Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #2

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

Jonathan Adler’s ‘conceptual’, ‘intrinsic’ or ‘objective’ version of evidentialism is not ‘about how one ought to believe (rationally, wisely, or ethically)’.


One’s believing that p is proper (i.e., in accord with the concept of belief) if and only if one’s evidence establishes that p is true.1

The relation between belief and evidence does not require ‘shoring up from tendentious doctrines of ethics, epistemology, or rationality’.

Donald Davidson
Donald Davidson

Excluding ‘rationality’ is a bit hard to swallow though. We could question to what extent rationality really is ‘external to belief’.

Donald Davidson for example sees rational (versus non-rational) animals as possessing ‘propositional attitudes such as belief, desire, intention and shame’, which ‘come only as a matched set’.2

The issue for Adler would be whether his ‘conceptual structure of belief’ which demands ‘proportional reasons or evidence’3 for itself can really be understood without presupposing rationality. According to Davidson

it is part of the concept of a belief … that it tends to cause, and so explain, actions of certain sorts.4

This is difficult stuff, and I don’t want to get bogged down in it. Particularly as our EP3 (see previous instalment) is envisaged as a moral principle, not a principle of rationality.

So whether or not the conceptual structure of belief presupposes rationality, or any aspect of rationality, shouldn’t be crucial for EP3.

Luckily Adler has an example which I think sheds some useful light. It is about Jim, who believes he is handsome.

The context is Adler’s ‘first-person methodology’. This focuses on belief from a first-person perspective, rather than from a second- or third-person perspective:

From the first-person point of view, what I believe is just how things are [for me], not how I conceptualize, interpret, or theorize my experience.5

Adler applies this to Jim’s belief that he is handsome. Someone else could explain Jim’s belief by saying that Jim would be depressed if he did not believe it.

But this is a ‘non-epistemic’ reason. It is unrelated to the truth of whether he is handsome. An ‘epistemic’ reason on the other hand would be one which is related to the truth of the belief.

The fact that Jim would be depressed if he did not believe he was handsome does not justify his belief in the way an epistemic reason would justify it.

From his first-person perspective Jim could not acknowledge such a ‘disparity between what explains [his] believing and what justifies [his] belief’.6 According to Adler it ‘would be contradictory for Jim to think that he believes’ all three of the following at the same time:

(1) ‘that he is handsome’;

(2) ‘that his only reason to believe it is that it will lessen his depression’; and

(3) ‘that the lessened depression does not bear on the truth of whether he is handsome’.7

If it is rational for Jim to believe he is handsome this can only be from a third-person perspective:

If Jim’s not believing that he is handsome will depress him, without compensating benefit, then it is rational for him to believe it. Yet, from a first person point of view, Jim cannot take himself to believe that he is handsome as a way to avoid depression. This “cannot” is conceptual.

Jim’s (non-epistemic) desire to avoid depression is unrelated to the truth or falsity of his belief that he is handsome. So it cannot be ‘the condition of the truth’ of his belief.

It may be rational (as viewed from a third-person perspective) for Jim to believe he is handsome to avoid depression. But this would not make it rational for Jim himself, from his own first-person perspective, to see avoiding depression as a reason for thinking his belief is true.

Phew. Rationality is a funny thing.

Read on.


1 Jonathan Adler (2002), Belief’s Own Ethics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p51.

2 Donald Davidson (1982), ‘Rational Animals’, Dialectica, 36(4), pp317-8.

3 Adler (2002), pp2-5.

4 Donald Davidson (2001), ‘Three Varieties of Knowledge’. In Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p217.

5 Adler (2002), pp8-11.

6 Adler (2002), p5.

7 Adler (2002), p9.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

4 thoughts on “Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #2

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

  2. Pingback: Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #3 | some strong language

  3. Pingback: *Press This* Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #2 #172 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

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

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