Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #3

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

I openly believe both that I believe that it is raining outside and that I do so because I see the rain through the window.1

This is how Adler illustrates his ‘condition of full awareness’. This is another important aspect of his first-person approach (see previous instalment). 

We can achieve full awareness when we ‘abstract from conditions that obscure the concept of belief’, and ‘bracket the normal unconscious workings of belief and the myriad influences on it’.

That is rather a forbidding description. But full awareness is something common to everyday life, not an unrealisable ideal. We only have to look out the window.

In other circumstances though we may find

[t]he normal condition of believing is that of nonconscious influences and distraction. But when we want to discern what belief demands we should look at it without these interferences, which is accomplished by imposing the full awareness condition.2

The full awareness condition exposes a ‘far-reaching parallel between belief and assertion’:3

the requirement of the speech act of assertion is to state what is true, as it is the constitutive claim of belief that its content is true.

Consider a belief like this:

I believe that God exists, but I lack sufficient evidence that God exists.

An anti-evidentialist would see this kind of belief as unproblematic. Adler however applies a four-step ‘filtering’ process to see if it meets his full awareness condition:4

Step one: Reserve questioning for the ‘privacy of thought’, rather than public debate. This makes it no one else’s business, and I won’t have to justify to anyone else what I believe or do not believe.

Step two: Substitute banal content like ‘Tony is in the ice cream parlour’ for (eg) ‘God exists’. This is to focus on what it is to believe something, and to avoid getting distracted by the content of the belief.

Step three: Ensure the example is a ‘straightforward belief’– simply what I regard as true ‘without qualification’ – where ‘I believe that p’ is equivalent to expressing p. So we’re not expressing an opinion or partial uncertainty that p, and therefore acknowledging a degree of doubt that p. Nor are we expressing faith or trust in p, both of which can have connotations of personal and/or moral integrity which we aim to ‘filter away’.

Step four: Ask of the belief whether it is really coherent to believe – or assert – that, for example:

Tony is in the ice cream parlour, but I lack sufficient evidence that he is.

Adler thinks it is not coherent.

But I should stop there for now. Otherwise this instalment will be far too long.

Read on.


1 Jonathan Adler (2002), Belief’s Own Ethics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p9.

2 Adler (2002), p34.

3 Adler (2002), p13.

4 Adler (2002), pp10-12.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

4 thoughts on “Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #3

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

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

  3. Pingback: Jonathan Adler: Belief’s Own Ethics #4 | some strong language

  4. Pingback: Full awareness | some strong language

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