Doing Away With Dogmatism

The world is full of crazy people.

The Pope bans the use of contraception to preserve the sanctity of life, and ends being indirectly responsible for thousands of deaths through the spread of AIDS. Ron Paul seems like a pretty reasonable guy, but have you heard his foreign policy? And don’t even get me started on Octomom – the woman who ended up with octuplets after a disastrous fertility treatment and a decision not to abort.

This person is crazy.

But the funny thing is that when you talk to them, even the crazy ones, are generally well meaning people who want to do the right thing. I believe that people are inheritantly good social beings who want to be loved and want to love others. So where does the screw-up come? How do a bunch of well intentioned people end up messing things up so badly?

There’s an old saying that goes something like: “The only way to make a good person do a bad thing is to give him religion.” I’d like to modify that slightly to be: “The only way to make a good person do a bad thing is to give him dogma.”

A dogmatic person is “inclined to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true.” In my opinion dogmatism leads to problems both in business and in life.

Then the question becomes, how do you lead a good and moral life without dogmatism? Surely being a principled person is a good thing. And if you have principles shouldn’t you follow them? 

I’d like to posit that while it’s impossible to live a good life without principles, it’s equally impossible to lead a good life while believing that your principles are incontrivertably true.

Let’s take for example the two most common systems of morality today: Utilitarianism and Deontologicalism.

Utilitarianism, put forward by Jeremey Bentham and popularized by John Stuart mill posits that the moral action is the one that “brings the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Thus, the result of the action is the only thing that counts and intention means nothing. On its surface this works pretty well. What form of government should we have? Democracy of course, because it brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

Unfortunately, a strict adherance breaks down in certain circumstances. For example, let’s there is a fire in a building. Inside the building, the president is trapped. So is your mother. You only have time to save one person. Who should you save?

According to utilitarianism you have to save the president – the greatest good for the greatest number. But I find this particular calculation unappealing, and so do many people.

Deontologicalism, a creation of German philosopher Immanuel Kant is the opposite of utilitarianism in that your actions are judged by your intention, not the result. If an act committed with pure intention results in harm it doesn’t matter – all that counts under deontologicalism is your intention.

If you believe in the sanctity of life, then from a deontological perspective the banning of condoms in Africa is completely moral. But even though the intention is good, following through on that principle in this case has lead to huge loss of life.

The problem is that the two prevailing moral systems lie on complete opposite sides of the spectrum. One says that all that matters in judging the “goodness” of an action is the result, the other says that all that matters is your intention.

I think that a good system of morality combines both intention (principle) and result. To be a moral person, you start out with a set of principles. Then you carry out those principles in your daily life. If you’re getting a good result from the principles that you started out with you keep them. If not, you modify them slightly and try again.

Doing this is like the scientific method. You start out with a hypothesis (your principles) and then you run an experiment (your actions every day). If the experiment proves the hypothesis then you form a model (you keep your principles), but if it fails, you modify the hypothesis and do the experiment again. Repeatly carrying out these experiments brings you continually closer to the truth.

Looking at your principles in this way allows you to be a principled person without being dogmatic. It allows you to be constantly questioning and evolving. And that, I believe, is the height of morality.

If you liked this post you should probably follow me on Twitter.


14 Jan 2012, 4:27pm | 6 comments

  • Pedro Gil Candeias
  • Sosanna Robota

    Dan, but how can you be sure your principles are the driving force behind the “good results” you are getting as a result of following your principles?

  • Dan Shipper

    Are you asking how can you be sure that your actions are actually creating the outcome that you're evaluating? If so I guess you can't be 100% sure, but I think it's pretty easy to tell when your actions have at least some hand in the outcome of an event.  If you're asking how you can be sure your principles are the driving force behind the result then you can say: if your actions are performed according to your principles, and your actions drive the result, then the result is indirectly driven by your principles. 

  • Andrew Stevens
  • PJ Brunet

    There’s a theory AIDS is an African problem because of some parasite unique to southern Africa. (No other region has the same AIDS stats.) I say instead you are crazy to:1. Limit sexual pleasure by introducing a synthetic barrier that limits your sensation of a) various strategically located vaginal muscles b) natural lubrication enhancing optimal enjoyment of multi-layered frictional forces c) nerve endings stimulated by optimal blood circulation, etc. 2. Prefer sex with an inanimate object because you’re not man enough to face a .00000000001% chance of death. Isn’t love worth dying for? 3. Allow a microscopic parasitic worm to interfere in your sexual intimacy. If a little worm is preventing you from enjoying sex, then apparently that little worm is more a man than you.

  • PJ Brunet

    I should also add for posterity: I don’t believe the point of sex is pleasure, etc. However, I do believe condoms are absurd if you look just beneath the surface.


Never miss a new post