Irrational Apathy: Do We Descend into Irrationality When it Comes to Ethics?

(First published for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science)


In science, apathy might well be the key to irrationality.

No matter the brilliance of the idea, if we do not explain it then it’s worthless. No matter the manner of the explanation, if it can’t be demonstrated then it is pointless. And no matter the desirability of the idea, if it can’t be replicated, or conditions possible for its disproval, then it‘s nonsense. No matter the brilliance of the idea, if we do not explain it then it’s worthless. No matter the manner of the explanation, if it can’t be demonstrated then it is pointless. And no matter the desirability of the idea, if it can’t be replicated, or conditions possible for its disproval, then it‘s nonsense.

It’s reasonable therefore to suggest that an apathetic method is at polar opposites with decent, rational thought, as it asks us to stop short of good practice. So wouldn’t it also be irrational to allow apathy to cloud our judgements in morality? This conclusion relies on two assumptions which first need to be supported.

Firstly, we need to be able to assume that ethics is in some way rational or objective. Without delving too far into meta-ethics, or the subject of mine or anyone else’s theories of moral science, we can assume a system of ethics which is agreeable and philosophically sound. This would consist of explaining our rough current system, which we already use, in a way which is satisfying to a rational explanation. We can do this fairly easy by saying: ‘We have a set of basic moral values, which develop and evolve in context with one another, but which are extended rationally over time’. In other words, there are values we hold greater than others, but there are some with which we would always follow and others which are open to change through rational extension of the more basic and important moral values. For the purposes of this article we need go no further than this, as I’m not trying to prove or disprove any particular piece of practical ethics, I’m simply setting out a roughly agreeable description of how we rationalise moral decisions.

The second assumption is that apathy in ethics is the same as apathy in scientific method. To justify this assumption, I must make clear that we aren’t talking about apathy in morality as a whole – apathy could be defined as simply ‘not acting’ in some circumstances, and thus might often be a good moral idea (again, this is not something to delve into here). Rather I am referencing apathy in the method in the same way as I am referencing apathy in wider scientific method. This could have very direct comparisons, such as not examining the consequences of a theory or a decision thoroughly (thus being similar to doing likewise in physical science). It also, however, has a less obvious comparison, which is best explained with reference to that science which gives us non-socially acceptable answers.

Probably the most popular example of a socially frowned-upon scientific discovery is Darwin, so I will unashamedly jump on the bandwagon for ease of getting my point across. Darwin demonstrated clear trepidation upon his discoveries about natural selection. The wrong thing to do, from a scientific basis, would have been to ignore his results or hide them from wider scientific observation. Doing so stunts out understanding and ability to progress: it defeats the object of science to hide away those things that challenge the status quo of how and what we think.

We have the same issue in morality. People tend to be easily led in moral values in the same way that they are easily led by religious values: not always, but in general people share the major moral values of the people who raised them or were raised alongside them. Whilst increasing secularisation has led to a less terrifying environment in which to do science, we have yet to do away with the same ‘traditional norms’ within morality. The respect we accord to scientists theorising about quantum mechanics, for example, is not quite accorded in the same way to those who theorise about the increasing moral need for alternatives to fossil fuels, or the strong ethical case for not consuming animal products.

Thus as the affection for apathy has decreased within science, for the great benefit of us all, it has yet to do the same in ethics.

This brings us back to the point in the title: is this apathy in morality not exactly as irrational as when it comes to pass within science? The case is certainly compelling.

When we look at the two examples I stated earlier, it is perhaps easier to analyse. The growing need for alternatives to fossil fuels is certainly a moral issue; physical science does not hold the value that we need electricity or rocket ships. Science is there to help us progress understanding by using these things, but is neutral on whether we want to focus efforts with these kinds of areas. It’s morality (or moral science) that tells us we need these things in order to progress or live better lives. The comparison is whether our unwillingness to accept the need for renewable energy is a similar comfortable apathy to the unwillingness to accept evolutionary theory.

Given the seemingly strong scientific backing for alternatives to fossil fuels, it is perhaps the other examples – animal products – that most tests our resonance with apathy. To support ethical veganism in the modern world is to draw ridicule very much on a par with the drawings of Darwin as a monkey. Most ironic, perhaps, is the excuse that many people give: ‘what difference would it make if only I stopped eating these things?’ That’s an excuse on behalf of apathy, and were it the opinion of people in earlier generations, we might still be living in mud huts or drowning accused witches.

As I’d earlier stated, this piece isn’t intended to be an advocacy of renewable energy or ethical veganism. It is, however, written by someone who is compelled to agree that apathy in ethics is as irrational as the apathy that greeted some of the greatest scientific accomplishments in history. So long as we agree that moral progress and scientific progress are inextricably intertwined, then that’s a difficult point to disagree with. It might be a simple and relatively agreeable point, but our agreement with it logically removes the vast majority of our excuses when it comes to the environment or eating animal products (whether it be mundane comments regarding taste or convenience, or even the appeal to those living in Antarctica or surviving plane crashes).