobody has yet been punished for thinking the moon landing did not occur so far as I am aware. Some people have been punished, however, for getting other historical facts wrong. Ever since World War II there have been those who have argued that the atrocities attributed to the other side in that war have been grossly exaggerated. That is actually a reasonable assumption because that is the way wartime propaganda works and, in fact, some of the early atrocity tales have been discounted by most historians. Some continue to insist that historical account taught in most schools and history books reflects the exaggerations of war propaganda. Their specific claims are that the estimated number of victims is way too high, that the deaths were the result of concentration camp conditions rather than a systematic planned extermination, that there were no homicidal gas chambers, and this sort of thing.

These people largely depend upon arguments from silence and poking holes in the credibility of the evidence upon which the generally accepted history rests. This is not the same as making a positive case for why your alternative history should be accepted instead, and on that basis we will say that these people are factually wrong. Are they morally wrong?

I would say no, based on the arguments I have spelled out above. Others say yes. They argue that the only reason the holocaust revisionists make the claims they do is because they have the same murderous hatred of the Jews that Hitler possessed and wish to start up the persecution of the Jews all over again. Therefore, they demand that the government do something about “holocaust denial”. In some countries laws have been passed criminalizing “holocaust denial”. Other countries, such as ours, have not criminalized it per se, but have found other ways of persecuting holocaust revisionists.

One wonders, if all those who are so sure that “holocaust denial” exists for no purpose other than to be a sword to use against the Jews, ever considered the possibility that it might have been forged as a shield to defend the Germans against all the German-bashing that has gone on in the decades since the war? I doubt it very much. Anti-racists are so self-righteous that the possibility that they might ever be wrong, morally or intellectually, has probably never entered their heads.

The distinction between moral and intellectual error is vital to maintaining a free society. The government should not be punishing people for getting any other facts of history wrong, whether it be the history of WWII, the moon landing, or anything else.  

No comments:

Post a Comment