Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Loyalties & Interests, Moral Arguments, & the Issue of Personal Attacks

On 23 August, I blogged a warning against attempts to obscure the danger of global warming. That blog alerted people to the way that ExxonMobil is funding a series of think-tanks and events designed to skew the necessary public debate over the response to global warming. A large part of that blog was designed to get people to question the way loyalties and interests, others’ and our own, obscure objectivity (often subconsciously) in weighing evidence and arguments. Because I featured evangelical thinker Calvin Beisner as an example, some people, including Dr. Beisner himself, have interpreted this as a personal attack and an accusation that he was bribed (though I specifically state otherwise) or makes his arguments for monetary gain. Looking back over the content of my post, I do not believe that I implied any such thing, but I can see how the title of the blog, “Follow the Money: Calvin Beisner, ExxonMobil, and Global Warming” could give that impression. For that title alone, I apologize since I should have at least placed ExxonMobil first, and possibly left Dr. Beisner’s name out of the title altogether.

For the record: I do not believe that Calvin Beisner has ever been bribed or motivated by financial gain to write against the global warming consensus. It is ExxonMobil, not any individual, whose motives I was (and am) impugning.

This allows me to clarify something about loyalties & interests and ad hominem attacks. Ad hominem arguments, arguing against persons instead of the arguments they make, are one kind of logical fallacy. I have been accused of a particular form of this known as the ad hominem circumstantial: urging an audience (you, gentle readers) to reject someone’s conclusions (Beisner’s on global warming) because they seem to serve his self-interest. That is an error. An argument may be completely right even if the conclusion serves the self-interest of those making it. However, I was not urging people to reject Beisner’s conclusions, but to be suspicious of them.

Logicians often give the impression that humans are disinterested minds and that we come to conclusions based strictly on the evidence. None of us, not even scientists, do this. Our perspectives are shaped by our loyalties and interests so that, if we are concerned with truth, we need to examine evidence more closely if conclusions happen to fit with certain loyalties (e. g., Beisner’s long-term loyalties to free markets as demonstrated by both his associations and his specific publications) or interests (e.g. ExxonMobil’s financial interest in having politicians and the general public doubt the problem of global warming, its causes, and, especially, the need to reduce hydrocarbon emissions into the air in order to stop, slow, or mitigate the effects of global warming). We commit ourselves to people, to institutions, to general social perspectives and we develop loyalties to them. They affect how we weigh evidence whether we want them to or not. I alerted readers of that blog repeatedly to my own loyalties (e.g., to Evangelical Environmental Network) because the need to examine closely how these factors influence moral argument applies to me, too.

I hope this is now clear.


September 11, 2006 - Posted by | ethics

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