67% of you will not finish reading this

In my best imitation of a philosopher, allow me to remind you of what you already know: for thinking well ethically–whether publicly or privately–you need more than just statistics.

Official portrait of Vice President of the Uni...

Maybe he could defend my dissertation for me?

It is a lesson of which I am reminded periodically, usually via hotly debated political questions here in the U.S. In the past years I have seen credible–yet probably logically incompatible–statistics deployed to both attack and defend the various “Stimulus” packages, the “Affordable Care Act,” gun ownership, abortion, and nearly every other important topic of recent years. The fact that these seemingly incompatible statistics sound credible is partly a function of a lack of time, resources, and ability on my part to investigate every statistic thrown in my face (what else could Purgatory be for, anyway?) and partly due to the fact that many of our U.S. politicians are more properly actors–in terms of what they actually do–than careful deliberators, not to mention “guardians of the body politic.” As a result, a great many of them (yes, on both “sides”) can state preposterous statistics with tones of unassailable gravitas.

But the inconclusive nature of statistics is also a lesson of which I am reminded by the philosopher Immanuel Kant every time I teach his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, even though Kant came long before our age of “big data.” How can this be? Think for a moment about what statistics are. I would submit that most of them are what Kant would classify as consequences. They are either measurements of things that have happened, or things that are likely to happen, or things that are likely to happen if you ignore several other things likely to happen and presume that several other nearly impossible things will happen.

(As you can see, it is the clarity of my prose than has won the hearts of my readers.)

Yep, consequences are a slippery business. In the course of the Grounding, Kant identifies several problems with trying to determine the morality of actions based on their consequences. To name but a few of them, consequences are difficult to foresee for us as limited human beings (and even today, as limited human beings with powerful computers equipped with Diablo 3). We don’t always know what will lead to what. To take a famous historical example, it was thought that the Treaty of Versailles would bring a lasting peace to Europe, but it helped give rise to another world war. But leave aside geopolitical considerations: we don’t always know what will lead to what even in our personal lives. We think good health will make us happy, but we might just feel so good that we go out and get ourselves tangled up in adultery. Or as Kant glumly notes, we might imagine that being smarter would make us happy, but being smarter might just give us a keener eye for all the misery of the world. It is, after all, the nerdy smart people who like to talk about “WorldSuck” as if it has just been recently discovered.

Not only are consequences difficult to foresee, but they are also sometimes difficult to see at all. That is to say, not all the consequences of an action are obvious. To supplement Kant with a little Gandalf, “not even the wise can see all ends.” And even when something has obviously happened, identifying the exact chain of causation can be difficult. In regard to statistics, this is the well-known difference between correlation and causation. Sometimes things can happen together–increased murder rate and increased ice cream consumption–without one having anything to do with the other in terms of morality.

Now Kant wished to expel the consideration of consequences entirely from moral discourse in favor of the rational estimation of our duties, but none of us really wants that either, at least on the public level. Would you really want to discuss gun control, or vaccination, or education in the total absence of statistics and other consequential considerations? If you answered no, perhaps it is because you are rightly aware that actions are intimately connected to consequences. One might even go so far as to say that actions are named for their consequences–or at least on their most important consequences. For example, murder might also be “exercise,” but the health of the murderer is clearly a less morally relevant consequence of his action.

No, the lesson to be drawn is not really that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics” as Mark Twain made famous, but just that statistical thought must be heavily supplemented in ethics–again, whether public or private–with other considerations, such as the example and opinions of the virtuous agents of the past, with an appreciation of how circumstances alter actions, and even with a rational estimation of duties (just for you, Kant) and a rational estimation of rights (as opposed to the more common emotive forms of estimation).

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2 Responses to 67% of you will not finish reading this

  1. Nicola Kirk says:

    Whew! That was quite a read! I think statistics are based upon data that was only accurate at the point of input. I was wondering, is there a statistic for how many people fib on forms, or a statistic related to the percentage of people who fill out 100% of a form perfectly?
    According to guest registers at hotels dotted throughout the UK, Adolph and Eva stayed, sometimes together, often separately, umpteen times over the past century.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Thanks, and my apologies for my slow response!

      As far as your question goes, I have no idea–but send me a link if you ever find a statistic on it, as it is an interesting question. I’m sure the rate would depend at least in part on the nature of the form in question–some forms just seem to cry out for, *ahem, “creativity.”

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