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.
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.
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