Daily Camera (Boulder)

Misinforma­tion is factually wrong, but is it ethically wrong, too?

- Lawrence Torcello is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. By Lawrence Torcello

The impact of disinforma­tion and misinforma­tion has become impossible to ignore. Whether it is denial about climate change, conspiracy theories about elections, or misinforma­tion about vaccines, the pervasiven­ess of social media has given “alternativ­e facts” an influence previously not possible.

Bad informatio­n isn’t just a practical problem — it’s a philosophi­cal one, too. For one thing, it’s about epistemolo­gy, the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with knowledge: how to discern truth, and what it means to “know” something, in the first place.

But what about ethics? People often think about responsibi­lity in terms of actions and their consequenc­es. We seldom discuss whether people are ethically accountabl­e for not just what they do, but what they believe — and how they consume, analyze or ignore informatio­n to arrive at their beliefs.

So when someone embraces the idea that mankind has never touched the Moon, or that a mass shooting was a hoax, are they not just incorrect, but ethically wrong?

Know the good, do the good

Some thinkers have argued the answer is yes — arguments I’ve studied in my own work as an ethicist.

Even back in the 5th century B.C., Socrates linked epistemolo­gy and ethics implicitly. Socrates is mostly known through his students’ writings, such as Plato’s “Republic,” in which Plato depicts Socrates’ endeavors to uncover the nature of justice and goodness. One of the ideas attributed to Socrates is often summarized with the adage that “to know the good is to do the good.”

The idea, in part, is that everyone seeks to do what they think is best — so no one errs intentiona­lly. To err ethically, in this view, is the result of a mistaken belief about what the good is, rather than an intent to act unjustly.

More recently, in the 19th century, British mathematic­ian and philosophe­r W.K. Clifford linked the process of belief formation with ethics. In his 1877 essay “The Ethics of Belief,” Clifford made the forceful ethical claim that it is wrong — always, everywhere and for everyone — to believe something without sufficient evidence.

In his view, we all have an ethical duty to test our beliefs, to check our sources and to place more weight in scientific evidence than anecdotal hearsay. In short, we have a duty to cultivate what today might be called “epistemic humility”: the awareness that we ourselves can hold incorrect beliefs, and to act accordingl­y.

As a philosophe­r interested in disinforma­tion and its relationsh­ip to ethics and public discourse, I think there is a lot to be gained from his essay. In my own research, I have argued that each us has a responsibi­lity to be mindful of how we form our beliefs, insofar as we are fellow citizens with a common stake in our larger society.

Setting sail

Clifford begins his essay with the example of a ship owner who has chartered his vessel to a group of emigrants leaving Europe for the Americas. The owner has reason to doubt the boat is in a seaworthye­nough condition to cross the Atlantic, and considers having the boat thoroughly overhauled to make sure it is safe.

In the end, though, he convinces himself otherwise, suppressin­g and rationaliz­ing away any doubts. He wishes the passengers well with a light heart. When the ship goes down midsea, and the ship’s passengers with it, he quietly collects the insurance.

Most people would probably say the ship owner was at least somewhat ethically to blame. After all, he neglected his due diligence to make sure the ship was sound before its voyage.

What if the ship had been fit for voyage and made the trip safely? It would be no credit to the owner, Clifford argues, because he had no right to believe it was safe: He’d chosen not to learn whether it was seaworthy.

In other words, it’s not only the owner’s actions — or lack of action — that have ethical implicatio­ns. His beliefs do, too.

In this example it is easy to see how belief guides actions. Part of Clifford’s larger point, however, is that a person’s beliefs always hold the potential to affect others and their actions.

No man — or idea — is an island

There are two premises that can be found in Clifford’s essay.

The first is that each belief creates the cognitive conditions for related beliefs to follow. In other words, once you hold one belief, it becomes easier to believe in similar ideas.

This is borne out in contempora­ry cognitive science research. For example, a number of false conspirato­rial beliefs — like the belief that NASA faked the Apollo Moon landings — are found to correspond with the likelihood of a person falsely believing that climate change is a hoax.

Clifford’s second premise is that no human beings are so isolated that their beliefs won’t at some point influence other people.

People do not arrive at their beliefs in a vacuum. The influence of family, friends, social circles, media and political leaders on others’ views is well documented. Studies show that mere exposure to misinforma­tion can have a lasting cognitive impact on how we interpret and remember events, even after the informatio­n has been corrected. In other words, once accepted, misinforma­tion creates a bias that resists revision.

Taking these points together, Clifford argues that it is always wrong — not just factually, but ethically — to believe something on insufficie­nt evidence. This point does not assume that each person always has the resources to develop an informed belief on each topic. He argues it is acceptable to defer to experts if they exist, or withhold judgment on matters where one has no sound grounding for an informed belief.

That said, as Clifford suggests in his essay, theft is still harmful, even if the thief has never been exposed to the lesson that it is wrong.

Ounce of prevention

Arguing that people are ethically responsibl­e for nonevident­ial beliefs doesn’t necessaril­y mean they are blameworth­y. As I have argued in other work, Clifford’s premises show the morally relevant nature of belief formation. It is enough to suggest that developing and nurturing critical thinking is an ethical responsibi­lity, without denouncing every person who holds a belief that can’t be supported as inherently immoral.

Ethics is often talked about as if it were merely a matter of identifyin­g and chastising bad behaviors. Yet, as far back as Plato and Socrates, ethics has been about offering guidance for a life well lived in community with others.

Likewise, the ethics of belief can serve as a reminder of how important it is, for other people’s sakes, to develop good habits of inquiry. Learning to identify fallacious arguments can be a kind of cognitive inoculatio­n against misinforma­tion.

That might mean renewing educationa­l institutio­ns’ investment in discipline­s that, like philosophy, have historical­ly taught students how to think critically and communicat­e clearly. Modern society tends to look for technologi­cal mechanisms to guard us against misinforma­tion, but the best solution might still be a solid education with generous exposure to the liberal arts — and ensuring all citizens have access to it.

This article is republishe­d from The Conversati­on under a Creative Commons license.

 ?? DAMIEN MEYER — GETTY IMAGES ?? The ethics of belief can serve as a reminder of how important it is, for other people’s sakes, to develop good habits of inquiry. Learning to identify fallacious arguments can be a kind of cognitive inoculatio­n against misinforma­tion.
DAMIEN MEYER — GETTY IMAGES The ethics of belief can serve as a reminder of how important it is, for other people’s sakes, to develop good habits of inquiry. Learning to identify fallacious arguments can be a kind of cognitive inoculatio­n against misinforma­tion.

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