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Tolerance and the right to be wrong

October 17, 2013

Jonathan Haidt describes the moral reasoning of educated Americans:

If you’re an educated and politically liberal Westerner, you’ll probably acknowledge the man’s right to do what he wants, as long as he doesn’t hurt anyone…When you put individuals first, before society, then any rule or social practice that limits personal freedom can be questioned. If it doesn’t protect somebody from harm, then it can’t be morally justified.

Such rights-based arguments have become quite powerful in public discourse. You think gay marriage is wrong? Too bad. Since it doesn’t cause harm, you’re simply a bigot if you oppose it. Ditto for promiscuous sex and, increasingly, recreational drug use. Part of the success of this framework is that it’s, well, a damn good argument. If behavior X (pick your favorite) doesn’t cause harm, why should anyone be prevented from practicing it? And thus in so many areas of life, we now welcome individuals’ right to do what they want, even if another group–or most of the country–finds that behavior wrong or offensive. So the question is…why don’t we do the same for creationists?

Granted, the fact that creationists try to bring their beliefs into schools raises complicated First Amendment questions. But if my many of my friends and journalists like Alex Knapp are any indication, opposition to them run much deeper. We view their very existence as a problem.

If we were being consistent, we would embrace, as we do elsewhere, creationists’ right to be wrong. We would welcome it if creationists said: “My lifestyle choice is harmless and I have every right to practice it without interference.” Even more strongly, we scientists would assert: “You know what, everything we know about cognitive function suggests that believing in creationism will not affect your ability to reason scientifically in other domains. Heck, a ten minute Google search confirms as much. In the name of tolerance and individual rights, you can go ahead and reject evolution if you want.” But scientists have declared that everyone must accept this body of knowledge, and no one questions this declaration. It’s not clear to me why, exactly, we have this authority. It’s not clear when expert opinion should trump individual rights, and who gets to decide what Americans should believe.

The ascendance of rights-based discourse is not surprising. In an increasingly pluralistic and diverse country, a robust tolerance is necessary. But it is not fair to allow some groups to use rights-based arguments to pursue their happiness while preventing others from doing so. Why are creationists neglected from this moral framework?

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