Appropriate to Evidence and Cost

You may have seen this video of chimpanzees who were raised in a research lab, and released to the outdoors for the first time in their lives.

Sometimes I feel like those chimpanzees. I blink and wonder at new virtues I see in the landscape of freethought. What I see is sometimes so unfamiliar that I cannot name it.

So it is with the virtue I propose for your consideration in this post.

It’s the virtue of urging change on others only

  • in proportion to the solid evidence for your idea, and
  • in inverse proportion to the cost that your change will exact.

Jesus had the right idea when he encouraged people to “count the cost” before signing up as his disciple. Even if a person really needed what Jesus had to offer, and was eager to have it, Jesus preferred to send him away with nothing if he was not willing to give up everything.

Too many people, myself included, have breezed past the ethical imperative of letting people know what they’re getting themselves into.

I would add that those who proselytize for high-cost spiritual programs (cost in terms of money or cost in terms of lifestyle change) ought to have plenty of evidence that their ideas are true. Not just that they “work” or “change lives” but are factually true.

How do you know they’re true? Do your ideas allow you to make predictions that can be fulfilled in front of people today? Have you proposed ways that your ideas could be proven false, and encouraged others to try those experiments? Do your ideas fit comfortably with what you see in the world, or do they force you into ad hoc appeals to the mysterious plans of invisible beings? Have you listened carefully to the best arguments from those who disagree with you? Have you actually read their books, or have you allowed your own side to summarize them for you? Have you given your opponents credit for being intelligent, sincere human beings, or have you demonized them as unenlightened and morally compromised because they disagree with you?

I once attended a group of spiritual seekers and one of the women there opined that it didn’t matter whether the system on offer was technically true; what mattered was whether it made you feel better. So astonished that I lost my manners, I blurted out, “Then just take drugs!”

I say from experience that the sweet feelings, warm social atmosphere and exalted morality of a spiritual system will turn bitter, uncomfortable and dark if the foundation on which they were based proves false.

So let’s rotate our own volume knobs counterclockwise if we don’t really have evidence for what we’re saying. Let’s be especially cautious if we’re asking a lot of those we are trying to convince.

P.S. – There’s one more aspect of this virtue that I will save for its own post. We should make special accommodations for people who are not equipped to evaluate the evidence. They may include children, the philosophically unsophisticated and people who have suffered deep psychological wounds.

2 responses to “Appropriate to Evidence and Cost

  1. So, essentially what you’re saying is people shouldn’t endorse things as if they are true when they don’t really know if they are true or lack some form of evidence to support it as true?

    . . . just take drugs :).

    • Yes, that would be my message in a very small nutshell. (Your first paragraph — not the part about the drugs.)

      A larger nutshell might make it a matter of degree rather than a yes/no. It might also include the consideration of cost. If you are asking people to pay a high cost, then ethically you ought to have even more evidence.

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