3 Views on the Ethics of Belief

In previous posts I argued that beliefs are best understood as dispositions to think and act as if something is true. I also contended that we have indirect voluntary control over some of the beliefs we acquire and maintain. We cannot (except perhaps in exceptional cases) produce beliefs by an act of sheer willpower, but our wills can play an indirect role in the process of gathering and interpreting the evidence on which those beliefs are based.

For example, I can be lazy in the way I gather evidence, refuse to consider certain kinds of evidence, or be inattentive to the logical relations between facts. By contrast, I can be diligent in the way I gather evidence, cultivate openness to new ideas, and show willingness to revise my beliefs as new data becomes available.

Given that we have indirect control over some of our beliefs, can we go a step further and say that we have obligations with respect to our beliefs?[1] Let’s take a look at three main responses to this question.

1. Libertarianism

This view says that I have no moral duties with respect to my beliefs. I am free to believe whatever I want to believe, and I have the right to convince myself of dubious beliefs if doing so serves my own desired ends. There are moral restrictions on how I treat others because my actions can hurt them, but my beliefs are a purely private matter and no one else should coerce me to think otherwise.

Libertarianism is the claim that I have no duties with respect to my beliefs. I have a right to believe whatever I want to.
Libertarianism is the view that I have no duties with respect to my beliefs. I have a right to believe whatever I want to.
2. Hard Evidentialism

This view says that I should believe something only if it is adequately supported by objective facts. When two people look at the same facts, they should draw the same conclusions and not allow personal bias to influence their reasoning. They should also be able to articulate the basis for their beliefs. To do otherwise is to neglect their duties as believers.[2]

Unfortunately, hard evidentialism suffers from three major flaws. First, it fails to account for honest differences in the way people interpret evidence. It does not consider the inevitable role that background beliefs and expectations play in the process of reasoning. Second, it ignores how background beliefs can enhance (rather than distort) a person’s view of the evidence. And third, its demand that people be able to articulate the basis for their beliefs is too strict. I may find myself believing things because a reliable belief-forming process has caused me to believe them, but I have not neglected my duties by remaining oblivious to the process. Suppose I correctly believe that it is 1 o’clock because (unbeknownst to me) a chronometer has been inserted into my brain. The hard evidentialist would say I’ve shirked my duties as a believer because I am unable to access the basis for that belief, but this seems mistaken.

3. Soft Evidentialism

This view is a “middle road” between the two previous views. It agrees with Hard Evidentialism that I should try to have well-justified beliefs and avoid forming beliefs on the basis of insufficient evidence. But it is more realistic about the need to access and interpret evidence.

First, I need not be able to articulate or consciously access the basis for my beliefs in order to be entitled to them. The example of the internal chronometer (above) shows this. Second, what counts as sufficient evidence is somewhat person relative according to soft evidentialism. Some beliefs are more accurate than others, but people will inevitably consider them from different points of view. These honest differences of opinion do not always indicate negligence.

So let me ask you: do you think here is an ethics of belief? Which view do you find most convincing?

[1] The idea that I have moral duties with respect to my beliefs is compatible with the claim that others should not coerce me to have different beliefs. Consider the example of racism: it is morally inappropriate for an educated person to believe that races should be privileged on the basis of skin color. But it does not follow that society should coerce such a person to change his or her mind. Freedom of thought is essential for citizens within a society to flourish.

[2] When discussing evidentialism, it is helpful to distinguish between the epistemic duties and moral duties: epistemic duties have to do with gathering and interpreting evidence in a way that reliably puts me in touch with truth. Moral duties have to do with acting is ways that accord with what is good. As you may have guessed, epistemic and moral duties go hand in hand. To know how I ought to act in a moral situation, I need to know the relevant facts, and this means being vigilant in how I weigh the evidence for those facts. For instance, if a doctor is obligated to obtain informed consent from a patient before performing surgery (moral duty), then the doctor is also obligated to provide the patient with up-to-date research about the benefits and risks of the procedure (epistemic duty).

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