Institute of Advanced Studies

Public Lecture by Lawrence Torcello


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Free Speech, Public Discourse, and the Moral Blameworthiness of Suffering Fools

A public lecture by Lawrence Torcello, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

“It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives, but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated.” - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Lawence TorcelloWith its catastrophic effects on the planet’s vulnerable populations, climate change is a plausible candidate for the most serious moral issue of our time. The scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic climate change is firmly established, yet climate change denialism—a species the speaker refers to as ‘pseudoskepticism’—is on the rise in the industrial nations most responsible for climate change. Along with other forms of pseudoskepticism, the denial of anthropogenic global warming is encouraged by corporate sponsored public relations firms, by ideologically driven politicians, hack journalists, pundits, and ill-informed private citizens.

Established science, on the other hand, typically is promoted within professional journals and textbooks that have relatively fewer readers. Consequently, the advantage that nonsense has over the factual information critical to informed public policy is significant.

The case of global warming denialism or pseudoskepticism presents a good example of how careless or irresponsible speech in the public sphere of a few wealthy nations can have a profound, morally consequential impact on vulnerable populations around the globe. The growing pervasiveness and danger of climate change denial and other pseudoskepticisms suggests the need for a robust ethics of inquiry and public discourse, for which this lecture argues.

Lawrence Torcello received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University at Buffalo (2006). He is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. He regularly teaches and publishes on Applied Ethics, especially Bioethics, on Critical Thinking and Informal Logic, Ethical Theory, and Social and Political Philosophy. He serves as ethicist on two ethics committees of the Rochester General Healthcare System (New York). His current research projects investigate the practical consequences and ethical responsibilities implicit in democratic citizenship in morally diverse societies, particularly in the domains of medicine, education, animal welfare, the environment, public policy, and political discourse.

This lecture was a part of the Institute of Advanced Studies 2012 lecture series ‘Global Transformation and Public Ethics’. This series of free public lectures aimed to stimulate considered debate about urgent issues in public ethics and policy as well as reflecting on ways we can improve public discourse about such issues. For more information, visit:

4 September 2012