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An Ethics of Belief?

June 18, 2011

After wandering around Washington talking philosophy with Justin I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about the ethics of belief. There are a lot of complicated issues here that I don’t claim to have a handle on yet, but right at the beginning we come up against a fundamental question that has the ability to stop us dead before we even get to the fertile ground of ethics.

Is belief even something that can have an ethics? Can we actually talk about it being moral to believe something? Isn’t morality something that stems from our actions? If beliefs aren’t touchable by ethical theories, then we might as well stop now.

There are good reasons to think that actually we can talk about an ethics of belief. In The duty to believe according to the evidence, Allen Wood breaks possible reasons for this into two categories. First, we might think that there are content obligations to what we believe. In everyday life we think that we shouldn’t hold certain beliefs, such as that Hitler was a jolly nice chap, or that racism is acceptable. Even if we don’t act on these beliefs (or similar), I think most people would agree that it is wrong to hold them. We ought not to hold them. “Should”, “wrong”, “ought”; these words suggests a moral problem.

Second, we may have a process obligation in what we believe. By this I mean that it may be the case that we acknowledge the illegitimacy of certain ways of coming to believe something. So for instance, if I believe something despite a lack of any evidence and despite evidence to the contrary, it could be argues that I shouldn’t believe it, whether or not I turn out to be right or wrong. Allen Wood argues that most, if not all, content obligations boil down to process obligations, which could well be true, but for now it’s a useful distinction.

The point here is that it is at least possible to identify issues that suggest we should be able to talk about an ethics of belief. They don’t necessarily suggest any particular solution. W. K. Clifford proposed evidentialism as the correct form for this ethics to take, so I’m going to spend the next few posts looking at evidentialism, and then see if we can find viable alternatives.

[I make no claims to originality (yet) in any of this series of posts – I’ve been working though a 2008 volume of the journal International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, which was dedicated to a series of papers discussing ethics of belief and evidentialism, and this will probably guide my thinking (but hopefully not beliefs) for a while yet]

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