Bertrand’s Example and the Ship of Fools
Bertrand Russel once offered a famous example. Suppose there were a merchant shipper who thought that one of his ships might be less than seaworthy. Instead of investigating and testing the integrity of the vessel, this man instead avoids thinking about the possibility and anything that might remind him of it. He does not look into the ship’s seaworthiness. He does not tell the crew, or suggest to them in any way that the ship might not be safe. He sends it on a voyage, loaded with goods, and frets – not at the chance that he ship could flounder, but with the difficult problem of keeping himself from acknowledging that the voyage might be lost. Every effort is bent towards maintaining his belief and conviction that the ship is seaworthy and that nothing untoward is likely to happen.
Has this man done wrong? Yes, Russell argues. But didn’t he have a sincere belief that the ship was safe? Yes, but that belief was based on nothing – and the man worked to maintain it despite having no valid reason to believe that his conviction was valid. He worked so hard to maintain it precisely because he suspected that conviction was invalid, and wished to avoid the inconvenience and financial loss that being forced to give up that conviction would entail.
If the ship sinks at sea, that in itself does not prove that the ship’s structural integrity was at fault. But let us imagine that a sailor escapes from the wreck with his life and reports that boards gave way halfway through the trip, without a collision or snag. That would mean that the merchant shipper was even more guilty of before, of an additional and even greater crime.
But even if the ship comes home safely, the merchant is guilty. Of recklessness, of endangering the lives and goods of others without their knowledge, of seeking to preserve his belief at the expense of veridical integrity.
Anyone who knew that the merchant behaved this way, and yet chose to sail with him regardless, would be a fool. Anyone who trusted any position of the merchant’s, no matter how sincerely expressed, would be a fool.
It’s easy to agree with Bertrand in the abstract. It’s rather more difficult to disagree with him when facing an issue you don’t want to look into, or on which you have a specific position you don’t wish to give up.
There are many on the Ship of Fools, but few who will admit even to themselves that they sought to sail upon it.