This piece in the Guardian got a lot of attention, ‘Peter Gleick lied, but was it justified by the wider good?‘ I’ve tried a few times to respond to some very loud criticism. The objection is that I’m defending Gleick, but I don’t think I am. In a sentence, the post asked a question, was Gelick justified in his action, and I concluded that I don’t know, it depends on the consequences of that action.
Here’s my last comment in the comment stream (which replaces an earlier one), which spells it out a bit:
“I’ll try, one last time, to say what I said in the original piece. This is not a defence of Gleick. I was careful to raise questions, rather than answer them. I say that I’m not sure that what Gleick did was right. Everyone else seems to condemn him, but I don’t know.
I don’t know because I don’t think an act like his is intrinsically right or wrong. A divine command theorist might say that lying is always wrong, no matter what, because God forbids it. But I don’t think that sort of view is right, and I give an example of a lie that seems right (hiding keys), to make that point.
I then say that two things usually figure into reflection on right and wrong action: intentions and consequences – roughly a cartoon view of Kant as opposed Bentham. I don’t know enough about Gleick’s intentions, so I focused on consequences. The consequences that Utilitarians identify are such things as a greater balance of pleasure over pain, happiness for the greatest number, a reduction in human suffering, and other good things. Those are the good ends in view, not the promotion of ideology at any costs, etc. Those are what we should think about when evaluating action.
So the question I’m asking in this piece is, was Gleick right, i.e. was it better to have done what he did, or not? I say maybe it was right if it brings about good consequences, maybe it was wrong if it doesn’t – that’s a very boring consequentialist view, but that’s it.
And I never said scientists should lie, I said they should become more involved in fighting absurd claims in their domains, where they’re experts. That’s where they don’t go far enough.
Thanks for the comments and discussion. Sometimes enlightening and even encouraging.”