The Cost of Unjustified Wrong | Jeremy Amin
A question I find quite helpful when I am thinking through tough issues and deliberating tougher decisions is: What if I’m wrong about this? I find this question cuts through a lot of um’s, ah’s and but-maybe’s. The cost of committing to a particular side or sides on an issue, and being wrong about picking that side or sides, can border on the cataclysmic. And, of course, we want to avoid such outcomes as often as possible.
The nature of climate change is an obvious example of this. The cost of the anthropogenic climate change sceptic being wrong about our role in influencing or outright causing the change in global and local climates is literally world-changing. If the sceptic is wrong and the climate change ‘apocalypse’ thinkers are correct then the Earth, or much of life on it, is set for a horrific end.
Another example is the pro-choice advocate being wrong about abortion. If the strong pro-life position is in fact true, that a human person comes into being at conception (when a human sperm and egg fuse to form a single entity called a zygote), then the cost of wrongness is literally the wilful killing of millions of innocent humans per year. The metaphorical ‘Hitler’ is an often abused rhetorical move but in this case a person wrong about the moral status of the unborn would be committed to the murder of millions, literal Nazi level evil.
What am I getting at with these examples? The kind of wrongness I am talking about is one which is an unjustified kind of wrongness. Wrongness which a reasonable person wouldn’t and shouldn’t normally allow themselves to fall into. Allow me some space to explore my understanding of this kind of wrongness a bit more so that I may get my point across in as strong a way as I can, at least as strong as I can formulate during the period of working on this piece.
We can consider three kinds of commitment a person may have: a theoretical commitment; a practical commitment; and a pragmatic commitment. These three kind of commitment are not necessarily mutually exclusive and I suspect there is some overlap between the three.
A theoretical commitment is one which exists at the level of intellect, imagination and abstract belief. It is the scholar’s commitment to a particular theory over another. It is based on the plausibility of the evidence for and against the theory. But it is also a commitment which has space for the person to be detached from real world consequences based on said commitment. If I believe that unicorns exist at the centre of the earth, that does not have any real practical bearing on how I live my life, unless of course I have a special interest or obsession with unicorns. Nor does the implications of my being wrong about such a belief have significantly bad consequences or effects. The set of dispositions which set us aright in this space are the intellectual virtues. Explanatory scope, theoretical parsimony, and so on.
A practical commitment is more intimately linked with real world consequences. If I believe that littering is not bad, that’s one thing; if I throw a used plastic bag into the ocean that is another. In the latter case my practical action at least suggests practical commitment to the idea that littering is not bad. The commitment leads to the action. The moral virtues are the dispositions that point us in the right direction here. Prudence, temperance and the like; phronesis being the virtue which we have to guide us on which ‘wrong’ we can justifiably commit to in a practical sense and which we are only justified in a theoretical sense.
A pragmatic commitment is one which is adopted when there is legitimate intellectual space to commit to one position or another at the theoretical level but the practicalities of the commitment bind one to the position which has the least bad consequences if I am wrong about my commitment. Even if there is a strong amount of evidence that the climate change catastrophiser is wrong and the sceptic is right it is practically wise to be prudentially committed to something closer to the catastrophiser’s position than the sceptic’s. How precisely this commitment looks and what it entails is up for infinite degrees of nuance and subtlety.
A couple more examples to solidify my point. First, the power of the ruler in a state. Second, the existence of God.
The price of being wrong in 2020 for putting total power into one person’s control to rule over a country is clear to anyone with a glimmer of understanding of the 20th century. Millions were killed directly or through deprivation due to the power that a relatively few wielded in a vicious, malicious way. Given such a price is too high for the potential reward, we opt for more sensible options: distributed power and authority in political systems; processes where those who are in power only gain it through demonstrating at least a certain standard of character and/or ability; democratic cultures with their corollary procedures to elect officials; and so on.
The existence of God is the question. Being wrong about His existence one way or the other has literally limitless consequences. Being wrong in denying His existence has the consequence of potentially not living up to the standards an eternal life in His presence requires. The potential cost of wrongness is eternal Hell, the worst possible destination for an existing entity. This is a pragmatic case for believing in God. Or to be less theoretically committed, a case for acting as if God exists. It is interesting to see people who are otherwise conservative and quite risk averse when it comes to their finances or health not adopt a similar standard to their attitudes towards God.
It is wise to be more risk averse the higher the cost should things not go as we plan, all else being equal. When it comes to decisions around whether to purchase apples or oranges at the local fruit market the cost is probably extremely low. When it comes to abortion, the climate, tyrants and kings, and the final destination of humanity the costs range from extremely to infinitely greater. One question in navigating these and I think all issues of importance is: Am I justified in being wrong about this commitment?