Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The ethics of belief

Colin McGinn writes about the ethics of belief. In addition to the uncontroversial "ethical repugnance at the cruelty, tyranny and oppression of organized religion over the course of human history" McGinn asserts furthermore
that beliefs about what reality contains should always be formed on the basis of evidence or rational argument—so that “faith” is inherently an unethical way to form your beliefs.
I have to disagree; or, to agree, I would have to construe "ethical" much more broadly than I prefer.

I definitely agree that forming beliefs about reality on any basis except that of logical analysis of perceptual evidence is stupid. But I doubt whether stupidity is specifically unethical, especially in the sense suggested by juxtaposing belief formation with "cruelty, tyranny and oppression".

First, my preference is for small-ell libertarian humanism: I intrinsically value my own freedom, liberty and individual autonomy over more prosaic, material considerations of happiness and suffering. If I'm not "picking your pocket or breaking your legs," then no matter how stupid you think I am — while you're more than welcome to volunteer that I might be somehow mistaken — I'd just as soon you would STFU and keep your ethical judgments to yourself. Since this is my own preference, I don't volunteer ethical judgments of other people's private behavior.

Second, I think it's disadvantageous to bring belief formation into the ethical arena, since most people's belief formation mechanisms are — in my not so humble opinion — stupid. For the thousand years that belief formation was an ethical principle, the Christian Church dictated our beliefs. We've spent five hundred years changing those ethics, and we're still not done.

How would such ethics of belief formation be enforced? If it shouldn't be enforced, why should the ethics of belief formation be different from the ethics of "oppression, tyranny and cruelty"; I definitely approve of enforcing my ethical beliefs about the latter. Should our ethics be minimal, that everyone should just pay lip service to rationality, or do we want to enforce a condition of sufficiency? Since we can't have perfect sufficiency, where do we arbitrarily draw the line? Who decides? If we put it to a vote, religious thought will be approved; without a vote, who gets to be the tyrant?

Stupid belief formation can and does cause conflict, but why not simply restrict our ethical beliefs to those conflicts? I don't need to have an ethical opinion about your beliefs to protest the oppression those beliefs might entail, and I can end the oppression merely by insisting you keep your stupidly-formed beliefs private, or at least restrict them to the area of free speech.

On the one hand, if we restrict "ethics" to instances of material conflict between individuals, different belief formation mechanisms are not per se in such conflict. On the other hand, if we apply "ethics" as an umbrella to cover stupidity, personal beliefs, and unenforceable preferences, as well as actual conflicts, I think we water down the concept of "ethics" and erode the already fragile connection between ethics and law.

It's better, I think, to except belief formation mechanisms from the domain of "ethics". In the long run, reality itself will take care of people with beliefs at odds with reality; reality no more needs our assistance in this regard than does God.

4 comments:

  1. I imagine you've read Clifford's The Ethics of Belief, which I think makes a very good case that beliefs can be unethical, even in just its first few paragraphs.

    I think you and I would agree that not all beliefs that were not formed on the basis of sound reason are unethical; because not all such beliefs have any significant impact on the Real World. This is why I have no real quarrel with theism itself, and various mild forms of it such as Quakerism (whose Real World impacts actually seem to be primarily very positive, though I think if their absolute stance on pacifism were to become more widespread, it could pose problems); or even my wife's liberal and agnostic Christianity.

    But, unfounded belief can have significant negative effects, such as your "conflicts"—to which I'd also add psychological and emotional damage through the infliction of unwarranted guilt, irrational hatred of certain sexual acts that often is expressed in damaging ways, etc. People who believe that evolutionary science is a malicious hoax/conspiracy will do their damnedest to prevent their children, and those of everyone else, from being educated properly.

    Should we condemn the actions that stem from such beliefs? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean that we should not also therefore condemn the beliefs that led inevitably to such actions (or, in the case of the story with which Clifford begins his essay, inaction).

    I agree with your views on private behavior. But when "private" beliefs have public impacts, they are then subject to condemnation, in my view.

    As to whether this should be enforced, I'm not yet prepared to answer that. But that something is unenforceable doesn't mean that it is therefore not unethical. Not all ethics can be enforced.

    Consider a member of the Klan, who, while having an abiding hatred for all that is not white, has yet refrained from committing any overtly violent acts. Phe and per fellows, however, might dish out psychological and emotional abuse to the darker-toned or Semitic individuals that they encounter, via hateful stares, subtle posturing and treatment, and derisive comments. Abuse is abuse, and clearly always unethical; but none of this variety is enforceable, nor do I propose that it become enforced: it's too subjective in nature to judge the malice and abuse in a "glare" (one can always be mistaken about the intent).

    And I think we all know, even while we may prize the precepts of an absolute right to private belief and freedom of speech that protect the continued existence of the Klan, that the particular beliefs and teachings of the Klan are nonetheless vile.

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  2. I think you and I would agree that not all beliefs that were not formed on the basis of sound reason are unethical

    It should be noted that McGinn, whose essay I'm speaking directly to, makes that very assertion: "'faith' is inherently an unethical way to form your beliefs."

    People who believe that evolutionary science is a malicious hoax/conspiracy will do their damnedest to prevent their children, and those of everyone else, from being educated properly.

    Sure. My point is that we're better off taking an ethical stance on things such as the assertion of actual lies — an inherently public action which has material effects — rather than the underlying method of belief formation.

    Should we condemn the actions that stem from such beliefs? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean that we should not also therefore condemn the beliefs that led inevitably to such actions...

    I don't know with any confidence that beliefs per se can inevitably lead to such actions. Even so, we would be condemning the belief on the foundation of its effect, not its cause, again contra McGinn's argument.

    Indeed we do know with confidence that people can have deficient belief-causation mechanisms without having those mechanism cause undue harm in the real world.

    But that something is unenforceable doesn't mean that it is therefore not unethical. Not all ethics can be enforced.

    I disagree with this notion: The notion of enforceability seems like a very good point of demarcation to separate out two classes concepts; my choice to label things that can be enforces as "ethics" is somewhat arbitrary, but I have to call it something.

    Abuse is abuse, and clearly always unethical; but none of this variety [psychological and emotional abuse to the darker-toned or Semitic individuals that they encounter, via hateful stares, subtle posturing and treatment, and derisive comments] is enforceable, nor do I propose that it become enforced...

    I disagree. We don't always need police and prisons; enforcement can be as subtle as social sanction, firing from one's job, and the like. I certainly would fire any employee who was less than ordinarily civil to another employee. That's still enforcement.

    And if I can't enforce such behavior even subtly, it's sufficiently mild that I can simply ignore it.

    the particular beliefs and teachings of the Klan are nonetheless vile.

    Vile is not unethical, though.

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  3. Micah: I think you and I would agree that not all beliefs that were not formed on the basis of sound reason are unethical

    Barefoot: It should be noted that McGinn, whose essay I'm speaking directly to, makes that very assertion: "'faith' is inherently an unethical way to form your beliefs."

    Right. That's why I said "I think you and I would agree."

    I don't know with any confidence that beliefs per se can inevitably lead to such actions.

    I think the "Evolution is a hoax" belief is a pretty good example, as was Clifford's shipowner example. If not truly inevitable, than at least sufficiently close as to amount to the same thing.

    After all, if I say that the intent to murder leads inevitably to the act of murder, if not quelled, this statement may be essentially true despite the fact that it ignores failed murder attempts, or the premature demise of the intended murderer.

    While theoretically feasible, it's hard for me to envision someone who believes that evolutionary science is a malicious hoax intended to push spiritual truth out of the classroom and out of society, who nonetheless protesteth not as it is being taught to per children. Likewise, it would theoretically have been possible for the shipowner to have made the necessary inspections and properly fitted his vessel to ensure a safe voyage, despite his sincere belief that it would be safe without such, and that anyway Providence would not allow harm to come to its passengers; but it's silly to think that at all likely. This, to me, makes the resulting actions/inactions inevitable.

    Even so, we would be condemning the belief on the foundation of its effect, not its cause, again contra McGinn's argument.

    Fair enough. And I'll admit I'd misread your arguments against belief-formation having a quality of ethics, to be arguments against such a quality being possessed in the beliefs themselves. In fairness, though, you did start off by saying McGinn was writing about "the ethics of belief".

    However, the discussion has turned to the beliefs themselves, upon which we seem to hold different opinions anyway, so the conversation would seem not to be pointless. :)

    Indeed we do know with confidence that people can have deficient belief-causation mechanisms without having those mechanism cause undue harm in the real world.

    Yes. Were this not the case, I'd again have to conclude that all theists were unethical, by virtue of the mechanism that allows them to hold such belief. (Not that I believe that anyone, theist or otherwise, can be purely ethical in all that they do.)

    enforcement can be as subtle as social sanction, firing from one's job, and the like. I certainly would fire any employee who was less than ordinarily civil to another employee. That's still enforcement.

    And if I can't enforce such behavior even subtly, it's sufficiently mild that I can simply ignore it.


    But enforcing such things, regardless of how subtle, is IMO dangerous, because it involves subjective judgement. It is the hatred itself that, IMO, is unethical, not the potentially resulting glare or whatever. You can't prove the hatred, and if there is a glare or sullen treatment of someone else, you can't prove, without being omniscient, that there wasn't a different, possibly justified, motivation for it.

    You can't enforce a no-hating-someone-for-being-what-they-were-born ethic; that doesn't make it not an ethic.

    Micah:
    the particular beliefs and teachings of the Klan are nonetheless vile.

    Barefoot: Vile is not unethical, though.

    Hm. Well, for the definitions I use, "vile behaviors" are squarely a subset of "unethical behaviors". Rather than quibble over the possible definitions of "vile", though, I'll just adjust my original statement to say that the beliefs and teachings of the Ku Klux Klan are unethical.

    I'm not sure I get what you're saying about enforceability: you seem to be saying that something that can't be enforced, can't be wrong. If this is the case, I would be interested in your arguments to justify this position.

    AFAICT, in order to enforce something, it must not only be unethical, but provably unethical. I don't think that everything in the first set is necessarily in the second, as proving it would require access to information we could not possibly possess (until technology progresses to the point where we know how to accurately read someone else's mind). (This implies, of course, that motivation plays a role in something's ethics, which as far as I'm concerned, it does.)

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  4. Micah: The crux of the biscuit, I think, is enforceability as a demarcation criterion. I'll post about this topic when it comes around again on the guitar.

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