Tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

It’s time for some concrete examples of over-belief.

We’ve looked at the mayhem Clifford’s ship owner caused.

And we can easily think of other clearly immoral cases, for example dismissing entire communities as subhuman because of ethnicity or cultural characteristics; or assuming someone is a terrorist just from their appearance.

This is our evidence principle so far:

[EP3] If anything is morally wrong, then it is morally wrong to believe anything, within the category of descriptive belief, on insufficient evidence, in the absence of any conflicting and overriding moral imperative.

Antisemitic Nazi propaganda poster in Lithuanian language
Antisemitic Nazi propaganda poster in Lithuanian, 1941

EP3 is not as absolute or universal as Clifford’s principle (see for example Less of the sermon), but it is still universal within its own constraints. It says that, if there is no conflicting and overriding moral imperative, it is wrong to acquire or hold any descriptive belief on insufficient evidence.

Does this seem plausible?

We will pick a more banal, everyday belief:

I believe you are taking recreational drugs.

I am not assuming the believer thinks it’s either a bad thing or a good thing to take recreational drugs. But for present purposes I don’t want to pick a completely trivial belief.

Also at the moment we don’t know if the believer does or does not have sufficient evidence, so we don’t yet know if it qualifies as an over-belief.

Someone saying ‘I believe you are taking recreational drugs’ could be understood in two slightly different ways, depending on which part of the sentence we’re focusing on.

If it’s the ‘I believe’ part then I am saying something about what I believe. I’m ascribing a belief to myself, and I could be lying or telling the truth.

But if it’s the ‘you are taking recreational drugs’ part then, as we saw last time, ‘I believe you are taking recreational drugs’ could be just another way of saying:

You are taking recreational drugs.

Conversely, if I say ‘You are taking recreational drugs’ I could be quite straightforwardly expressing my belief. I could have said ‘I believe you are taking recreational drugs’ but chose not to.

As Jonathan Adler said (see previous instalment) a belief is simply what we regard as true: ‘what I believe is just how things are’1 for me.

Now we’ll bring in the question of evidence.

In at least some everyday contexts, if I say either ‘You are taking recreational drugs’ or ‘I believe you are taking recreational drugs’ without having supporting evidence that could make me guilty of something like deception. This is because someone hearing me could be justified in assuming I did have evidence.

So what if I’d said either ‘I believe you are taking recreational drugs, but I have no supporting evidence’ or ‘You are taking recreational drugs, but I have no supporting evidence’?

In neither of these cases could I be accused of deception. I might still be criticised though for making an unfounded statement or being deliberately mystifying. Someone hearing me might struggle to understand what I’m trying to communicate. This is because in normal circumstances ‘You are taking recreational drugs’ and ‘I believe you are taking recreational drugs’ could both be taken to imply that I did have evidence.

Now consider these two:

I believe you are taking recreational drugs, and I have supporting evidence.

You are taking recreational drugs, and I have evidence that you are.

These might be understood as making explicit what ‘I believe you are taking recreational drugs’ and ‘You are taking recreational drugs’ leave implicit – that you do have evidence. And also as perhaps implying that I’m willing to reveal that evidence.

The point I’m getting at is that in normal everyday circumstances the beliefs we hear expressed can create in us the expectation that the believer has a good reason to believe what she believes. It is an expectation which can be either fulfilled or frustrated.

This in turn suggests there could be obligations implicit in belief language itself. These obligations could then be a reason for thinking a moral principle like EP3 might make sense in respect of our ordinary expectations on hearing ordinary everyday beliefs expressed.

Read on.


1 Jonathan Adler (2002), Belief’s Own Ethics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p11.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

7 thoughts on “Tangerine trees and marmalade skies

  1. Pingback: Face to face | some strong language

  2. Pingback: Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #1 | some strong language

  3. Pingback: *Press This* Tangerine trees and marmalade skies #172 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

    1. Chris Lawrence Post author

      Thanks Rebecca. That’s an interesting ramification. ‘Believe’ is a powerful word which can have different implications for different people & in different contexts. It is therefore open to misuse.

      According to one usage ‘I believe that X’ means ‘X is the truth as I see it’ whereas ‘I know that X’ entails that X is the truth, period. But purely from the perspective of the person saying ‘I believe’ or ‘I know’ that should mean the same truth: X should be just as true in both cases. So the burden of proof should be the same in both cases, because in both cases what is being asserted is that X is true.

      But according to another usage ‘I believe’ can be held to have a lighter burden of proof than ‘I know’. Which is where the trouble starts.


  4. Pingback: Cellophane flowers of yellow and green | some strong language

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