Take the Freaking Red Pill

April 30, 2009 § 14 Comments

I am morally certain that some folks use the term “morally certain” as a rhetorical claim of certainty when in fact they are anything but certain.

This is not the only place in our culture where the term “moral” seems to be employed to mean “unreal”. But it is a rather insidious one, it seems to me, because every time someone employs the term “moral certainty” in this way it reinforces the idea that morality is unreal.

I’ll explain how I think the term ought to be used. When someone says “I am morally certain of X” (as in e.g. “I am morally certain that Bob is about to murder me” or “I am morally certain I am married to Jane”), what he ought to mean by it is “I am certain enough of X that I am betting my immortal soul on X being true”. That is what the “morally” modifier entails, after all. The “morally” modifier does not mean “unreal”, as in “uncertain certainty”, and people should really stop using it that way for reasons already stated.


§ 14 Responses to Take the Freaking Red Pill

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Historically, I think the phrase “moral certainty” has been used for a very long time (beginning in the 17th century, if I’m not mistaken) to distinguish it from something like “mathematical certainty.” I’ll ask my resident historian of epistemic terminology, but by my recollection it had a legal history. Moral certainty was that degree of certainty that people have in matters of daily life. It therefore denotes an extremely high degree of confidence which is sometimes designated as “certainty,” though it does not refer to Cartesian, absolute certainty. (Here I mean to use “Cartesian” strictly in a descriptive sense. I actually kind of like Descartes, so I never use the term as an insult.)

  • zippy says:

    I’m glad to hear that, since that is pretty much how I use the term. In fact I think in fairness I should include my own understanding in the main post.

  • Tom says:

    <>“I am certain enough of X that I am betting my immortal soul on X being true”.<>You can use it that way, but that’s much stronger than what the term ordinarily implies.

    Moral certainty is the confidence of a thing being true that is required for a particular act to be morally good.

    If I’m taking an umbrella out of a rack that has lots of umbrellas in it, I may be morally certain the umbrella I take is mine, but I wouldn’t bet my immortal soul on it. Heck, I can be morally certain the umbrella <>isn’t<> mine, and I still wouldn’t (except in exceptional circumstances) lose my soul for it.

    And if I am subjectively certain that something is true, then it is in accord with reason and moral theology for me to act as though it is true. If my subjective certainty is ill-founded (as opposed to happening to be wrong, against all odds), then my moral error arises from my imprudence in coming to be certain, and we’re into the “But I never thought–“/”Well, you should have thought!” case.

  • zippy says:

    <>Moral certainty is the confidence of a thing being true that is required for a particular act to be morally good.<><><>That is a fair point (though it kind of becomes tautological the way the term gets used). And an interesting one, since it implies that the gravity of the matter at hand changes the degree of certainty the term implies. Perhaps I should say “when dealing with grave matter, it means …” or “in morally non-trivial cases it means…”. That is where the discussion that matters typically turns anyway, as opposed to identifying umbrellas.

    Using it to <>just mean<> “certain enough to make X the morally right thing to do” becomes question-begging — as in “morally certain the prisoner can provide useful information if we waterboard him”.

  • Tom says:

    <>And an interesting one, since it implies that the gravity of the matter at hand changes the degree of certainty the term implies.<>I’m putting it < HREF="http://disputations.blogspot.com/2009_05_01_archive.html#5304494918686256971" REL="nofollow">this way<>: The gravity of the effects of acting as though something is true when it is false affects the certainty that acting that way is morally good.

  • zippy says:

    That is a very clarifying way to put it.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Actually, my resident historian (Tim) tells me, if I’m understanding him correctly, that the term was historically used when one would bet a great deal for a relatively small return. In other words, one would give huge odds in favor of the thing. The example he gave was, “I am morally certain that I have fingernails.”

  • Tom says:

    Money is often a good measure of certainty.

    One technique I’ve heard of for dealing with anxiety (particularly in children) is to test whether the person is really afraid by betting them that what they fear won’t happen. “Will you give me a hundred bucks if lightning doesn’t strike the house? Ten? You’re losing sleep over a ten dollar fear?”

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Tom, you would make a good Bayesian. Just so you don’t think that’s _all_ there is to degrees of credibility.

  • Tom says:

    Ha, no, I don’t make a good Bayesian. At least give me Dempster-Shafer to keep things interesting.

  • Billy says:

    <> Money is often a good measure of certainty. <>

    But a bad measure of the degree of certainty needed for moral choices.

    If I am willing to bet 100 against 1 that this guy is planning to break into my house and rob me and possibly kill me, that does not give me the right to shoot him in “self defense.” If I am willing to bet 1000 to 1 that the president of Iran is lying through his teeth that their nuclear program is entirely for civilian purposes, that does not give me the certainty needed to declare war.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Billy, does this mean you just don’t believe in shooting home invaders in self-defense or that you’re looking for a higher probability before shooting the home invader?

  • Billy says:

    I am perfectly willing to shoot an invader in my home, and a guy with door-busters still trying to get into my home. No problem there.

    I just want to be cautious about measuring the certainty of an action being moral by a willingness to bet money. Some people are willing to take on actions with excessive dangers for money or for bragging rights that, from a moral perspective, are not justified. Some people (especially those with money to burn) are willing to bet money on pretty poor choices. Finally, if it is money at risk and not their time or body, people are perfectly willing to risk their money on things they would NOT risk their more dearly held possessions.

  • RAnn says:

    I’d like to invite you to participate in Sunday Snippets–A Catholic Carnival, a meme, which is a replacement for the Catholic Carnival run by Jay at Living Catholicism for many years, is a place for Catholic bloggers to direct others to their posts and a place for us to meet other Catholic bloggers. Some participants blog exclusively, or almost totally about Catholic topics; others, like me, periodically have such posts. Both are welcome.To participate, go your blog and create a post titled “Sunday Snippets–A Catholic Carnival”. In it, summarize and link to at least on of your posts from the last week, which post should have a least a little to do with Catholicism (even if it is just showing off the cute Catholic kid). This week’s entry is at http://rannthisthat.blogspot.com/2009/05/sunday-snippets-catholic-carnival.html If you’d like a weekly reminder to participate, join our yahoogroup at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sunday_snippets/?yguid=1269802

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