Following reality TV star Katie Hopkins’ now infamous rant about children’s names on This Morning last week, there are two important points we can take from it:
Learning why we value objective viewpoints
Hopkins claimed, among other things, that she steers her children away from being friends with other children who have certain kinds of names. Her reasoning for this (as far as we can take from her ramblings, anyway) was that names are an indicator of social class, which she believes can point out children who are badly behaved or less well mannered. Certain names, she notes, can point to children who are not such good influences on her own children.
It’s not an overly clever point. There might be some kind of weak correlation between social class and name (though, ironically, Hopkins is going by her own individual observation and not from a capable study regarding the connection). Maybe there is even a weak connection between social class and negative influence. But on top of these two rationally insignificant connections, there’s also not that strong a connection between social success and happiness anyway (presuming that Hopkins is favouring the happiness of her children, like most parents, and not just their success as an end goal). This makes three overwhelmingly weak links in just that one conclusion which Hopkins draws.
You could never be 100% sure that Hopkins is wrong, however three weak connections in just one belief doesn’t leave a very high chance of her being right. Imagine it as the equivalent of tying two objects together by using a series of three elastic bands, but forgetting to tie the three bands together and instead lying them overlapping. When you move those two objects apart, the bands will not adhere together and you will notice there is no existing link. Even if two of the bands somehow adhere together (perhaps they become sticky through heating), they are likely to come apart under a small tug, so for all three to stay connected is asking for an immensely unlikely outcome. It is, thus, incredibly implausible that Hopkins poor reasoning has discovered a viable ‘link’ between all three elastic bands which thus ties the two factors (the names of child friends and your own children’s happiness) together.
Hopkins’ rant didn’t come out of nowhere though; it might be nonsense, but it’s not completely random. This kind of viewpoint is a classic stereotype, of which all of our beliefs suffer. The human mind is wired to find patterns, even if there are none, so even weak correlations lead us to believe there are patterns which may not even be significant. In Hopkins and many other people’s opinions, stereotypes about social class are valuable primarily because of a variety of myths and social conditioning. If these beliefs are not subjected to scepticism – like as above where we discovered that the truth of these beliefs actually depends on three weak links in a chain, making the chain itself likely non-existent – then Hopkins will believe it to be true based on her knee jerk reaction about the subject.
This shows something very important: if we do not value opinions that are explicitly objective (which is another way of saying ‘properly thought through’) then we end up believing things that are not likely to be true. We won’t just believe the three weak beliefs in the chain, we will also believe the chain itself – in this case, and in many others, this can lead us to act in an irrational and prejudice way toward other people. This is important not just because Hopkins’ children (and followers within the audience) will likely grow to be prejudice, but also because it perpetuates the idea that moral discussion is about personal opinions and thus makes it devoid of evidence and reasons in favour of badly thought through gibberish. Similarly, when people publicly argue on behalf of opinions that are nothing more than stereotypes, it provides back up for people who already believe this, thus making them less likely to change their mind based on real evidence.
We should take an evidence based approach to ethics
Hopkins opinions, by and large, can be laughed off. She is one a very small minority, and we might hope that this kind of irrational thinking is getting less popular – not least because there is a large amount of media backlash against it when it is publicised. This is a good way of isolating and deleting prejudice and irrational viewpoints, like those which Hopkins holds (for an appearance fee, anyway).
The problem is that even though most of us disagree with Hopkins opinions on this subject, it is a symptom of a much larger problem which we all suffer – subjective moral opinions. Hopkins isn’t wrong merely because she’s an idiot, far from it, she is most likely an intelligent woman in many ways. She’s wrong because she’s forming moral opinions based on personal whims and observations.
If we did science like this – making our beliefs up based on personal preference – then we wouldn’t get anywhere. We wouldn’t discover objective truths, because we would need to take an evidence based approach to do this. We probably wouldn’t have computers, central heating or sewage systems that worked – and we would have had no reason to stop witch trials or cat burning. Yet although we now admit the necessarily evidence based nature of scientific endeavour – and all of the fruit it has bought us – we seem to want to ignore it when it comes to morality.
I and many others have written at great length about the problems with this morally ‘relativist’ way of thinking. It is a rationally flawed way of thinking that espouses there are no objective facts of morality purely because morality evolved a relative social tool (one which helped us to treat one another with respect, and protected us and our kin). It falls foul of a common logical error called the is-ought problem which, explained in terms keeping with the science analogy, is the equivalent of finding out that witches don’t exist. We shouldn’t keep up with witch trials once we understand witches don’t exist, just as we shouldn’t keep up with moral relativism once we understand it is logically untenable.
When aimed back at Hopkins we can see that a ‘relative to each person’ form of morality, even when just one parent believes it, can lead them to discriminate against others and teach a new generation of youngsters to carry on her irrational opinions. On a societal level, we are increasingly growing toward moral relativism and it has the potential to create mass moral problems. The way toward an ever increasing moral progress in society is not through personal opinion, it is through evidence based moral opinion.