Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #1

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

This is how my evidence principle is currently worded:

[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.

Last time I suggested a reason for thinking EP3 could perhaps apply to any descriptive belief.

There could be obligations implicit in belief language itself. These obligations would relate to the expectations our listeners might be justified in having when they hear any descriptive belief vocalised.

Particularly, perhaps, if our understanding of ‘belief’ is anything like Jonathan Adler’s.

Jonathan E Adler Belief's Own Ethics

According to Adler my belief is simply what I regard as true: ‘what I believe is just how things are’1 for me. A listener would normally be justified in assuming I had a good reason for thinking that what I’ve just said is true. This good reason would normally be that it was based on sufficient evidence.

Ironically, though, on the face of it Adler doesn’t see the ethics of belief as having much to do with morality.

He thinks questions like ‘What ought one to believe?’ or ‘What cannot one believe?’ should be answered conceptually, rather than rather than from a moral perspective, or even from a prudential or rational perspective.

In his book Belief’s Own Ethics2 he outlines what he calls an ‘intrinsic’ or ‘basic’ ethics of belief, which he says is ‘imposed by the concept of belief itself’. For this reason he rejects the view that evidence ‘should generally determine the strength of belief, but not always’. This is the view that there are some beliefs which are legitimate despite insufficient evidence, for example:

supernatural religious beliefs[;] … beliefs in the goodness or trustworthiness of others; beliefs in fundamental axioms or principles such as induction; [and] beliefs too basic to be supported by anything more certain or fundamental such as that there are external objects.

He calls this ‘moderate evidentialism’. His principal objection to it is to do with where the different evidential standards are supposed to come from.

If problematic beliefs like ‘There is a God’ have different evidential standards from unproblematic beliefs like ‘It is raining outside’, then, he says, that difference must be ‘determined by factors external to belief’.

I understand him to mean that the difference must be for example to do with the type of belief, or what the belief is about, or some external requirement that, say, our beliefs should be useful or rational.

But if we look at an unproblematic belief like ‘It is raining outside’, the ‘demand for adequate reasons or evidence’ seems to come from belief itself, not from anything external to belief.

If our beliefs are what we regard as true, then ‘when we attend to any of our beliefs, a claim is made on us for holding that the belief is true’. So belief itself is what demands ‘proportional reasons or evidence’, not any external requirement, for example to be rational in our beliefs.

Adler does not see why a problematic belief like ‘There is a God’ should make different demands just because its content is different.

This might seem a bit abstract. I hope it will get a bit clearer when we dig into some of his examples.

Read on.


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

2 Adler (2002). Remaining quotes are from pp2-5.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

12 thoughts on “Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #1

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  2. theotheri

    You are, of course, not examining this question from a psychological theoretical perspective. But as a psychologist, I find myself asking why some people seem to be dogmatic believers and others are more comfortable living with possibilities and questions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Chris Lawrence Post author

      Thanks Terry. That raises an interesting question. If there are people who are dogmatic believers and others more comfortable with possibilities and doubts, that suggests there could be extremes at either end. There could for example be someone who finds it impossible to function without personal certainty, which would include contexts where the supporting evidence was insufficient.

      One could perhaps therefore imagine circumstances where the need for personal certainty could be so intense as to count as a ‘conflicting and overriding moral imperative’.

      But then I guess we’d then be entering the realm of psychological disorder rather than moral principle, similar to the distinction between, say, kleptomania and everyday theft for personal gain?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. theotheri

        Or like differences in the extremes of religious attitudes? or of political attitudes? It seems to me that in social media especially today we see extreme examples of “fact” being determined by belief, not by evidence. It’s evident on both the left and the right sides of both religious and political arguments.

        Liked by 1 person

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