On Reason and Deceit in Political and Ethical Discourse

by James Petts

Essay originally from Counterweight.

Reason and ethics

If (and insofar as) ethics is not based entirely on reason, there is no general[1] reason to be ethical. So much is a truism. The reason not to kill somebody out of anger has nothing to do with the fact that people have devised a concept of ethics and decided that killing somebody out of anger should be categorised as unethical according to that concept: it is that a world in which people are free to kill people out of anger is a much worse and more dangerous world than one in which such conduct is not practised and is prohibited. This is true not only for those who would be unlikely to kill out of anger themselves, but also for people who might be inclined to kill others out of anger.

The concept of ethics and the categorisation of anger killing as unethical is a description of the reason not to engage in that behaviour (and to punish severely instances of it in others) that exists quite independently of the intellectual work of categorising it, just as trees existed before anybody came up with the concept of a tree.

By definition, having a reason to make a particular choice means that that choice will tend to serve the ultimate goal of the agent making that choice. In the case of people, that ultimate goal is the state of having pleasant experiences[2]. A statement that a person ought to do something is a statement that a person has a sufficient reason to do that thing. Ethical statements are ultimately statements about what people ought to do, and therefore what people have reason to do. Thus, insofar as an ethical statement does not in fact disclose an already existing sufficient reason for a person to behave as directed by that statement, it is a falsehood and ought to be rejected by any person at whom it is directed.

Ethics and deceit

Human social interaction is complex. Whilst the truth of some ethical statements is quite straightforward to establish (e.g., it is unethical to kill another out of anger; it is not unethical not to bake me a cake every time that I ask for one), the truth of others is much more complex, and in many cases it is not at all obvious what the right thing to do is (what is the right level of personal taxation? To which, if any, charities should people give money? What sort of electoral system ought to be used for choosing governments?).

Dealing with complexity is challenging. History suggests that humans have a tendency to be overconfident in their beliefs and those of others in complex domains even when there is no basis at all for those beliefs. The historical practice of medicine is an example: humourism – the notion that the human body is regulated and constituted principally by the four humours, being blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm, the imbalance of which is the cause of all disease – was widely—and largely uncritically—accepted by medical practitioners without any empirical basis from the time of the ancient Greeks to the mid 19th century. Only in the 20th century did it become commonplace to test medical theories using controlled experiments and rigorous statistical analysis; before that time, it was common to rely on uncontrolled case studies or entirely untested theories. As a result, medical treatment was often positively harmful: in the mid-19th century, for example, far more women who were admitted to hospital for childbirth died of infectious disease than those who gave birth at home.

Reason and evidence based challenges to harmful established ideas often meet with abusive behaviour: the ideas of Ignaz Semmelweis, who first noticed that physicians themselves tended to spread puerperal fever to their patients and advocated hand-washing (after tests that he conducted showed that this reduced infection fatalities by 90%) were dismissed out of hand; he was removed from his post[3], and later suffered a breakdown leading to his eventual confinement to an asylum. In modern times, one might describe Semmelweis as being “cancelled”.

In medicine, there is usually no clear and direct benefit to anyone for believing in false theories; there is no doubt some cost of change in practices and learning which might affect the perceived expertise of established physicians (which may well have been the cause at least in part of the rejection of Semmelweis’s work), and, in modern times, so-called “alternative medicine” is a fraud which relies on dishonestly rejecting scientific scrutiny into its efficacy in order to enrich its practitioners at the expense of its patients, but, for the most part, nearly everybody benefits directly and relatively immediately from true advances in medicine: most people, after all, suffer ill health sometime in their lives, and, overall, physicians can make at least as much, if not more, money treating patients effectively than ineffectively (especially if they can be kept alive for longer). It is thus perhaps not surprising that the balance of incentives has favoured evidence based medicine in the long-term, which has brought immeasurable benefits to all humanity in the last century and a half.

Ethics has not been so fortunate. Like medicine, ethics is highly complex; but, unlike medicine, ethics deals in large part with conflict between people, so there is usually a stronger and more immediate incentive for people to deceive others about what counts as ethical. It is thus not surprising that the practice of ethics (and especially politics) still has a long way to go to catch up with the empirical and theoretical rigour now routine in the practice of medicine.

It is not difficult to understand the incentives that operate on people to suppress reasoned scrutiny of ethical claims. If I make a claim that it is unethical not to bake me a cake whenever I ask for one, it is in my (immediate) interests that other people not have the cognitive tools to subject that claim to scrutiny and reject it for lacking any basis. It would be in my (short-term) interests to perpetuate a whole theory of ethics which is superficially attractive to others, perhaps containing many parts that are true (e.g. the observation that people have an ethical duty to be altruistic to others at least sometimes), with the aim of deceiving people into believing that they must bake me a cake whenever I request it so as to increase my access to cake, and simultaneously to suppress the idea that ethical theories should be subject to any sort of scrutiny at all.

Whilst the example of a single person promulgating an entire ethical theory in order to obtain cake is purposely fanciful, that people tend to promote any superficially attractive ethical idea in order to advance their short-term interests at the expense of others is not; indeed, it is commonplace. Anyone who does this will tend to reject rigorous analytic scrutiny of ethics generally for the same reason that practitioners of “alternative medicine” reject scientific testing of their claims: because they know that their claims are false and cannot withstand scrutiny. Conversely, anyone who genuinely (even if mistakenly) believes her or his ethical claims to be true will welcome rigorous testing of the claims, as such a person would (of necessity) believe that those claims would pass any such test and that the passing of such a test would itself tend to vindicate the claims and thus make more people believe them. Likewise, a person acting in good faith would only want to believe the claim insofar as it is true, so would want to find out if it were in fact false. Similarly, genuine scientists who develop medical advances allow their theories and products to be tested scientifically and accept that sometimes those ideas will be falsified and the products shown to be ineffective by that process.

Ethical deceit is as harmful as it is common. It is always in a person’s interests to know the truth; the more complete and accurate one’s information of the world is, the better one can predict the consequences of one’s decisions. A person engaging in ethical deceit of another is doing something purposely in order to harm that other; if I insist that somebody else bake me a cake whenever I ask her or him to do so, and that person believes that doing so is a moral imperative and does so, that person will have spent resources on baking for somebody else which he or she could have spent on her or himself, and thus be harmed by the loss of those resources. Ethical deceit – like any form of deceit – is an inherently hostile act. Anybody engaging in ethical deceit should be considered a threat and treated accordingly.

Ethical deceit, is, of course, itself unethical. Although an individual act of deceit might benefit the deceiver, overall, for most people, including most people who would receive some immediate benefit from an act of ethical deceit, the world would be a better place if ethical deceit were never practised (and were severely punished whenever anyone attempted to practise it) than if it were practised widely. This may not be true for those who are in positions of immense concentrated power, which is one reason that it is very important to ensure that nobody ever be allowed to be in a position of immense concentrated power.

The practice of ethical deceit may properly be called pseudoethics in precisely the same way and for precisely the same reasons as deceptive purportedly scientific practice is called pseudoscience. Just as pseudoscience seeks to deceive people into believing that it is genuinely science for the personal benefit of those who promote it, so too does pseudoethics deceive people into believing that its claims are genuinely ethical for the personal benefit of its promoters.

Deceit and argument

Generally speaking, an argument is a series of connected statements that, if true, establish a proposition. A person claiming to argue that something is true is, by necessary implication, claiming that there is a sufficient reason to believe it to be true, and that is no less true of ethical statements than any other sort of statement.

If I were to say to somebody, “you should bake me a cake because my Theory of Cake says that anyone should bake me a cake when I ask them to do so and I am asking you to do so now”, I would be claiming that the Theory of Cake describes a sufficient reason that already exists for that person to bake me a cake on request. If that were not the case, the statement would be false. If, in making that statement, I knew that there is no reason to believe the Theory of Cake to be true, that statement would have been made dishonestly, and this amounts to a deliberate deceit. Further, if a person attempts to make another believe something to be true, or act as if it were true, other than by rational persuasion, then, necessarily, the person is engaging in deceit, emotional manipulation or intimidation. There is no other logical possibility as to how, but by reason, a person can cause another to believe something. Deceit, emotional manipulation or intimidation are all inherently abusive and threatening towards those at whom they are directed.

It is in every person’s interests to be able to detect whenever another person is engaging in dishonest forms of argumentation as, by doing so, people will be able to resist being deceived into believing or acting on falsehoods and thereby coming to harm. The more people who can successfully detect dishonest argumentation, the less that dishonest argumentation will be able to be effective, and the less likely that it would be that any person would come to harm as a result of third parties acting on the basis of pseudoethical falsehood.

Forms of dishonest argument – generally

All forms of dishonest argument have one essential thing in common: they aim to cause a person to accept or reject an idea or claim in spite of its merits, rather than because of them. Below, I list a number of specific common forms of dishonest argumentation, but there are likely to be many others not described here and perhaps some that have yet to be invented; but that they are dishonest forms of argumentation can in every case be discerned by analysing whether they demand that the idea or claim in question be rejected or accepted despite, rather than because of, the reason to believe it to be true or false.

There are two good heuristics[4] for telling whether a form of argument is likely to be dishonest: (1) the self-application test; and (2) the heliocentricity test. It does not necessarily follow that a form of argument failing these tests will have been made dishonestly, but dishonesty is the usual reason for an argument failing these tests and it should at the very least give rise to great suspicion of the motives of the person making the argument, and in any event, one should not take any such argument seriously.

Many forms of arguments are only susceptible to one or other of these tests, depending on the nature of the argument in question.

The self-application test

This test applies principally to very abstract arguments, such as arguments about what it means for something to be true or how it is possible to know anything – what philosophers call epistemic arguments.

The test is very simple to apply: does the argument make any sense when applied to itself? For example, if I were to argue, “there is no such thing as truth”, then applying the self-application test, one would ask, “is it true that there is no such thing as truth?”, which already reveals the contradiction. If there is no such thing as truth, then the statement “there is no such thing as truth” could not be true, and there would thus be no reason to accept it or act on it. In other words, in making a statement about anything which, by necessary implication, the maker of the statement is inviting others to accept and act on, the person who is claiming that there is no such thing as truth is implicitly contradicting the content of the statement (and the idea of the possibility of any meaningful communication of anything) itself.

By contrast, the opposite statement does not have this problem. “There is such a thing as truth”, when applied to itself, entails no contradiction and is perfectly understandable.

The heliocentricity test

Heliocentricity is the understanding that the earth orbits the sun. It is here used as an example of an uncontroversially, notoriously and demonstrably true but not intuitively obvious fact about the world. Any other fact that has these properties will equally suffice for these purposes.

This test applies principally to arguments about contingent facts about the world – what philosophers call empirical arguments.

The heliocentricity test involves taking the purported form of argumentation and applying it to the idea that the earth orbits the sun (or the claim that the earth does not orbit the sun, as appropriate in the context). Does that form of argument applied to the available evidence affirm the claim that the earth does orbit the sun and reject the claim that it does not? If the form of argumentation in question would just as readily produce the answer that the earth does not orbit the sun as that it does, it is not a trustworthy form of argumentation and is probably dishonest.

For example, if I were to argue, “nothing is true that is not obvious in plain view”, that argument would not pass the heliocentricity test, since it is not obvious that the earth orbits the sun: one has to deduce it from careful observations and measurements. In other words, if a form of (purported) reasoning used in argument fails the heliocentricity test, applying it to the question of whether the Earth orbits the sun, it would fail to distinguish the truth of the matter (viz. that the Earth does orbit the sun) from a falsehood pertaining to the subject (e.g. that the sun orbits the Earth or that neither sun nor Earth exist), being equally able to be used to support an argument as to falsehood as an argument as to truth, and therefore is of no value in distinguishing truth from falsehood.

Specific forms of dishonest argument

There are now described various forms of dishonest argumentation frequently used by practitioners of pseudoethics to deceive people into harming themselves and others for the personal enrichment of those making the arguments.

Reason denialism

Reason denialism consists in the denial of reason, its universality or its applicability to the argument in question. Reason is, by definition, universal: anything that a person describes that is not universal in the sense of being applicable to everything is simply not reason.

As set out above, an argument, by its very nature, is a claim that there is a reason to do or believe something. In making an argument, a person is, by necessary implication, invoking reason. If the argument is, in fact, devoid of reason, it is a bad argument, and one that should never be made nor accepted. For this reason, reason denialism fails both the self-application and the heliocentricity tests: if there is no such thing as reason, there is no reason to accept any argument, including the one being advanced by the pseudoethicist nor that the earth orbits the sun.

Reason denialism is almost always used defensively: very few people begin an argument by making it clear that it has no basis in reason, for such an argument would be inherently unpersuasive. Instead, reason denialism is almost invariably only invoked when some unanswerable flaw in the reasoning in the argument has been discovered. That is itself telling as to the dishonest mindset of those who engage in this behaviour. It is an attempt to stifle scrutiny of the idea, carried out precisely because the person putting forward the idea knows full well that it is incapable of withstanding scrutiny.

Reason denialism is dishonest in exactly the same way that a shopkeeper who denies the existence of arithmetic after being caught short changing customers is being dishonest. A good way of responding to anyone who engages in reason denialism in an argument is to ask whether the person accepts that nobody rational would ever accept the argument being presented. Any answer other than in the affirmative is an answer explicitly claiming there to be reason to accept the argument, and thus contradicts the reason denialism. Any answer in the affirmative is a frank admission that there is no argument at all.

A variant of reason denialism that deserves particular mention because of its subtlety is criticism of an argument for being too abstract. It fails the self-application test, since that an argument should not be too abstract is itself an argument at almost the highest possible level of abstraction. It is in reality almost always intended to stifle scrutiny of the consistency of the argument presented with other things that the person making the argument believes, or has to accept, to be true, since abstraction is usually the most effective way of checking such consistency. A person might, for example, claim that a person’s stated reason for believing that immigration should be severely restricted contradicts that person’s stated reason for believing that there should (otherwise) be free trade, pointing out that there is no fundamental difference between the freedom of trade in goods, capital and labour. A reason denialist might respond by asserting that such an argument is “too abstract” because the denialist knows that he or she is incapable of justifying all of her or his stated views in a way that are consistent with one another and therefore that her or his position is incapable of withstanding scrutiny.

Another variant of reason denialism is to claim that, because something is an opinion, it is incapable of being true or false. This might be used either by the person claiming to have the opinion in order to suppress scrutiny of the truth of the claim (on which the person almost inevitably encourages others to act), or by a person claiming that somebody else’s claim is merely an opinion and for that (purported) reason alone should not be taken seriously. This is incoherent: an opinion is no more or less than an attitude towards a claim; the claim to which it is an attitude can be true or false in the same sense that any meaningful statement, by definition, can be true or false. Those who use this technique often take advantage of the confusion between personal preference and opinions about things that are, by their very nature, either true for everyone or false for everyone; but even personal preferences are simply a fact: that one person likes Victoria sponge and another does not means that, as a matter of universal truth, different people have different degrees of liking or disliking for Victoria sponge. In reality, the concept of opinion adds nothing to any genuine attempt to understand what is and is not true about the world and what should and should not be done.

Evidence denialism

Evidence denialism consists in denying that an empirical statement (i.e. a statement about a contingent fact in the world, e.g., “it rained yesterday” rather than a statement that is true irrespective of the particular state of the world, e.g. that 1 + 1 = 2) requires evidence for there to be sufficient reason to believe it to be true.

Evidence is, by its very nature, information constituting a reason to believe the empirical claim for which it is evidence to be true. A person who makes a statement about a contingent fact in the world does so in the hope that it will be believed and acted upon. Those who make such a statement knowing that there is no evidence for it make the statement dishonestly, knowing that there is in truth no reason to believe it to be true, in just the same way as a person who says, “your house is infested with mice” is dishonest if he or she makes that statement knowing nothing about the house in question. Denying the need for evidence for a claim amounts to a frank admission of dishonesty just as if, in the previous example, the person had said, “I do not need to have any information about whether your house is infested with mice to state with confidence that your house is infested with mice”. Making an empirical statement dishonestly is simply lying, which is an inherently hostile act.

Similarly, but more subtly, those who claim that weak evidence is a reason for a strong belief are also acting dishonestly. Whilst truth is binary (something cannot be part way between being true or false), certainty is not, and exists in degrees. If, on the basis only of a weather forecast predicting a 10% chance of rain tomorrow, a person says, “it is going to rain tomorrow” without any further qualification, that person is being dishonest.

This fails the heliocentricity test, as, without careful scrutiny of the evidence, one cannot meaningfully distinguish the claim that the earth orbits the sun from the claim that the sun orbits the earth or that there are no orbiting planets or stars at all.

Redefining words

It is not uncommon for people to make an argument by using a statement containing a word which the person making the argument has (purportedly) redefined to mean something other than its established definition. Almost inevitably, the intention is (purportedly) to justify the argument by reference to the word as specially redefined, but for the argument to be understood to mean what it would mean by the word in its established definition, and acted on accordingly. For this reason, the technique is often used with words which have particular emotional or social significance, such as “rape”, for example, by claiming that pornography amounts to “rape” as redefined.

The technique is deceptive in nature: it is intended to suppress the expression or even the comprehension of the distinction between the word in its established meaning and the word in its modified sense in order to stifle criticism of treating both categories as alike. It is thus intended to deceive people into accepting claims in spite of their merits rather than to persuade people into accepting claims because of their merits and is therefore inherently abusive. On any possible view, it cannot pass the heliocentricity test as any arbitrary redefinition of “sun” “earth” or “orbit” might easily make the statement “the earth orbits the sun” false according to the words as thus redefined.

In reality, most established languages have, and the English language certainly has, more than enough words to describe anything that needs to be described without altering the meaning of any of them from that already established. A descriptive phrase consisting of several words can be used where a single word does not exist to describe a particular concept. There is thus no honest reason to make an argument using a special and non-standard definition of any word, and anyone who does so is almost certainly doing it abusively, and doubly so where, as is often the case, the person makes a statement containing a word purportedly redefined without explaining that any special definition is being used at all.[5]

Invoking personal qualities

Unless a statement is inherently about the person making it, the nature of a person making a statement is logically incapable of being relevant to the truth of the statement made. Any attempt to invoke the personal characteristics in an argument about the truth of such a statement is therefore, by its very nature, a demand that a person accept or reject the truth of a statement for a reason inherently unrelated to whether it is in fact true, and is thus dishonest.

It is often used where there is a claim that the person making the statement has some sort of bias in favour of believing it to be true, but, except in cases where the person making the statement is claiming to know that it is true by reason of some unique personal knowledge, which is exceedingly unlikely to be sufficiently empirically rigorous or general for a high confidence conclusion about a general statement about ethics in any event, a motivation for bias is logically incapable of being relevant to whether the statement is true and is thus logically incapable of amounting to a valid reason to reject it.

Either the person making the statement is able to put forward a sufficient reasoned argument and sufficiently robust empirical data to demonstrate that the statement is true or he or she is not. If there be sufficient reason and independently verifiable data to accept the statement as true, then there is sufficient reason for anyone to believe it to be true notwithstanding that the person making the statement has some motive for bias. Likewise, if there be insufficient reason and independently verifiable data to accept a statement as being true, then there is insufficient reason to accept it notwithstanding that the person making the statement has no motive for bias.

There are many instances in which people who have an incentive to be biased nonetheless happen to be correct, and many instances in which they are not. Identifying the bias is incapable by itself of differentiating the two types of cases. Just as in the case of every criminal trial, where the defendant on trial has a strong incentive to claim that he or she is not guilty whether or not that is the case, identifying the bias tells one nothing about whether the underlying claim is true, which can only reliably be deduced by rigorous analysis of the evidence and argument, just as is the case where there is no bias.

Referring to irrelevant personal qualities plainly fails the heliocentricity test, as the characteristics of the person making a statement have no possible relevance to the relationship between astronomical bodies.

Claiming to take offence

Responding to an argument or scrutiny of an argument by claiming to take offence at it, rather than by an analytic response to the substance of the argument or a true answer (rather than mere response) to a relevant question is a common and dishonest means of trying to stifle reasoned scrutiny of a claim.

That a person takes offence at an argument or question is determined entirely by a person’s (actual or claimed) emotional reaction to that argument or question, and has no bearing on the validity of the argument or relevance of the question. It is thus, by its very nature, a means of attempting to dismiss an argument or question in spite of its merits rather than because of them. A person might well deliberately choose to take offence at any idea or question that contradicts or challenges that person’s ideas precisely because it does so, and people frequently in fact behave in this way specifically in order to stifle scrutiny of the claims that they make, which, as discussed above, is inherently abusive behaviour.

Such a reaction plainly fails the heliocentricity test. If taking offence were sufficient grounds to reject the conclusion of an argument, then that the earth orbits the sun could be judged to be false if a person was so inclined as to take, or claim to take, offence at the notion of a heliocentric solar system. This, of course, was the case: in times gone past affirming heliocentricity was, according to the Catholic church, so offensive as to be heretical and was thus rejected.

This dishonest behaviour should not be confused with justified criticism of personally hostile conduct, which itself, as set out below, is a form of abusive behaviour intended dishonestly to stifle scrutiny of opposing ideas by those who well know that their claims are incapable of withstanding that scrutiny because they are false. Indeed, those who dishonestly use this technique purposely rely on this confusion in order to stifle scrutiny of their dishonest behaviour in seeking to stifle scrutiny of the argument itself.

The only intelligible way to distinguish claims to take offence with the intention of stifling discussion and a response to abusive personal hostility is by scrutiny of the behaviour rather than the reaction or feelings of the person affected by the behaviour. The question is always whether the behaviour in question is intended to be personally hostile or whether it is an honest attempt at making a reasoned argument about the substance of the matter under discussion.

Personal abuse

It should go without saying that a person who engages in personally abusive behaviour of any kind in the course of argumentation does so with the intent of imposing her or his will upon others by intimidation rather than by persuasion. There is no other conceivable motivation for such behaviour. Plainly, such abuse fails the heliocentricity test as it can equally be levelled in response to any argument.

In every case, it amounts to a frank admission that the person engaging in such conduct is utterly incapable of justifying the claim that he or she is making, and is making the claim with no belief in its truth in order to harm others for personal gain, just as a person who commits armed robbery is by necessary implication admitting that he or she has no lawful entitlement to the money or other property demanded.

Vague emotive language

Vague emotive language is usually an attempt to manipulate people into believing a falsehood to be true rather than persuading people by reason. The language is emotive because that is what is needed in order to manipulate those not alive to the dishonest nature of the technique; and it is vague because more precise statements would more obviously fail to withstand scrutiny and thus fail to manipulate.

A paradigm example of this behaviour is referring to something as “obscene” as a purported reason for taking some or other action against it. The word “obscene” has no meaning other than the expression of emotive disgust at whatever it is referring to, and thus singularly combines both features of this abusive behaviour. Demanding that action be taken because something “is obscene” amounts to demanding that action be taken because of the personal emotional state of the person making the demand, rather than because taking that action would in fact lead to the optimum result overall, even though claiming that something is a reason for taking action inherently amounts to claiming that doing so would lead to the optimum overall result.

There are also subtler uses of this abusive behaviour, a common example of which is referring to a person, set of people or organisation as “obsessed” with something merely because that person or those people believe it to be important.

It fails the heliocentricity test for exactly the same reason as claiming to take offence fails that test: the emotional state of the person making a claim or to whom a claim is communicated simply has no bearing on the truth of the claim being made (unless the claim itself is inherently about that specific person’s emotional state, but that is not possible if the claim is a general ethical statement).

General evasion

General evasion consists in various miscellaneous behaviours intended to distract a person subjecting a person’s claims to scrutiny, or a person witnessing another subject a person’s claims to scrutiny, from reaching the (true) conclusion that the person making those claims knows that he or she has no sufficient reason to believe them to be true.

It is not possible to enumerate all of the behaviours that might fall within this general technique, but they might include, for example, repeatedly changing the subject when pressed, refusing to answer questions, responding to a question with the identical question that was asked without answering the original question, responding to a question with a statement which does not amount to a genuine attempt to answer the question (a common technique employed by politicians[6]), responding to a request for evidence with a request for evidence for a wholly uncontroversial and unrelated claim rather than actually providing the evidence sought (e.g., in a discussion about whether patents are a good thing, responding to a request for evidence that patents do more good than harm by asking for evidence that a prohibition on murder does more good than harm, without providing any evidence about patents), or suggesting that the matter be discussed at a later time (but then never continuing the discussion).

All of these behaviours are evidence that the person engaging in them has made a claim which he or she knows cannot withstand scrutiny, and wishes to conceal that fact from others so that he or she can continue attempting to cause others to continue to believe those claims to be true and act accordingly. They plainly fail the heliocentricity test, since these behaviours can equally be engaged in no matter what the substance of the argument to which they are a response.

This is distinct from the behaviour of a person acting in good faith who, when faced with a novel argument, is unsure whether to accept it and needs more time to consider the matter thoroughly in order to reach a concluded view. In such circumstances, the person would not be dishonest for not responding substantively to the argument, but such a person would make it clear that he or she is genuinely uncertain about whether the novel argument is valid or whether the premises offered in favour of the conclusion are true and not continue to insist that her or his original claim be accepted.


The field of ethics is neither magical nor mysterious; it is as susceptible to scientific study as anything else that is real, and subjecting it to such study would benefit humanity at least as much as the scientific study of medicine has benefited humanity since medicine became scientific in its practice. Its inherent complexity is not a reason to reject analytic and empirical rigour in its study any more than the inherent complexity of the human body is capable of amounting to a reason to reject analytic and empirical rigour in the study of medicine: indeed, quite the converse, as the more complex that something is, the more difficult that it is to understand it accurately without a rigorous approach.

Those who seek to obfuscate rigorous analytical scrutiny of ethics and ethical claims almost certainly do so dishonestly, in order to deceive, manipulate and/or intimidate people into believing false things about ethics, acting on which beliefs will harm those who have those beliefs to the (short term) benefit of those who promulgate them. The promulgation of such pseudoethics is an inherently hostile behaviour; those who engage in it are a threat and should be treated accordingly, in just the same way as anyone else who lies for personal gain is a threat to the well-being of those to whom they lie or those who might be affected adversely by others who act as if the lie were true. Those with the greatest incentive to practise pseudoethics are those who have, or who seek and believe that they have a realistic chance of obtaining, a great amount of power over others and can thus influence many people to believe the pseudoethical falsehoods for their own gain, and suppress dissent and scrutiny. Thus, those who employ pseudoethics purportedly for the benefit of those who are disempowered are almost certainly lying about their motivations: the disempowered are most harmed by further concentrations of power, and most benefited by the dissipation of power as would result from widespread rejection of pseudoethics in favour of a robustly rigorous approach. Intellectual rigour tends to dissipate power just as suppression of that rigour tends to concentrate it.

It is in everyone’s interests to have the cognitive tools to be able to distinguish between genuine and false ethical claims so as not to be harmed by the promulgation of pseudoethics, nor by the equally harmful idea that ethics does not exist at all and that one should never have regard for the welfare of others when making decisions. Those who wilfully seek to obstruct rigorous analytic and empirical scrutiny of ethics are doubly malevolent: not only are they deliberately seeking to cause immediate harm to others for immediate personal gain, they are also deliberately obstructing the ultimate establishment of an ethical equilibrium which would almost certainly bring as much benefit to humanity as the advances in medicine since the mid-19th century have done.

James Petts is a barrister in London who believes in the pre-eminent importance of reason in all aspects of life.

  1. It is possible that, in specific cases, a person might have a reason to act in accordance with a conception of ethics not based on reason if this will affect others’ behaviour (e.g., to avoid being subject to some punishment), but, in such cases, the categorisation as ethical or unethical is not a sufficient reason to act in accordance with that conception; the desirability of avoiding punishment or similar is the true reason. 
  2. Irrespective of the other qualities of those experiences; some people, after all, find pain pleasurable, at least in some circumstances. 
  3. Strictly, his term was not renewed 
  4. I.e., rules of thumb 
  5. For more on the dishonest, propagandist uses of language, as well as tips on clear writing, George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ remains the touchstone. 
  6. A famous example is an occasion in May 1997 when BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman interviewed Michael Howard, then the U. K. Home Secretary, and asked 12 separate times whether Mr. Howard “threatened to overrule” a person, to which Mr. Howard repeatedly responded that he had not overruled the person in question, deliberately ignoring the reference in the questions to having threatened to do so. 
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